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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

MONTHLY ARTICLE / DAMn Magazine (2013 – ongoing)

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“Geo-Techno in Wonderland,” in DAMn Magazine 51 (July 2015)

Since 2008, architects Liam Young and Kate Davies, the founders of Unknown Fields have organized eleven trips in which they bring their students of the London Architectural Association, as well as a few other creative colleagues (filmmakers, artists, novelists, designers, architects, etc.) to various extreme geological sites, such as the sapphire mines of Madagascar, the ice of the Arctic Circle or the corrupted earth of Chernobyl. The idea behind these expeditions is to rethink the way we imagine (and thus design) our cities through a geological and a technological approach.

While many architects and urban designers keep thinking of the city as “a singular point on the map,” Young and Davies would like to argue for a vision of the city as a “networked object casting shadows that stretch across the planet.[1]” In other words, the infrastructure of our cities is as much to be found in its underground and is direct geographical surroundings, than in various places across the globe that feed the city with various products and goods, as well as extract its different forms of waste after their consumption.

In this regard, the 2014 expedition organized as a ‘salmon trip’ from the streets of London where are sold the last versions of smartphones and laptops to their geological source in Inner Mongolia. Entitled “A World Adrift” this specific trip took the Unknown Fields on a container ship in the South China seas, then following the tracks of the boxes contained in the containers, the objects themselves being assembled, their electronic chips being set up, the refining of the rare earth metal that compose them, as well as the radioactive waste lake that results in this process.

Young and Davies’ agenda is not a moralizing one. It acknowledges that the documentation of “a polar bear on a drifting piece of ice,” despite the emotional affect it creates, does not crucially impact the way we organize our ways of life. Instead, Unknown Fields prefer to position themselves as designers and artists, as their “Rare Earthenware” attest: these three pottery vases, currently exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, were shaped by Kevin Callaghan with the exact quantity of radioactive waste a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of an electric car battery necessitate, and that Young and Davies brought back from Inner Mongolia.

Their manifesto consists in no-longer thinking the architectural practice as a punctual site oriented one but, rather, “constructing stories and fictions, which imagine new ways of intervening within the conditions [that they study], as well as designing networks.” The projects that their students create subsequently to the expeditions are thus often oriented towards a science-fictive approach, in order to describe the complexity of the reciprocal geographic relation that compose these networks, without considering the latter through a  moralizing reading.

The other part of Young’s practice, gathered under the name Tomorrow Thoughts Today (founded with Darryl Chen), fully investigates this speculative architectural and technological approach. Drones, in particular, are at the core of two projects created by Young with various collaborators: Electronic Countermeasures in 2011 (with security consultant Eleanor Saitta and designer Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu), and LOOP>>60 Hz: Transmissions from the Drone Orchestra in 2014 (with renowned musician John Cale). This technology, just like many others (computers and the Internet are obvious instances), contains a military essence in its very function, but Young is interested in how such an essence can be re-purposed for more democratic and/or creative aims.

Electronic Countermeasures was inspired by the Internet shutdown of the entire territory of Egypt by the Hosni Mubarak administration during the two last weeks of the Revolution in January-February 2011: this float of small quadricopter drones provide a wifi connection independent from national networks to the devices situated in their proximity, as well as a pirate file sharing network. This project also accidentally reflected on the securitarian perverse context in which the West currently lives, since Young and Lugojan-Ghenciu were placed on a terrorist-watch list when they travelled with their drones in their luggage around the time of the London Olympics in 2012.

LOOP>>60 Hz: Transmissions from the Drone Orchestra consist in two improvisional performances between Cale, his band, and Young’s drones, which occurred at the London Barbican Auditorium in September 2014. In the 1960s, Cale was interested in how the operating sound of a ubiquitous novel technology like the electric refrigerator would constitute the sound of an era. The continuous sound of our era might be the one of the drone (a sound that actually gave its name to the object itself), which is thus at the core of this orchestra. The speculative idea of technology’s emancipation is also at work in this project, since it is oriented towards the drone’s own improvisation.

Young’s work, both with Unknown Fields and Tomorrow Thoughts Today is therefore profoundly contemporaneous in the way it engages the infrastructural (geological) and technological conditions that form the world at this specific moment, and it is also fundamentally speculative for its continuous effort to broaden our creative and critical imaginaries through (science) fiction and other inventive networked practices.

[1] All quotes are by Liam Young in a conversation with Léopold Lambert for Archipelago (May 13, 2015): http://the-archipelago.net/2015/05/14/liam-young-the-geological-and-technological-landscape-production-of-our-cities/

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“Take a Seat: Cairo’s Street Furniture,” in DAMn Magazine 51 (July 2015)

When walking through the streets of Cairo, it is difficult to ignore the ubiquitous chairs that populate them. We might see them as simple generic objects but, if we take a moment, maybe even sit in one of them, we might be able to understand various layers of the city itself. This is the ambition of the project Sidewalk Salon undertaken by Cairo-based architect Manar Moursi and photographer David Puig since 2010. In a forthcoming book, they compile dozens of Polaroid photographs of both generic and idiosyncratic chairs encountered in Cairo, interviews with their owners, poetic contributions and an analysis of the politics recounted by these objects.

Before addressing the chairs themselves however, we might want to ponder about the very action of sitting in the city. In the center of many Western cities, sitting outside of the consumerist provisions for it, like café terraces, is mostly left to a population suffering from economic precariousness. Sitting then becomes a non-participation, if not an obstacle, to the fluxes of goods, bodies and capitals, and thus a potentially reprehensible activity. Cities of the Global-South tend to have a different approach vis-à-vis the act of sitting in the street. Forms of sociality developed through the semi-sedentary characteristics of sitting are created. Nevertheless, one does not just sit anywhere; one tends to sit in a territory one considers as their own. In other words, there is a form of local familiarity that needs to be achieved before one sits, and some forms of architecture favor this more than others. Brooklyn’s brownstones’ entrance steps, for instance, provide the ideal conditions for this neighboring sociality.

We should not think of this sociality too candidly however. In a conversation I had with her, Manar Moursi describes how part of her fascination for the Cairo’s chairs had been triggered by her noticing that both her doorman and the plumber sitting outside her building knew a disturbing amount of details of her personal life, as the latter was unfolding in front of their eyes. As she describes herself, the fact of being a single woman navigating in a space ‘guarded’ by panoptical men, rendered the very act of sitting a non-innocent one at the political level. It is also difficult not to notice that most people sitting in the streets of Cairo happen to be men, and that the sociality described above tends to be only a male homosocial one. In this sense, the act of sitting often equals the reach for a position of power towards other bodies navigating the city. Moursi and Puig cite the chair of God described in the Quran that, in Egypt, resonates with the one of Pharaoh and the following kings. They note that, during and after the revolution, one graffito in particular started to appear in many streets of Cairo; it represents an empty throne with the name of “the people” written on it. Who gets to sit and where, is thus far from being an innocent political question within the city.

