Reclaiming the Streets – Urban Disruption

Not long after writing the architecture and anarchy essay, I decided to put some small scale performances into action on the unsuspecting streets of Sydney! Inspired by the ethics of punk; the performances are cheap, replicable by anyone, and seek to create an instant moment of disruption accessible to all. They do not seek to draw conclusions but seek to formulate a series of questions relevant to architecture and criticism:

Does the city become more meaningful by supporting individual experience? Can a moment of disruption change the perception of social acceptance? Can the visible and invisible conventions and structures of the city be confused? Is it possible to re-write the historical meaning associated with place? How is it possible to unveil hidden facets of society and urban life? To what extent does the architect affect the individual, society and its institutions? Can we reduce (or gain) the control over a particular space or environment by creating spatial uses which was unintended? Can we change what a particular space means and represents to the community which uses it?

It is important to understand that architecture makes a significant contribution to the corporate market; when architects accept commissions from corporations that affect public life they are in fact committed to supporting various political systems.

Architecture contributes to these political systems, firstly, by creating physical devices. The architect for example designs the supermarket similar to a passage of narrative text, often forcing the user to pass from the beginning to the end. The architect designs the isles rounded so that you never be averted from the stock. Supermarket architect Ronald Smith describes this as a technique which endures the maximisation of time spent in store and also as a way to capitalise on impulse buying.

Secondly, architecture contributes by manipulating and encouraging an emotional response. Buildings are designed to affect human behaviour. The tiles on the Woolworth’s floor in Bondi Junction, Sydney, for example, reduce in size as you approach the more expensive items, causing the wheels on your trolley to click faster and therefore subconsciously make the user slow down.

Lastly, the ‘creative authority’ of the architect further diminishes the possibility for social encounter and individual freedom. Architects design buildings from a spatial vision, and in order for that space to function the users are typically controlled though various architectural strategies including program and circulation. Their renders, plans and photography typically show architectural space without people or disruptions; their vision is withdrawn from social and political responsibility.

Architects typically understand their role as the creator or visionary, but it’s also possible to understand their role as someone who produces nothing more or less than a physical and social order designed by the corporations who hold political authority and power.

Within this understanding of political systems the performances aim to in some way interrogate the role of architecture (and the architect), including its contribution to physical, physiological and social boundaries and acceptances. They aim to investigate various possibilities with regard to the individual, society and its institutions.

My interest in the performances lies in the possibility of being able to explore methods for manipulating the physicality of corporate structures within the city. The performances hope to in some way question, invade or confuse urban space and by allowing pranks, performances, objects and fakes the opportunity to provide a forum to unveil the hidden facets of urban life.

Performance 01 – Motionless Performance on George Street, Sydney

Summary: The Motionless Performance was comprised of ten people. Nine actors froze in the street for six minutes. Each froze while doing seemingly natural activities; some froze for example, while in mid conversation, tying their shoe lace, on the phone or drinking a coffee. Actors stood as still as possible and did not talk or make eye contact with passing pedestrians. The performance was conducted between 412 & 414 George Street, Sydney. (Outside the Strand Arcade)

The footpath is primarily a transitory space lined with commercial and retail activities, the motionless performance investigates the concept of urban play in a manner that disrupts pedestrian movement.

Performance 02 – Conversation Performance on Martin Place, Sydney

Summary: The Conversation Performance was comprised of six people. Actors began a conversation while standing approximately 1 metre apart. Every 3-5 minutes they stepped back approximately 1 metre. At the end of the performance they were approximately 7 metres apart. The performance was conducted out the front of No. 1 Martin Place, Sydney. (Corner of George Street)

The individual functions to acceptable, comfortable and often invisible codes of conduct. The conversation performance begins to investigate perceptions and boundaries of private and public space.

Performance 03 – Expanding Group Performance in ANZ, Sydney

Summary: The Expanding Group Performance was comprised of ten people. The performance began with one actor entering ANZ, every couple of minutes another person enters the building and begins to talk with the 1st actor. This continues until we are removed from the building. The performance was conducted at No. 20 Martin Place, Sydney. (ANZ Building),

There are a number rules which indicate the acceptable use of public space. The Expanding Group Performance begins to investigate at what point spatial acceptance become unacceptable and at what point does something normal such as talking become spatial disruption.



