Preview: Occupy or Avoid?

Buildings are not inherently political. The built environment is no more than reified architectural plans, yet we all recognise that buildings are so much more than their physical forms. Architecture is intrinsically social; buildings are designed for people by people. It is those who create, inhabit, and interact with the built environment who imbue onto it symbolic significance. We politicise our architectural landscape insofar that in times of conflict, buildings themselves are transformed into sites of symbolic importance.


Conflict can be political. In March 2018, Edinburgh University’s Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre (formerly George Square Lecture Theatre) was occupied by a group of students in solidarity with the UCU (University and College Union) industrial action, which was taken in response to pension cuts for staff members. The occupation of this built structure was a constituent action within a wider conflict between striking staff and the University. Although as a lecture theatre, its primary function as a space of learning is not explicitly political, as a University owned property it represents the wider academic institution. In taking control of this space, students were able to protest against the authoritative establishment.

The seizing and occupation of buildings demonstrates the significance that we attribute to our architectural landscape. As we give structures within the built environment symbolic identities, control and physical occupation become politically significant to the extent that the inhabitation of buildings, whilst an everyday occurrence, can transform into an act of rebellion.

“Architecture is intrinsically social; buildings are designed for people by people.”

However, there is a paradoxical duality to the role of buildings in the context of conflict. During union disputes, such as at Edinburgh University, buildings associated with the criticised establishment become surrounded by picket lines. These human walls are boundaries that those in solidarity with the industrial action should not cross. Evidently, whilst some occupy certain buildings as a form of rebellion, others avoid entering similar buildings in the same strain of protest against the establishment. Paradoxically, during times of conflict people both avoid and occupy the built environment associated with the dispute; two seemingly opposite actions performed in pursuit of the same ends. The boycotting of university buildings in solidarity with striking staff demonstrates the strong affiliation we draw between the architectural landscape and the those who control it. Walking through the entrance of a building or physically being in a space isn’t an inherently outrageous act of protest, and yet in the context of conflict, such simple acts can represent either solidarity or defiance.

The intended function of built structures can evidently be disregarded and complicated in the context of conflict. As buildings are imbued with layers of symbolic significance, they become so much more than bricks and mortar. Those who avoid, control, and seize control of certain buildings can transform these spaces into focal points within wider disputes. We can see that in the context of conflict, spaces within our architectural landscape itself are themselves inexorably involved; the built environment is instilled with symbolism and political status. Buildings represent the ideologies of the people who inhabit them and the principles of the institutions who own them, and the symbolic transformation of such spaces can demonstrate a radical shift in authority. The built environment is not political by default; rather, it is politicised.

Illustration by Alex Abadjieva

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