Few days ago, Daniel Fernandez Pascual posted a very interesting project on his fantastic Deconcrete. Entittled Closed Architecture, this book created by Jonas Staal is exploring in a very interesting way the architecture thesis project of a woman called Fleur Agema, who since became a member of the Dutch Parliament on the list of a party that is unfortunately illustrative of what the right wing looks like in Europe currently (neo-liberal economic policies, conservative immigration and mores policies). J. Staal simply studied F. Agema’s thesis text and project and re-interpreted them visually according to what such a project would actually looks like if implemented by governmental policies. The images below are part of a much larger book that Jonas Staal proposes to download on his website.
Before analyzing what that might tell us about practicing architecture, I would like to introduce briefly the project (I highly recommend to read the whole book). As an architecture student, Fleur Agema imagines a prison whose prisoner population is spread into four different buildings corresponding each with a phase of incarceration. Quoting J. Staal’s book directly here:
The model that Agema has developed focuses on the reconditioning of prisoners by means of four phases. In the first version they are called, “The Bunker – The Habituation – The Wait – The Light” (see p. 33), and in the final version, “The Fort – The Encampment – The Artillery Installation – The Neighborhood” (see p. 99). “The Fort” is modeled after the ancient design of the dungeon, and is meant to break the prisoner’s resistance; “The Encampment” is a camp with vegetable gardens to stimulate independence; “The Artillery Installation” is a type of commune in which the prisoners have to learn to operate collectively; and “The Neighborhood” is essentially a reconstruction of a residential neighborhood filled with hidden cameras, where the prisoners live a simulated life in order to verify whether they are yet fully capable of functioning within society.
The images that follow this article are the visualizations that J. Staal did to illustrate F. Agema’s ideas, I chose to include each times three perspectives (outside/inside/room) to make the comparison easier to observe.
One could write an extensive article about the fact that the system of punishments and rewards thought by F. Agema, although based on what I suppose are “good intentions”, is profoundly problematic for the vision of society it represents. That is something I will do only at a limited level here as my point is elsewhere. Firstly, there is this very problematic question that I have been repeatedly asking myself along the lines of this blog’s articles many times: Should I, as an architect, accept to design a prison? And if not as the easy answer seems to be suggested, what about a bank, a retail store, a shopping mall, a police office, a factory? all these buildings that I would probably have ideas to ameliorate a tiny bit, but that remain profoundly productive of a model of society that I do not approve. To this question, F. Agema seems to have a very clear answer: yes she would certainly design a prison. On the other hand, it seems only fair as her ethics seems to have a bigger issue with the prisons as they currently are (who wouldn’t ?) than with the prisons as what they are intrinsically: an instrument of absolute capture of one’s body as a form of punishment and example to the rest of the bodies.
For the sake of the argument then, let us look closer to the model she proposes. It is true that phasing (a theoretical popular idea) seems to be potentially helpful for the reconversion of a prisoner into society as current prisons and their conditions of life almost always make people “worse” (again, I am thinking within the argument that prisons are legitimate) than when they entered them. The idea of phasing seems then appropriate. However, in this specific case, the phasing is not based on time but rather, on merit. The lowest level of incarceration is even worse than the current carceral conditions in order to force prisoners to be part of this system. The politics of the carrot and the stick are known to be completely counter-emancipative as in both cases of the reward and the punishment, the body is “granted” something from a transcendental entity and therefore never gives it the chance to inscribe itself in an immanent condition in which it will acts for itself and not for what will be given to it “from above”. Such a societal scheme is symptomatic of the meritocracy valued by the capitalist ideology that always redirect the object of desire in such a long chain that the absurdity of it is lost in its process: “I want to work, because I want to get money, because I want to be able to go to vacations because I want to rest etc.”
The argument I wanted to make here however, is different. Oftentimes I go to attend jurys in Architecture school, assignment that I must admit I usually enjoy even though I can see how much its traditional performative version would need a serious makeover. Very often during these jurys, I am compelled by the fact that many students do not seem to quite fathom the subject that they are engaging. The problem is not really to know who is to blame for that here (students, teachers, schools or the system itself) as it is probably a bit everything; rather we should think of ways to make sure that it does not happen. The great interest I have for Jonas Staal’s book here is that it gives a very credible vision of the way passionate, yet naive ideas developed by a student can materialize in reality. In that specific case, these same ideas seem to have caught back the student as she became a politician and a more and more conservative one. Nevertheless, in other cases, one’s ideas, when considered lightly for whichever reasons, might manifest in reality in a very different way (usually in a bad way!) than the one originally intentioned. I know that I usually mean the notion of “weaponized architecture” in an oppressive or empowering way, but here I would like to stress that this weapon should not be taken lightly. I am in no way calling for a serious, pure and austere practice of architecture like the moderns used to, on the contrary, I think that the playful and joyful practice of architecture can be deeply rigorous and politically active. My text seemed addressed to students earlier as the prison project here was made in school, but this really applies to all architects and actors of the other creative disciplines: We are responsible for the ideas we “put on the table” and that includes the unthought consequences that might emerge from them.
Closed Architecture (excerpts) by Jonas Staal:
Next renderings were produced directly by Fleur Agema for her project in 1999: