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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

ARCHITECTURE AND RACISM / Arkitekten (2016)

 

Leopold Lambert, Interview for ‘Arkitekten’ (issue 5/May 2016) with Runa Johannessen

  1. RJ: taking the lecture as a starting point for the conversation – first of all; to know about your definition of architecture: how you consider it as a political weapon: From which side is it a political weapon? Is it for the architect – or for the broader understanding of who the architect is (the politician etc)?
  2. LL: as I was saying in the lecture, the definition that I have been using for architecture for quite a long time, is in no way trying to be an exhaustive definition of architecture – but one that enables projects from a particular spectrum; it is the discipline that organizes bodies in space. Already in this definition we can see the sort of intrinsic political implication of such a project.
  3. Then – when I talk about political weapon, it is really the second step of a methodological approach that start with the definition of violence (which you were also quite intrigued about, and rightfully so to question). Violence, as I start approaching it, is in a pre-political methodologyin the vein of the philosophy of Spinoza; violence is what degrades the composition of material assemblages.
  4. If I am to use Deleuze’s words to explain it; if I take a wave in my face I am going to get hurt, and to some degree the wave will be hurt – so we’re speaking of a reciprocity. But somehow I can compose my body in some way that it might be less violent or not violent at all, if that is possible. So I really approach architecture in this way: Architecture is a material assemblage that occupies a space, and if our bodies try to occupy this space that this material assemblage occupies, then there is going to be a shock; a shock of particles.
  5. After that, once this definition of violence is established, what I cannot help but notice, is the fact that no architecture is occupying the space it occupies for no reason. And again, here the same thing: in the methodology we are not even yet speaking of whether it is fair, if it is legal — we are just looking at what is happening.
  6. RJ: But you are sort of approaching the question of the political as it starts becoming a question of intentionality?
  7. LL: Well, the intentional is also something that comes quite late in this methodology, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Meaning; it is obviously not because when architecture is following a certain set of intentions that this set of intentions will actually be realized – but there is definitely this sort of – beyond even the political aspect of the intentions – there is the intention of the anticipation. We anticipate that if we place this wall here, bodies will be here. I wrote an entire text about for me the most simple yet extreme example of this; the corridor. The corridor is point A to point B and the only possibility we have is to go from A to B or B to A, and in some political situations not even; you would only go from A to B.
  8. Temple Grandin has been designing a set of spatial approaches for cattle in the US to be going to their death in the most civil manner, so to speak. She has a condition of autism and because of that she say she can understand better the way the cattle is behaving and how she can calm them down through architecture despite the fact that they are going for their death. I think this is a very interesting example of humanitarianisms architecture. If we look at it from a strictly pragmatic spectrum, we can definitely see how it might be a good idea to do that, we want the cattle to be killed in the least painful manner. But then we realize that it does not even give the chance to the cows to fight against their death, however ineluctable it might be. In bull fighting, the bull always have a chance to kill the torero, despite the odds against it., this is an ethics of capital execution. We should look at Granding architecture. It is made of very carefully calibrated corridors. A corridor is literally a diagram; an architectural diagram, sometimes even a legal diagram that is materialized into architecture. Very strong idea of how bodies can be anticipated to follow the scheme.
  9. So what I call the ethics of design, this is exactly this sort of political realms of all this architecture – and that’s when we start looking at how this pre-political violence – when I say pre-political, I mean methodologically and not chronologically – is necessarily instrumentalized into a political setting again, whether for political sets of ethics we might associate ourselves with, or we might not. And I think my work has been looking at the examples of sets of architectures that clearly not materialize political programs that I could put myself behind.
  10. RJ. Your examples are concerned specifically with political situations that are quite complex; like Israel-Palestine, also questions of borders, migration in Europe. What other contexts have you been looking at?
  11. LL: More domestically would be interesting to speak about. It is true that I often use a sort of – for various reasons, whether for convenience or because I felt very involved and that this was something we should be talking about – I am often using very extreme examples. But I am also interested in seeing how those same logics are being applied to a lesser degree of violence, but they are still applicable to the realm of domesticity.
  12. RJ: The Paris banlieues would perhaps serve as such an example?

(LL: Yet it is still an extreme example…)

12.2.RJ: But it works in another way, as it has another kind of intentionality? The other examples you brought in your lecture was about walls and fences that prevent — however permeable in some sense — they prevent or regulate movement in space, like screening mechanisms. The Paris banlieues are different in this sense? They are integrated into an urban fabric yet they are excluded in social, economic, cultural ways.

