# LEGAL THEORY /// The Space beyond the Walls: Defensive “a-legal” Sanctuaries


The space beyond the walls: Defensive “a-legal” sanctuaries
(originally written for the Wheelwright Prize – failed)

Considered purely in the abstract, the law appears to be a tool which makes strict categorizations of human actions and behaviors as either legal or illegal, just or unjust. Concomitantly, the abstraction of the law corresponds with a similar spatial abstraction in which territories are defined diagrammatically. This is true as far as the sovereignty of states is concerned but also for all architectural plans; they diagrammatically organize space into distinct territories of jurisdiction. In each case, law and diagram are reduced to their abstract lines. Once manifested as physical architecture, however, such strict delineation becomes far more ambiguous. Which law is applied in the space of a wall, the space of a border or the space of a contested zone? These spaces are legal anomalies and may be understood as the architectural manifestation of what Legal Philosophy Professor Hans Lindahl calls a-legality. Such in-between spaces seem at once to underwrite the law as well as to contradict it. In this research project, I propose to investigate specific cases in which the architecture of such “a-legal zones” is strategically used as a space of sanctuary from coercive forces. My argument insists that an “a-legal architecture” is specifically a defensive one as it gives itself the means to preserve such a status.


This research will examine four of these legal anomalies. To some extent, they constitute a holdover of pre-modern ecclesiastical structures in which the right of asylum is transplanted onto modern geopolitical landscapes. In this regard, Greek universities have recently ended a thirty eight year period of asylum within their campuses where access by the Police and the Army was prohibited. This legal right had been granted has a form of acknowledgement of the students’ role in the overthrow of the junta dictatorship in 1974, but was recently considered as problematic by the authorities. The ‘inertia’ of this law is, however, still active and can still be examined. Within the context of such a legal status, architecture plays a fundamental role in influencing its application. Entrances and exits, for example, determine the way some students are able to ‘swarm’ in or out of the university when they are occasionally chased by riot police after a demonstration. Similarly, the way university buildings are being used cannot be neutral as the police often “siege” the campuses thus forcing fugitives to organize forms of “in-habitability” within them.


When many factories had to cease their activity after the economic crisis of 2001 in Argentina, similar processes of appropriation and defense began with workers taking control of their working place. Organized under the banner of the fábricas recuperadas (re-claimed factories), they have developed an alternative to the capitalist and hierarchical mode of production. The architecture of the Zanon ceramic tile factory (Neuquen), the Brukman textile factory and the Hotel Bauen (Buenos Aires) recounts such an alternative, as well as the survival and defensive means that needed to emerge in order to resist the various forces deployed against them.


The third case-study proposed for this research also exists through the means of expropriation, in this case, within the frame of colonial tactics. The Israeli settlements inhabited by over 500,000 civilians in the West Bank constitute a violation of Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention which stipulates that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” However, through their de facto occupation of the Palestinian territory, as well as with their continuous territorial expansion, the status of a legal anomaly is gradually transferred to the land that they slowly but surely circumscribe. My analysis of this specific architectural example would be built on the bases of my previous research about the role of architecture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2008.

The US embassy in Cairo

The last item of investigation globally questions the legal/architectural typology of the Embassy. Here again, the legal anomaly it constitutes makes the notion of national sovereignty more complex and ambiguous as embassies are effectively parts of a given country within another. The way such a relation is articulated between both territories is truly architectural. The American embassies in particular are interesting examples to study as the past few decades of antagonistic US foreign policy has only added fuel to the fire causing the diplomatic architectural paradigm to shift to a defensive strategy that shares many similarities with the strategies of Middle Age castles. The American embassy in Cairo, for example, carries such medieval defensive characteristics. The building, designed by Metcalf and Associates in the 1980’s, is a ten-story ‘dungeon’ that is required to withstand a potential force of 2,000 pounds of TNT. Such defensiveness surely played an important role during the management of the recent protest in which an angry crowd attempted to penetrate its perimeter last September.

I envision this research as a continuation of my personal work that deploys itself both through theoretical investigations and the practice of design. In this regard, the book I would like to produce through the Wheelwright Prize would include the collection of the case study analyses, as well as a personal architectural project informed by this research. Refusing the dichotomy of writing and designing is, for me, a way to accept the responsibility that each architect has towards society, as well as an opportunity to determine an architectural means to subvert the role that has been chosen for him or her by the establishment. Only under these circumstances can we think of an architecture that does not reinforce the dominant relationships of power but rather, that articulates a strategic response in order to resist them.

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