Monthly Archives: July 2011

photograph by Julia King

In last February, the NY Times wrote a (bad) article about a very interesting skyscraper in Caracas, the Torre de David,  that seems to carry a good analogy with the current Venezuelan situation since Hugo Chavez has been elected since 1999. In fact this 150 meter tall building is currently hosting about 2500 squatters who find in it, a good way to dwell in this housing crisis time. This skyscraper that was originally supposed to become an architectural symbol and an economically operative building of the Financial power never finished its construction because of the national financial crisis in the late 90’s.

This tower reminds of those in Bangkok or in Shanghai whose construction has been stopped and that is now hosting bands of stray dogs but in this situation the symbol is obviously much stronger as inhabited by humans.
Some additional construction work had to be achieved from the squatters themselves in order to create various enclosures and to occupy some space on each slabs to build up dwellings. What used to be one more glazed office tower is now a concrete behemoth which has been immanently appropriated with recovered brick and other found materials. A micro-economy also developed as there is no elevator and each floor has therefore a small supply shop. Imagining this population never coming down to the ground would probably be creating a myth as most people seems to have a job “on the ground”, but this Torre de David most certainly recalls the fantastic High Rise described by James Graham Ballard in his novel.
Where Ballard seems to be off (and so is Robert Silverberg) in his prospective description is to think of the tower as a literal symbol of hierarchy, thinking of the tower as an architecture in which the high and powerful social classes live upstairs while the poors have to remain near the ground. What seems to appear is much more a separation between the towers for the rich or the powerful (look around !) and some others that have been appropriated by the poors like this one (which reminded me of an old vision I had) or Rio de Janeiro’s steep hills.

Several of the articles that describes this vertical slum presents this tower as symptomatic of the deficiency of funds dedicated to housing by a government that has been elected with a socialist program. Most people I have been talking with (outside of Venezuela) seems to agree that those expectations have been not reach their fulfillment. However what appears to me is that on the contrary of the quasi-totality of the Western countries (one might see the exception with some micro-nations), the 2500 squatters have not been evicted which justifies the proletarian appropriation of a part of capitalism’s structure. The fact that the life conditions in this building are regrettable does not change another fact which is that a speculative territory has been reclaimed and obtained “de facto” by the collectivity.

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picture: still from The Trial by Orson Welles (adapted from Kafka)

The article Power, Violence, Law, written by Antiphon on Critical Legal Thinking in 2009, establishes the relationships that those three notions maintain between each other. It quotes Walter Benjamin who wrote that violence both founds and preserve the law by respective processes of insurrection -that violates the law but retroactively justify it-  and establishment -that implement the law for their own survival. In fact, Antiphon elaborates about those two processes and distinguishes the violence of the suspension of the law when involved in resistive action from the systemic violence that meticulously develop an institutional exercise of the power and uses the law in order to sustain it. In this regard, he introduces a paragraph that introduces something that I could not be more interested into, which is the role of architecture in this strategy of systemic violence: This violence is evident at each level of the judicial act. The architecture of the courtroom and the choreography of the trial process converge to restrain and physically subdue the body of defendant. The regular readers of this blog will probably associate such affirmation with have been the thesis I have been working on for the last couple of years, meaning that architecture is inherently weaponized and that its conception cannot be withdrew from its political purpose and consequences.

More articles on Critical Legal Thinking:
William Burroughs and Naughtiness by Lucy Finchett-Maddock
Violence on the Body. A Manual for the French Police escorting illegal immigrants (that I wrote few months ago)

Power, Violence, Law by Antiphon

Over the last two hundred years, the theory of right, now known as normative jurisprudence, has discovered its vocation in a frantic attempt to legitimise the exercise of power. It carries out this task by declaring that law and power are external to each other ontologically, politically, morally, the two are involved in a zero-sum game. In this story, law limits and humanises the exercise of power which finds its true nature when it follows the procedures and respects the values of law. The more rights people have, the less power there is; the more law-abiding power is the more civilised and acceptable its operation. Orthodox jurisprudence sees sovereignty and morality, politics and law, decision and norm as opposite poles of a dialectic the object of which is the relationship between subjects and the sovereign. Their respective weight determines the theoretical direction from Austin to Kelsen and from Schmitt to Dworkin. They all repeat in a different fashion and with different emphasis the belief in the opposition of law and power. These theories are cognitively wrong and morally impoverished. We see both daily. The former in the proliferation of theories of ‘indispensable’ values and ‘fundamental’ norms which remain abstract, vague and malleable to the ideological and aesthetic predilections of politicians and lawyers. The latter in the moral decline of the judicial function which can use the moralistic subterfuges one learns in the Law Schools to justify all types of injustice.

