LE FUNAMBULE (MONTHLY “CARTE BLANCHE”) / Tracés (2013 – ongoing)
“Petite contre-histoire de la suburbia américaine” in Tracés 2 (January 2015)
Short Counter-History of the American suburbia (see original article on The Funambulist)
“L’enseignement des architectures sans architectes” in Tracés 22 (November 2014)
Learning from Architectures Without Architects (translated from original French version)
Architectures without architects have rarely been so popular among…architects. From Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to Caracas’s Torre David, without forgetting the historical example of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, we can currently see an important amount of researches and projects targeting iconic architectures whose immanent construction never necessitated an architect’s intervention.
Like for every political problem, we are facing simultaneously a question of positioning, and one of production. This fascination for the “architecture without architects” – I am using Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 exhibition’s terms here – almost always exercise itself from outside the object it attempts to describe. Such positioning is however not problematic by definition, but it can become as such when we romanticize the other through a mythical narrative dramatizing what separates us from this otherness. An experience of reality lived from within these architectures would easily dissipate most parts of this mythical narrative. Nevertheless, this experience is often prevented by the myth itself that tends to criminalize populations living in them.
The question of the production of such projects and researches is also fundamental. What do we produce? Why do we produce it? For whom do we produce it? The fact that many of these researches integrate numerous architectural drawings of architectures that did not necessitate them to be built, indicates how architects seems to more or less consciously retroactively claim the ownership of these architectures. Similarly, we cannot help but notice that rewards, awards, and salaries attributed to these researches and projects are always distributed to authors and architects and not the populations living within their objects of fascination, despite the fact that the latter’s inhabitants’ political and economic situations are fundamentally precarious.
Does that mean that architects should turn their back to architectures that did not need them, in order to focus on their architecture, their stars, and their annual Pritzker Price? Absolutely not. Slums’ and other squats’ architectures can teach us a lot insofar that we are willing to acknowledge both our ignorance and our own responsibility within a political and economic system that forces entire population into a precariousness that is materialized architecturally. Acknowledging that we take more part in the problem than in its solution invites us not to think of our intervention as thaumaturgic or divine.
What immanent architectures teach us is that architecture is a political weapon. They do not have the arrogance of thinking of themselves as solutions to a problem: they incarnate simultaneously a cry for political existence and a spatial and communitarian negotiation. When these architectures are destroyed by local authorities to leave room for new capitalist and/or ideological, the violence exercised on them is also exercised on their inhabitants and their very existence within the city and, by extension, their existence within society. Each day of existence of these architectures therefore expresses the right to the city for their inhabitants in opposition to the spatial domination exercised by the so-called “law of markets” associated to national and municipal governances. It is rare that architects also place themselves in opposition to such domination. The architecture that we contribute to build crystalize too often the dominant relations of economic and political power within the city. The fascination that we have for immanent architectures thus correspond to a creative process contrary to the one with which we are familiar. The humility that we propose is not a renunciation or a useless corporative self-flagellation, but it rather is a learning desire regarding the crucial political implications that architecture – that go much beyond the expertise domain of architects – develops within a given society.
Cartography of the Infrastructural Violence in Gaza (see original article on The Funambulist)
“Forteresses capitalo-idéologiques: L’architecture défensive des villes occidentales” in Tracés 8 (May 2014)
Capitalist-Ideological Fortresses : The Defensive Architecture of Western Cities (translated from original French version)
In my column of the second 2014 issue of Tracés, I was examining what I then called “proletarian fortresses.” That was for me a way to describe a type of urbanity – city-buildings to be exact – like the village of Burail in Chandigarh, the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong or the haussmannian social housing at rue Eugene Sue in Paris, which all host(ed) a proletarian social class that appropriated little by little their frame of life to the point that these buildings became fortresses where could be organized a societal existence struggle from their labyrinthine streets.
The fortresses that I will evoke here are something else. Admitedly, they have in common to all use architecture to defend a political mode of existence proper to the logics that built it. Nevertheless, they differentiate by the means of production used, as well as by their relationship to the State. For the purpose of this article, I chose four scales of capitalist-ideological fortresses that I encountered during a recent trip along the United States’ West coast for my radio project Archipelago.
The first one is the most well-known and the largest : it is the Globalized North Fortress. From the Eastern border of Europe to the border between the United States and Mexico through the Israeli wall in the West Bank and the Korean DMZ, the Globalized North Fortress sometimes uses natural boundaries reinforced by a militarized surveillance and laws marginalizing bodies who crossed them. Some other times however, the border is materialized by architecture like it is the case along the southern US border where a wall split the totality of the North American land. I went to the beach split into two where patrolling helicopters drone as Tijuana’s inhabitants observe, almost amused by such a spatial absurdity, the rare bodies that come to visit them on the side of the US natural reserve – it is indeed easier to survey a quasi-desert natural park than a dense urban fabric.