  1. LL. I made a map that I didn’t show at the lecture, that I could use in order to trick the audience a bit to describe this is in another way, a bit more symbolical than factual.
  2. When you look at the Boulevard Périphérique that is surrounding the municipality of Paris – a relatively small municipality surrounded by a very big metropolitan area – so this ring, this highway around Paris, is, in similar ways as in Copenhagen, the former walls of the city. And it got transformed into something that very much act as a wall. It is very easy to see the old gates – and we literally call them gates, they are the gates to access Paris. There must be around 40-45 gates. I looked at each of them in relation to which neighborhood of Paris it gives access, and which banlieue it immediately connects to. The results are very clear. In the north, which are the poorest most racialized banlieue, the Périphérique is a bridge under the highway. It means that you have to cross into a pretty smelly, dark very loud space, if you are a pedestrian to access Paris or access your home. If you go to the south and east it is a little more subtle: it is usually bridges over the Périphérique. It is still quite noisy, but it feels less claustrophobic. And then in the wealthy areas the highways are buried, so you don’t even perceive of it. It is very systematically clear.
  3. The reason I say it is quite symbolical, is because there are in fact only very few people who actually cross those limits by foot on a daily basis. Most people take the subway. So it is more about how Paris conceives itself, in relation to its banlieues; through an actual wall that people would have to cross. People that can cross this wall still live close enough to the municipality to be somehow integrated into this program, so it’s an example that should really be thought through symbolism rather than intentionality.
  4. RJ: Looking at the three examples that you were presenting at the lecture; Paris Banlieues, Fortress Schengen and Palestine: what binds them together? The title of your lecture was ‘Walls of Racism’: what is it that connects these examples in architectural terms?
  5. LL: I think that has to do with — if we use the big word that may fail to describe sort of the granularity of it, but still completely apply — is the principle of white supremacy. And the racism against the colonized population of the Palestinians – the post-colonial population of the Paris banlieues and the “mythical invaders from the Orient that are knocking at our doors”, and with various policies applied against them. Here in Denmark you have definitely got some legislative inventions that bring us back all the way to the 1930’s, with the jewellery seized. But then, obviously, each of these cases have their own particularities. In the French banlieues people are very much in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but they are also careful not to say that their situation is the same. We can definitely associate to that, and it has been made association with the African-American people in the US and their relation to the police or even the national garde – when we think of Baltimore and the kind of militarized police.
  6. So all this have in common, even beyond white supremacy, a sort of structural aspect of the way those examples work. And that is both where intentionality is important, but really also when it is not. And we can see how all those architectures are materializations of normative practices to categorize bodies, according to one ethnic group to another. And to imagine a relationship where the one or the other…. And imagine an approach to movements that would imagine laws that would marginalize…. If we think of France, the ban of hijabs in public schools, and the one they want to do in universities right now … Some legislators have clearly gone out of their way to really target a very specific population. In addition to which a part of the narrative — to help legitimize legislation — is that we are helping the people we are targeting. Which is the kind of Orwell’s double-language in all its splendor. The structural reality is a key word here.
  7. RJ: I imagine that the architect community – in Denmark – approach architecture more like – not architecture as violence in the Spinozist sense – but thinking more of architecture as an instrument of enabling rather than delimiting. So the question that very quickly arises, and I think is also needed to address, is: how are these structures that are embodied in architecture something we can analyse and then change? What role does the architect play here? As an enabler, the enabler of the structures to arise? I acknowledge that the architect is not a sole person, but a vast network of different policies, different agents and actors that come together to build. But how do we [architects] address this and what do we do? It is sort of a tricky question, and somehow also a trick question, as it might not actually take seriously the depth of problems that are structural… and you might easily fall into the classical idea of what the architect does, as a problem solver: Someone has a problem, you solve it. The kind of aporia you often experience as an architect, that you want to engage, and you want to have agency. But how do you engage?
  8. LL. It is completely my responsibility to follow up on that once I have posed all those examples. Coming from a school of thoughts influenced by Michel Foucault, I think cartography of those structures is always a first step towards understanding them better, and to use them against their own logic. I will not say that architecture can enable, in the way you mean it, but I think architecture can disable its own intrinsic logics somehow. Or these logics can be appropriated to serve a particular political program. But I think a very first step is just to better understand the gesture of architecture; of the wall, anywhere, and what it is representing. A great split (?), we should not shy away from it, but we should really understand the effects. And when we feel that these effects are not coinciding with what we believe in, then we should very much either transgress it or refuse it. I think also that is another position. I don’t want to tell our colleagues that they should stop designing. But I think in some cases it can just be to say no; a no can be a very critical no. It necessarily starts with a very strong awareness of what we do.
  9. The sort of violence, or maybe not violence here because I use it in another way, which is a radical tracing of how a line on a piece of paper will determine whether a body will be on the one side or the other. That is actually also where The Funambulist comes from, which means a tightrope walker, and it’s a body that walk on this line. So somehow it is even more constrained by the line. But it is not responding to the anticipation of those bodies on the side or the other. I really like this figure, and it is why I associate it with my work.