Spatial Response and Implications:

The performances encouraged a variety of spatial interpretations. The motionless performance affected the use of the footpath by disrupting the typical user/pedestrian flow of traffic, this frustrated and also confused many users. It is likely that their frustration is the result of not being able to easily escape the situation. The performance was infact an invasion of personal space – the actors in the motionless performance physically provided barriers in the face of user movement, pedestrians began to bump into each other as their eye was drawn away from focus.

The conversation performance in a similar manner disrupted user/pedestrian flow of traffic, users chose to either walk through or around the group of actors depending on their perception of private and public space, most users paused and considered the situation before making a decision. The performance begins to recognise different perceptions of individual space. Robert Sommors in ‘Personal Space – The Behavioral Basis of Design’ recognises that introverted and extroverted personality types as well as cultural differences affect the manner in which users perceive personal space.

The expanding group performance did not affect the use of space for banking customers. It did however make the banking staff uncomfortable. The performance begins to raise the question of when acceptable behavior such as talking becomes unacceptable based on a particular set of conditions. Did the group for example become a danger to the bank?

During the expanding group performance the actors were placed near the entry of ANZ, and within 7 minutes they were noticed by ANZ staff. If the actors were sitting down among customers then perhaps they would have taken longer to identify as their behavior would appear more common.

The location of the performances had a significant impact on the way they were understood and interpreted by users. While it is possible to reconsider the location of the performances locally, it is also important to recognise larger cultural interpretations and possibilities. Anthropologist Edward Hall describes how people from different countries interpret the language of space. What Australians consider crowded for example may be considered spacious in Hong Kong.

The conversation performance remained a private space while actors stood no further than two metres apart. If the performance however, was located on the footpath it is likely more people would push though the space as they have little option to walk around. Spatial perception is therefore affected by the speed in which people maneuver through space and also by the number of possibilities which they may be presented with. Their perception of what space implies is also important, users associate the footpath as a transitory space and often get quite annoyed when it is used in ways which are not expected – this was obvious during the motionless performance.

The performances provoked participation from users in a manner which was unexpected. A user froze for the entire motionless performance along with the actors – I did not expect anyone to do this! Bill Hillier of University College, London focuses on spatial ‘rules of interaction’. He describes the ‘visual language of space’ and the line of sight as fundamental to encouraging interaction and participation. Users understand space differently if activity is in direct line of sight. The man who froze in the motionless performance is parallel to Hillier’s description of participation as an immediate response to spatial excitement and the desire to feel a ‘sense of belonging’. (Earls, M., 2007) The below image circles the man participating in the performance.

Three skateboarders also participated in the conversation performance. They assumed their position, contributed to conversation and took a number of steps backward when the group moved apart. Skateboarders are often understood as anti-social yet their participation in the performance actively sought to engage in a social activity with strangers. The below images are extracted in sequence from the video documentation, the last 2 frames show the 3 skateboarders joining the performance.

I have always been very interested in the way skateboarders understand the built environment. They interpret urban space not as something which controls them but as their playground. They seek out architectural objects based on their own objectives and use them exactly they as please.

After the motionless performance many people up to me to ask what we were doing and I explained my objectives. One lady was very interested in participating in the other performances also.

It is also important to consider at what point the performance and agenda may become lost. The conversation performance for example depending on where the actors were placed either went unnoticed or became a spectacle. This was also affected by the weather on the day of the performance. However, if the actors continued to step out and talk louder to the point of yelling, would it make people respond in a different manner? Would shop assistants for example, complain to security or would pedestrians tell us to be quiet? Likewise, if we walked into the bank with balaclava’s I assume customers and bank staff would be immediately alarmed.

Behavioral Disruption:

The motionless performance successfully disrupted pedestrian movement. At one point a crowd of people gathered in the entrance space to the strand building. People began to converse to their friends about the performance. American journalist, Tom Vanderbilt acknowledges that perceptions of space are affected depending upon whether we associate it with positive or negative experiences. He recognises it has the possibility to affect both your mood and your outlook on the world. (UXPod 2007) The footpath as a transitory space was compromised and this frustrated many users.