The second one is at the scale of a city’s downtown district, in this case Oakland’s. For the purpose of Archipelago I recorded a ‘drift’ within its streets with the three founders of the collective Demilit, Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona, who showed me the various policed control apparatuses that populate this space. Surveillance video cameras are everywhere, and so are microphones able to reconstitute the ballistic of a gunshot, as well as the multiple elements of urban furniture that justify a pacification aesthetic (concrete planters, ground level changes, concrete benches, etc.) but that essentially exist to protect administrative buildings and other corporation headquarters from potential attacks.
I found the third one in Seattle, not far from the other US border shared with Canada: it is an office tower designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki a few years after New York’s World Trade Center had been achieved. This specific tower has the particularity to be simultaneously terrifying and sublime. Its 12-floor tall concrete base consists in an architectural splay making the base of the building about twice as small as the plan of its office floor plans. It is admittedly not certain that such a strategy corresponded to a defensive need, nevertheless, one can only observe the categorical refusal of a symbiotic dialogue with the street to favor a removal of the ‘untouchables’ floors. The undeniable beauty of this tower should not deceive us, on the contrary.
Finally, the fourth fortress is a housing building encountered in San Francisco where gentrifying processes are particularly violents as generated by the Silicon Valley’s corporations. All gentrifying architecture could probably embody this paradigm yet, this one is particular by the fact that there has been a clear architectural care brought to its design, proof of an embraced complicity of the architect. The long façade on the street is fully opaque when the other one ‘protected’ from sight is generous. Each entrance is fortified with raised fences expressing a clear semiotic about the antagonism it attributes to its environing neighborhood, as well as to its insecurity fantasies that gentrifying bodies attribute to their gentrified counterparts.
Ces quatre exemples de forteresses capitalo-idéologiques sont paradigmatiques de l’architecture élitiste et sécuritaire qu’ils incarnent, mais il n’est nul besoin de se déplacer dans l’ouest étasunien pour les retrouver. Les murs du capitalisme – combien de murs matérialisent la propriété privée ? – sont partout au sein de la forteresse du Nord mondialisé, et partout ils clivent dans un effort de défense, preuve que les logiques qui les produisent comprennent l’antagonisme qu’elles créent au sein de la société.
These four examples of Capitalist-Ideological fortresses are paradigmatic of the elitist and securitarian architecture they embody. Yet, one does not need to go ‘as far’ as the US West coast to find them. Capitalism’s walls – how many walls enforce private property? – are everywhere within the Globalized North Fortress, and everywhere, they split space
“Paysages Ballardiens: Désacraliser la modernité thaumaturge” in Tracés 8 (May 2014)
Ballardian Landscapes: Desacralizing the Thaumaturgic Modernity (translated from the original French version)
I would like to speak about breakage, crisis, dysfunction, what we usually call failure. We find failure in many narratives as a generative element. We can think of the fly in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), whose little corpse fall into the administrative machine, creates a typo in the registers and eventually order the arrest of an honest citizen that would trigger the entire plot of the film. Similarly, there cannot be Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899) without Kurtz’s madness, nor can there be an Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945) without the death of the Old Major pig. Examples are plethora.
James Graham Ballard’s literary work is entirely built upon this notion of failure. In his case, it is the failure of modernism’s promises and of a thaumaturgic and messianic technocracy. Let’s consider the novella The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1962) as a paradigm of this literary construction: the narrator moves in in a “psychotropic” house that morphologically responses to the state of mind of its inhabitant at any given moment. It is a literal incarnation of the vision of the smart city as progressist imaginaries were constructing it in the 1960s. Ballard subverts this dream of ubiquitous comfort and describes for us the traumatic neuroses that this house experiences after having hosted the murder of its previous inhabitant. These psychological troubles will culminate in the attempt to assassinate the narrator:
‘Howard, this house is insane, I think it’s trying to kill me!’
Then, abruptly, the room stilled. A second later, as I lifted myself up on one elbow, a violent spasm convulsed the room, buckling the walls and lifting the bed off the floor. The entire house started to shake and writhe. Gripped by this seizure, the bedroom contracted and expanded like the chamber of a dying heart, the ceiling rising and falling.
This literal failure can be found more broadly in the entireness of Ballard’s work: the skyscraper of High Rise (1975) which social hierarchy corresponds to its verticality and that ends into a revolutionary chaos. Modernity’s Robinson Crusoe is a road casualty stuck on a Concrete Island (1974) between three highway ramps. A modern and comfortable gated community’s children are Running Wild (1988) by undertaking to massacre their parents. Londoner middle class transform themselves into violent and nihilist insurgents. We could think that Ballard plays with his readers when he actually develop a true esthetics of failure.
Ballardian landscapes have the same colors than the one we see in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964): grey is ubiquitous in an atmosphere that seems to be the product of factories and cars that populate these landscapes. Only the televisual colors remain bright when they show us the faces of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Ballard takes care to desacralize these idols, to soil them with their own corporal matter.
Ballard’s masterpiece, Crash (1973) is the proof that he is not amused by failure, but considers it rather in its potential constructivism. Within this novel, Ballard imagines a new sexuality that crashed bodies develop with their car during the crash itself. The penetration of car components in the driver’s body thus compose an aristophanic body between the human and technology.
