We need to understand how people relate towards their urban environment when they face violence from the State and thus learn how to react as architects and urban planners.
By Salome Narvaez*
HAVANA TIMES – The civic insurrection that we experienced last year was a wakeup call for everybody. As architects we had to pay attention and take note. Ideally, cities are built by architects and urban planners in a manner that best suit the interests of the people. But the people never cease to amaze us and use urban space and buildings in a brand-new way. New ways which were mostly designed to protect and shelter against State violence.
Architects seems to be neutral in the face of State violence, even when this violence mostly occurs in public spaces. They design spaces and buildings that don’t just suit the people but can also suit the State and its economic interests. As architects we must start asking the hard questions and have a moral responsibility towards the most vulnerable people. With this in mind I want to ask the following question:
How do we build an architecture that is resilient against authoritarian governments?
To answer this, we need to start with a reflection on public space and architecture, a reflection aimed specifically at the people who plan and design the cities in which we live, work and protest. This reflection must also be supported by the events experienced during the civic insurrection of April 2018, as a way to think about our victories and failures as architects and agents that work in the public space.
Therefore, we take as a case study, Nicaragua in April 18, 2018, which show a protest landscape which showcase several elements that we can analyze. Examples such as: barricades in urban centers, churches as sites of surveillance and shelter, road-blockades as an element to stop the economic and vehicular flow between cities, mortars as a warning through sound-space, miguelitos to stop traffic, safe houses and the different uses of cobblestone. This analysis leads us to understand how people related towards their urban environment in relation to the violence of the State and thus learn how to react as architects and urban planners.
The beginnings of the barricade as a form of street protest can be traced back to ”Day of the barricades”, in 1588 in Paris, France, were a popular uprising rose against the monarchy. These were called barricades because the main material used were “barricas” or wooden containers, traditionally known to contain wine or other liquids. Another historical example is found in Catalonia where, at the outbreak of the Civil War during the 1930s, streets such as Joaquín Costa (headquarters of various delegations of political parties, most of the left and workers) became spaces of barricades using the cobblestones of the road.
During the insurrection of April 2018, the barricades in Nicaragua became a symbol of resistance, which felt like an urban memory, and were built with cobblestone and various other materials.
Previously, the symbology of the barricades in Nicaragua begins when Somoza, after the 1972 earthquake in Managua, became the only cobblestone manufacturer in the country, monopolizing the market. These same cobblestones that the dictator monopolized are those that were used for the barricades in the insurrection against the dictator in 1978. These are an urban memory because, the barricades were built by our fathers, mothers, grandparents and grandmothers they were now the ones that advised the students in order to ensure to build them in the best possible way.
But what is a barricade looking for? What does it seek to stop? What do they protect you from? The answer, in short, is violence, but in order to understand this better we would have to consider that violence moves through many forms, and among these forms we have speeds and heights.
We can exemplify the speed in how the police moves to attack and monitor the population, in trucks, the well-known hilux de la muerte, through urban roads. So barricades are meant to reduce speed. As for the heights, you can see how these same policemen take tall buildings at the time of attacking, driving and monitoring the population.
An example of this would be the day of the attack on the March of the Mothers, on May 30, 2018, when the national baseball stadium became the place where the bullets came from. Similar situations can be found, in armed conflicts as in Palestine-Israel, Honduras and Venezuela. In this case, barricades are meant to protect from heights. With these examples we can notice how architecture plays an important role in the occupation of spaces, either by the government or as a form of protest for ourselves.
Moreover, another important factor involves who is in these barricades? What kinds of people use this kind of space? Who defends them? Who makes them? Why are people putting their lives at risk to protect others?
Among these groups we can find, mainly, the working class, the students, the young people, the retirees, etc. This illustrates a clear class struggle, where the lower classes put their own bodies and protect the upper classes. A clear example of this was the day the population of the barrios came out to defend the private supermarkets from theft and looting by the Sandinista youth and gangs.
Protests occur in public spaces and public spaces are shaped by their urban context, like neighborhoods, commercial areas, parks, bridges, all of these are important because of their context and use. Which brings us to:
The difference between being surrounded by a pro-government neighborhood and a blue and white neighborhood was crucial. Urban settlements eventually became a form of protection for occupied universities in some cases.
A practical case is the UPOLI and the UNAN. UPOLI was the first university to become occupied during the resistance in April, located around working-class neighborhoods that did not hesitate to intervene every time the police and paramilitaries attacked the students.
The case of the UNAN is different. On the one hand, it is surrounded by a pro-government neighborhood Colonia Miguel Bonilla, and, on the other, by several middle-high class residential areas, Villa Fontana, people who were not willing to put their bodies in order to protect the students (although they did support them with food and medicine).
Here I have superficially analyzed two cases, the barricade and the occupied university, but I think it is fundamental to develop these types of questions, which brings us back to the question: are urban planners aware of these social reactions when it comes to designing or do they simply cover their eyes when it comes to planning? How do we prepare for a popular outburst or do we just think that it will not happen again?
To answer this, we would have to think about the architecture according to these social uprisings in a more interpretative way, in order to understand the demands of the people, and in a forensic way, in order to convert the wounds in the buildings and cities left by the police, in light of the violence carried out by the government.
Many people and groups of different classes and areas reacted to the struggle and civil resistance in different ways, but mainly through their collective work and artistic talent to show their repudiation towards the Ortega regime.
Through developments from other architecture we can find infographics of morphology of a barricade, studies of barricades in a more urban way and even a step by step guide of how to create shields of self-protection through reusing trash buckets. All of this as an example of the capacity and creativity that architects have as a way to help and contribute to popular resistance.
As architects we have to have a clear idea of these urban scenarios in order to achieve the de-privatization of public space. Public space that Ortega-supporters, especially through violent symbols, physical and psychological violence, have been taking away from us in our cities. It’s important that we must start questioning our role and work in these situations, thinking and debating, as architects, what kind of solutions we are promoting in the face of violence. How do we achieve an urbanism that is not hegemonic, capitalist and machista?
With all of these questions, it is key to begin by realizing how our spaces really work and who manages them, thinking of new ways of claiming the right to public space from an inclusive perspective. We have to confront these spaces that are controlling us, instead of retreating. The goal is to make the people themselves the ones who have absolute control of the cities and our public spaces because in the end we can only trust in ourselves since only the people save the people!
*The author is a graduate of the Central Amerian University (UCA) in Architecture who supported the civic insurrection and is currently in exile in Spain.