Transgressive Architecture

Public Sex

On March 29, 2001, an article in London’s Evening Standard carried the headline “Sex has its place in public: Lord Rogers.” The article stated, “Architect Lord Rogers has said he supports streets and public squares being used by prostitutes, beggars and rough sleepers. [Rogers] told a packed lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that he defended the rights of buskers, vendors and ’participants in public sex’ to use London’s public places.”

Rogers made his provocative remarks in response to a question I asked him, as a member and founder of the activist group, Transgressive Architecture. Our group staged a protest that night at the lecture, to focus attention on the silence of the architectural establishment in response to new government policies on the use of public space. With our intervention, an installation outside the lecture hall, we sought to defend the rights of the homeless and other urban nomads and to highlight their contribution to the livelihood of the city.

Transgressive Architecture was founded as a think tank and creative team to reassess the role and design of public space. The group’s philosophy associates the activities of nomads with Michel Foucault‘s definition of transgression, i.e. actions that are based on temporality, on testing limits, and on opening up boundaries. Transgression, according to Foucault, is not revolution or resistance. It does not endeavour to create a new system. Urban nomads do not produce or delimit space; rather, they de-territorialize it.

We chose Rogers’ lecture because at the time he was the head of the government’s Urban Task Force (UTF). The UTF published a tract in 1999, Towards an Urban Renaissance, which argued that only middle-class leisure activities were appropriate for the city’s public spaces. This publication, in advocating a policy of social cleansing, sanctioned bigotry on the part of London authorities. Since we thought it unlikely that these issues would be discussed at his lecture, or ever within the walls of RIBA, we used our intervention to open an alternative space for debate.

The installation consisted of seven bed sheets, laid out on the pavement directly in the path of visitors to the lecture, suspending movement and mobility in the public space. Marked with what resembled blood stains, one particular sheet was printed with a quote from Rogers’ book Cities for a Small Planet:

"The physical and intellectual accessibility of the public domain is a litmus test of society’s values: inclusive and thriving public spaces foster tolerance and radical thought."

The sheet picked up its ghoulish splotches a few months earlier; during a Transgressive Architecture exhibition at a local architecture school, we had graffitied a wall of the school with the same Rogers quote. When asked to remove the red paint, we used the sheet in protest.

The other six sheets were printed with photos of homeless people, prostitutes, street vendors, skateboarders, and other urban nomads. On the back side of the sheets, invisible to spectators, were the codes and colours of a city planner’s zoning map. The photos were intended to be stains as well, evidence of activities in the city that cannot be coded or zoned. These are activities carried out in improper places: commercial activity on the sidewalk instead of a shop; sex in a park instead of at home; dancing in an abandoned warehouse instead of a regulated club; or placing bed sheets in a public thoroughfare. These activities, identity performances, survival tactics, deviancies, continually redesign the public space in an ephemeral way.

II. Social Cleansing

In London’s political system, and elsewhere, urban nomads do not have representation in the city. Inhabitants of officially recognised residential communities are the only ones who can vote and elect their local politicians. This is one reason why politicians have ignored the needs of urban nomads and initiated their eviction from public spaces. The most infamous advocate of social cleansing is former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with his zero-tolerance approach. In the past few years, some of London’s local authorities have taken the same stand, instigating similar campaigns in a number of neighborhoods. For example, the Kings Cross area, traditionally used by homeless people and prostitutes, acquired a new urban plan and was “cleaned up” by the police. Homeless people and vendors were evicted from Charing Cross Station underpass, despite it being one of the safest places for them to sleep. Russell Square, used for centuries for sex cruising, was redesigned and closed at night. Leicester Square, like Times Square in New York, was re-planned with a view to transforming it into a “happy family zone,” as one of the local politicians announced. This plan targeted prostitutes, beggars, homeless people and street vendors for eviction from the square.

The language used by local politicians and planners in their press releases parallels the strong actions taken by local councils. In April 2001 the Westminster Council announced a Special Task Force To Drive Out Illegal Street Vendors. The press release proudly characterised the task force’s action against the vendors as a blitz, thus comparing the plan to Nazi air operations in World War II. Other press releases from the same council used words like “war,” “stamp out,” “purge,” and “eliminate” to describe its battle against street vendors. The association of eviction with cleansing appeared as well in the press release announcing “Westminster Supports Police Crime Drive To Clean Up The West End.” The filth and dirt referred to in this headline was not litter or rubbish, but the brothels and their working girls and boys.