During the performance new spatial orders were developed as the frozen actors began to block the footpath. Generally, two lanes were devised for users moving in either direction. When users broke the code of conduct they would step to the side while another user passed the actor and so on. This was done without instruction but voluntarily and in order to keep the space functioning in a manner that was as regular as possible.

The conversation performance began with a close conversation, users chose to walk around rather than through the group. It provided a perceived spatial constraint as users interpreted the space as private. As the distance between actors grew users chose to walk through the group, rather than around.

By contrast, the expanding group performance provided very little disruption, users of the bank were capable of doing their business. In all instances there is a relationship between scale and the manner in which it disrupted behaviour.

It was documented in each of the performances that users appeared to typically follow the transitory line of the person in front. This was most obvious in the motionless and conversation performances. At one point, a lady followed the person in front as she walked through the conversation performance. Once she realised she was in the middle of a group conversation she appeared visibly uncomfortable. It is possible if no one was in front of her, she may have chose to walk around the group. She was also looking down to the others persons feet as she was approaching so did not realise what she was doing. Author, Mark Earls describes the behaviour of following movement as a way to blend in with perceived normality. It can be observed in the same manner by underage kids who enter a bar, they will act just like everyone else around them in order to not draw attention to themselves. (Earls, M., 2007)

The performances were often unnoticed by children up to the age of approximately ten. It is important to then question at what age people begin to develop spatial and behavioral conventions? Elements which appeared strange and out of place for adults appeared either normal or went unnoticed by a child. It is also possible they are less aware of what is considered socially normal or strange behavior.

The performances also documented differences between individual and group responses. When in a group people were more engaged, when not in a group people were more observant. During the conversation performance, the skateboarders who participated where in a group. A group of three people also approached the performance to ask what we were doing and why. During the expanding group performance people interacted with the camera when in pairs. However individuals appeared more observant and they looked around more frequently. It is important to then consider a person’s behavior and their receptiveness to space dependent upon their social surroundings.

User Rationalisation:

Welsh neurologist and psychoanlayst Ernest Jones describes the user as a rationaliser whose behavior is governed by “the necessity of providing an explanation.” Users construct a formal model of rationalisation. In the model a decision maker selects the best feasible alternative (accord­ing to our preferences) from among the possible explanations. (Cherepanov, V. 2009 )

While filming the motionless performance many assumed we were doing an advertisement. They associated the performance with abnormal behavior and therefore separated it from reality.

Cultural theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio recognises that the growth of technology, namely television, separates us directly from the events of real space and real time. We lose wisdom and lose sight of our immediate horizon and resort to the indirect horizon of our dissimulated environment. It has been at least forty years since Virilio introduced such concepts and is it now possible to consider the loss of real space occurring within real time. Did users assume the motionless performance was an advertisement to in some way withdraw from the real space which surrounds them? and therefore what relevance the time have to space? The users assumed the behavior of the performance to be unreal.

During the conversation performance many assumed the actors were a group of drama students doing an assignment. Due to the rain the performance became more of a spectacle and users of cause wondered why we were standing in the rain.

The expanding group performance was undetected by those who saw the camera, many turned around to see what was happening but did not notice the actors within ANZ because they appeared to do normal activities. Two girls assumed I was filming for the news.

In all instances, users were compelled to explain or justify the performances in order to classify and feel comfortable about its presence. Being able to recognise the purpose of something often neutralizes the possibility of perceived strangeness or threat.

In most case assumptions are influenced by something – either through history, media, values or myths. Assumptions also begin to formulate invisible spatial controls. The design of buildings are also influenced by assumptions including from the council, the client, the architect, and the user. How can we confuse these assumptions by using spaces or objects in manners which are unintended?

Private, Public and Hybrid Spaces:

The ANZ building appears to be public, it is however limited in use, during the expanding group performance we were asked to leave the building simply because we were not ANZ bank customers. The expanding group performance explored how an institution might control hybrid public space by accepting a user behavior only under particular conditions or circumstances. Talking and gathering was acceptable when only with 4 persons, however at 9 persons we were asked to leave. Our intention was unclear and we could have proposed a threat. The below images are extracted in sequence from the video documentation, they show the expanding group prior to being removed from the building.