Vaughan unfolded for me all his obsessions with the mysterious eroticism of wounds, the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels; seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue. For Vaughan, each crashed car set off a tremor of excitements in the complex geometries of a dented fender, in the unexpected variations of crushed radiator grilles, in the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver’s crotch as if in some some calibrated act of machine fellation.
This sexuality that crowns the desacred modernity – or maybe its pagan sacredness in manner of Antonin Artaud – constitutes a means to build upon the ruins of modernity. This construction is more ambiguous but thus also less moralizing and less dependent on the modern thaumaturgic dream as Ballard’s poetic manifesto “What I Believe,” expresses:
I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.
“Couloirs de la mort et autres designs mortifères,” in Tracés 7 (April 2014)
Death Corridors and Other Deadly Designs (translated from the original French version)
Do you happen to know Temple Grandin ? This University of Colorado professor invented a certain amount of spatial apparatuses used in American slaughterhouses in the 1960s. According to her, her acute understanding of animal behavior linked to her autism that she invented these apparatuses in reaction to slaughterhouses’ cruel treatment of cattle when the latter was being brought to its execution. Grandin’s design consists in a succession of opaque-walled corridors reducing their width little by little and thus following a route accommodating cattle’s ‘natural’ behavior that tends to go in circle. Spatial and material characteristics of this apparatus allow to the cattle to be brought without panic nor stress to the unvariable finality of the slaughterhouse’s function: its death
What do Grandin’s invention tell us about the role that architecture plus as a technology of extreme control on bodies ? It is easy to establish an essential and definitive difference between animal bodies and human bodies. Such a differentiation seems however to exist more in terms of degrees than in terms of essences. The visual correspondence between Grandin’s apparatuses and those, well-known, of Richard Serra is striking. And, what do we do in Serra’s pieces if not reasonably follow the route that he imagined for our bodies? What is true in the specific realm of art is also true in the more ubiquitous of architecture: an architect draws a corridor between a point A and a point B and bodies who will use it will certainly move from A to B or from B to A. What triggers my interest is as much the fact that these movements are anticipated by the architect as the fact that the architect and all other actors of the architectural conception (politicians, engineers, etc.) are ideologically interested in having these bodies moving according to this anticipation. This ideological interest allows us to say that architecture not only can serve political ideologies, but often it incarnates the necessary condition for these ideologies to be operational.
Let’s go back to Grandin’s spatial inventions for the cattle and let’s compare it to their human equivalent whose literality recounts its absolute horror : the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War that assassinated millions of Jewish, Gipsy, Homosexual, disabled and communist bodies. In both case, there is a strategy to industrialize death, that is, to make it more efficient and systematic, which would be difficult without the active participation of architecture. The reason why Grandin succeeded to have her design adopted in some American slaughterhouses is not necessarily through the share concern for a less cruel treatments on animals, but rather, because it was clear for their owners that the cattle bodies’ docility would make the whole process more efficient. The same goes for the human bodies assassinated by the Nazi death machine. Thus, the camps’ architecture undertake to apply violence on these bodies until a physical exhaustion that corresponds to the searched docility to which the ultimate deception of the gas chambers ‘disguised’ into showers does not leave any chance to a potential resistance.
Only one other historical architecture seems to equal such a degree of cruelty toward human bodies : the slave ship. Between the 15th century and the 19th century, about 14 millions of African bodies were forcefully embarked within these ships to be used as slaves in the Americas. Slave ships transported several hundreds of bodies at the same time in conditions whose degree of horror is indescribable. According to C. L. R. James, the architecture of each of these ships was conceived in such a way that a body was not able to occupy more than a volume of one meter and half long for sixty centimeters of height, thus forcing bodies into painful and suffocating positions. More than 15% of captured bodies never reached “the other side” of the ocean. They died from diseases, from the crew’s cruelty or because they committed suicide. These bodies were then threw overboard to reside forever in what Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau call “the abyss” (gouffre) . Architecture’s violence is so blatant that the means to show it for a group of abolitionists simply consisted in showing the ships’ plans and sections by including in it the bodies that they were transporting.
Without the conception of the slave ship, there cannot be any slave trade. Architecture is thus, not only accomplice of the worst crimes against humanity in whole history, but it also constitutes for them a condition without which these crimes would simply be impossible. For the purpose of this article, I purposely chose the paradigmatic examples of the gas chamber and the slave ship whose absolute horror they incarnate help me to illustrate my hypothesis. Nevertheless, we should also understand the power that architecture unfold on the bodies in more domestic example like the corridor described above. Logics are the same; only the intensity of this power varies depending the design we address.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, New York: Random House, 1989.
 Édouard Glissant et Patrick Chamoiseau, L’intraitable beauté du monde : Adresse à Barack Obama, Paris : Galaade, 2009.
“Le vêtement: L’architecture politique du corps,” in Tracés 4 (February 2014)
The Body’s Political Architecture (translated from the original French version)
What made you choose the clothing you are currently wearing? What does it represent for you? What do you think they represent for society? What are you trying to say through them, and to whom are you trying to say it? I already argued in these pages that no architecture could possibly be politically neutral and that any attempt to reach neutrality would only consolidate the norm. It is the same thing for clothing. Through its proximity to the body – we could almost say, the way it belongs to the body – clothing has the particularity to participate to our individual identity, and sometimes even to our collective identity.
