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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

/ THE TOWNER ? (2015 – ongoing)

“A River Runs Through It: Report From The Walls Of Fortress Schengen”

Bregana is a small Croatian town of 2,500 inhabitants, situated in the Western part of Zagreb County. Its neighboring town, Obrežje, is even smaller, counting only 720 inhabitants. At first sight, nothing distinguishes the two towns from one another. However, Obrežje happens to be in Slovenia, and the narrow river that separates it from its neighbor delineates one of the most tightly monitored borders in the world: the boundary of the Schengen space. Both Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union — since 2004 and 2013, respectively — but Croatia has not yet been approved as a member of the Schengen space, which makes it a threshold of “Fortress Europe,” alongside Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus, sharing the same intermediary status.

Of course, the border itself is not new. In fact, for a portion of World War II, the two towns were at the intersection of three borders: the so-called “Independent State of Croatia” (a puppet state created by Nazi Germany), the Northern part of Slovenia, occupied by the German army, and its Southern part, occupied by the Italian army. After the war, the Socialist Republics of Slovenia and Croatia became part of the Yugoslav Federation — a territory with easily crossable internal borders — while operating as distinct entities. When both declared their independence in 1991, Slovenia suffered ‘only’ ten days of war with Slobodan Milošević’s army, while Croatia spent four years fighting Serbian aggression. These divergent experiences increased the symbolical width of the small river separating Obrežje and Bregana.

Driving along the highway from Ljubljana to Zagreb, one has to cross the imposing border checkpoint separating the Obrežje and Bregana municipal territories, but as so often on highways, one doesn’t see much of the towns themselves. It is only when taking side roads that one realizes the quasi-seismic split that the border constitute. There is a smaller border checkpoint in Obrežje that allows local vehicles to pass from one territory to the other without taking the highway. Much of the area’s peculiarity is concentrated in Samoborska street, which crosses the river, and in the Yugoslav era was just a regular street. A look at photographs from 2013 reveals concrete roadblocks allowing only pedestrians to pass, while on the other side of the river, a small stall suggests the discreet presence of a custom officer monitoring the movements between one country to the other. Only recently, in November 2015, did the border become the militarized line that we now know.

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Undoubtedly pressured by other Schengen governments, and following the example of Viktor Orbán, who made the demagogic decision to build a barbed wire border between Hungary and Serbia in July 2015 to prevent the passage of refugees and migrants seeking shelter in Europe, the Slovenian government first deployed rolls of barbed wire on its border with Croatia, and is now enhancing them with a higher fence. Samoborska street now ends on such a fence, which, when I visited in late February, was awaiting its barbed wire topping. A small door has been integrated into the fence: the back door of Fortress Schengen. The fence’s military character stands in grave contrast to the domesticity of the calm street it stands on. Further, the fence runs through the middle of the neighboring gardens, bolstered by the claim that these measures are temporary ones, necessary to protecting Obrežje’s inhabitants from fantasized “migrant hordes.”

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It would be too easy to blame only the Slovenian and Hungarian governments for the construction of racist borders on their territory. Every citizen of the Schengen space is equally responsible for these measures. If these citizens are serious about their political federation, and don’t want it to project the violence of past borders into their new peripheries, they need to view the Slovenian and Hungarian walls not as the sum of local politics, but, rather, as the continuity of a common politics that also manifests at their border, in Lampedusa, Mellila, Ceuta, Calais, but also externally, in Morocco, Bosnia, Serbia, etc, as well as internally, through the detention centers that dot their own landscapes — the walls within the fortress. Every river is a border of a kind, one that blurs its exact demarcation, and thus resists the essentialization of one side and the other. In the case of Obrežje and Bregana, this essentialization isn’t so much based on the difference between Slovenian and Croatian identities, but, rather, on the difference between a supposed European identity and a demagogically-manufactured Oriental one against which Europe would need to steel itself. As mundane as Samoborska street appears, this crucial tension is very much at work in its midst.

 

“Brussels: After The Attacks, Another Kind Of Violence” ??

On March 22, 2016, I was in a train on my way to Brussels when I learned that a bomb had exploded at the airport and, a few minutes before arriving, that another one had detonated in the subway. Outside the train station Bruxelles Midi, soldiers and police officers were starting to deploy. I spent the rest of the day with some students and professors of La Cambre School of Architecture in Ixelles, where, like many other Brussels residents, we feigned normality in the sun of what should have been a beautiful day. It was only in the evening, on my way back to the train station, that I witnessed the massive deployment of armed forces, reminding me that this was the capital of the European Union. Concrete blocks were set up to prevent cars from accessing the station’s vicinity, and the long line of people outside it was punctuated by a number of (occasionally masked) soldiers and police officers, armed with a variety of assault rifles. Inside the station, the same atmosphere of security-paranoia prevailed, and yet, as if we needed further proof that such a deployment has more to do with spectacle than actual safety, no suitcases were being scanned before being loaded onto the trains.

