The Architecture of Nuit Debout: On Architects’ Compulsive Need to Build Walls

Archi Debout Meriem Chabani (2015_0515) 2

Photograph by Meriem Chabani (May 15, 2016)

I had not yet written anything about Nuit Debout, the current movement that has been occupying the square of the République in Paris since March 31, 2016. The reason for this is that my thoughts are still not articulated about whether or not this movement gives itself the means to fundamentally challenges the way systemic violence operates in France. Originating from a demonstration against a new labor legislation drafted by the French government, the movement quickly expanded its political struggle to other issues: regularization of undocumented workers, rights to housing, police reform, change in foreign policy, anti-speciesism, etc. The variety of these struggles as well as their organizers makes it difficult to emit a definitive opinion on the movement. One thing that is proper to it however and can be, as such, the object of our critique is its territorialization. Situated at the core of young-middle-class Paris — the same Paris that had been the target of the November attacks — Nuit Debout can call as much as it wants for the banlieue youth to join it, its territoriality renders such call uninviting. This is the key problem of the movement: it has forgotten to deconstruct the relationships of domination that are at normatively at work in society. It was particularly flagrant when a few male participants were outraged by the non-mixity of some meetings of the Nuit Debout feminist commission, calling it a denial of democracy, assuming here again the Republic’s universalist claim that “all men [sic] are equal” in a society however operating through the continuous experience of inequality. Similarly, one of the foundations of French structural racism (listen to the Archipelago conversation with Nacira Guénif-Souilamas for more about it) is its territoriality through the segregative characteristics of the banlieues (consult the category dedicated to them on this blog). Here again, the work of deconstruction (decolonization) that would have been necessary for an actual “convergence of struggles” as claimed by Nuit Debout has not been done.

Engaging now at the scale of the movement itself, there has been another work of deconstruction that has been forgotten by one of its commissions: the group of architects that eagerly decided to invest their skills in favor of the movement, Archi Debout. While there is a priori no profession that should be excluded from a social movement, it is reasonable to say that all sets of expertise necessitate an introspection proportional to the role this expertise plays within the mechanisms of violence of a given society. Architects would probably agree that if a group of police officers who currently surround the square of the République would express the desire to be part of the movement, they would not only need to lighten themselves from their offensive gears and weapons, but would also need to deconstruct their responsibility in what the movement struggles against. The same is true for architects and the fact that this reflective work has evidently not been done is symptomatic of the way architects consider their profession: they think of architecture as a neutral tool that can be either used for “good” or “evil.”

Architecture is however not that different from the police baton or, better even, the teargas canister (because of the atmosphere that its produces around bodies) that has been used against Nuit Debout these recent weeks. Neither of them can be separated from their intrinsic violence but both can be used for different forms of struggles, although they are both almost always used to condition and reinforce the normative sets of domination at work in a given society. The photograph above showing a meeting occurring in one of the domes constructed by Archi Debout is highly representative of architecture’s inherent capacity to splits a milieu, organize bodies according to this split, and categorize them socially between included and excluded bodies. On a square recently renovated into a somehow smooth and open plateau that all recognized to have been the condition for such a movement to be organized, architects have felt the compulsive need to recreate separating walls. Of course, the sheltering function will be the one invoked to justify the construction of such walls, yet, the shelter in its sole clear function is the paradigmatic example of “architecture’s intrinsic exclusionary violence” since it determines (through a protocol of selection determined by the local politics) which bodies get to be protected, and which ones should be excluded — even if this protocol materialized through the rather simple “first here, first served” rule as it is the case here.

Nuit Debout barricadesPhotos by Arnaud Contreras (April 6, 2016)

Does this text signify that architects can only be part of social movements as citizens, stripped from their expertise? I am convinced of the contrary. As members of a society dedicated to a spatial reading of the latter, their role can precisely contribute to a deconstruction of the various spatial apparatuses that structure its operative sets of domination between bodies. And if architecture is the weapon this texts claims for it to be, it certainly can finds the same use that it has served historically in Paris through the construction of structures that can simultaneously constitute means of defense and challenge the fluxes of a city otherwise indifferent. Because these two attitudes requires to think of architecture against itself, they have been undertaken by non-architects so far, mostly before architects themselves got involved (as such) as during one of the first nights of Nuit Debout (April 6, 2016), when a crowd marched against the police station of the 5th arrondissement, where were detained some of its members. The fortified architectural characteristics (in a similar way than the ones in the banlieues) emerge historically from the student confrontations with the police in May 1968 — whether the crowd knew it or not, I have no idea. Later on, the marching crowd created barricades on the nearby Boulevard Saint Germain (see photos above) to protect itself against the action of the police. If architects really feel the urge to intervene as such in a political movement, this is, I think, how they should engage with their own expertise.

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