One particular aspect described by the project Sidewalk Salon consists in the immanent design modification of these chairs. Of course, the recognizable monobloc white or colored chair is everywhere in Cairo. Originally costing $60 per piece, its mass production allowed its price to go down to only $3 a chair, and we can now find them everywhere in the world, without being surprised of such an ubiquity. Nevertheless, many of the chairs populating the streets of Cairo have known many lives that eroded and broke them. The successive repairs that brought them back to an effective function are often remarkable for their simultaneous roughness and sophistication. Some pieces of a plastic chairs come to accommodate another one, which has only its metallic structure left. Wood parts are added to consolidate a tired iron stool. Hybrids are infinite and produce unique models of chairs whose creativity is only dictated by pure function and local materials.

This particular care that prevents chairs’ owners to throw them away once they cannot longer fulfill their function is likely to be motivated by economic reasons; yet, we cannot escape from the fact that there are a relation created between human and objects that is worth examining. We can think of the work of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989) in this regard, insofar that he was advocating for an ethics organizing human behavior in relation to technical objects, in a similar way that rights can be granted to animals or nature itself. Cairo’s 1001 street chairs are an example of such an ethics, where objects are respected for their function, and inscribed in the political cogs of their environment, in this case, the city.

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“Graphic Design as Political Weapon: The Impact of Visuals,” in DAMn Magazine 50 (May 2015)

Visualizing Impact is a Beirut-based organization that creates political posters whose clear and beautiful graphic design provides important information about a given situation. Although it is currently trying to diversify its objects of study, its primary activity is centered on the various actions of the Israeli government and army towards the Palestinian populations. In this regard, since its creation in 2012, Visualizing Palestine has released thirty posters introducing various aspects of life under the occupation.

The control of Palestinian movement contrasting with the maximization of the Israeli one takes a particular part in these posters. While one of them insists on the segregation of the road infrastructure in the West Bank (fast highways for the Israeli settlers and military vs. checkpoint roads for the Palestinians), two others use the graphic convention for world’s bus/metro systems in order to represent the easiness with which the settlements of the West Bank are linked to the Israeli territory through collective transportation. Other posters tackle the infrastructural implementation of the occupation, in particular when it comes to the profoundly unequal distribution of water in the region or the regular destruction of Palestinian agriculture. Other propose a legal reading to the situation vis-à-vis the separation wall (declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in July 2004) or the complex differentiation in citizen status for Palestinians residents of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel.

The situation of Palestinians living in Gaza, enduring regular sieges and permanent blockade, is also examined into details by Visualizing Palestine. The posters thus created are important insofar that they respond to the rhetoric regularly provided by the Israeli army to legitimate its action. In this regard, we can note that this military rhetoric also relies on infographics whose style share many similarities with the one developed by Visualizing Impact. Where the Israeli army attempts to legitimize its strikes however, Visualizing Palestine describes the strong contrast of casualties of Israelis and Palestinians over time. Although such comparison is particularly flagrant in its asymmetrical characteristics, it does not provide us with legal information. On the other hand, a more recent infographic offers an inventory of ceasefire violations from both sides between 2012 and 2014 (191 Israeli violations vs. 75 Palestinian ones).

Although factual information never succeeds to reach the degree of complexity of the actual reality they describe, its collection and visualization provide an important rhetorical instrument in a conflict that requires it. Visualizing Palestine does not hide from holding a political stance; however, this position does not materialize through the production of biased myths, but, rather, through the choice of specific factual information to serve as political arguments. In this regard, graphic design owns specific qualities that are interesting to examine. Although the history of political posters proves that graphic design has been an inescapable instrument for almost two centuries, it can be seen as a particularly crucial tool in an era that elevated communication at its highest levels. Visualizing Impact’s infographic have thus been shared thousands of time on social media and Internet press. Admittedly, the audience targeted data-visualization is necessarily one removed from the reality described by it; its effects do not therefore directly impact the situation. Nevertheless, it contributes to inform the so-called “public opinion,” which can prove determinant in geopolitical conflict, as we saw in the 1980s through the various international movements again the South African apartheid, which ultimately ended. In this regard, it is not innocent that the first data-visualization created by Visualizing Impact after it broadened its scope in 2014, introduced the evolution of Nelson Mandela’s depiction by the press. First presented as a terrorist between the 1960s and 1980s, he then became universally seen as a hero whose funerals in 2013 gathered dignitaries from the entire world.

As Visualizing Impact continuously grows both in its amount of partners and its scope (in Egypt and Syria in particular), we can think of its work as exemplary of a new mode of political activism. Of course, we all know the limits of fast sensitization, in particular on the Internet where the time of attention tends to be short; yet, every element that contributes to a political imaginary are important to consider. When the aesthetics of data-visualization becomes significantly tied to the clarity and the spreading of this information, graphic design is then an instrument that we cannot ignore.

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“A Palimpsest Called Paris: Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters’s Urban Fictions,” in DAMn Magazine 48 (January 2015)

Originally a palimpsest was a parchment scraped numerous times to allow new layers of scriptures to be inscribed into its surface. The erasure was however never total, and archeologists consider such a document for its multiple layers of history gathered into one object. This notion of palimpsest can be preceived at the core of the vision proposed by François Schuiten and Benoit Peeters in their exhibition “Revoir Paris” at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (November 20, 2014 – March 9, 2015). In it, the two graphic novelists mix speculative projects for Paris from the mid-19th century to our era, with their own literary work that proposes visions of an imaginary Paris.

One could think of a classic categorization of these visions from the past of the 19th century to the future of science fiction. The entire exhibition is however conjugated to the future anterior (future antérieur) tense, in other words, visions of the future coming from the past. This is how we can admire many 19th century etchings and newspaper articles depicting a delirious future where zeppelins would land on top of medieval buildings such as Notre Dame or the Saint Jacques Tower, where metropolitain trains would circulate on three-story bridges across the city, where entire boulevards would be covered by gigantic cast-iron roof structures, etc. The exhibition also features projects that were, in fact, built, such as the great Hausmannian transformations of the city, as well as the successive World Expos (1855, 1878, 1889, 1900) that took place in it. These projects, ‘despite’ their actualization, can be also considered as speculative in the radicalism they embodied for the time in which they were implemented.

The fictional visions proposed by Schuiten’s drawings and Peeters’s scenarios also belong to the future anterior. Their pages find their place in the middle of the speculative 19th-century etchings that we come close to suspect them to have produced some of the latter themselves for the purpose of this exhibition! The city, where their stories occur, is not a futuristic one in the progressive sense we usually associate to this notion. In this regard, their literature might be less considered to belong to the realms of science fiction than the ones of steampunk. Inspired by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne – some of Schuiten’s drawings in the exhibitions are illustrations for Verne’s Paris in the 20th-Century – this fictional ‘subgenre’ uses the 19th-century pictorial vocabulary, in order to depict visions of a dated future, i.e. the future anterior.