The police and military presence in the station, however disturbing it was for us — seeing masked and fully armed police officers, one can wonder who we should fear the most! — was just a byproduct of the traveler’s privilege. A few hundreds meters further, the residents of Molenbeek (one of Brussels’ nineteen municipalities), experienced a different, a ubiquitous police presence, in the days after the police raided the neighborhood to arrest Salah Abdeslam, one of the persons responsible for the November 13, 2015 attacks. The press has painted an antagonizing image of Molenbeek. The French press went as far as to transform it’s name into a shorthand for radical Islam. The question “How many Molenbeeks do we have in France?” was uttered numerous times on TV and in newspapers, with complete indifference for the discursive violence of such a question.

This vision of the neighborhood, based on 10 of its 94,000 residents, responsible for an attack that killed 130 persons in Paris and 32 other in Brussels, is only possible because the majority of Molenbeek’s residents are other. Originating mostly from the Rif in the North of Morocco, the numerous Muslim residents of Molenbeek are, once again, the victims of a generalized image, which conflates a devout practice of Islam with murderous attacks. Even reasonable media outlets seem to believe that their account of the municipality would not be credible if they did not begin by acknowledging the delinquency and criminality that supposedly reign in it. A look at the Belgian police statistics however debunks these prejudices: whether it’s weapon possession, drug trafficking, assaults or theft, Molenbeek’s figures are almost always half as much as those of Brussels’ city center. Comparing it to other municipalities of the Belgian capital, again, Molenbeek does not stand out as particularly dangerous.

The rhetoric that presents it as such is a deadly one. Although the degree of violence is hardly comparable, we can find equivalent of it in the recent depiction of Burj Al-Barajneh (South Beirut municipality, described as a “Hezbollah stronghold” by Western media after a ISIS-led suicide attack killed 43 people on November 12, 2015), or, in a much more deliberate manner, the imaginary Gaza constructed by the Israeli army in order to justify its dreadful bombardments.

Such military action may appear far from Molenbeek, even though French right wing intellectual Eric Zemmour provocatively suggested bombing the Brussels neighborhood after the November 2015 attacks. Yet, we can already foresee the next phases of this antagonizing process. Because of its advantageous position in the city (only a few hundreds of meters away from the old center), what the 19th and 20th century colonial strategists used to call “pacification” through heavy police control will almost inevitably be followed by real estate operations developing and gentrifying the area, as is currently happening along the canal that separates the city center from Molenbeek. Architects bear responsibility for the violence of this process, since their authorship adds value to, and enables, the real estate projects that antagonize the population. They should therefore be at the forefront of the construction of a radically anti-racist imaginary in relation to the city and its various neighborhoods.

 

“Rafah: A Short History Of Bulldozing In The Palestinian Border Town”

 Despite — or perhaps because of — Rafah’s peripheral location, on the border between Palestine and Egypt in the Southern-most part of the Gaza Strip, the town has been at the center of decades of bulldozing violence against Palestinian houses and infrastructure. To give you a better idea what that means, consider the following historical episodes.

In December 1969, Ariel Sharon was named head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command after his decisive contribution to the 1967 invasion of the Sinai Peninsula — it was lead simultaneously with the invasion of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in Syria. In October 1970, the first Israeli settlement was built on the Gaza Strip, quickly followed by six others. The Israeli army thus sought to fully control Gaza and destroy the Palestinian resistance, particularly active since the beginning of the occupation three years earlier. In 1971, Sharon lead a mission of counter-insurrection that he proudly recounted in his memoirs (Simon & Schuster, 1989). Like other legendary counter-insurgency generals of colonial armies, from 19th-century French Marshall Robert Bugeaud to contemporary U.S. General David Petraeus, Sharon trained his soldiers to know the terrain on which they operate, and to think with the same rationale as the insurgents. In his book, he recounts the various tactics used to detect P.L.O. hideouts in Gaza’s urban fabric, some of which can be considered quite architectural: the systematic use of knotted ropes to measure homes both from the outside and inside to spot potential hidden rooms; the use of folded ladders to conveniently observe what is happening behind private walls.