Our body already owns a certain amount of characteristics inherently or not situate ourselves in terms of degree of differentiation of the norm. In other words, in western societies, a white male body is closer from the normative body than a brown and female or transgender body. There is a social violence that is exercised in a degree proportional to this degree of separation from the norm. Clothing is a designed and produced object – hence the fact that architects should be interested in it – which also participates to situate a body vis-à-vis the norm. The appearing cost of a cloth is part of it, of course, it participates to a series of visual characteristics that are related to social class of the body that wears it. These characteristics are however applicable to an entire group of objects (house, car, jewelry, purse, etc.) considered, not so much for their intrinsic quality, but rather for their monetary value and their degree of exclusivity to a given population: that is what we call luxury.
What I am interested in here is rather the fact that a cloth carries a social, cultural, racist and gendered imaginary. The latter aspect is quite evident when we see that most of us continue to shop clothing in spaces indicating explicitly which one are supposed to be made for which gender. Wearing trousers has been a long struggle for female bodies to be able to appropriate them, and through them to occupy a dominant social position.
Let’s consider another cloth that stigmatizes a societal issue: the hijab or islamic veil. This object seems to make a large majority of the French political class comes into agreeing. But could it carry a cultural complexity that we should study? The answer is yes of course. We can observe the historical situation of the hijab in a country like Iran for example, so to realize that we cannot judge it independently from its context. Under the regime of the Shah, unveiling was enforced, while following the 1979 revolution that led to the Islamic Republic, veiling became unforced onto each female body. Like Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minoo Moallem point out, in both cases share the fact that the violent enforcement of the law is effectuated by male bodies on female bodies. Hijab can therefore not be considered as an oppressive or a liberating object. Among the bodies wearing it nowadays in Western societies, we find forced bodies but also many others who claim through it to belong to a collective identity that suffers from a strong antagonism for the last decades.
But the most striking recent example of the importance that clothing can take in the exacerbation of a racist social imaginary is Trayvon Martin’s murder on February 26, 2012 in Florida. Martin was wearing a hoodie and was walking in a gated community where his father’s partner was living, when George Zimmerman, employed to the security of the neighborhood, using his expectations of a young black man wearing a hoodie, confronted him before ultimately shooting him. The hoodie, as a stigmata of a society fundamentally racist, was then worn by thousands of Americans in solidarity with Martin’s family and more globally, African Americans, while others cynically invited all young man of color not to wear it so “not to have any problem.” Martin’s hoodie has been introduced as evidence during Zimmerman’s trial. This constitutes a proof that this small piece of fabric had indeed an undeniable incidence to what happened and thus represents an ensemble of gendered, racialized and social expectations that are related to it.
I therefore re-ask my original question: why did you decide to wear what you wear today?
“Les forteresses prolétariennes: L’immeuble-ville comme typologie urbaine politique,” in Tracés 2 (January 2014)
Proletarian Fortresses: City-Building as Political Urban Typology (translated from the original French version)
About a month ago, I went back on the Corbusean land of Chandigarh. I had been there for the first time a few years earlier and had made a reasonable visit to the various buildings designed by Le Corbusier with the unique exception to his grid through Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. This time however, I had the opportunity to visit the village of Burail, absolute anomaly within the Corbusean grid since it embodies a sort of labyrinthine Casbah within one of the most regulated urban fabric. The origin of such an anomaly, which can be found in a few other districts of the city, was explained to me by my former work colleague Mayank Ojha who dedicated an entire year to the urban study of this village. Burail, just like other villages of Chandigarh used to be an agricultural village before the construction of the capital city of Indian Punjab and Haryana in the 1950s. The farmers were not able to defend themselves against the logics of the eminent domain as far as their land was concerned; nevertheless, they succeeded to organize to keep the political autonomy of their village within the extent of the red tape that circumscribed it. The village thus became a shelter for new-comer migrants, as well as a place of commercial activity where Chandigarh inhabitants come to find “everything they do not find elsewhere” (car pieces, household equipment, fresh vegetables, etc.). It is therefore not surprising that from a village this place became a dense and labyrinthine neighborhood where it is rare to see the sky in another way than through the narrow space in between floors that were added to existing buildings with no other rules than gravity itself. Based on what Mayank told me, Chandigarh police are not veritably operating within Burail, internal disorder being handle by the inhabitants themselves.
Such a scheme that combines an economic production to an autonomous societal and decisional organization within a given neighborhood, which density could lead to think that this is in fact, only one gigantic building, can be found in other cities of the worlds within various contexts. We can evoke Algiers’s Casbah, which urban morphology was instrumental to the war of independence lead by the FLN (National Liberation Front) from this urban labyrinth. Sometimes the “city-building” is even designed as such, like in the case of the four housing buildings of the rue Eugene Sue in Paris. Designed by the Baron Haussmann, these four blocks hosted 10,000 members of the Parisian proletariat during the second part of the 19th century. Speaking of four buildings seems inaccurate here since a simple overlook allows the realization that it seems to be more a built mass that has been cut by two tranches-streets and pierced by a multitude of various scaled courtyards. One of the most studied examples currently is literally a “building-city”: Torre David in Caracas. This 150-meter tall tower had been originally designed to host the offices of a corporation, but construction was stopped at the end of the 1990s, thus leaving its structure to the appropriation of 2,500 members of the proletariat who added to it various layers of recovered materials and adding to it an infrastructure for all.
