Architekturausstellung in Frankfurt: Baut Barrikaden! Plant ein Protestcamp!

Philip Johnson responded lustfully polemically to the question of whether architecture actually has a political responsibility. „I am a whore,“ said the famous architect in 1986, „and I am very well paid for building skyscrapers.“ Many architects share a similar view, even if they wouldn’t express it so exaggeratedly. For example, Jacques Herzog wrote in an essay in 2020: „You asked me what we architects should do against the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. Against social inequality. Against poverty. Against the destruction of the resources of this planet […], the answer is: nothing.“ His justification for self-imposed inaction: „Architects have always served the powerful of the world. They built palaces, temples, stadiums, entire cities. Mostly in the spirit of the times, rarely as an expression of renewal and change.“

Given pressing ecological problems, change and renewal are desperately needed. Some architects no longer want to participate in the old game of „money for service“. Jesko Fezer, for example, speaks of „biased design“. By this, he means that the profession should put its skills in the service of a politically meaningful cause, rather than simply carrying out orders. The exhibition Protest/Architecture fits into this kind of re-politicization of architecture. Barriers, camps, and superglue are part of it, developed by the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt together with the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna. The curators write that „protest architecture“ encompasses the spatial aspects of protest movements: places are appropriated, blocked, marked, defended.

Was das bedeutet, wird die Ausstellung anhand von 13 internationalen Fallstudien zeigen, von der Resurrection City in Washington, die 1968 eine wichtige Rolle in der amerikanischen Bürgerrechtsbewegung spielte, bis hin zu aktuellen Beispielen wie der Besetzung des Hambacher Forstes. Dank zahlreicher Fotos, Texte, Zeichnungen, Modelle, künstlerischer Arbeiten und Fragmente von Originalobjekten sollen die Besucher in die Architektur der widerständigen Kulturen regelrecht eintauchen. Das könnte ebenso erkenntnisstiftend wie komisch werden. Denn neben Barrikaden und anderen Verteidigungsarchitekturen werden avantgardistische DIY-Konstruktionen oder auch kleinbürgerliche, fast parodistisch wirkende Wohnminiaturen gezeigt. Bei manchen Protestcamps gibt es sogar ikonische Repräsentationsbauten, wie zum Beispiel 2021 in Österreich. Dort fungierte eine rund acht Meter hohe Holzpyramide als Wahrzeichen. Als in der medialen Berichterstattung häufig verwendetes Fotomotiv gab sie dem Widerstand ein architektonisches Gesicht.

Architects often played a role in the design and construction of such structures. In Resurrection City, a committee of multiple professionals was formed to coordinate the spatial planning of the six-week camp and even design and build temporary accommodations. However, unlike in the well-known architecture scene, the creators of protest architecture usually remain anonymous. This is because many protest movements prioritize the collective and because individuals may face potential disadvantages in their daily lives if their names were to be revealed.

Welche Konsequenzen architektonischer Protest haben kann, zeigt der Lebensweg von Gottfried Semper, dem Stararchitekten des 19. Jahrhunderts. Er hatte sich 1849 am Dresdner Mai-Aufstand beteiligt und eine äußerst wehrhafte Barrikade errichtet. Daraufhin musste er für viele Jahre ins politische Exil flüchten.

In the Frankfurt exhibition, the improvised structures of the protest movements are now being taken seriously as architecture, and for this purpose, a new set of methods has been developed. Because „you won’t get far with the declination of column orders and the analysis of building ornaments,“ says Sebastian Hackenschmidt, another curator of the exhibition. Instead, different types of protest buildings are identified, resulting from the respective conditions, for example from the police regulations. It is stipulated that only special forces are allowed to storm a structure over 2.50 meters high, which is why protesters build tall tree houses accordingly – making the eviction of an illegal camp time-consuming and lengthy. For such strategies, the exhibition organizers have developed their own terminology, for example when they speak of „delay architecture.“

This may seem strange at first, but there are many examples in architectural history of how phenomena at the edges of design can be inspiring. Representatives of the early modern era were fascinated by grain silos and ocean liners. Perhaps protest camps will soon serve as models for a new political architecture, and the exhibition will eventually be seen as a catalyst for a new form of architectural activism.

The curators enthusiastically praise protest camps as „heterotopias,“ „counterplacements,“ and „actually realized utopias,“ drawing on Foucault’s vocabulary. They also commend the protesters who passionately and courageously stand up for their political beliefs. However, it is important to examine the legitimacy and goals of activist architecture on a case-by-case basis. The exhibition rightly points out that there are spatial forms of protest that question or seek to destroy democracy, such as the storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters in January 2021 or the „nationally liberated zones“ that right-wing extremists have been attempting to establish since the 1990s, which is particularly relevant to the German discussion.

Activism, as the exhibition in Frankfurt teaches, is not inherently right and good. It is not solely about the forms, but equally about the political argument. It is about understanding architecture as an expression and catalyst of socio-political conflicts. In Frankfurt, one will encounter all these aspects; it will, without a doubt, be one of the most exciting exhibitions of the year.

„Protest/Architektur. Barrikaden, Camps, Sekundenkleber“ läuft vom 16. September 2023 bis zum 14. Januar 2024.

A catalog in the form of a lexicon will be published for the exhibition titled „Protest Architecture: Barricades, Camps, Spatial Tactics 1830–2023“. It will be published by Park Books in Zurich in 2023, with 420 pages and priced at 19 CHF.