Schuiten and Peeters’s visions of Paris are thus particularly in phase with drawings from the 19th-century, with which they develop a productive dialogue. However, such a dialogue is hard to find in relation to the other projects created in various eras of the 20th and 21st-centuries, and also exhibited in “Revoir Paris.” Although these documents and their chronology in the additional layer they add to the Parisian palimpsest, they do not seem to find their place within this exhibition, with the exception of the Pompidou Center irrupting in the narrative of the graphic novel L’étrange cas du docteur Abraham (The Stange Case of Doctor Abraham,1987). In comparison to the Schuiten and Peeters’s literary work, the various architectural projects presented, from Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (1925) to the recent consultation about the Greater Paris (2009), appear as institutional and technocratic. The advantage of fiction is that it proposes imaginaries that are not based on axioms of economic or functional efficiency. This is not to say that novelists’ vision should take over the politician, engineer, economist and architect’s jobs but, rather, that problems as large as the spatial exclusion of important parts of the Paris suburbs and its working-class population, or the harmful spreading of urban territory cannot be solved without a profoundly novel imagination, which fiction creators provide.

With their Cités obscures (Cities of the Fantastic in English) series of graphic novels, Schuiten and Peeters have been repeatedly envisioning cities challenging the absoluteness of urban designers’ schemes. Their stories dramatize a reality that technocrats do not seem to be able foreseeing. This reality is one of friction between the various layers of the urban palimpsest, as well as between architecture and the bodies living in them. This friction does not find a proper format in the architectural plans, engineering diagrams, or economic programs; it does, on the other hand, unfold its complexity in the fictitious work of novelists. Despite a few faults, the exhibition “Revoir Paris” is therefore useful in our wonderings of what the future of such a problematic city should look like. The future layers of the Parisian palimpsest will not be added without friction with the past ones, thus creating situations that will fortunately escape from the controlling power of the technocrats.

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“Weaponised Urbanity: A Walk Through Militarized Downtown Oakland,” in DAMn Magazine 45 (July 2014)

On May 2, 2014, I took a walk in downtown Oakland with the three members of Demilit, Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona in order to record a sonic examination of the rampant militarization of public space in Western cities. Demilit was founded in 2010 to develop a common research on the politics of production of urban space. Walks are one of the means to address such a production as it allows an inventory of the objects that populate public space, as well as the examination of the rationale behind their presence.

Our departure point was Oakland City Hall in front of which Occupy Oakland had set camp in late 2011. The lawn on which was organized the encampment remains the only space of the neighborhood that seems to slightly escape from the ubiquitous controlled minerality of its surroundings. The three founders of Demilit remember the noise and music produced by Occupy Oakland and they evoke the infinite echoes of them that this space might still host. Around it, the city hall in its neo-classical aspect proper to American institutional buildings find itself surrounded by the glass facades of the corporate office buildings, as well as the others, more opaque, of the local administrative buildings. Closed-Circuit Television cameras are plethora. Sometimes, they clearly appear in a dissuasion effort; some other times, they are hidden to serve an investigative agenda.

A bit further, a series of planters organizes the entrance of an administrative building. Vegetation is fully contained in these blocks of concrete that seem to accommodate only the view of the passerby as well as the cigarette break of the building’s employees. Finoki and Sowers explain the presence of microphones on top of traffic lights: they are here to allow the police to retrospectively reconstitute the ballistic of potential gunshots by coordinating several of these microphones together through the appreciation of their respective distance to the gun.

We continue our walk and stop in front of the District Court. A car of the Homeland Security Department is parked along the sidewalk. The small garden that separates the building from the street appears at first as affable and innocent. However, a more acute look at it makes us realize that the stairs, punctually framed by concrete planters, which lead from the sidewalk to the garden exist without doubt as a security means to avoid (bomb) cars to approach the building in any way. A similar logic can be observed next block where the piazza in front of an office building is protected both by stairs and heavy planters in which the saturated flowers attempt to justify an aesthetic effort, rather than a safety one. The militarization of the piazza is associated to its contribution to capitalism here as this public space seems to be only facilitating the movement of the people working in the building, as well as accommodating with chairs and tables exclusively the customers of the café situated in it. Everywhere, benches are regularly divided to allow only the seating position, in opposition to any other that would not embody the function determined for this object.

A few blocks further, the militarization of the space becomes more explicit. The Oakland Police Jail reveals an aesthetics that has a lot of similarities with one of a medieval castle. Near it, the Alameda County Superior Court and the Oakland Police Headquarters – all linked through elevated bridges – also present defensive architectural characteristics. The police building, in particular, does not count any window, thus only appearing through monumental opaque facades and its giant badge on top of a small entrance door.

Adjacent to the jail-court-police complex, the 880 and 980 elevated freeways is perceived as a wall that separates downtown from the Jack London district and Oakland’s port. Contemporaries cities are no longer surrounded by fortified walls like they use to be; however, infrastructures like highway often act as more or less deliberate separating axes within a given city. A paradigmatic example can be seen in Paris, where the “périphérique” (highway ring) surrounds the city, where former walls used to, and thus cut the city of middle and higher social classes from the suburban working class.

The instances of weaponized urbanity given here and examined during this walk with Demilit  can all be observed in downtown Oakland. Despite the specificity of the city when it comes to political history – this is where the Black Panther Party was created in 1960s for instance – such militarized objects and architectures can be found in most cities of the United States, especially in the era that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. The particularity of these objects consists in their non-spectacular appearance. The aesthetics they embody expresses a notion of order but do not explicitly unfold the defensive strategy that they allow. Similarly, discourses arguing for more safety within cities explicitly name terrorism as potential threat, yet it appears that the control that is applied upon bodies through the militarization of public space, is not only directed to violent threats but, more generally, to all bodies that are not fully contributing to the function of capitalism. The threat to this function comes from homeless bodies, activist, flâneurs, and all other agents of idleness.

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“Decolonizing Architecture: (DAAR) Life After Revolution,” in DAMn Magazine 44 (May 2014)

The Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) is a collective founded by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in 2007 and who had since then gathered an important amount of brilliant minds to address the spatial issues at stake in the Occupied Palestinian territories (East Jerusalem and the West Bank). Their book Architecture after Revolution (Sternberg Press, 2013) refers without doubt to Le Corbusier’s well-known phrase “architecture or revolution” in Towards a New Architecture (1922). This temporal distinction of an architectural intervention after revolution rather than for the revolution, for which many of us often argue, is fundamental here, as it refuses a heroic or messianic position[1]. DAAR’s attitude consists in preferring a speculative one that plans for “the real difficulties” of a revolution, the ones that comes after revolution occurs as the leader of the Algerian FLN notes in Gilo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966): “To start a revolution is not easy, to continue it is more difficult, to win it, even more, but it is only after our victory that the real difficulties will start.”

DAAR was funded only two years after the Gaza strip was emptied of its Israeli settlements and military bases. When many applauded what appeared as a benevolent gesture from the Sharon administration back then, it became clearer during the days of the 2008-09 dreadful siege on Gaza that this move had more to do with the military strategy (transforming the Gaza strip into an attackable prison) than with a peaceful act toward the Palestinian population. What happened to the Israeli settlements once emptied in 2005 was a good indicator of this strategy. The symbol of Palestinians living in Israeli-built structures was not tolerable for the Sharon administration that ordered their destruction after proposing the Palestinians to buy them to a voluntarily prohibitive price. The first project designed by DAAR therefore consisted in imagining a similar post-revolutionary scenario of Palestinian appropriation of the Israeli settlements of the West Bank on they would have been emptied of its illegal population – there are about 500,000 settlers living in the occupied territories currently. Considering the settlement of P’sagot on a hill of Ramallah, DAAR imagined several procedures of “decolonization” of the territory it occupies in view of a Palestinian use: “deparceling, ungrounding, unhoming, and unroofing.”