The most recurrent example of such urban constructions however is without doubt Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City that was ultimately destroyed in 1993. This “building-city” of 32,000 square meters was inhabited by 33,000 inhabitants who, despite the narrative strategy of criminalization, mostly constituted a work force within the neighborhood. The name of “walled city” comes from the military outpost that preceded the housing buildings, but it finds a particularly appropriate signification to describe the defensive characteristics of the Kowloon Walled City. The density of these “city-buildings” is materialized in such a way that the interface offered to the environing city is comparable to a fortress’s wall, admittedly porous, but which corridor-streets’ narrowness makes difficult its control by an outside authority. The difficulty that the Hongkongese authorities had to evict the inhabitants before its destruction is particularly illustrative. So are the human losses inflicted to the French paratroopers by the FLN in the 1950s Casbah. Proletarian fortresses exist through more or less voluntary logics of localization of the proletariat by the authorities. They are however overwhelmed by the immanent urban construction, as well as the societal organization that are produced within these fortresses, which become a danger for them.
“Les trous positifs de l’urbanisme révolutionnaire,” in Tracés 23-24 (December 2013)
The Positive Holes of Revolutionary Urbanism (translated from the original French version)
On May 16, 1871, the Paris Commune dramatically organized the destruction of the Vendôme Column on top of which was sitting a statue of Napoleon. Many other Parisian buildings were burnt during these three revolutionary months of 1871; nevertheless, the organized destruction of the Vendôme Column – now rebuilt the same way – remains the political paradigm of what I would like to designate through an oxymoron: constructive destruction.
I do not mean to play on words here, but rather to evoke the process that is needed to trigger when there is a profound change of political sovereignty within a given society: the inversion or the subversion of physical or/and symbolical mechanisms of the relationships of power as they used to be effectuated before the concerned revolution. Since no architecture can be said to be neutral vis-à-vis a political regime, whether at the transcendental level of the authority, or at the immanent level of the norm, it is then not surprising that architecture ‘pays the price’ of the construction of new relationships of power.
The text written by the Situationists about the Paris Commune in March 1962 (Internationale situationniste 12, 1969) is particularly useful to understand this notion of constructive destruction. Rather than the example of the Vendôme Column, Guy Debord, Attila Kotànyi and Raoul Vaneigem chose the potential destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in order to describe the “revolutionary urbanism” for which they are calling. The Artists Society of the Commune had then interfered to save the Parisian cathedral. This is a proof for the Situationists that even within revolutions there is a conservative reflex that is linked to the old regime. In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Internationale situationniste 6, 1961), they write:
All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its basic laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive hole concept developed by modern physics.
This notion of “positive hole” can be associated to constructive destruction. We would be wrong to think that the Situationists were calling for an absolute tabula rasa to destroy the totality of the old regime’s tracks. The choice of the word “hole,” in particular, can only make sense if there is some matter in which one can dig. This matter is also the one that keeps framing the hole; without it, a hole would no longer be a hole. In their struggle against the capitalist mechanisms, they have themselves materialized these “positive holes” by subverting (détournant) the capitalist system’s own symbols. Similarly, the “revolutionary urbanism,” in order to keep its essence, should not simply focus on its destructive act, but should also recount the subversive act that it triggered against a matter that is considered as oppressive.
This does not mean to deny the notion of destruction with which this text started, but rather to understand this notion as incomplete. Let us take a particularly illustrative example: in 1856, a statue of Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, was set up in a public space of Fort de France in Martinique. This woman, who became impress in 1804, grew up in Martinique in a plantation that counted more than 300 slaves ‘belonging’ to her dad. In this regard, it is said that she influenced her husband to re-establish slavery. Erecting a statue of her is therefore a strong symbol of the white French colonial domination on the local black population that was then emancipated from slavery. The great Martinique poet Aimé Césaire who was Fort de France’s mayor from 1945 to 2001 did not want to dismantle this statue in order to keep a memory of the slavery era and the resistance against it. The statue’s physical integrity was however remaining problematic and in 1991, an independentist group – Martinique is still under French sovereignty – had it symbolically beheaded (guillotinée) by cutting its head and adding red paint stains to evoke blood. Despite the numerous debates around it, the statue remained in this state since 1991 and can still be seen this way in Fort de France. Dismantling the statue would have provided a historical moment for Martinique but it would have been only punctual. The fact that the statue carries on itself the marks of its subversion are making out of it a symbol that operates in the opposite way than the one in which it had been originally produced.