(RJ: Yes, there’s a lot into that figure. Also because it is suspended in space, rather than delimiting, and doesn’t create the separated territories around it as the wall does).

(LL. Yes and it insists on the thickness of the wall, the thickness of the line…).

  1. RJ: But that position of how can the architect be political; Aureli comes to mind. He answers the question in two different ways; one is that architecture is never political, the other that it is always political. And continues that in order for the architect to be political, within a profession that is basically always seeking consensus, the most radical thing you can do, is to decline, and to say no to an assignment. Which then is the strongest agency you have as an architect. For those architects actually building architecture, and who are not only theoretical about things, I think the rejection is an important point to consider. But still that doesn’t leave us with an answer to the question of how we engage if we want to engage.
  2. LL: One very important thing about that is also to understand that architecture is something that go much, much beyond the realms of architects. Therefore – when I see people who think they will be able to change the logics from the inside somehow – when they actually disagree with the particular program or the particular location for the program etc, they think they have enough agency within this huge discipline that involves so many actors. The architect is only one little part of it. In some cases that might be true, but I think it can only be true if we as architects recognize the humbleness of our position within this system and processes. My argument is always for a very strong, powerful, violent definition of architecture, but not a very powerful definition of the architect.
  3. RJ: If we move over to Europe today, what we see with the proliferation of transit and detention centres and camps, in this political moment… Can you say something about what kind of spaces we are creating for migrants in Europe at present. What are these spaces, what are they made of, what do they look like?
  4. LL. They are clearly extraterritorial spaces. They are located inside the territory of Schengen or EU, and even actually also in other places, such as Morocco, Bosnia, Serbia. But they are extraterritorial spaces, that sometimes – even if symbolical – often use the same fence around them as around borders, so it very symbolically says ‘when you’re inside these fences, you’re outside of our borders’. The fact that refugees will arrive in busses in a camp and then leave again in busses is also illustrative of that: they never really touch the ground outside the camp. There is something about that as well, and they are not only extraterritorial, they are also extra-legal.
  5. The one that I have been looking at in particular — in Calais — is containers, and is provided conditions that are absolutely not anywhere close to the regulations for refugee camps. If we are talking about intentionality, there is also sometimes intentionality to pretending to do something, but do it in such a bad way that people will understand immediately that they are not welcome..
  6. But even if we attribute a sort of benevolence to the way these camps are built, the one in Grande Synthe for instance, 30km east of Calais, I think that humanitarianism necessarily requires to monitors bodies; there is a need to put a figure on a person; a person becomes statistics, because that answers to some kind of logistics and a need to control the amount and whereabouts of people. They need to develop themselves according to very similar logics, sort of governance, dissident kind of logics – whether they do it for the good of people or not probably change some things, but still we need to be aware of what is behind all of this. The need for control that architecture allows for.
  7. RJ. So, the migrant spaces we are creating at the moment are extra-territorial, extra-legal and symbolic. We can see this also in Denmark: last year, the government opened up for creating tent-camps. The reason is not lack of permanent structures available, as several has pointed at, but rather a question of symbolism: A symbolism that goes in two directions: Targeting both asylum seekers, telling that they are not welcome, but also targeting the broader Danish population to say ‘we are tackling the problem.’ And then there’s the use of strong metaphors like ‘waves’, crisis etc.
  8. LL. The very fact of hearing very reasonable people speaking about the refugee problem is a bit like, I’m sure in Denmark just as much as in France: ‘how do we fix the problem of immigration?’ Well, first we can recognize how the question already construct an extremely problematic imaginary. There is no problem of immigration It brings an economy, it diversifies the citizens’ skills and backgrounds, and the center-left and center-right governments are shocked that the extremes are getting more votes, but essentially they all agree thatimmigration is a problem, they just pretend to have different views of how to solve it.
  9. RJ: So on a symbolical level architecture helps frame this as a problem, rather than seeing it as (LL: a solution?) (RJ: …or) something that can be tackled in another way?
  10. LL. When you deal, as you do, with a problem like the problem of Palestine, you know that whenever someone use the word solution, there’s already like ‘here comes trouble.’ I think something as a two state solution as it is said right now would be a second absolute catastrophe for the Palestinian people. So solution is always something that you should be very much fearing, and we should rather think of how we problematize something, through architecture.