As one might suspect, Sharon’s memoirs present the Israeli army’s actions as inoffensive to those in the Palestinian population not affiliated with the P.L.O. He only briefly mentions his decision to widen the streets of the Rafah refugee camp and the massive home demolitions that resulted from it. Indeed, 2,500 Palestinian houses were destroyed in the course of this operation via bulldozing, an act that would be replicated in Jenin’s refugee camp thirty years later, during the Second Intifada. Dense urban fabric always constitutes a problem for the counter-insurgency officer, who occasionally figures himself an architect and urban planner. The 16,000 inhabitants of Rafah, subsequently homeless, were offered to relocate in new neighborhoods nearby designed and built by Israel (called the Brazil and Canada housing projects) provided that they renounce their refugee status and thus their rights to return to their homes.

After the 1973 Sinai War and the subsequent First Camp David Agreements in 1978, Israel withdrew its troops from the Sinai Peninsula, after destroying all their infrastructure, lest the Egyptians use it,. This technique was reproduced in 2005 during the disengagement of Israeli settlements from Gaza. Until then, the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt did not necessitate to be heavily materialized since Gaza was under Egyptian control between 1949 and 1967 and, later, both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli army between 1967 and 1982. By 1981, Ariel Sharon had become Minister of Defense — he would soon lead the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — and the D9 bulldozers were already destroying a further 300 Palestinian homes in Rafah to carve out a patrolling zone for the Israeli army.

In 2001, Sharon was elected Prime Minister by a wide margin during the Second Intifada, which he contributed to trigger by provocatively visiting East Jerusalem’s Haram (the Mosque Esplanade) in September 2000. Between 2001 and 2004, 2,500 Palestinian homes were destroyed by the Israeli army’s bulldozers in Rafah, in particular along the Egyptian border whose patrol zone was enlarged from a few dozen meters to 300 meters. The Palestinian contraband tunnels, which are used to bring in predominantly necessary products banned from the blockade, but alsoweapons for militants were sought out and destroyed. Many people died in their homes while during their destruction, with a backdrop of international indifference that was only briefly interrupted by the murder of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old white American activist — this illustrate how Western outrage varies depending on which type of body was killed — who stood in the way of a D9 bulldozer that was about to destroy a Palestinian house in Rafah. The Yasser Arafat International Airport that was grandly inaugurated in 1998 was also a popular target for bulldozers, which destroyed its runway in 2002.

In 2015, one year after the dreadful Israeli war on Gaza killed 2,251 Palestinians, the Sisi administration in Egypt, in power since the 2013 coup and hostile to Hamas, decided to create a 2,000-meter militarized buffer zone at the Gaza border to shut down the contraband tunnels. In March 2015, the demolitions began in a way that found strong historical echoes in the systematic demolitions by the Israeli army described above. It’s worth recalling that, in addition to the vital flux of contraband goods, Gaza also depends on Egypt for 22MW of electric power (about 20% of its general supply since the Gaza power plant was destroyed by the Israeli bombings in the summer 2014), as well as for the occasional opening of the Al’awda Checkpoint. The latter was regularly opened during the year of the Freedom and Justice Party (the governing avatar of the Muslim Brotherhood) administration lead by Presidend Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), but the checkpoint remains closed under the Sisi administration.

These four historical episodes constitute only one dimension of the systematic destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the territorial exclusion of its residents. They all feature the same instrument of destruction — the bulldozer, in particular the Caterpillar D9 model customized into a war machine by the Israeli army since the mid-1950s. Although bulldozers may appear to many as instruments of civil transformation, they recall memories of great violence for Palestinians, in particular for the Rafah residents.

 

“A Political Tour of North-Eastern Paris: Excavating The Marks Of History In The City’s Streets And Squares”

 

On June 21, 2016 — the 222nd day of the State of Emergency declared by president François Hollande in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks — I took advantage of a friend’s visit from the United States to plan a walk through North-Eastern Paris, providing us with a non-linear narrative of the French capital’s political struggles over the past 150 years.

According to the street signs we passed, this 8-kilometer walk took us from Palestine, between the Rue du Jourdain (Jordan River) and Rue de Palestine, to China (Passage de Pékin), Senegal (Rue du Sénégal), Russia (Stalingrad), Algeria (Rue de Tanger), Maroc (Rue du Maroc), Canada (Rue du Canada), and Guadeloupe (Rue de la Guadeloupe). These names indicate the (often post-colonial) origins of some of the areas’ residents. The walk was therefore as much a journey through mobilized distant geographies as it was a time machine through the palimpsest of the city’s political layers.