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…withdrawn at the author’s request (December 22nd 2011)

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Whoever has seen the result of one of the hundreds of urban idea competitions probably noticed the popularity of projects that introduced urban farms that most of the time consist in overlapping fields on floors one by one with at best (or at worst, I guess) a sexy aesthetic (both for the tower and its representation) as a selling strategy. Those projects are clearly in accordance with the elaboration of a new “green” moral enforced by capitalism that is, this way, forgotten to be the cause of what many call the Ecological Crisis. It was not so hard for capitalism to indeed mutate in order to adapt to a new demand from the followers of this new moral.

Nevertheless, some people are smart and honest enough to acknowledge that what makes the “sustainable” quality of a project is not linked to the density of green on the images that represent it. In this spirit, Catrina Stewart develop a City Farmhouse within the frame of the Unit 12 at the Bartlett, tutored by Jonathan Hill, Elizabeth Dow and Matthew Butcher. Her self-sufficient tower consists in an aggregation of mechanical and biological devices that registers in the Bartlett tradition as initiated by Peter Cook when he directed it.
On the contrary of the moralization of ecology I was evoking above, Catrina tackles the problem with great inventiveness and humor and it is a real relief  and pleasure to explore all the details of her project. From the toilets that are transformed in machines of human manures for agriculture to the cows whose methane’s farts are being collected directly in an inflatable balloon that they carry on their back via the elevators directly supplied by the power extracted from domesticated eels, the project is full of devices that could appear in a great book by William Heath Robinson (see previous article)

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image from BLDG BLOG

I recently ran into a three years old article that Geoff Manaugh wrote for his BLDG BLOG about the peculiar legal status of the town of Baarle-Hertog. In fact, this city embedded into Dutch territory is fragmented into several pieces of land that belong to respectively Belgium or Netherlands. Because those territories are situated in the center of the Schengen space, this fragmented legal status does not imply the same violent consequences that what can be observed in the West Bank between Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements; however, it is peculiar enough to note that some houses are split between the two countries and in that case, new born’s nationality have to be decided depending on the room their mother have been delivering in (that might be a myth but the Financial Times affirms it !).

About a year ago, coming back from Palestine, I drew a map that I entitled The Palestinian Archipelago (it turned out that a few people had a similar idea earlier !) in order to represent the fragmentation of the Palestinian territory that was triggered by the 1993 Oslo Accords. This map of Baarle-Hertog introduces something similar (although, once again the spatial consequences are much lighter) and one could talk about the Belgium archipelago within this Dutch territory with the interesting observation that even on the Belgium “islands”, one can notice Dutch “lakes” that complexify even more the spatial condition.

Geoff Manaugh fairly recently relinked his article in an interview he did of China Miéville and that was tackling the spatial question of his book The City & The City (that I am currently finishing). This novel, that introduce two cities situated in the same geographical location but invisible to each other, was also evoked in an article that Ed Keller was kind enough to send me also comparing this book with the Israel/Palestine conflict (I am not agreeing with everything written in this article but it’s definitely worth reading).

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CORUSCANT — Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mastermind of some of the most devastating attacks on the Galactic Empire and the most hunted man in the galaxy, was killed in a firefight with Imperial forces near Alderaan, Darth Vader announced on Sunday.
Those sentences are extracted from an article of the very popular liberal newspaper, the Galactic Empire Times after that Darth Vader announced the death of the enemy number 1, leader of the Rebellion against the Empire, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Many people in Coruscant celebrated this welcomed death, to the point that many other planets have shocked by such inappropriate reaction although they did salute the end of a long hunt that the Empire engaged against the Rebellion leader. Vader precised that the war against the dissidence was yet not over and that the state of emergency that originally transformed the Republic in the first Galactic Empire and brought more power of investigation, surveillance and action to the executive instances, had to remain in order to ensure the security in the Galaxy. The internment camp of Tatooine should remain operative as well, in order for the Empire to prevent any person suspected to have had some contact with the Rebellion to attempt to the security of the Empire citizens. Some intellectuals, symbols of the archaic Republic, presented their personal excuses to Vader himself, after having express some vague doubt about the Empire’s methods to fight against the Rebellion.

Of course this glorious episode of the Empire’s history cannot be alleged to recall any other...

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About three weeks ago, The Funambulist and Dpr-Barcelona both released reflections about Aristide Antonas‘ last project, the Zizek Residence, giving their interpretation of this house of seclusion for one to step back from the world in order to work and think. While Ethel Baraona Polh and Cesar Reyes were writing about the notions of heterotopia, networks and envelopes, I was myself questioning the architectural model of the Ivory Tower and evoking the potentiality of a Zarathustrian return to the world after such seclusion. After those interpretation, A. Antonas seems to have secluded indeed himself in order to respond to us in a long answer that provide a new way to envision his house.

This “dialogue à trois” was therefore very prolific and would be very interesting to continue on a regular basis. As Aristide pointed out, he is himself in Athens, Ethel and Cesar are in Barcelona, and I am myself in New York. The four of us are very far from our native land (in the wrong order, Salvador, Cyprus, France and Guatemala) and we all communicate in a foreign language. All those conditions can be also understood as forms of seclusion and the fact that we communicate with each other is not only by chance. As Aristide Antonas puts it: “Stepping back is not exactly the condition that negates the networks. It is the function that the network needs in order to be created.”