The footpath, where the conversation and motionless performances took place appears to be on public property. However, each of the institutions and shops which line the footpath have an invested interest in the way in which the footpath is used. Shop security of the strand building came to observe the performance when he realised that people were gathering outside the strand. He appeared concerned, if we were entirely blocking the entry for example, we would have be removed from the footpath? Legally, we did not have the right loiter or restrict the possibility of users from entering the shops.

The city of Sydney Council seeks un­obstructed use on public foot-ways, conditions for council approval for most major venues are required to the sign a document ensuring “Security officers to move-on any persons loitering or congregating on the foot-way or any adjoining area within 50 metres of the entrance to the premise, so as to maintain unobstructed pedestrian access.” (City of Sydney. 2010)

Users are often not aware of the rules and conventions which govern public space. Public space recognised as ‘social space’ is reducing in size. By contrast work and home spaces are increasing. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg states that social life in most societies will rest on three elements: home, work, and the “third place” that is neither, and when we mindlessly destroy the third place (or the public space) — the beer garden, the piazza, the soda fountain or sidewalk cafe — we end up expecting home and work to fill the gaping hole.

Manipulating Corporate Structures:

Architects use physical materials and various techniques to manipulate and encourage an emotional user response. The city functions as a productive system which supports productivity and consumer spending and our spatial behavioral patterns are monitored in order to aid governments and businesses.

The motionless performance recognizes the footpath as a transitory space lined with shop fronts to encourage consumer spending. The speed in which users walk on footpaths are generally relative to the users around them. Footpaths are faster than country, open or recreation spaces. The motionless performance created physical barriers which forced the speed in which users walked on the footpath to be disrupted. Users had difficulty looking into the shop fronts which were blocked partially by motionless actors. In such a manner it provides the possibility to break down corporate efficiencies.

Research indicates that you are most likely to turn right when entering a shop. This is where retail outlets place products with good prices that ensure the consumer does not leave the store. It is possible through disruption that we could force customers to turn left (instead of right). If distracted by an actor, users will most likely behave in a manner which is non predictable and therefore difficult to manipulate and control.

The performance also introduces the concept of play in urban life which in many instances took the user by surprise. It manipulates the manner in which they navigate through urban space.

The conversation performance was located in Martin Place which in a similar manner to the footpath functions as a transitory space. The conversation performance distracted the user and became a spectacle which has the possibility of distracting the users from the commercial activities associated with place. The below images show a number of people interacting with or participating in the performance.

The expanding group performance begins to manipulate corporate space by establishing at what point normal human behavior becomes unacceptable. And can it therefore reveal hidden codes of conduct which are not established through rules or law but through circumstance?

The performances manipulate the use of corporate structures by encouraging a spatial use or behavior which is unintended and is then possible to understand how various installations and performances may break down the control over a particular space by creating a different acceptable behaviors, spatial history and interpretation?

The performances could be varied in a number of ways to encourage different activities which hold promise for confusing the existing system by creating a pattern of human behavior which is no longer predicable. If similar things were done by everyone and everywhere and apparently without purpose, there would be no way to locate the disruptions.

Challenging Architectures Role:

Urban space is controlled by various people including government, institutions and the architect. Architects design space in a manner which encourages specific patterns of behaviour. Fountains are typically placed in shopping centers at the furthest rational point from the toilets. Therefore encouraging people to walk the longest distance and past all the shop fronts in their search for facilities.

The performances have possibility to challenge role of the architect and planner by designing and manipulating urban space without regulation or license. It is therefore possible that designers or individuals explore emotion as a way in which to break down such techniques? Or to use new techniques with more meaningful agendas?

Architects are often concerned with theory and aesthetics – they rarely think about the way the space might be manipulated and adapted after their job is done – it appears secondary to their spatial vision. And therefore should architects place greater consideration into the ordinary use of space? The manner in which architects manipulate the built environment affects human behavior and social and political conventions.

By simple methods of disruption the performances contribute to the significance, mood and meaning of space, and so if applied to the role of the architect how might space become more meaningful?