 

It began in Belleville, which became the last bastion of the 1871 Paris Commune during the bloody week that saw the Versailles army exterminate all resistance in its suppression of the proletarian society that had declared Paris’ independence from the rest of the Empire. The Rue Ramponeau is said to be the site of the Commune’s last barricade, upheld by only one man during the last days. Ironically, its site, at the intersection of the Rue de Tourtille, is now bordered by a small police station. The references to the Commune in the Paris streets are scarce as this part of French history is almost absent from the national narrative. The activist collective Raspouteam, however, helps to localize this history online, mapping out the chronology of the Commune. A few years ago, they also plastered the city with large posters illustrating scenes of the Commune in the locations of their historical occurrence.

Echoes of the numerous 19th century military interventions in Paris can be found in the current military deployment on the streets of the city. After the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, and the anti-Semitic attack on a Kosher supermarket that followed, “Opération Sentinelle” mobilized about 6,000 soldiers patrolling in front of Jewish schools and synagogues, including the one situated on Boulevard de Belleville, which we passed on our walk. The militarization of Parisian public space only intensified with the declaration of a State of Emergency the day after the November 13, 2015 attacks. Accordingly, our walk included a stop at the intersection of the Rue Bichat and Rue Alibert, where the terraces of the Café du Carillon and the restaurant Le Petit Cambodge (Small Cambodia) were targeted, leaving our friends dead or injured.

Synagogue in Belleville / Photograph by Léopold Lambert / 2016

The canal neighborhood where two of the six attacks occurred has been the site of gentrification for several years and the State of Emergency police barricades alternate with construction site fences in front of new residential buildings designed for the incoming middle classes. The sterile properness of these new buildings not only contrasts with the lively mess of the Rue du Faubourg du Temple — we briefly stop at a Kabyle small canteen where a double portrait of the Emir Abd el Kader and French Marshall Bugeaud connect this local history to the colonization of Algeria in the 1830s — but even more so with the tents of homeless people living in the least monitored sides of the canal.

Gentrification in the making rue du Faubourg du Temple / Léopold Lambert / 2016

Leaving the Canal for Boulevard de la Chapelle, we witness the fencedremains of the two refugee encampments that used to live under the over-ground train tracks last winter. Walking a few dozen meters North, we find the Jardins d’Eole, where a new encampment has been set up by several hundred refugees in recent weeks, but was evacuated by the Paris police a few days before our walk. What is left on the site are police barricades, that could be seen and understood as the common architectural element of all current political nodes. There is also a security guard and his dog, together ensuring that no dwellings are reinstalled. Further on, feminist and anti-racist street art has been commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Rosa Parks train station nearby.

Jardin d’elle where a thousands refugees were residing a few days before / Léopold Lambert / 2016

Parc de Belleville / Léopold Lambert / 2016

We finish the walk in the Goutte d’Or, a neighborhood primarily inhabited by a population of West Africans, and where, in January 2016, police officers shot a man to death who was allegedly wearing a paper explosive belt in front of the now-fortified local police station. A few meters further along, at the Barbès Rochechouart subway station — the only one on the entire grid that has turnstiles to prevent freeloading — several other political layers are concentrated: the location of the Tunisian department store TATI that has allowed the working class to access clothing at a reasonable price since the 1940s, the threatening gentrifying presence of a brand new brasserie, the preparation for the daily iftar during the ongoing Ramadan, as well as the site of the forbidden demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza during the murderous Israeli war of 2014.

Police Station of La Goutte d’Or / Léopold Lambert / 2016

Turnstile of Barbès-Rochechouart / Léopold Lambert / 2016

Parc de Belleville/ Léopold Lambert / 2016

There are other political layers that could have been integrated in this territorialized walk — the battles for the liberation of Paris in 1944, the conflicts during the Algerian revolution in the late 1950s, the strong presence of the Tamil refugee diaspora near La Chapelle, the nearby existence of the Communist Party headquarters designed by Oscar Niemeyer on the Place du Colonel Fabien, etc. — but even their evocation cannot remedy the fact that politics does not (only) correspond to historical events; it is materialized through the every-day practice of the city space, as well as through the modification of the built environment that frames it. Historical currents leave their marks on every city; walk, through its slow pace, allows the excavation of these marks that might otherwise remain ignored.