At the RIBA lecture I asked Rogers to respond to Transgressive Architecture’s indictment in his role as an architect, rather than as a government employ. A few weeks later, in conversation with me, he repeated his news-making remarks from the lecture. He admitted that the phrasing of the definition for public space in the UTF report was narrow and exclusive. Nevertheless, he did not propose ways to enable urban nomads to survive the pressure from local communities and their politicians.

Rogers’ statement at the RIBA lecture did not generate much debate in the media or in London’s architectural milieu, so Transgressive Architecture decided to continue with new protests. The RIBA intervention became the first in a series of similar installations, collectively called The Bad Sheets, that took place between March and July 2001 and were carried out in public spaces that had been or were about to be cleansed.

III. The Bad Sheets Interventions

The interventions usually took place during the daytime, aiming to capture the attention of the general public. However, the Russell Square and Bloomsbury Square interventions were directed at a particular community—the night occupants. For decades Russell Square was the most popular cruising ground in central London. But a few years ago the local council introduced powerful lighting and cut back the bushes to deter cruisers. In 2001 the council redesigned the square, restoring it to an original plan from 200 years ago, and closed it at night. A few weeks before it closed we carried out our intervention, using the bright lights intended to keep cruising out to highlight the right of such activity to take place in the square. The Bad Sheets were spread underneath the strongest spotlights, attracting an audience to the square. The white sheets glowed like ghosts from the past, restoring for a moment some of the thrill of night that characterised the square in the past.

After an hour or so we moved to Bloomsbury Square. This was another square the council wanted to close at night. This time, the sheets were placed in dark corners of the park, luring people to lie down or get laid on them. At the same time, the stained bed sheet—the original sheet with Rogers’ text on it—was spread out at the entrance to the park next to a red candle. Since placing any placard in the park is illegal, I stood in the dark and handed out a short text on the intentions of the council, holding a cigarette lighter above it to enable the cruisers to read the text. The installation became a kind of temporary info desk, where the clerk offers just a bit of information, but is wearing tight leather jeans and is obviously more interested in the punters. In the morning, all that was left of the intervention was a few condoms in the trash bin and hundreds of pink leaflets covering the park fence, each emblazoned with the words “Sex has its place in public: Lord Rogers.”

Placing the Bad Sheets during the day in busy public spaces was not easy. Ten minutes into our intervention in Trafalgar Square the square wardens had confiscated the sheets. Fortunately we had planned for this, and our pockets were full of surprises. Standing exactly where the Bad Sheets had been a few minutes before, we pulled bird seed from our pockets and began to use it to write letters on the pavement: V, VO, VOI, VOID. A few minutes later hundreds of pigeons were hovering above Trafalgar Square—a rare site ever since the local authorities had evicted the street vendor who sold pigeon feed to the tourists. After a few minutes the text was consumed by the birds. Though the pigeons were not aware that the action was an intervention on their behalf—a protest against the London Mayor’s drive to eradicate them from the square—they were more than helpful.

This intervention coincided with a ceremony to unveil The Plinth—a spotless, translucent resin monument created by artist Rachel Whiteread. Five minutes after its unveiling, the shiny Plinth was covered in pigeon droppings. the tourists and kids who had been deprived, by the mayor, of the pigeon-feeding tradition that used to be the central activity of the square cheered. Several tourists and children asked us for seeds, and in doing so became part of the intervention themselves.

The Bad Sheets interventions were experiments in redesigning public spaces using “non-architectural” means: installation, intervention, performance, and media manipulation, as opposed to the standard tools of architecture and planning, i.e. drawings, plans, and political authorisation. The interventions took a lot of inspiration from the urban nomads themselves. Like the nomads, the bed sheets were out of place. They were taken from their “proper” location (my bed) and placed in a public place, thus blurring the boundaries between private and public. This was how they started to be perceived as transgressive or “bad.” The Bad Sheets continuously changed their identity from place to place and from viewer to user and unlike any other conventional art work, people were invited to jump on them. During each intervention the sheets were ritualistically folded to a size that resembled open sleeping bags and tombstones. The sheets were considered by some to be art objects, by others as a place to sit, to sell stuff from, or to have sex on.

The Bad Sheets were more than devices for protest or tools for designing space. They were a text, a reading and a writing. Gradually they obtained a life of their own, as the installations were repeated over and over again. Laid out in various public spaces, they became dirtier and dirtier. Even in cleansed public spaces the sheets accumulated dirt and redistributed it. During the six months in which we staged interventions, the Bad Sheets were never cleaned—except for one that I, in an emergency, had to use again for my bed.