Anticolonialist narrative is thus recounted in an explicit way through the two historical operations that produced this block of stone : its foundation and its ‘profanation.’ If we go back to our starting point, the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, the instant ruin that offered its fallen ‘corpse’ can also express this explicit (hi)story and thus to be part of a urbanism that is said revolutionary. The Commune being exterminated, the city of Paris coming back to the hands of the old regime, the Vendôme Column being reconstructed exactly the same – thus denying the historical narrative of its destruction – there is nothing material left that can tell the story of this attempt for a revolutionary urbanism. This is probably the observation that pushed historian David Gissen to imagine the reconstruction of the small earth month where the column fell in 1871 in order to manifest this episode. We then all have to imagine more of these “positive holes.”
“Transgresser le corps normé idéel,” in Tracés 20 (October 2013)
Transgressing the Normalized Ideal Body (translated from the original French version)
We all have in mind Leonardo da Vinci’s ink drawing dedicated to Roman architect Vitruvius whose motto “Solidity, Utility, Beauty” is still engraved in the Pritzker prize’s medal nowadays. The Vitruvian Man is thus this drawing introducing the anatomical proportions of a theoretically perfect man, placed in the center of the universe. Since this body is placed in the center of the universe, it seems reasonable to think that the universe was built around it and adapted to it. In the 20th-century, several architects also undertook to elaborate a body around which architecture could be conceived. We can think of Le Corbusier’s Modulor (1945) of course, as well as Ernst Neufert’s bodies (1936) that both still constitute absolute references for architects of multiple countries. We can also refer to Henri Dreyfuss’s characters, Joe and Josephine (1974), who live in a graphic standard world whose dimensions are invading the entire available space. What is the height of the table, the chair, the door? Those are only a few instances of architectural components that, not only seem to be given to us without letting us questioning them, but that also constitute a fundamental problem as far as the standardization of the body as well as their own.
Let us first observe that the body considered as norm has more to do with the schemes of domination within a given society’s relations of power, than with a question of majority that would still remain problematic anyway. In Western societies, the healthy white male heterosexual incarnates this normalized body around which each non-specific architectural form is built. The diversity of the bodies reading this present text will easily illustrates the multitude that does not correspond to this norm. What I would like to demonstrate consists in the fact that the norm does not stop at this four criteria named above: it integrates others that are also of social, behavioral, linguistic nature, etc., that makes no body veritably corresponding to it. The ideal body is not incarnated: it is a fantasy. This allows me to think the oxymoron that gave this text its title, the normalized ideal body. Of course, some bodies incarnate this norm in a closer manner than others. In this regard, colonial architecture that imposes its own standards to a local population actively participates to the domination process that the colonial project represents. For this reason, it is problematic that a certain amount of colonial building did not change their function during the decolonization process. That is how several administrative, judiciary and educative buildings in Bombay are still working in the way than the British were using them, and how the former Viceroy palace became the Presidential palace in New Delhi, against Gandhi’s opinion that was recommending to changing it into a hospital for the poors.
It is therefore correct to think that the norm favors, by definition, some bodies more than others. Nevertheless, since the normalized body is a fantasy, we can also realize that considering this idealized body as the essence of architectural creation is harmful to various degrees for the totality of the bodies. To docilely use the norm has an impact in the scale of the species’s evolution itself: each architecture, each space, each object conceived around it will act like a prop on a small tree. This evolution will not be effectuated within the scheme of an acquisition of power (in the Spinozist sense of power) from generation to generation, but on the contrary, it will effectuate within the scheme of an impoverishment of the bodies since they will always tend to reach this idealized norm.
Nevertheless, the idea of exiting the norm would also be a fantasy. Each society applies different forms of relations of power that create norms, which refer to the domination of behaviors on others. We cannot exit them but we can transgress them in order to reduce these relations of dominations in the best way we can. In other words, if we conceive a table or a chair in the same way than we usually think of it, we would need to choose at which height we should place it. In this regard, whatever our decision will be, it will contribute a certain norm. However, this norm can be different from the one of the political milieu in which we live, and it can also vary within a same building rather than imposing an absolute standard. The body that we consider to conceive an architecture should not be a fantasy, it should be incarnated. Just like architecture – often too disincarnated by architects too – the body is an assemblage of matter in movement that composes relations with its environment. When this environment is built in such a way that these relations are thought in their most harmonious dimension rather the most normalized one, we can talk of an act veritably political since it complexities and transforms the relations of power within this society.
“Que trouve-t-on dans l’épaisseur d’une ligne? Réflexion sur le thème de la frontière,” in Tracés 17 (September 2013)
What Do We Find in the Thickness of a Line? (translated from the original French version)
The line constitutes the principal medium of the architect. Of course, the lines that (s)he traces represent more than a simple drawing; they are thought as descriptive of an architecture that other humans will have to build. Nevertheless, it might not be exaggerated to state that the only veritably material act of the architect consists in tracing lines. The latter are mathematical entities that, by definition, have no thickness. When the architectural elements that they describe are translated in reality however, they acquire a thickness even it if it very small. This thickness is precisely the means for architecture to unfold its power on the bodies. A simple line traced on a map to delimit the American territory from the Mexican one, and, in reality, a thirty-feet tall wall to prevent the access to a country for bodies that seem to be considered to brown for it. The few millimeters of steel that embody this line insure of its physical and, by extension, political impermeability.