 

“Calais: The “Jungle” And The Architects: Decolonizing Discourses And Practices For An Operative Political Project”

Calais and Dunkirk are the two French cities closest to Dover in England. As such, they are are the main ferry ports towards England and the entrance to the Channel Tunnel is situated only a few kilometers away from the city center of Calais. The name “Jungle” designates a large muddy vacant area of the Calais outskirts between an industrial zone and the port, where about a few thousands of migrants and refugees are currently living, often waiting an opportunity to finish their long and tiresome journey in the United Kingdom. This name is a distorted translation of the Farsi term jangla (originally given by Afghani and Iranian refugees to the place) that, despite a common root with jungle refers more simply to a forest.

This site became the converging point of displaced people looking for a place to live during their attempts to reach the UK in 2009, but its population only significantly increased in 2015. In the beginning of 2016, the French State undertook to demolish a part of the “Jungle,” in order to set up a ‘solid’ refugee camp, made out of a hundred containers enclosed by a fence. This camp’s architecture clearly reveals the antagonism that the French government, the Pas-de-Calais department and the Calais mayor have consistently developed towards the “Jungle” residents: the containers only allow their residents to sleep in one of the numerous bunk beds that populate their exiguous interiors, there is no social space of any kind, nor any kitchen or shower facilities. Moreover, the access to the camp is only granted to registered residents who are required to place their hand in a palm recognition device before pushing the unwelcoming entrance turnstiles.

The container camp is thus one more testimony of the numerous efforts put by the French State in partnership with the British one, in order to control the thousands of bodies that live in the “Jungle.” Hundreds of police officers are always present on site and the highway adjacent to the “Jungle” linking the city to the port is now bordered by three layers of high barbed wire fences, preventing its access from bodies without vehicle. As the current European management of the displaced populations coming from the Middle East and East Africa has been proving time to time, our outrage should be less focused on what the E.U. does not do and more on what it actually does.

The aim of this present article is however more focused on addressing the numerous members of what we may call “the architecture/design community,” which has manifested an interest for the situation in Calais in particular, and throughout Europe in general. Many Westerners who grew up in relatively comfortable economic situations have learned to take for granted that the will to help — what we commonly call “good intentions” — is enough to actually “make a difference” (another cliché phrase). Any intervention in such a delicate field requires however a strong effort of deconstruction of one’s position in society and how this position may easily reinforce the mechanisms of normative domination of the same society. In other words, European citizens — by definition, privileged relatively to displaced people owning the wrong passport — need to decolonize their own behavior before engaging with the situation of extreme precariousness in which Calais’ “Jungle” residents find themselves. The reduction to these residents to the status of absolute victims, deprived of any agency nor power that characterizes most humanitarian projects may allow punctual help to be provided but is doomed to fail as a decolonizing political project. Such a disempowered vision of the displace bodies living in the Calais’ “Jungle” is particularly paradoxical given the obstacles that they had to overcome in order to be where they are.

What is true for any citizens involved in humanitarian projects is even more so for architects, who use an instrument that will always have less difficulties materializing aspirations of control, than of resistance against order. For the many Western architecture students, professionals and commentators who are willing to engage with a situation that outrages them, the task is therefore particularly arduous if what they are really after is a profound change in the situation and not simply the ability to appear as considerate.

A symptomatic example of the lack of understanding of architecture’s violence can be found in the way the other refugee camp of the region, in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk, has been described. Built by NGO Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF) in cooperation with Grande Synthe’s mayor, Damien Carême, this camp follows the international norms in terms of camp accommodation and, as such, provides a minimum of dignity to its displaced residents. The comparison with the Calais camp has been made numerous times and all recognize the much greater qualities of the Grande Synthe one, which has been recently reinvested by the French government and cited as an example by Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor who wants to build a similar camp in the capital city. It is not innocent that a refugee camp is called, indeed, a camp, and, as such, takes its place in the dreadful history of this typology. A camp involves a close periphery punctuated by controlled points of access, the concentration of bodies and their disempowerement in the various life function of the place. The Grande Synthe camp, despite its greater sensibleness does not escape to this rule and is experienced as such by its hundreds of residents.

Although architects like to think of their work as a constructive discipline, they need to realize that this constructiveness only reaches its political aims, when it is preceded by a thorough work of deconstruction about the power of their position and their discipline. Architecture is not a humanitarian instrument, it is a political instrument. As such, architects should be less focused on considering their action as a philanthropic program transcending politics than on contributing to a political project that empowers displaced persons against the antagonizing efforts engineered against their freedom of movement,