Another fundamental agenda addressed by DAAR consists in the accommodation after the right of return has been granted the Palestinian refugees whose families had to flee from the newly declared Israeli territory between 1947 and 1949. This population is mostly spread in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and an important part of it continues to reside in refugee camps in these territories. “After the revolution” here, constitutes a scenario in which the refugees have been granted the right to return on the territory to which they belong, as part of a larger scenario in which both Palestinians and Israeli would live in only one state. The return of this population would then require a specific architecture since an important number of pre-1949 Palestinian villages have been destroyed to the last stone by the Israeli authorities after they had been evicted. One of the fundamental points of DAAR’s project then consists in considering than, just like the refugee population is attached to its original territory, it cannot help but be also attached to the one where it lived for the last sixty years. The new Palestinian village as imagined by DAAR is therefore built on the original land using the architectural typology of a fragment of the refugee camp, thus embodying a symbolical portal between both territories that are part of the refugees’ identity.

Other post-revolutionary scenarios are imagined throughout the book, including one that wonders about a question that is dear to me: what is the legal status that is applied within the thickness of the lines traced on a map and determining distinct territories[2]? Another dramatizes the transformation of an Israeli military outpost transformed into a shelter for migratory birds. Let’s not mistaken however, “after revolution” does not equal “after politics.” This way of thinking would attribute to revolution a messianic status, without integrating “the real difficulties” to re-use the phrase introduced above. By addressing these difficulties, DAAR situates itself within the politics of tomorrow, where the problems that the Palestinians will have to address, will no longer be funded on the current occupation of their land but, rather, on the various social antagonisms that any nation encounters – whether this “revolution” involves one or two states. Imagining these future problems not only insist on their inexorability and prepare to them, but it also triggers questions about the current state of things, and the means to access to this post-revolutionary situation in territories that fundamentally remains organized by a military and civil occupation.

NOTES:

Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hillal, and Eyal Weizman, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency: Architecture after Revolution, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013.

[1] I certainly do not escape from this pitfall since my first book was imagining an architectural project in the form of a Palestinian disobedience to the Israeli occupation legislation. See Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012).

[2] To read my own work about this question, see the graphic novel Lost in the Line (2010), The Funambulist Pamphlets Volume 04: Legal Theory (Punctum Books, 2013) and the text “The Law Turned into Walls” in Volume 38: The Shape of the Law (2014).

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“Epidermic Folds: Yiqing Yin’s Never Ending Couture,” in DAMn Magazine 44 (May 2014)

Yiqing Yin is a Parisian fashion designer who is currently a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, which allows her to present her work at the haute couture Fashion Week in Paris, in addition to her ready-to-wear collection. The way I would like to introduce her work in this article is my own interpretation of it, not the way she personally talks about it.

Comparing clothing to a second skin as I am about to do, is certainly not a new means of writing about fashion. It might even be a cliché. Yet, the dresses that Yin has been designing for the last four years allow us to think of this comparison in a brand new manner. Allow me a brief introduction of the body that corresponds to these dresses, what I call, topological body. Topology is opposed to the Euclidean geometrical representation of space. If we use the architectural terminology, we could say that when an Euclidean wall is combined with other flat surfaces (other walls, the ceiling or the floor), it is easy to define an inside and an outside, since such terms are defined by relationships of space. On the other hand, topological surfaces like the well-known Möbius strip and the Klein Bottle complicate this strict definition of inside and outside. The inflection of their surfaces does not allow them to contain space. Rather they constitute an interface between two milieus. In the case of the body, we can see how the surface of our face folds to constitute our throat and, thus dives “inside” our body, but by then we understand that there is no longer an inside and an outside. To think of Yin’s dresses, we must therefore consider this body as a complex folded surface in opposition to the common interpretation of the body as some sort of epidermic sack that keeps organs inside of it.

Yin’s dresses are also topological surfaces. In order to convince you of it, I invite you to look at one of them and make the imaginative effort to unfold it into its original piece of fabric. Some of them have so many folds that we can imagine an original piece of fabric large like a football field that would have been patiently folded to shape the body. There are entire worlds folded within Yin’s dresses; yet these worlds also belong to the body. Rather, we do not quite know where the body stops and where the world begins, but did we know it to begin with? If the body really stopped with the skin as we commonly understand it, how can we feel that someone is behind us when standing near our own body? Let’s admit that the epidermic surface of our body does not constitute its limits but, rather, its interface with the world, its area of perception. If we continue our comparison between the topological surface of our body and the ones that Yin’s dresses compose, we can imagine that these dresses multiply substantially the interfacial area between the body and the world through its quasi-infinite folds. The body that Yin’s dresses suggest is therefore a hyper sensitive body, which can feel what 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was calling “the small sensations.[1]” Leibniz takes the example of the wave to describe this philosophical concept: we hear the wave in its whole, but what we really hear is actually the friction of the totality of the molecules of water between each other. Perceiving the small sensations for what they are would therefore consist in a precise feeling for each individual material the body encounters.

Of course, this entire text is only a metaphorical account of Yin’s work. Nevertheless, this poetic manner of approaching her dresses seems to be the only means to describe the vertigo that I feel when I look at them, and that I relate to the literature of Jorge Luis Borges in his attempts to describe infinity. We could indeed imagine a Borgesian narrative in which characters would wear entire worlds on their body, and in which one zealous tailor would undertake to completely unfold a dress without ever succeeding to do so, small folds succeeding to the larger ones in an infinite fractal repetition.

If we allow ourselves to no longer think in categorical terms such as “woman” and “dress,” but rather to consider the dress and the body as a material assemblage that interact with the matter of the world, we would have a richer, more complex, and more real vision of ourselves, as bodies. Because of their power of suggestion, Yiqing Yin’s dresses help us to think in this manner.

NOTE:

[1] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence, Manchester University Press, Barnes & Noble (New York: 1967)

REVERSIBLE DESTINY-1 REVERSIBLE DESTINY-2“Architecture Against Death: The Legacy of Arakawa and Madeline Gins,” in DAMn Magazine 43 (April 2014)

On January 8, 2014, American artist-philosopher-poet-architect Madeline Gins died after a long fight against cancer, three years and half after her husband and partner Arakawa died. They had dedicated their five-decade long artistic, philosophical, poetic, and architectural work to the struggle against death. This powerful manifesto was often misunderstood into a will for immorality. Such interpretation misses the fundamental point of Arakawa and Gins’s work that I propose to expose here – with my own words – based on the numerous conversations I had with Gins for the last three years.[1]

Our common experience of death consists in the death of others. As written on Arakawa’s mentor, Marcel Duchamp’s grave in Rouen, “it is always others who die.” Death is thus something ‘from the outside’ and we interpret it like an event: someone is alive and then one day, this person is dead. In 1800 however, French physiologist and biologist Xavier Bichat writes that “life is the ensemble of functions that resist to death.”[2] Thinking of life and death in these terms consists in a complete inversion of the way they used to be thought and the way they are still commonly thought today. Death is no longer an event, it is a process; and life is no longer a given, it is a constructive process of resistance. We cannot help to notice that we do not all die at the same age; it therefore demonstrates that this process can affect us at different speeds.

