Public Space=Protest Space

Dabota Wilcox and Elana Sacher

Architecture in the service of political interest can be powerful and imposing. It defines the boundaries that separate the public from the private. However there are moments when civic architecture, in the form of space or buildings can be appropriated by the public, specifically protestors, as a backdrop for protest. Through our analysis of the architecture of the Supreme Court and how it contributed to the cause of demonstrators who gathered in front to protest DOMA, we concluded that architecture served as a stage for people to voice their opposing political views. The presence of the public on such a monumental day is a testament to the inherent influence of architecture in the service of the public. Exploring this hypothesis, we looked at how it has been interwoven in the framework of history. Our cases include the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, the Boston Tea Party, and Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door at the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Although all different times and political struggles, they all relate to people, knowingly or unknowingly, choosing to protest in places that represent their views radically removed from their context.


The Sharpeville Massacre, Sharpeville, South Africa, March 21, 1960

Sharpville Massacre Site

The Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa during 60s is considered one of the most important moments in the fight against apartheid, specifically in calling attention from the international community who were collective in their condemnation of the event. On March 21, 1960 an anti-pass protest was organized by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a South African liberation group composed to resist the force of apartheid. [1]The demonstration that led to the Sharpeville Massacre was in protest of the Pass Law. Officially known as the Natives Abolition of Passes & Coordination Act and implemented in 1952. The Law required that every non-white person carry a pass books which served as a record for identification. These books contained photographs, places of origin, employment records, tax payments, and previous encounters with the police. [2] The measure made it possible, and legal, for citizens to be stopped and asked for identification. It was a blatant violation of human rights to movement and freedom in public space. The laws were a representation and extension of the restrictions associated with this political separation. Apartheid was further driven by laws that promoted systematic segregation.


The Group Areas act passed in 1950 separated South African citizens to different locations. The laws separated whites, blacks, Asians, and Colored people into designated areas. Most often people were forcefully evicted from “white only” areas and placed in places known as townships.

Categorized by their underdevelopment and location to the periphery of towns and cities townships were meant to be settlements for non-white South Africans. This separation was be enforced by the government through the law enforcement. Sharpeville, which is located on the cusp of the industrial cities of Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark, is one these townships. About 5000 protestors gathered outside the Sharpeville Police station that day. Many of them without their mandatory pass books.[3]

The building that housed the police station was separated by a fence in a large open square, possibly with the intention to protect the space. An action that is counter to notions of the police whose jobs it is to serve and protect citizens. The buildings front façade faced a vacant lot at the corner of two roads. This was an ideal place for the large number of people to gather because there are no obstructions of the space. The continuity of the opposing relationship between the people and the law was clearly defined by the barrier.  The protest, while a public display of resistance was also meant to symbolize the divide. The police station was an oppressive force in the apartheid atmosphere, imposing laws implemented by a government determined to work in favor of the minority elite.


The protest was organized strategically and with the added intention of overwhelming the station with a high number of arrests. Knowing that the jail, just a one story; small rectangular building that sat on the plot, would not be large enough to house the number of protestors. Those who gathered were hoping that attention would be drawn to their concerns and incite change. This tactic proved effective when because of the high numbers and vigor of their demonstration, the media were attracted to document the event. Sharpeville up unto this point was an area that would otherwise never receive this amount of attention. Violence broke out when police started firing shots at the demonstrators, eventually killing 69 people and seriously injuring 180.[4] This event sparked international outrage because of its death toll, but also because of the government’s indiscriminate use of violent force against its own people. The architecture associated with this event extends far beyond the police station of Sharpeville. It encompasses the architecture that delineated space between races and perpetrated the ideology of apartheid. The location of the massacre could be seen as representative of the separation that this political and social construct sought to make of the country. It was essentially a division of whites from non-whites, with those who the system favored occupying these special and safe zones, while blacks, coloreds, and Asians were restricted to areas of low development and easy monitoring from the government.

Protest Party

The Boston Tea Party, Boston, Massachusetts, December 17, 1773


On December 17, 1773 in Boston, Massachusetts a group of 150 citizens in opposition of British rule decided to protest, using some creative measures. Three cargo ship owned by the East India Company, a prominent English shipping company, were docked in the Boston Harbor. The protestors, dressed like Native Americans and escorted by other colonist went to the harbor where they unloaded 342 chests of tea into the sea. This famous event became a precursor and noted tipping point of the American Revolution but was most importantly an act organized in protest against the Tea Act of 1773. An Act in which the British Parliament, serving the interest of England, implemented a law that would assist in gaining back the funds they spent on the French and Indian war. The Act allowed The East Indian Company to be exempt from any duties; instead the tea that they imported would be taxed when it entered the port. By taxing the colonies for the import of tea, an important commodity, they would earn money but also exert more force and dominance over the colonies in America, who seemingly were becoming more discontent with British rule. [5].

In analyzing the location of the event, Griffin’s Wharf, one of the landing platforms where goods could be unloaded and loaded onto ships, it was an ideal location not only because it was coincidently were the ships docked but because of its ease of public access and stage for performance.bostsnip1776 The construction of the wharfs along the harbor including Griffin’s Warf, were extensions of prominent streets. It had to be close enough to the harbor, but also close in proximity to the city itself, to allow for ease of access in transporting goods once they were unloaded from the boats. Griffin’s Warf was an extrusion of Summer St, one of Boston’s major roads, into the water.[6] While this served the general efforts of the wharf, it also served the colonist in protest. The ports, although privately owned were not enclosed or restricted to the public. They were open and free spaces that were intersections of commerce and development.