Zizek Residence by Aristide Antonas:
article on Dpr-Barcelona
article on The Funambulist
response by Aristide Antonas

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It took me a while to decide to publish this article as my appreciation for the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, Savage Beauty is as great as my inability to write something consistent about it. In fact, the exhibition manages well to maintain this feeling as the fascinating work is counter balanced by some flat quotes from McQueen himself that do not help us to interpret his work in a coherent way – but maybe that is a mistake to want to do so.  I will try to embrace this mistake though.

Let’s start with the exhibition title then: Beauty, yes beauty is there fore sure. and it’s hard to remain indifferent in front of this work Savage, on the other hand refers to something a bit more articulated as a form of romanticism that is claimed by A.McQueen all along the show. In fact, there is something fictitious, if not mythological in his work. An important majority of dresses seems to come from an ambiguous time between several periods of the past but developing a vision of the future that envisions the body and its clothing as two things that might hybrid each other to form a sort of nostalgic cyborg. Somehow, one might even compare that to the literature current that has been called as steampunk, a branch of science fiction that mixes the traditional vision of technology – the one of the 19th century Industrial Revolution – with its new paradigm of the end of the 20th century implying the invention of cybernetics. Of course here, it is not so much about the Industrial Revolution than other periods of the past but this feeling of mix of eras is clearly tangible; a sort of uchronia in which Humans are both in perfect control of their technology but also live in a more animal realm. In this regard, this notion of savageness here allow us to think of all those dresses as new skins that compose a camouflage, which is not to be understood as a defense mechanism here but rather as a celebration and narration of their environment, both in time (as I wrote above) and in space.
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vanilla sky

The fourth chapter of the Guest Writers Essays series is written by Fredrik Hellberg whose amazing projects at the Architectural Association have been published twice here (and one more soon to come). His Manhattan Oneirocritica was bringing to life all the glorious monuments (Gaudi, Rudolph, Superstudio etc.) that have been designed for New York yet have never been built, while his project for a Japanese Embassy in London was drawn directly on the kimono wore by its guardian.
His essay, in  a bit of personal way, has to do with Solipsism, this idea (if not syndrome) that only the thinker of this thoughts can be sure to exist (one could probably call that the Cogito Syndrome !). He therefore brings us in a small vertigo that question the notions of reality and dream.

The Funambulist Papers 04 /// Thoughts on Meta-Virtual Solipsism

by Fredrik Hellberg

      INT. LIFE EXTENSION OFFICE  – DAY

David Aames and McCabe sit and wait in a warm wood-paneled
office, proposals in hand. A glimpse shows words like Re-
Evolve and Re-Experience, peppered with colorful photos of
simple, life-affirming portraits of everyday life. It’s
well-appointed and well-marketed organization.
McCabe regards David as the victim of a lunatic’s scam.
Injustice fuels McCabe.

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First of all, I would like to say that this article is not an indictment against the three “new” episodes (I, II & III) of Star Wars; on the contrary of a lot of people, I think that those films brings something extremely interesting to the saga, which is the retroactive construction of a myth (I still remember my shiver in theater at the end of the Episode III, when we observe the birth of Dark Vador) which managed intelligently to introduce how the Jedi went from faithful servants of a democratic Republic to rebels to the same regime when it turned into a permanent autocratic State of Emergency.

However, one thing that I find incredibly superb in the three first episodes (IV, V & VI) and that makes all the difference between the episode from the 70-80’s and those from the 2000’s: the ground.
In fact, the original Star Wars was shot in several places in the world which gives a very various and rich landscapes to express several planet’s specificity. On the contrary, the new series of films principally used semi or full computer generated landscapes (except for some scenes in Naboo where we can recognize Seville or Como). It is important to precise here that my argument is nothing in favor of “realism” or credibility of the movie. It is almost the opposite actually, George Lucas in the 70’s was not necessarily disposing of the same techniques than he has now, and some shots of the original films are charming by their clumsy attempt to set characters and aircraft in a landscape that is clearly dissociated from them…

What really makes this difference is what I would call gravity but that could maybe be named in another way. What I mean by that is the fact that bodies are attracted to the center of the earth (and presumably in Star Wars to the center of any planet) and therefore have a weight that provoke their contact with the ground. This contact always have a material repercussion, some dust is lifted, some snow is squashed, some branches on the ground crack (in the Episode VI, Han Solo is even betrayed by one of them) etc. The three new episodes also have those noises, of course, but for some reason, the viewer don’t buy it, gravity is not transcribed in the right way. When in the old movies, one can hear the infinitely small noise of a worm or of snow melting in contact with human heat, what one can hear in the new movies, is the simple, precise and cold sound of a noise reproduced in studio.

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