Understood in these terms, the action of “not-dying” celebrated by Arakawa and Gins does not equal an illusory experience of immortality but rather the minimization of the death’s effect on a body at a given moment; that is the maximal deceleration of the death process. Their architecture is therefore entirely dedicated to the production of “not-dying” actions. Such an ambition is reached through the application of what they name “architectural procedures.”[3] Their names can sometimes appear obscure as they refuse to use an already philosophically connoted terminology; however, it is easy to summarize them through their smallest common denominator: the will to increase the body’s awareness and understanding of its architectural surrounds as well as its own biological composition.

Arakawa, Gins and their office, the Reversible Destiny Foundation have built five of many architectural projects they designed:

  • Ubiquitous Site in Nagi (Japan): a monumental cylindrical architectural environment where the elements of the floor find their symmetry on the ceiling.
  • Elliptical Field – Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro (Japan): a two-hectare artificial park incorporating numerous pavilions and playgrounds.
  • Reversible Destiny Lofts – In Memory of Helen Keller in Mitaka (Japan): a collective housing building presenting nine single-family apartments (see photographs).
  • Bioscleave House – Lifespan Extending Villa in East Hamptons (USA): a 250 square-meter house which main room is characterized by a strong hilly concrete terrain
  • Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator in New York: a permanent stair-installation designed for Comme des Garcons’s Dover Street Market.

When looking at the photographs that illustrate this article, one immediately note some of the architectural procedures mentioned above, while others can only be experienced when inhabiting these spaces. The most obvious – and maybe effective – of this procedure consists in the surface on which the body is in contact. The material assemblage created by the body in relation to its architectural surround is what Arakawa and Gins simply call “architectural body.”[4] This way of considering this relation is useful to think of what 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza calls “the reciprocity of affects.”[5] It means that not only architecture affects the body, but that the body also affects architecture. Spinoza’s ethics consists for two consistent material assemblages like a body and an architecture to develop harmonious encounters between their part in contact. Spinoza calls this harmony “joy,” in opposition to harmful violent encounters that he calls “sad.” Joy is what contributes for each assemblage (body, object etc.) to make “the effort to persevere in its being,” that we can associate to Bichat’s definition of life and Arakawa and Gin’s definition of “not-dying.”[6]

Despite what we may think at first, the idea of comfort is not linked in any way to the Spinozian concept of joy. Joy needs to be conquered; it requires for the body to try to understand “what it can do”[7] and how it interacts with the material world. Although Spinoza was not one a prime philosophical reference for Gins and Arakawa, their architectures constitute the most expressive examples of spaces that are made in the sole goal to orchestrate as many joyful relations between the body and architecture. The Reversible Destiny Foundation in New York and Tokyo will continue to carry forward their legacy.

NOTES:

[1] For example, see “Architectures of Joy: Conversation Between Two Puzzled Creatures” on http://thefunambulist.net

[2] Marie Francois Xavier Bichat, General Anatomy Applied to Physiology and Medicine, 1800

[3] To study some of these architectural procedures, visit the Reversible Destiny Foundation’s website: http://reversibledestiny.org

[4] See Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[5] Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The question “What can a body do?” is one the essential questions Spinoza asks in his Ethics.

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“Blurred Territories: Daniel Fernández Pascual’s Claims for Sovereignty,” in DAMn Magazine 42 (February 2014)

Daniel Fernández Pascual is no ordinary architect. His online platform, Deconcrete, is a cabinet of architectural curiosities, an inventory of structures that find their peculiarity not so much through their form, but rather through their ambiguous legal properties. His academic status of PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University of London and his participation to the fascinating collective Forensic Architecture could make us think of him as a scholar. However, he also talks about territories, culture and economics through another activity at which he excels and that he sometimes publically perform, cooking. As he writes himself, “food shapes markets, and markets shape flows of capital, and capital shapes territories, futures and speculation; but also because territories shape governmentality, and governmentality shapes sovereignty, and sovereignty ultimately constructs living space.” (The Funambulist Papers Volume 1, Punctum Books, 2013.)

The question of governmentality and sovereignty evoked by Fernández Pascual at the core of his research was the topic of the conversation I had with him on October 27, 2013 for the Funambulist podcast platform Archipelago. His main object of investigation concerns the coast of his native country, Spain, and the administrative blur that results from ill-definitions of the location of the coastal line that separates the land (where one can build) and the sea. The archaic legislation born from the Roman law that places the coastal line at the highest historical tide seems not so well equipped to partition territory at the time of global warming. It is however still applied to the Spanish coast and Fernández Pascual’s research involves the study of geological surveys in territories debated between ecologists and developers. The degree of a salinity of a soil at the microscopic level can have determining political consequences at a macroscopic level.

Here lies Fernández Pascual’s work. When nation-state sovereignties were historically claimed by the power of military weapons – the partition between national and international waters would be determined by how far a cannonball could reach from the coast for instance – our era now counts different weapons to claim objects and territories that were unreachable in the past. Sovereignty is no longer exercised only on the land from one sea to another; it now addresses the bottom of the ocean, the depths of the earth, as well as atmospheres, clouds and outer space. Here again, geological surveys can have tremendous consequences in the legitimization of a claim of sovereignty. As Fernández Pascual recounts, the international legislation stipulates that such a claim can be made by a state on the bottom of the ocean if it is recognized that its geological composition proves enough similitudes with this same nation’s soil.

It is fundamental to insist on the fact that the modern claim of sovereignty, born from the European 19th-century colonialism, no longer concerns the quantitative expansion of a nation’s territory like it used to be in pre-modern era. What is claimed beyond the strict sovereignty is the economic exploitation of resources of these territories. The question asked by Fernández Pascual about how deep into the earth can sovereignty be claimed has only a meaning because of the exploitation of ore. This is how South African Tau Tona mine, the deepest on earth, collects gold four kilometers below ground. On the other side of the spectrum, Fernández Pascual evokes the 1976 Bogota Declaration in which eight equatorial states (Brazil, Columbia, Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zaire) claimed their sovereign rights on the geostationary orbit, 36,000 km above their land.

Each emergence of a military and economic technology involves a new legal framework that regulates the claims of sovereignty that can be made thanks to it. The birth of aircrafts triggered the birth of the legal status of airspace, the birth of rockets and satellites triggered the emergence of outer space legislation and the possibility to ionize clouds to precipitate rain, like China did during the 2008 Olympics, implies atmospheric regulations that were unimaginable in the past. Architecture is a technology that sometimes intervenes within these claims of (economic) sovereignty, it is therefore important to examine such processes with great care like Fernández Pascual does.

