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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

A CONVERSATION / Horizonte (2015)

A conversation with Horizonte - Leopold Lambert

“Bjarke’s Panopticon, the Rolling Stones, and Slight Misunderstandings: A Conversation with Horizonte,” in Horizonte 10 Resistance (University of Weimar, 2015)

Léopold Lambert: I find the notion of resistance rather problematic if we do not begin by defining it. A good way to do so consists in thinking of it through its physics definition: resistance consists in the opposition capacity that a material assemblage can afford against a given force. For example, resistance is what keeps our bodies from being swallowed by the ground, and what prevents us from passing through walls. We can see that there is nothing moralizing about such a definition: resistance is not a fundamentally good thing, nor is it a bad one, it simply operates through all material encounters and, importantly, it operates reciprocally on both bodies/objects. The reciprocity should however not make us forget that the degree with which each body/object is affected by their encounter is necessarily different. More often than not, a body crashing into a wall will suffer a higher ‘structural’ damage than the wall itself will. What I think that you mean by “resistance” is thus only one side of a directional force, the side of the body/objects that gets affected in a greater way than that it encounters. It is certainly a legitimate ethical interpretation of this notion that implies that we always stand “for the weaker side” whether in sports or politics, but we might want to complexities this vision.

There is no essential moral aspect at work in the physical encounter between a body and a wall – after all, the wall does not want to resist against the body, it just does. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that there is a necessary political aspect at work through the reasons that lead this wall to be constructed at this particular location. Architecture consists in the spatial agency (we might say “the wall agency”) that organizes bodies in space. Explicit intentions, whether benevolent or malevolent, cannot be fully ignored in the way this organization operates, but we can easily realize how the effects (in particular, the violence) of this spatial agency go much beyond the strict intent inscribed into them, and architects should never claim their intentions as exonerating their responsibility for the violent effects of their designs.

Most people will agree to follow Foucault on thinking that there is no architecture of emancipation, only bodily practices/behaviors can develop a sense of liberation. On the other hand, many of these people will think that the opposite argument can be deduced from this affirmation: just like there cannot be any architecture of emancipation, there could not be any architecture of oppression. This reading supposes that architecture is some sort of neutral instrument that can be equally used for oppressive or liberating purposes. What I argue is that what we call “oppression” is intrinsically part of what is architecture. Now that does not mean that we should give up on architecture, simply that we should understand, how, against what/whom and to which degree is a given architecture violent. This is the sort of agency we have as architects in our designs.

horizonte: When we thought about resistance, we didn´t locate it on a material level. as you described it there is a certain indifference in it, a mutual ambiguity, which makes it difficult to determine a weak side. If the direction of oppression is neutral, the fact that there is always oppression produced through architecture, it certainly can never be innocent. We were much more interested the application of architectural strategies and how they can form resistive policies. Your comment on Foucault reminded us on his description of Benthams Panopticon, which takes us back to our first question, since Foucault described it as a apparatus of discplin. And when we think of the Panopticum, we think of the Koepel Panopticon prison renovation project by OMA. This project shows the shift we described above very clear.  What is striking, is how the ideologically charged form, can be recoded through very simpel means, but the shift is aligned with a shift in political, so it is not an example of resistance. Can the opression and violence, which is intrinsically a part of architecture on a material level, be used to resist hegemonic power on a politival level ?

Léopold Lambert: The example of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon used by Foucault to define the paradigmatic diagram of a disciplinary society is interesting, of course. Yet, I find that architects tend to understand it rather literally. Foucault did not see the panopticon as an architecture but, rather, as a diagram. The paradigm it embodies is however not as strong today as it used to be in the 19th century so we might want to look for other paradigmatic diagrams to understand our era. A few years ago, I wrote an article about the project designed by BIG, which won the competition for the Stockholmsporten. It was a circular residential building with a gigantic levitating reflecting sphere in its center. My point, back then, was to think of this architecture as paradigmatic of the panopticon’s evolution from a transcendental scheme, to an immanent one. Try to picture Bentham’s panopticon as a sphere that only exist through its interior surface. Now imagine this politically charged surface becoming the exterior surface of a sphere that only exists externally. This topological transformation is easily understandable when we think of it like a piece of cloth we pull inside-out. Now the surveillance is no longer accomplished by a unique entity placed at the center of the sphere, it is exercised through each individual seeing all his or her pairs in the reflective surface of the sphere. It is a self-controlling society through a norm, where bodies are continuously scrutinized while simultaneously scrutinizing others. This project by BIG really illustrated this shift of paradigm.

The principle of the norm is that it is essentially productive, and so it takes in consideration every behavior and learns to re-adjust based on them. To put it simply, this is why street art now makes millions of dollars at Sotheby’s, and why the Rolling Stones’ music is now used to sell cars. So with this in mind, I go back with my approach of the notion of resistance through physics’ definition: resistance is not a unilateral movement that can be considered as necessarily ‘good.’ Resistance is simply a political movement that contributes to produce the norm. What you call “hegemonic power” consists in a drastic contribution to it, while what you call “resistance” has a lesser contribution to it, but might be operating in contradiction to the drastic one.

Architecture, because of the weight I was describing in my first response, has a tendency to contribute to the drastic contribution to the norm; yet, that does not mean that it cannot allow this contradictory movement. We should be careful though: this does not mean that there is a violent architecture on the one hand, and a non-violent one on the other. Similarly, there is not an architecture that creates problem and another that solves them. We should always favor the manifesto to the solution, because while the former will have the honesty of knowing what it does, the second one will gives itself whatever means to reach its foreseen solution.

horizonte: In recent years there had been a lot of discussion about networks and digital infrastructures and these discourse had a rather dytopic and pessimistic attitude after the dicourse was very optimistic in the last century, when the thechnology thery were imagining had not yet advanced. Now one can see the effects. How would you consider these new virtual realm. Are they as oppressive as the material realm you described and how are they affecting it?