The line, in its geometrical perfection, is inscribed in a legal diagram that also benefits from a theoretical perfection. Its materialization as an architecture is an apparatus of implementation of this legal diagram in reality. A very simple of this statement can be found in the fact that a large majority of the world’s wall are the violent expression of a law that guarantees private property. Of course, this translation in to reality of the legal diagram cannot be perfectly executed: the material apparatus is fallible, and that is how hundreds of clandestine Mexican immigrants still manage to penetrate on the United States’ territory for example.
Each line corresponds to a law, or rather, each line determines a legal mode for each of its two sides (the differentiation between what is said to be private and public for example). This idea functions theoretically but when it is applied to reality and that the line acquires its thickness, we can wonder about the following question: what do we find in the thickness of a line? And, which legal mode is operative within the thickness of a line? Such questions have important (geo)political implications. For example, in September 2012, a group of twenty Eritrean refugees found themselves trapped for more than a week within the few yards of thickness of the border that separates Egypt from Israel. During seven days, these refugees were offered only the vital minimum of water from the Israeli authorities. In these conditions, one of the women who was pregnant miscarried her child. It therefore seems that there is no legal mode for such a geometrically impossible but actually existing zone. That means that the bodies that reside in it are liberated from any sovereignty to which they would be subjugated, but that they also do not own any legal status, not even the one of human. They are thus reduced to what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (Homo Sacer I, 1998).
At a mythological point of view, we can also evoke the example of Romulus’s fratricide on Remus. In Roman mythology, Romulus delimits his new city (Rome) by digging a trench all around and then declares unilaterally the application of the Roman law that finds itself expressed and implemented through this trench. Remus cross this border, disobeying the law to contest it, he receives what the law designs as a punishment when it is negated in such a way: he is killed by his brother. I would like to continue this myth by imagining that Remus’s corpse has been left inside Romulus’s trench, that is in the thickness of the line where he would remain symbolically liberated from this law that he wanted to contest.
This violent power that architecture has on the bodies, the architect has to carry its responsibility. (S)he traces these lines knowing what their power is. If (s)he is not aware of it, her/his ignorance is just much prejudicial since one could not possibly defend oneself by invoking a sort of humility in a system whose understanding is beyond us. As for our own bodies, they can still attempt to subvert — nobody can escape — the power of these lines, by digging their oxymoronic thickness, or by walking on it , like the funambulists of November 9, 1989, who did not express the obsolescence of the Wall by any other way than by setting themselves up on the foot-wide thickness of its line.
“L’archipel politique: Pour un nouveau de souverainé territoriale,” in Tracés 13-14 (July 2013)
The Political Archipelago: For a New Paradigm of Territorial Sovereignty (translated from the original French version)
“The World is an archipelago” was the calm philosophical scream of the late philosopher Edouard Glissant. An archipelago shares a common history but each of its islands keeps an identity that it continuously constructs with its inhabitants. In this text, I would like to describe the archipelago as a new way to perceive territories as well as their political sovereignty.
The archipelago is however not intrinsically a figure of emancipation. For the needs of my first book, Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), I elaborated a metaphorical map of the West Bank as it is experienced by Palestinians on a daily basis: an archipelago whose islands occupy only 39% of the West Bank territories that belong to Palestinians. The ‘sea’ around them represents regions controlled by the Israeli army and the ‘reefs’ embody the Israeli civil settlements that keeps occupying illegally the territory of another nation. In this metaphorical archipelago, it is not rate that an island inhabitant cannot access the neighbor island because of the frequent Israeli military checkpoints.
There is however a form of archipelago that was not forced, but rather, that emerged in an immanent way through the political action of its inhabitants. That was the case for the 1871 Paris Commune that was not thinking itself as a citadel surrounded by a hostile territory, but rather as an island among others — other cities in France like Toulouse, Marseille or Saint Etienne also succeeded to declare their commune for a little while — and also included the countryside in its sovereignty scheme as Karl Marx pointed out in his book The Civil War in France (1871).
Similar phenomena have been observed since 2011 on multiple territories of the world. The archipelago of the revolt counts many islands whose names resonate from the universality that link them together: Sidi Bouzid, Tahrir, Douma, S’derot Rotshield, Dawwar Al-Lu’Lu, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti, Oakland, La Petite Patrie, Natal, Bayda, Taksim, Megaro Tis ERT and so much more. These small territories that have gathered millions of bodies, and that, for some of them, continues to be inhabited as I am writing these words, embody a new way to live politically.
These islands do not have any immigration problems: all bodies are welcome on it is their very presence on this territory that defines them as inhabitants and citizens. Each body has to choose at each moment the space that it occupies. It can be only at one place at a time and only this given body can be present on this given place. That is the principle of occupation and its political implication, whether we talk about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the one of the Occupy movement that claims it in its own name. At each moment, we are confronted to an oxymoronic choice, simultaneously necessary — since we cannot not choose — and radical — since our choice of a space excludes every other — of the space that our body occupies.
The islands of the archipelago I was evoking above are thus formed by groups of bodies that accept, implicitly or explicitly, to create a political community. These groups, through the materiality of the bodies that form them, define territories whose limits do not cease to be redefined. Elsewhere, other islands are formed and, despite the fact that each develops its own identity, dialogues between them are effectuated and thus, they can acquire the status of political archipelago. The ‘sea’ that separates them is a region of flux. Fast fluxes, slow fluxes, just like the ocean, they constitute the ambient milieu of these islands whose name of occupation informs about their ‘sedentary’ nature. One has to understand this term, not as the absence of movement or as a permanence, but rather as the space of a constructive intensive movement that lasts as long as the island exists; in other words, as long as bodies form a political community on this territory.
Far from the representative democracy’s scheme that we know too well, the political archipelago incarnates a paradigm in which the notion of majority, and therefore the notion of norm, are considered as less important than the one of political intensity, i.e. the corporal and spatial engagement of an ethical community. This is the condition for new political practices to emerge without being synonym of the domination of a group — even if it is a majority — on another. As I was attempting to demonstrate above, this political archipelago already exists in coexistence with the recognized sovereignty paradigm. Nevertheless, we can imagine it as the only form of worldwide sovereignty and thus forget about the obsolete concept of country. Such a reformulation of the notion of territory also implies important redefinition of architecture that currently carries the symptoms of the political paradigm in which we live.
“Pour une architecture allagmatique: Introduction a l’oeuvre de Gilbert Simondon,” in Tracés 11 (June 2013)
For an Allagmatic Architecture : Introduction to the work of Gilbert Simondon (translation from original French version)
We can observe a recent interest for the work of Gilbert Simondon. I am happy to participate to it here as his texts are so much able to offer a rich philosophical and political interpretation of the milieu in which we live. Through this short text, I will attempt to show how his philosophy can “resonate” – I use the Simondonian terminology here – in the practice of architectural conception.
The main concept invented by Simondon is the one of the individuation. It is fundamental to observe that, by definition, such a concept is more attached to the notion of process rather than the one of finished product. He is not interested by the individual but rather, by the technical or/and psychic operation that allows to form an individual. In this regard, it seems difficult to imagine that his work would not have had a great influence on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari when they were thinking their concept of becoming. The latter is indeed the process in which un individual or a group of individuals are dedicated to politically and creatively affirming their minor dimension within the instituted relationships of power (becoming woman, becoming revolutionary, becoming animal etc.).
In his book L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (Éditions Jérôme Millon, 1995), Gilbert Simondon uses the extensive description of a specific case to illustrate in which extents we can consider the formation of a body, whichever it might be, by reducing it to the simplistic association of a form and a matter like the Aristolian paradigm of hylomorphism does it. Through the microphysical description of the formation of a brick, from “inside the cast,” Simondon defines his own paradigm that he calls allagmatic. Following the latter, the achieved object/body (of course, the word “achieved” is strictly anthropocentric) is understood as the result of an energetic process of the formation of matter. Simondon blames the hylomorphic model to consider form as a real element, when it is actually an abstract idea that will necessities to materialize always imperfectly into a scaffolding or a mold to really exist.
He then continues his critique by defining the hylomorphic model as the one in which “the free man” – who imagines the forms in its abstract perfection – order to “the slave” – who knows the craftsmanship techniques – the construction of this object. Isn’t it exactly the same scheme than the one in which an architect and his/her abstract lines order to the workers to construct the building that (s)he has imagined? The architect’s plan, just like an utopian vision of society, is a particular form of representation since it does not represent an achieved state but, on the contrary, an object that does not yet exist. According to this paradigm, one will therefore enforce the correspondence between this virtual object and the real one in a retrospective operation that carries a certain violence. Let us take an architectural example: whether we speak about the Corbusean modulor or about any other ideal or standard body – paradoxically ideal and standard mean the same thing here – the will to adapt architecture to this type of body – almost always male, healthy and white – represents a veritably physical violence for any body that would not correspond to it. In order to suppress this violence, we should attempt not to chronologize the elaboration of a form and its materialization, but rather, to make them correspond simultaneously while considering the necessary energy for this operation: this is the principle of the allagmatic model that Simondon talks about.
Within this text, Simondon does not tell us what a political application of the allagmatic model would look like, but we can probably imagine it for him at a societal level as well as at the architectural practice level. From his point of view, energy is what allows a matter to form a body, an individual, but also what allows bodies to form a corporal collective that he names transindividual. Transindividuation, the process in which individuals become a transindividual, i.e. a group that constitutes more than the sum of its parts, is the political process par excellence. To consider the political act in its constructivism, i.e. in which it contributes to produce, is a way to be attached to its corporal matter – which is probably not the same one than the ideal standard one considered above – but also to the energetic process that effectuated it. From an architectural point of view, the effectuating allagmatic level can be understood as a simultaneous tendency of the conception with the construction as well as of its actors. Of course, it seems difficult to imagine that such a model could be applied literally in any other context than the one of a small building. However, a deep understanding of the energetic processes implied in an architecture’s construction during its conception would already constitutes an important starting point towards a properly allagmatic architecture.