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“Quarantine and Containment: David Garcia’s Vital Ethics,” in DAMn Magazine 41 (December 2013)

The following text is inspired by a conversation that I had on September 27, 2013, with Copenhagen-based architect David Garcia in the context of my podcast-platform project called Archipelago. The topic that I had chosen for this conversation was inspired by the work of David’s office, MAP Architects that dedicated the second issue of its publications, Manual of Architectural Possibilities, to the question of quarantine and containment. The principle of this series of publication is simple: one side of this folded map-like document contains an inventory of factual and analytical studies gathered and formalized for the needs of the issue, while the back side introduces a few architectural projects, designed specifically for this occasion by David’s office.

My personal interest in the relationship between architecture and containment lies in the fact that architecture is inherently conceived as a potential space of containment, which simply requires a legal and political decision to see such characteristics unfolding their power on the bodies that it hosts. What was seen originally as the crystallization of private property, walls, floors, ceilings, become a perfectly appropriate carceral space in the context of quarantine. This legal precaution that consists in placing a body, or an entire population, in a space that is not in contact with the ‘outside world’ for a period of forty days – quarantine comes from Latin quadraginta that means forty – is a rather ancient means for a given society to protect itself from contagion. David recalls that the very constitution of ships, on which the quarantine was often applied, as making it easy for a given authority to contain a crew for the period of inoculation, after which, if no one was found sick, it could be allowed to disembark.

David also mentions what is believed to be the first station to be built specifically for hosting quarantined bodies: Venice’s Lazaretto. Built in 1423 on the small island of Santa Maria di Nazareth inside Venice’s lagoon, this station hosted for almost two centuries and half, thousands of bodies that were suspected to carry the plague. Many of them died indeed from the plague on the island, without ever reaching the city. Centuries later, the immigrant inspection station of Ellis Island, at the entrance of New York City’s harbor, received more than 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Part of what this inspection involved in order for a body to be allowed on the American territory was a 6-second long medical inspection. The ‘undesired’ bodies were inscribed with chalk on their back and either sent back from where they came from, or hosted by the quarantine hospital facilities on the island. Such practice was veritably considering each body as a potential receptacle of disease and, therefore, a potential agent of contamination, rather than an individual asking to become a citizen of the United States.

Part of the projects designed by MAP Architects attempt to re-affirm the status of individual capable of emotions and feeling of the quarantined body. The Domestic Isolation Unit proposes for example to host the quarantined individual in his/her home thanks to a flexible and extensible inflated bubble that prevents him/her to transmit the suspected disease s/he might carry to his/her relatives. The bubble even incorporates gloves as part of its membrane to allow human contact. David, however, goes further than simply providing a ‘caring’ piece of design that would register itself within a regime of the benevolent yet patronizing designer. Part of the design involves indeed what he calls the “I don’t give a damn! option.” This apparatus consists in a double zipper, giving the possibility for the quarantined individual and his/her partner or relative to join him/her inside the bubble, embracing the risk of contagion to favor their relationship. We should be mistaken to see in this option, a gimmick or an unreasonable device. By introducing the ‘failure’ of design – since its purpose was to precisely avoid this scenario – within the very protocol of design itself, David breaks the logics of what Michel Foucault called biopolitics.

Biopolitics constitutes the paradigmatic scheme that organizes modern Western societies. It incarnates itself through a sovereignty that undertakes the organization of the (daily) lives of a society’s members. Foucault uses the example of a quarantined city touched by the plague to illustrate historically this mode of governance. In his 1974 seminar at the Collège de France entitled Abnormal, he describes at length the “quadrillage” (word hard to translate as it includes both the meaning of the grid and the one of the inspection) of this city where each body is legally supposed to remain at home. The “quadrillage” consists in the daily inspection of each body’s health status, as well as the enforcement of the quarantine conditions by various administrative and bureaucratic individuals. The motive of these politics is argued as aiming at a population’s own good, often favoring the end rather than the means in a claimed narrative of an understanding of the “big picture.”

This is why MAP Architects’ “I don’t give a damn! option” is such a powerful one. By empowering the concerned bodies with the actual choice of their life conditions, they break the logics of biopolitics that think “they know what’s good for you.” In our conversation, David insisted on this notion of individual or collective sacrifice that, despite its apparent lethal characteristics, actually creates a politics of empowerment rather than one of subjectivization to the transcendental will. He evokes for example the story of this medieval Irish village that, observing a few cases of plague within it, commonly decided to build a wall around it to contain the disease within itself, rather than taking the risk to spread it in the region.

This notion of sacrifice also drove us to one last example that David and I discussed about in relation to quarantine: what he calls “quarantined landscapes,” which, despite their non-livable conditions for humans, still host a certain number of individuals who refused to leave the land with which they constructed a special relationship. In this matter, the sixth issue of the Manual of Architectural Possibilities is dedicated to the research that lead David to explore the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, twenty years after one of its reactor exploded. As I am writing these words, David is visiting the immediate environment of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant with some of his (voluntary!) students at the School of Architecture of Lund (Sweden), two years after it greatly suffered from the 2011 tsunami that triggered numerous leaks of radioactivity. These “quarantined landscapes,” says David, “are anthropomorphized as we treat them the same way that we would treat human bodies that carry a deadly disease.” Nevertheless, beyond the actual human tragedies that these manly-manufactured disasters created, the quarantined landscapes constitute rare reservations of ‘natural’ elements as they have been preserved from the human presence since the events that triggered their evacuation. The architectural projects designed for the sixth issue of the Manual of Architectural Possibilities do not therefore attempt to strategize a return of the humans within these landscapes, but rather, to emphasize the fact that they constitute forms of ‘sanctuaries.’

When we refer to the quarantined bodies or landscapes, the strength of MAP Architects’ work thus lies in its indifference to pre-supposed moralistic logics that usually compose the arguments made around such topics. Instead, they prefer to construct an ethics of vitality: one that favors the immanence of individuals’ choice and non-anthropomorphized nature’s inherent adaptation.

“New World Summit: Blacklisted Movements, Stateless Nations, And Shut Voices” in Damn Magazine 55 (March-April 2016)

 While our televisual imaginary consistently shows us images of the ruins of Homs, Aleppo or Palmyra to a point of absolute desensitization, the people of Rojava (Western Kurdistan) are constructing their autonomy from the rest of Syria. In a governance system that privilege the local scale to the national one, the Kurdish independence project does not need to be a fully-achieved reality in order to be practiced on a daily basis. In the city of Derik in particular, a new steel structure has recently been erected to become a local parliament. This construction, contrasting with the systematic destructions of the region, is the work of the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava in collaboration with an artistic organization called New World Summit.

Founded by Amsterdam-based artist Jonas Staal in 2012, this organization has been curating six events (Berlin, Leiden, Kochi, Brussels, Derik, and Utrecht) debating and practicing democracy. The particularity of these events’ participants is that they are representatives of political organizations that are not granted access to the traditional democratic channels as understood by dominating nation states. Previous guests include representatives of blacklisted or denigrated as separatist organizations such as the Basque Independence Movement, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the World Uyghur Congress, or the Republic of Somaliland.