It should also be noted that the 150 protestors were not the only colonist present at the demonstration. Other colonists who either escorted them or watched were there, becoming an audience to witness the performance of protest. The tea destructors were not only trying to garner the attention of the British overseas with their intentional disregard of orders, but were also utilizing this space and opportunity to ignite colonial pride and support. As with the protest over DOMA at the Supreme Court, with the protestors who faced the street addressing their fellow citizens, the members of the Boston Tea Party were using Griffin’s Warf as a stage to present their opposition and to (remind) their fellow citizens of their unwavering dedication towards the cause of independence. It can be understood that the harbor and port were influential architectural markers. The Port was a representation of British colonial rule and how the European powerhouse tried to force dependence on the colonies through taxes and restrictions. Although physically separated by an ocean from those who dictated its use, the port was an extension of British rule and authority. From this place Britain could control not only trade, but transportation, communication, many of the most crucial aspects of the colonist lives and ability to self-govern.

95 Problems

Marten Luther Post His 94 Theses, Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517,Luther-nailing-theses-560x538

The final case we considered as a reflection of the hypothesis was Marten Luther posting his 94 theses on the door at the Castle Church at Wittenberg. This simple gesture eventually led to the protestant revolution as well as inspired the catholic reformation in response. Marten Luther, despite assumptions, and in contrast to the previous groups highlighted in earlier examples, was not at first a fervent protestor against the institution his views opposed. He was a devout catholic, who was disgusted with the values and corruption of the Catholic Church during the 16th century. On October 31, 1517 Luther, a catholic priest and scholar nailed his 95 theses, a list of complaints and grievances with the current direction of church on the doors of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. His main qualms dealt with the churches sale of indulgences. In essence people could buy forgiveness for their sins. It contradicted the church’s inherent morals, especially those directed toward sin and money.

The church began construction in 1490 and was completed in 1509. It was later given as an endowment to the University Church, which Luther attended. The university can be seen as furthering the corruption by grooming students of theology to not only accept these notions but internalize them as their understanding of the church, establishing a vicious cycle. The building, during Luther’s time as a student was used for administrative purposes. The previous spiritual dignitaries were even employed as teachers for the university when it transformed functions. The building housed an archive in the northern tower. Its halls were even used as supplementary lecture halls for the ever expanding university.[7] The doors of the church where Martin posted his theses were large wooden doors used by the university as bulletin boards.  While his posting of his criticism sparked a religious movement, at the time it was not uncommon for individuals to post things on the church doors. Although not designated, they were appropriated and accepted as a place to debate and discuss in an open public forum, where everyone could read what was posted. No more drastic than an online post.

In this time period and setting the church was not only a religious institution but also a political force as well as an academic institution. By controlling the opinions of the public, the church could influence politics in their favor and at times take government positions. This blurring of church and state was problematic.  Martin Luther, through posting his notions, transcended the private sphere into a public arena where others were able to be exposed to his ideas and criticisms, then share and respond. His ideas were further aided by the introduction of the printing press, allowing for access of his theses to be spread beyond the doors The Castle Church to all of Germany and beyond, but his physical protest of posting his thoughts on the church door was essential to the event.  It was important that his protest manifest in a grand public action and denouncement rather than simply in print.


Each protest occurred at the sight of governmental rule. These outbreaks strive to become a means of connection between society and the authority in hopes of changing social constructs. Through our analysis, architecture serves to play the role of representing government values. These places of expression, the police station, the harbor, or the church are all sites in which the government attempted to enforce its own provisions upon society. It is not entirely the extremity of the people’s actions that were so radical in making these protest stand out, rather what allowed for the ultimate impact were their chosen sights and its direct connection to the opposition. 53d83f2a2bb050fc1b82cfe7d229db00

To engage thought, controversial thought in the public realm encourages the public to be open and willing to challenge the status quo. It is confident display of thinking that reminds everyone that no one idea or cause is too small and insignificant to make a difference. Architecture, no matter the designation or commission works in favor of the protestor because it validates the cause of protest, by providing a stage or site for these public demonstrations but also an opposing backdrop. It is the voice, happily taking on the role of the villain, something the protestors can stand up against, and valiantly defend their rights, to marriage, to freedom, to self-governance, and even to define religion. Architecture while not made with the intention to house and promote protest is an excellent stage for social and political reform in the hands of the public.



South African History Online, “” Accessed October 28, 2013.

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory , “” Accessed October 20, 2013.

Massachusetts Historical Society, “The Coming of the American Revolution.” Accessed October 28, 2013.

Krüger, Gottfried. Wittenberg Project, “” Accessed October 28, 2013.

Encyclopedia Entries

Baines , Gary. “Remembering Sharpeville.” History Today , . (accessed October 20, 2013).

Orthographic Documentation

Map of Townships.

“Where Was the Actual Boston Tea Party Site?.” Accessed October 28, 2013.

Video and Audio

Chadwick , Justin. “MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM” Recorded 10 16 13. The Weinstein Company. compact disc,




[1] South African History Online, “” Accessed October 28, 2013.

[2] The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory , “” Accessed October 20, 2013.

[3] Baines , Gary. “Remembering Sharpeville.” History Today , . (accessed October 20, 2013).

[4] South African History Online

[5] Massachusetts Historical Society, “The Coming of the American Revolution.” Accessed October 28, 2013.

[6] “Where Was the Actual Boston Tea Party Site?.” Accessed October 28, 2013.

[7] Krüger, Gottfried. Wittenberg Project, “” Accessed October 28, 2013.

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