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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

POLIS AND (IN)JUSTICE / Bartlebooth (2015)


“Polis and (in)Justice,” in BartleboothLas Virtudes (2015)

Spatial justice in the city consists in equally applied “right to the city” for all of its inhabitants. Unfortunately we can only observe how spatial justice is not what defines our cities, and that this territorial and citizenry right cannot be exercised in the same degree by them. As I am writing these lines, the city of Baltimore is still in a state of emergency declared by the Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, in coordination with its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on April 27, 2015. This decision, allowing a curfew in the city between 10pm and 5am, targeted groups of young African Americans revolting against the murder of Freddie Gray by police officers (April 12) in particular, and police violence in general, but also more broadly, the conditions of life of the Black working class in the United States. One will have hard a time seeing justice in the Maryland National Guard’s war weaponry deployed against such a specific population.

This situation that we are eager to describe when spectacular confrontations between Black youth and the police occur, but maybe less so, when the violence operates in a normalized manner, recall the one lived by the inhabitants of the French banlieues (suburbs) who had also expressed a scream of revolt ten years ago (November 2005). For most people living in the cités of these banlieues, spatial justice does not mean much. Their “right to the city” is simply inexistent, since the urbanity that the cités incarnate could not possibly be characterized as city, and their geographical distance from a centralized agglomeration like Paris, make the access to the various economic, cultural, and political dimensions of the city particularly difficult and onerous. The population of these suburbs is constituted of what a well-known political group called “the Republic’s indigenous,” insisting on the reminiscence of colonial policies in the successive French governments. These indigenous come, for many, from historical migration movements from North and West Africa and, for a part of them, they identify as Muslims, whether culturally or religiously. However the Republic’s Indigenous also include the “White indigenized” part of the banlieue population in those who also have to suffer from the territorial exclusion and the lack of spatial justice.

Spatial injustice as we see it operating in our cities bases itself on an economy of lives, where each life does not have the same value. As expressed by Senegalese novelist Fatou Diome when questioned on French television about the thousands of African and Levantine migrant deaths in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: “if the people who are dying were White, the entire Earth would tremble” (April 24, 2015). We can see how in the American cities, Black lives do not seem to be as judicially defended as White ones could be, in particular when it comes to police violence. Nevertheless, we do not need to go as far as the administration of death to observe this economy of lives, the administration of (daily) life itself is enough to realize the contrast of economic, social and cultural investment when comparing most cities’ neighborhoods.

It would be complicated to establish which exclusion between the territorial one experienced by the neighborhood and the social one, experienced by the bodies, occurred first. But, of course, this question is useless, insofar that both processes actually operate simultaneously and continuously reinforce each other thus constructing structural racism. Aiming towards spatial justice thus consists in the struggle against these two aspects of a same exclusionary mechanism. Racism does not operate in a vacuum of objects and space: the bodies targeted by it are not nude, nor are they “nowhere.” Clothing[1] and objects associated to these bodies enter the racist equation, as well as the territorial conditions of the encounter. This, in no way diminishes the systematic violence of racism: it simply proposes a multi-layered examination of the way it operates, which also includes something on which we have an agency, and thus, a responsibility, as designers: clothing, objects and architectures.

Let’s be clear however, design won’t annihilate racism; we might even say that design has a propensity to actively contribute to the hierarchy of bodies and behaviors that we call norm. Most designs are conceived for one (or two, if gendered) normative bodies. Some architects/designers like Ernst Neufert, Le Corbusier and Henry Dreyfuss even based the entire dimensional and organizational characteristic of their designs on the explicit descriptions of such bodies. Design might therefore create more problems than it solves. Although this statement might appear pessimistic to say the least, I would like to conclude this entry by arguing the opposite. Many, in our societies, have some interests in the perpetuation of territorialized injustice in our cities. The struggle for spatial justice is thus something that will necessarily create problems. The fundamental question consists in knowing for what and whom are we creating problems. In order to acquire this agency, we need to learn to examine how design necessarily carries consequences on bodies and the political organization of space.

[1] For more on this topic, see the work of Mimi Thi Nguyen, in particular “Profiled Surfaces,” in Léopold Lambert (ed), The Funambulist Papers, Vol. 2, Brooklyn: pumctum books, 2015, 8-13.