Architecture takes an important part in the way these summits are organized. The several iterations have allowed a refinement in the way the public and participants (indistinctly sat together) are located in these temporary democratic architectures. Whether adopting the form of a circle, an oval, or a rectangle, the spatial apparatus is never oriented towards a speaker that would thus represent the truth, on the contrary of most university and cultural auditoriums. Just like the New World Summit does not necessary equals its invitations to these organizations with an unconditional support to their respective political struggles, the space that it designs is not made to approve of what is said in it, but rather, to merely allow it to be said.

Among the several organizations that the New World Summit has invited in the past, two have received a particular support from it: the National Liberation Movement of Azawad and the Kurdish Women’s Movement. In September 2014, the New World Summit has transformed the Dutch cultural institution of BAK into the temporary Azawad Embassy to host a discussion about this large territory separated from Mali after the 2012 Tuareg uprising. Although not recognized by the so-called “International Community,” Azawad exists de facto as a separate governance entity from its Malian neighbor. Similarly, the construction of the Derik Parliament in Rojava described above, as well as the organization of the fifth Summit in this same parliament (October 2015), attests of the support Staal and the New World Summit intends to give to the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava and the Kurdish Women’s Movement.

When presenting the work accomplished by the New World Summit, Staal insists on the fact that he still considers it as artistic – and architectural, we may add. This in no way means that he does not take the political project behind this work seriously. On the contrary, by necessarily associating the practices of art and politics, the New World Summit gives to art, the responsibility that its expression implies, and to politics, physical forms through which it can be discussed and practiced. As such, it succeeds in providing an example to artworks that claims their political relevance, as well as to democratic projects that involves contradictory clauses to their participations. The New World Summit’s support to some particular political struggles could be hastily interpreted as a paradoxical aspect of its logic; instead, it should be understood as the embrace of the impossibility of innocence in political and artistic practices.

“Fights And Fictions: 36 Hours To Think And Doubt Of Public Space” in Damn Magazine 57 (July-August 2016)

The event Public Space: Fights and Fictions at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin between May 19 and May 21 was a ‘marathon’ conference lasting for 36 hours. Organized around the politics of public space, the event gathered thirty-one guests, in majority architects and urban planners, but also journalists, artists, novelists, curators, and researchers, from various cities of the Global North (Berlin, London, Paris, Madrid, Sarajevo, etc.) and the Global South (Karachi, Cairo, São Paulo, Guangzhou, Johannesburg). Taking advantage of Werner Düttmann and Sabine Schumann’s 1960 generous architecture of the museum, the “factory of thought” materialized through several formats of keynote lectures, performances, roundtables, public interviews and, at night, DJ sets.

Beyond the propositions made throughout event, one can see in the latter a mark of the topics raised today about the relationship between space and society. In this regard, it is not innocent that the conference opened on May 19, with a keynote lecture by Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, perhaps the most important architectural work accomplished in the recent years. Organized as a research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London, this group of architects, artists, and researchers creates reports investigating various political and military crimes to act as evidence in potential or actual trials. Through this vision, public space can be perceived as the “scene of the crime,” from where evidence can be gathered in the context of an investigation.

This vision can associated to another one, presenting public space as the site of the state’s intensification of control through the work of a few guests such as Anna Minton (London), Marvi Mazhar (Karachi) or Raquel Rolnik (São Paulo). Although the logic of militarization of public space in Europe — London, Paris and Brussels were presented through this scope — is not fundamentally different from the one experienced in some cities of the Global South, one could see in the juxtaposition of discourses, the difference of intensities that separated them. To an enthusiastic Scandinavian presenter advocating for gentle “guerrilla” appropriation of public space and concluding his presentation by the words “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness, than it is to ask for permission,” Cairo-based architect and keynote lecturer Omar Nagati reminds “In Egypt, if you don’t ask for permission, you get shot!” Through this contrast of visions, one could appreciate the fundamental difference in the way bodies experience public space. While some urban contexts may facilitate the current trends of flash mobs, facebook events, giant picnic, and other “participative” appropriation of public space, others produce a territoriality that reflects and enforces the social and political control of the dominant order.

However, this inequality towards public space should not be interpreted solely when comparing different geographical and political contexts. Within cities, bodies do not have an equal access to public space. In this regard, “the right to the city,” a concept coined by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968, mobilized repeatedly during the conference in order to describe the right for the public to claim the use of a space may not have been interrogated enough. In what consists this notion of public that gave the name to this event? Although the differences of wealth had been evoked, the intervention of Nana Adusei-Poku, Professor in Cultural Diversity at Rotterdam University, certainly helped interrogating the forms of racial segregation often contained in this notion, a dimension for which architects and planners have a responsibility. Taking the example of the Civil Rights and the Black Lives Matter movements’ disruption of public space in the United States as a site designed against African Americans, she invited the participants and the audience to learn to challenge the political violence exercised within societies themselves.

The fact that the conference ended with more questions than answers is fundamentally a good thing. Architects and planners, in the exercise of their professions take decisions that can either reinforce the given order of a society or, on the contrary, challenge it. The introduction of doubt in their practice is therefore a healthy element, since it necessarily involves a certain degree of deconstruction of the way this order is implemented through space. Reflective events like this one can be said to be successful not so much when they unpack a set of universal solutions for the examined problem, but rather, when it triggers a certain degree of uncertainty in the way urban practitioners reflect on their own profession. What we can only hope is that the various ‘agents of doubt’ of the Fights and Fictions event were heard when they raised their concerns, and that the designs that will emerge from these conversations will, indeed, reflect such a doubt.

“Forensic Architecture: Architecture As A Key Witness In Geopolitical Trials” in Damn 59 (November-December 2016)

In his introduction to the book Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Sternberg Press, 2014), Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths University of London, evokes the curious story of an antic statue of Theagenes of Thasos, a Greek Olympian of the 1st century AD. It is said that the statue once killed a man by falling onto him and that, subsequently, the statue as an object was put on trial for murder and condemned to be thrown in the sea. Through this antic story, Weizman intends to resituate objects (including architectures) at the center of the judicial scene, in particular, trials emerging from geopolitical conflicts. This is how, since its creation in 2011, the team behind Forensic Architecture has investigated many crimes committed by sovereign states, such as the use of white phosphorus during the so-called “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israeli army in Gaza (2008-2009), the maritime path of a Libyan migrant boat drifting helplessly in the Mediterranean Sea (2011), various cases of Israeli and U.S. drones’ so-called “targeted assassinations,” in Gaza and in Pakistan (2009-2012), the destruction of Guatemalan villages in the early 1980s genocide of Ixil Maya people, the spatial organization of two concentrations camps in ex-Yugoslavia (1941-1945), etc.