Léopold Lambert: I tend to have a rather reactionary approach to contemporary issues! I am mostly interested in the physicality of things rather than their virtuality. In the case of the Internet and other technologies of information you describe, we would be highly mistaken to think that they do not correspond to a physicality. I recently wrote an article about Internet submarine cables, since I was trying to understand what it took for the Hosni Mubarak administration to shut down the Internet during the two last weeks of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The Suez Canal is also a canal for these submarine cables communicating between Mediterranean countries and countries from the Middle-East and the Subcontinent. In it, I was also making the comparison with the New York stock exchange: its infrastructure is no longer in Wall Street, but in a huge warehouse in New Jersey, where investment banking algorithms are fighting against each other, and where a millimeter of extra distance of cable from the main server will give you a tremendous disadvantage compared to your competitor. We should never forget the actual physicality of the things we think as immaterial.

horizonte: The Problem that Architects tend to understand diagrams is maybe a general one. But besides that, we find the notion of norm slightly problematic. Doesn´t it suggest that the conflicting activities, which constitute reality, the totality of facts, described as to a greater or lesser extent contributing to the norm end up being  a somehow harmonious entity. Finally describing reality nihilistically as product of all absorbing normalizing forces. Isn´t there a moment of deterritorialization, regression, détournement, rupture. All these terms describe a concept, that opens the possibility to escape the totality, which might be described as norm. Don´t you think there are situations which are defined my movements of resistance rather than the hegemonic powers. And this doesn´t implies a moral aspect. Or to stay in the picture aren´t we extinguishing conflict when subsuming a creative act in Villefranche-sur-Mer and the selling of cars under the same framework.

Léopold Lambert: Of course there are situations that are produced by movements of resistance. My point is that even these situations are part of the normative production. This is how (almost) everyone now thinks that women should be able to vote, or that slavery should not be legal! In this regard, the situation in which the LGBT struggle is currently inscribed in many countries is interesting to observe. On the one hand, a despicable ostracisation is still very much operating and we have to fear every day that we will hear about yet one more young person committing suicide after being systematically bullied. On the other hand, the process of normalization is also operating and new questions appear, such as “is the wedding a conservative institution or is it the horizon of the struggle?”, or “can an oppressed minority such as the LGBT community takes part in (sometimes extreme) right wing political movements?”, and, of course “does that still make sense to talk about a LGBT community?” This kind of questions can only appear when involved in a normative production, and they are interesting questions.Architecture certainly contributes to this production and, again, it’s okay! The crucial question is not how to design an architecture that will not participate to the production of the norm, but rather, what is the political agenda through which we want to instrumentalize architecture’s violence. Architecture is a weapon: its violence varies in degrees depending on various factors, but ultimately this violence always exists because architecture occupies a space and necessary organizes bodies in this space, both within it and outside of it. I understand that the term of violence can easily lead to misinterpretation, but I would really like us to think about it. Let’s say that architecture always create problems: the question we have to ask ourselves is for whom should we create problems. Despite the fact that I am convinced that there are many things that we could have been done differently when occupying Wall Street in 2011, this is a good example of creating problems through the occupation of space by bodies and architecture. Many of us were a bit worried at first that the term of “Occupy” was proliferating while the notion of occupation tended to remind us of the occupation of Palestine, for instance. I however realized that it is the same occupation. It would be too easy to say that there are essentially good occupations and essentially bad ones: all of them create problems. Admittedly, some of them produce a much higher degree of violence than others – and we can see how much this is true if we go back to the example of Palestine – but we cannot simply essentialize things according to our own taste.

horizonte: But probably every non architect would describe it as architectures task to solve problems and not to build manifestos. Is writing the only possibility to evade this expectation? How would you describe the significance of writing and the whole theoretical discourse in architecture. Is it possible to sustain an activist position within it or is the discourse a incestuous circulation of expectable arguments. How does the manifesto relate to the building? How can we create a consciousness on the actual potential of architecture and overcome the dichotomy between false practice and right critique?

Léopold Lambert: It is true that experience allows us this intuition that it’s easier to be right when writing than when designing. I think that this is related to the fact that writing is a language, a semiotics, while architecture necessarily imposes a spatial organization of our bodies, as I have been describing so far. So it is true that architecture is not an easy weapon to be used for political agendas that are not consistent with the dominant ideology, since it holds within itself the potential for a tyrannical exercise of power. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should not try. My intuition for this matter is that we should avoid thinking that we’ll fix something through architecture. The thaumaturgic goal of modern architecture has clearly had dreadful effects, and here again the norm has something to do with it, because modernism always imagined that they were designing architectures for one (the white healthy man) or sometimes two (the housewife). It is normal that afterward, all their architecture express the vision of a society where only these two normative bodies exist.

Let’s not try to fix things, let’s try to problematize instead. Saying this does not consist either in a post-modern relativism; it simply means that we need to design and act within a set of individual and collective ethics in an environment where these ethics often collide with each other in ways that, sometimes do not allow any possible negotiation. For this reason, I don’t see any other fundamental difference between writing and designing practices than the one with which I started my answer. This is also why, despite spending most of my time being a writer and an editor, I try to never forget to design too every now and then!