The architect usually designs free space described as ‘multi-purpose space’, this however does not complete the architects task. Robert Sommor’s in Personal Space – The Behavioral Basis of Design states “Most of the concern with functionalism has been focused upon form rather than function. It is as if the structure itself – harmony with the site, the integrity of the materials, the cohesiveness of the separate unite, has become the function. Relatively little emphasis is placed on the activities taking place inside the structure” (Sommer, R., 1969) Sommers makes reference to conceptual considerations of functionalism. As such the architect perhaps needs to consider spatial function in a manner which also shows the users how to interpret it.

The performances put forward different ways to use public and hybrid public space in a manner that opens up new behavioural possibilities for the user. Under such design, spaces like the lobby is open for interpretation, play, recreation and confrontation.

Architects have the possibility to create unique spaces, with reference to Daniel Burnham’s understanding of the city, lies architectures possibility to make a difference to the quality of life. By his definition it is the individual, combined with the work of other individuals that create memories, moments and confusions.

The design of public space can be seen as devoted to public use, however it is only designed with specific uses in mind. The school for example, is an institution devoted to learning but designed for a particular model of teaching (sit and learn). Custodians upon spatial arrangements in architecture are evident throughout the built environment.

Architecture creates social and physical boundaries and acceptances. We not only have a physical impact upon society but also one with is emotional. As such are designers shaping people as well as buildings? Sommors describes this to such an extent that “the long-range question is not so much what sort of environment we want, but what sort of man we want” (Sommer, R., 1969)

Users are capable of adapting to anything and that is where I believe architects, designers and users of space can begin to explore exciting possibilities. Similar to the implications of the performances, can architects began to develop methods which break down or expose hierarchies that exist in the individual, society or its institutions?


My interest in investigating disruption is influenced by the thinking of the Situationalists and Marxist theorist Guy Debord. Much of the explorations respond to Debords idea of the spectacle. Defining the spectacle is infact no easy task – the spectacle is society itself, it is part of society and of the instrument to dominate society. It is about the success of economy and the law and all other facets of life, including human life. Its first prerequisite is passivity and it aims to isolate the individual where reality itself becomes replaced by images of it. Debord wrote, “there can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle everything is banned.” (Gavin, F., 2007) Architecture itself, is a component of the spectacle described by Debord.

The performances are grounded by the desire to encourage and reclaim principles of freedom and social culture which is suppressed under the control of government and corporation.

I am intrigued in finding various relationships between architecture and to life which inhabits its framework. In a similar manner to the Dadaist collage the explorations seek to take an element and reassemble, modify or reinforce a different meaning. Should architects consider urban disturbance and provide opportunity through non-intervention in a manner which intervenes?

I am interested in this idea because it places messages in the heart of the everyday. Can moments of disruption and surprise hold promise for confusing the existing system by creating and encouraging a pattern of human behavior which is no longer predicable – forcing the user to become alert and to interact differently with the world around them.

In a culture of architecture which is dominated by theory, the practical or the conceptual, the “real” physical world has to reassert its presence. The urban environment (including all components of architecture and space) presents opportunity to engage with the user. If architects, begin to design with greater consideration to ordinary and social spaces, they could renegotiate their political position and establish a new code of architectural ethics. Architecture, if responding to social and individual concerns rather than corporations could explore techniques and possibilities that are entirely different to existing professional normalities.


Further Reading:

Burnham, S., 2008, Droog Event 2: Urban Play, Routledge, London

Cherepanov, V. 2009, Rationalization, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania.

Earls, M., 2007, Herd: How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature, John Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Ehrlich, H.,, 1979, Reinventing Anarchy: What are Anarchists Thinking These Days?, Routledge & Kegan Hall Ltd, London

Gavin, F., 2007, Street Renegades: New Underground Art, Lauren King Publishing Ltd., London, U.K.

Sommer, R., 1969, Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Harvey, D. 2009, Capitalism and the City, Kasama Project.

UXPod 2007, podcast radio programme, Info Design, May.


Id love to know what you think about performances, concepts of urban disruption and architectures role with consideration to shaping to user behaviour. Leave your comments in the section below.


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