Very Vary Veri is a journal about the built environment and how it is produced. Created by students and alumni from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the annual publication provides an alternative platform for students and professionals to share diverse perspectives on architecture and design concepts more broadly. “Crowds,” the fourth and latest issue of Very Vary Veri, aims to shed light on the various, and often contradictory, interpretations of the word. The following edited excerpt is taken from an essay contributed by Oana Stănescu, design critic in architecture.
Excerpt from Very Vary Veri: “Crowded”
By Oana Stănescu
The first crowds I consciously remember are the big orchestrated ones. I had to wear a uniform and stand for hours in a specific spot in the central square of Reșița, Romania, a tiny piece in a giant puzzle with timing and movement choreographed to perfection, dancing and waving at the helicopter that was said to “have Ceaușescu, waving back.” In spite of the huge numbers of people, the whole affair felt rather unconvincing—even at a young age I couldn’t help but be skeptical about this choreography of affection toward a mechanical bird.
I was about six, though, when I discovered the depth of voluntary collective experience. On a sunny December day a group of about 15 people were walking energetically on the main street, yelling things I couldn’t quite understand, holding signs I couldn’t yet grasp. This was a welcome distraction on a slow afternoon, but my grandmother told me to go inside and mind my own business.
On the next night a much larger crowd had gathered in the city square, this time louder and with an energy I hadn’t witnessed before. The air was filled with voices screaming “Down with Ceaușescu.” I asked my mom what it meant and she explained that if Ceaușescu wasn’t president anymore, I could buy as much chocolate as I wanted. Considering that these were times when you had to wait in line for hours for bread, milk, and maybe meat on weekends, that sounded perfectly reasonable.
Like dictators before and after him, the man in power made a desperate attempt to instill fear and distrust, but there were no individuals left to buy into it; there was only the crowd which had its truth. The once all-powerful president had been reduced to a tiny, helpless being—like a lifeless doll on the oversized balcony—facing a hungry animal that even the monumental plaza couldn’t contain. You can watch it online, that instant, barely a minute into his speech, when the crowd turned from an obedient, numb creature into a force that was stronger than the fragile abstract entities it was facing. Not the army, not the presidency, not even Christmas could keep individuals from putting themselves in harm’s way. Because when they’re with their crowd, people are willing to die so that the animal can live.
Crowds are mesmerizing and, in an unsettling way, hard to resist. Your voice becomes amplified in the anonymity, as if the air were flammable. Once ignited, it leaves you wondering if it was really your voice shouting at all.
When I was growing up, my mother had a crocheted German saying on the kitchen wall: “Shared pain is half the pain and shared joy is double the joy.” It is worth remembering that the verb “to share” is defined as “to split, or divide, to give a portion of” or “to use, possess or enjoy something jointly with another.” Today we seem to have taken the generosity out of sharing, reducing it to the act of pos(t)ing. One doesn’t need to use a real name, to show one’s face, or even to get out of bed to “share” things: it has turned from an intimate, intentional act to something anonymous and oftentimes accidental. Yet despite the noncommittal nature of these new forms of sharing, when you do it you likely have the attention of a crowd. And you are certainly part of many more virtual crowds yourself—a couple of hundred on average each day, whether you know it or not, some real, many fake (an average of 15 percent of Twitter accounts are estimated to be bots).
Read the full essay in the latest issue of Very Vary Veri, available for purchase at veryvaryveri.info.