15M and YES WE CAMP! Controversy as urbanism

The widespread indignados protests in Spain saw not only a platform for political speech, but new opportunities to reclaim and create political space.

It started as a small-scale protest against the misrepresentation of its participants in democratic institutions, both in Spain and across the EU. It then moved with calls like "YES WE CAMP!" into a 500-person protest-camp—with thousands engaged in its daily offline activities, and millions discussing online through the hashtag #spanishrevolution, making it a worldwide Twitter trending topic in only a few hours. After twenty-five days of protests that emerged in different fashions innumerous Spanish cities, sparking demonstrations in solidarity in several EU capitals, the "15M" (15 Mayo) movement soon evolved into a wide network of connected neighborhood assemblies. After all this process, and its successful social enrolment, 15M is still seen by many as an attempt at consensus in the normalized use of public space.[1] And I think they are totally right.

In the three decades previous to the 2008 financial crisis outbreak, Madrid doubled its built surface area, completing 58,000 new houses during its peak year of construction. A suburban residential expansion spread like an archipelago of shopping malls and corporative so-called cities, accessible mainly by car, and built by means of a framework of subcontractors grounded on the massive displacement of transnational workers under precarious working conditions. With more than 300,000 unoccupied houses, and the available ground of the region almost exhausted, the young—with an unemployment rate of 43.5% and increasingly unstable hiring conditions—are far from gaining access even to tenancy, whereas banks and financial institutions in Spain made public benefits of €3.714 million for the first quarter of 2011. Across a wide band of the social spectrum, from the young to the elderly, there is a feeling that the way the city evolves does not represent their concerns and sensitivities.

The uneven distribution of representation on democratic institutions has its counterpart in the urban form. The radical car-accessible zoning witnessed are deliberate strategies that disengage the realities composing the city. This same logic makes possible the quarantine of sex workers at Madrid's Casa de Campo park, and extreme poverty and drug-selling at the Cañada Real Galiana slums—both urban islands almost only accessible by car.

In order to understand what happened at Madrid's Puerta del Sol, it is important to take into account facts that have not been sufficiently considered. From the very first day, the camp has been carefully kept neat and well-ordered. Infrastructure, communication strategies, and victualling committees were created. Within them, protocols to both discuss and decide were openly negotiated. The work was administered through self-organized shifts. Protection from sun and rain were mounted and installed on site. Protesters managed the borrowing of temporary toilets and regulated the use of showers at supporting neighboring apartments. When sanitary inspectors from the municipality visited the camp, they concluded its hygienic conditions were adequate, stating: "it is swept and no waste has been found."[2] Soon, the assemblies became redoubts for inclusion. If someone stated that bankers behave like "hijos de puta," many of the participants would silently cross their arms, reproving the exclusion operated by means of language on a sex workers' offspring. First day jeers to the banner "THE REVOLUTION WILL BE FEMINIST OR IT WON'T BE," were responded with the programming of seminars on feminism, detailing the discussion on gender equity at the camp. Sol has not been an action, but more like a re-institutional process of daily life. A collective effort to bring ordinary urban life into politics; in which social capitals, associations, and good manners have extensively benefited from a precedent corpus of experiences and social constructions vital to make the movement possible, and that needs to be taken into account.

In Madrid since the late eighties, speculative and privatizing urbanism have seen responses by a complex network of small and interconnected urban groups and organizations. This text cannot possibly include, for instance, the long list of self-managed social centers that have equipped the city with an intense hidden assembly activity where discussion formats, later adopted in Sol, were developed. In them, architects, artists, and thinkers found opportunities to redefine the way expert knowledge could be introduced and implemented in a rather symmetrical frame with sensitivities, knowledge, practices, and experts external to them. And it was also in these places in which outcast realities found opportunities to become social concerns and benefit from the empowerment association can provide. All these together made what for many has remained as an invisible Madrid. A minority city, fragile and instable, made of architectures of appropriation, and, in many cases, of illegal occupancy.

The Sol protest-camp has exposed worldwide the discussion between an exclusive urbanism and an opposing one of the constituted dispute. A tension between the city of accomplished facts and a city not willing to solve, but to install into the public space the conflict and difference it contains. The first, allied with an architecture of tabula rasa and extensive resource consumption, and a second, operating by reappropriation, network-making, and the reinstitution of the existing.

Taking this under account, one might ask: What is the urban outcome of 15M? Probably the connected parliamentary activity carried out in the neighborhoods, and a consistent social movement in which online activism has learned to gain space in "offline arenas," but above all, a singular urban form: the city as controversy. Madrid is now the crystallized arena of a socially constructed controversy. Cards are now on the table, and ideologies get explicit in a parliament. Making the possibility to depict the city as a normalized undisputed consensus is no longer available. Those who complained were right; it is "normality" as urban form what has been challenged.

[1] Francisco Granados, Madrid regional minister, complained of the way public space had been "kidnapped by a few people interrupting the normal development of Madrid daily life". (El País, 28/05/2011).
[2] García, Bruno, "La acampada supera el examen de los inspectores municipales de Salud". (El País, 28/05/2011).

Andrés Jaque is an independent architect based in Madrid, where he directs the Office for Political Innovation, dedicated to exploring the potential to confront architectural practices through the theoretical framework of post-foundational politics and symmetrical approaches to the sociology of technology. The office's slogan is, 'architecture is technologically rendered society'.

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