One of the most recent investigations scrutinized a specific aspect of the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza during the application of what is known as “the Hannibal Directive,” when Israeli Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was abducted by Hamas fighters. According to the report made by Forensic Architecture for Amnesty International (see the full report on AI website), the directive states the following: “The kidnapping must be stopped by all means even at the price of hitting and harming our own forces.” The subtext is almost explicit here: the Israeli army reserves the right to kill its own soldier to avoid his or her capture, and it thus heavily bombed the area where the kidnapping happened. Thanks to skills usually belonging to the realm of civil architecture and filmmaking, Forensic Architecture was able to coordinate, both spatially and temporally, numerous photographs and films shot from the ground in Rafah. In doing so, not only did the team manage to reconstitute the terror experienced by the Palestinians living in the vicinity of the bombings, but it was also able to produce a certain amount of evidence backing the narrative of the Israeli army attempting to kill its own soldier rather than see him abducted. Although, this particular investigation was not used (yet) in the context of a trial, it described the Israeli operation in a sufficiently precise manner to raise a useful debate within the Israeli society about the decisions of its army’s high command.

What makes Forensic Architecture’s work truly special is the resolutely architectural approach to these investigations: it attempts to present objects and buildings as privileged witnesses of the prosecuted crime. As such, it is revolutionary in both disciplines of forensics (the presentation of proof in a judiciary context) and architecture. Introducing the work of architects, artists, filmmakers, and activists in the realm of the judiciary is something destabilizing for the lawyers of the prosecuted persons or institutions: “what does this mean, MFA [Master of Fine Art]? I mean, how do you submit a forensic report that includes a design by an artist? This is the total opposite of truth! This is not the Platonian idea of authenticity,” pretends to ask Weizman in a recent interview (Public Space: Fights and Fictions, 2016). Such perspectives however only differ from regular expert witnesses insofar that they embrace their subjectivity rather than attempt to dissimulate it in a performance of objectivity. As Weizman says himself: “It’s very important for me never to hide that fact that artists and architects were those people producing the evidence, because I think the aesthetic field is a field of investigation, a field of knowledge. I think that when so much of the evidence is now filmed and photographed, the people who should be looking at it are photographers and film-makers, and when so much of the violence is urban, the people that can read it are architects.”

An even more recent collaboration of Forensic Architecture with Amnesty International investigated the Saydnaya prison near Damascus used by the Syrian regime to arbitrarily incarcerate and torture thousands of political opponents since 2011. Although the project serves a present agenda calling for the United States and Russia to put pressure on the Syrian government to end such practices, we can see how this work could prove extremely useful should the responsible of the regime ever be tried by an International Court. The short films directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa show the modus operandi of Forensic Architecture to establish a reliable 3d model of the considered building (in this case, the prison). Architects build this model in a 3d program while the solicited witnesses (in this case, former prisoners) verbalize their memories of the space that they forcefully inhabit for months. The simultaneity of the testimony and the formalization of space on the screen in front of the architects and witnesses is truly remarkable in the ‘translationability’ it suggests between space and language/memory.

A particularly interesting aspect of such testimonies in the case of Saydnaya consists in the fact that the space was consistently left in the darkness and, as such, memories tend to be more articulated through noise than visually. Software, as well as the architects’ spatial expertise, however mitigate what could be perceived as a translation problem (from noise to the formalization of space). Potential mistakes due to the degree of exhaustion of the prisoners and torture are also accounted as potentialities: testimonies are crossed examined with others to confirm the actual spatiality described. This adds consistency to the discourse of embraced subjectivity defended by Weizman who understands the necessity for an object or an architecture (or the representation thereof) to take place in a judicial discourse of truth in order to become an evidence.

The work assembled by the team of Forensic Architecture is thus also revolutionary for the discipline of architecture itself. Architecture is understood as a matter affected by the politics that operates around it and through it. As such, we can talk about the “prosopopeia” (the speech of things) of architecture: it can tell the story of what happened there — how people were killed in the bombing of a building for instance. All it needs to enter the forensic realm is a translator from architectural language to judicial language. The architect, in their expertise, can be this translator and thus be involved in the political debate that such trials constitute. After decades of modernism convinced that architecture could actively “cure” society, and a few others of post-modernism that embraced the fact that it would not, Forensic Architecture could thus form the paradigm for a new era of politicization of architecture that gained traction in the late 2000s.

“Housing Cairo: Politicizing The Notion Of Informality” in Damn 60 (January-February 2017)

The recent years have showed a strong interest from architects on forms of architecture that were built without their participation. In this regard, the 1964 book Architecture Without Architects written by Bernard Rudofsky, in parallel of an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, constitutes one of the most cited references of an entire body of work examining this type of architecture. From the Torre David in Carracas to the former Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, from Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro to Dharavi in Mumbai and, in a more temporary realm, from the tents of Tahrir Square in 2011 Cairo to those of Occupy Gezi in 2013 Istanbul, architects’ fascination for their absence deserves to be analyzed. Such a fascination could be perceived as a humbling process for architects, a genuine wish to learn from craft and construction techniques that completely exited from their profession, a reminder of the most elemental functions of architecture, far from the star system promoted all around. However, we can only observe how such an attitude from architects is often characterized by a patronizing, if not neocolonial, gaze upon the architecture of informality, as well as a desire of cooptation manifested by their obsessive need to redraw plans, sections and axonometries of these architectures in a sort of retroactive claim on them. Every new work that emerges from such a fascination therefore requires our vigilance in the reading of the city it offers.

The book Housing Cairo: The Informal Response (Ruby Press, 2016) edited by Marc Angélil and Charlotte Malterre-Barthes in collaboration with Something Fantastic and CLUSTER belongs to this family of studies in analyzing the vast parts of Cairo built without permits of construction and that hosts about 70% of the largest African city’s population. This work nevertheless skillfully avoids many of the pitfalls that other works have so eagerly fell into and the strikethrough on the word informal that its title bears is a good indication of its cautiousness, in particular when it comes to the terminology used. Although this book articulates a discourse around work done at the Mass Urban Design studio of the ETH University in Zurich, the close collaboration with the Cairo-based architecture and research office CLUSTER (co-founded by Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker), as well as the active participation of editor of Cairobserver, Mohamed Elshahed, ensure that the discourse of the book does not bear the mark of orientalism that many other European and American analyses manifest.

The book attempts to articulate critical research chapters on several dimensions of the “informal” architectural typology of the West neighborhoods of Cairo with other chapters dedicated to architecture student fictional projects. Although the research could have gained from a sharper critique of the current military Egyptian regime and the role that informal areas of the city have played in the opposition to this regime (in particular for the persecuted Muslim Brotherhood members), it importantly insists on the political resistance self-construction played in Cairo against the private and public investments in suburban new cities, in continuation of English colonialism. In this regard, the project for a new capital city, briefly evoked in the book — this massive urban project was announced at the beginning of 2015 — is particularly illustrative of the wish of the Sisi administration to remove governmental, consular and economic actors from the city of Cairo to a new urban form that will not tolerate the reemergence of informal areas and the political resistance they can constitute; on the contrary.

Housing Cairo is thus an important book in order to approach the architectural typologies that populate more than half of the Egyptian capital city in a way that is neither demeaning them, using stigmatizing terminologies and fantasizing their destruction, nor romanticizing or Orientalizing them in a self-serving outsider architectural discourse. At a moment when Egypt (among many other countries) faces a brutal moment of its history, it is crucial to politicize the way the city is built, used, and controlled in order to critically engaged with the spatial conditions of governmental politics and their forms of resistance.