Pittsburgh, PA
Fall 2019

A hero of mine, Nate DiMeo, begins a powerful episode of a project called The Memory Palace with the words: “Maybe you remember, I don't.'' (1)  I want to repeat those lines here, reflecting on a time that my father and many people I deeply respect will recall with great clarity. Those on the receiving end might have called it a global epidemic of mass hysteria - I, and I think most of you - would sooner imagine it as a rare moment of clarity and unity which blew past national and cultural boundaries. The year 1968 saw a worldwide escalation of social conflicts. Name a movement, and it likely started there. The civil rights movement, the new left, the Prague spring, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmental movement, the women’s liberation movement, black power, red power, chicano power - I’m sure you get the idea. Major unrest throughout fifteen or more major powers could have had Marx dancing in his grave. What was it about this moment that converted the potential energy of the masses into a kinetic force of justice and turmoil?

I might not remember, but my father does. At 17, just finished with his apprenticeship in Germany he had gone back to school in Mannheim before starting university a few years later in Frankfurt - arguably one of the centers of this entire movement. He remembers the formation of the Außerparlamentarische Opposition, the Socialist German Student Union, and the eventual development of the Baader–Meinhof Group. The genesis of which was all the visit of the Iranian Shah in ‘67 and the tragic death of Benno Ohnesorg which lead to an instantaneous radicalization of the previously peaceful student unrest. It laid clear the fronts between state violence and the ideologies they were protesting. Perhaps most vivid for him was the sense that over all of this strife lay a serious understanding and critique of western society. The Frankfurt School had gained widespread popularity, and the theorists behind it were seen as the veritable heads of the entire movement. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Habermass gave the students a theoretical toolbox for dismantling the existing order. (2)

Underneath the cultural fabric of the 60’s there seemed to be a low, simmering flame of political and social resentments. Maybe it was the coming of age of a generation born when the whole world was at war, and the future of the planet uncertain.

We are currently witnessing a series of protests and demonstrations at an unprecedented scale, at least for my generation. The protests in Hong Kong over the past few months have been a source of great sorrow as well as inspiration. Perhaps removed from some of the more overt political drivers of revolutions in the 20th century, the ideals of liberalism and deep desires for freedom and equality transcend scales of time.

There’s another peculiar similarity I’d like to use to link these two discrete periods in time. The first airport designed by Foster+Partners (a firm founded in 1967 mind you) was London Stansted. The most recently completed was Hong Kong International - a primary and crucial location for the recent protests. (3) The Foster designed airport’s terminals and hallways were seemingly designed for use by protestors. Airports are a clear target if a movement wants widespread recognition - crucial for a country's economic and political function they are a bottleneck easily sealed. Rarely however do they lend themselves to this as well as HKI has. Comprehensive public transport connections allowed protestors in and out quickly, narrow walkways over deep atriums could be easily blocked and controlled, and crucially the expansive glass facades meant that the media coverage was encouraged and the police were mediated. Foster has had several other buildings utilized for sit-ins and protests, most notably perhaps Cambridge University’s Faculty of Law. Coincidence? Or perhaps a subtle and subversive way someone who vividly remembers a prior time and the power of people has worked in his own check and balance system into the urban fabric of major cities…

What cannot be relegated to coincidence are the ways in which urban fabric and mass occupation influence each other in novel ways. Density works in favor of demonstration, narrow streets lead to impenetrable protests. The expectation of occupying sites close to the centers of government - likely designed to mitigate this exact scenario - was thrashed in Hong Kong as organizers chose highways and thoroughfares as their targets. The political occupation of the traditionally unoccupied street has seen the emergence of new forms of graphic, social, and environmental urbanism. Message walls, projections screens, or information scrawled on to concrete barriers has proliferated throughout the city. Storefronts, parking lots, and choice street corners have become sites for informal classrooms, open air movie theaters, and market stalls. The reduction of traffic has caused inconvenience, but also over the course of three+ weeks has lifted the smog and revealed residents enjoying walks along empty highways and typically congested neighborhoods. (4)

Displaying an objectively healthier attitude than the 1968 movements in, oh let’s say Paris, the protests in Hong Kong have not descended into chaos and rather have been an exemplary showcase of young people taking responsibility for their health, safety, public space, and political freedom. I think what set me out on writing this was a genuine curiosity at why this hasn’t acted as a catalyst for the rest of the world. Hong Kong has showed us what a 21st century revolution looks like, and don’t we have enough to be fed up with to just copy their model? Perhaps we’re exposed to too much to take note, their message is diluted by a deluge of memes, streams, and clickbait. The low burning fire that was there in 1968 hasn’t gone away, but is sitting there under layers of insulation and we just can’t feel the heat.

It’s curious in this age of instant communication and information exchange that this precedent doesn’t catch. There were efforts towards censorship - I’m looking at you, Reddit - but we should all know by now that even the Great Firewall can’t contain anything for long.

  1. http://thememorypalace.us/2016/08/numbers/
  2. (Brief) Oral History
  3. https://www.economist.com/gulliver/2019/08/16/why-hong-kongs-airport-was-a-good-target-for-protesters
  4. https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/viewpoints/umbrella-urbanism-hong-kong-protests/8671652.article

Read the full issue at www.interpunct.pub