What is wrong with these pictures? Start maybe by looking at them all. The landscapes that they show are beautiful and seem to be almost untouched by humans. The problem is that they are taken where Palestinian villages used to exist before 1948. Five days ago was the 65th anniversary of the Nakba (the catastrophe in Arabic), the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had to flee from their land when the State of Israel was established. These photographs are from the website of the association Zochrot that attempts to familiarize Israeli people with the tragic consequences that their country originated, advocate for a Palestinian right to return (see past article about it) and, hope for a bi-national reconciliation. In this regard, Zochrot has established a map (in Hebrew only) giving an inventory of the Palestinian villages that were evacuated and those that have been destroyed after 1948.
Sometimes their destruction led space to the new Israeli towns but as these photographs reveal, it was a much more profound destruction than a “simple” take over. Palestinian villages have been purely annihilated to the very last stone. Such a clear act of negating the presence of a civilization before the existence of Israel is even more shocking and disturbing as it occurred only a few years after the industrialized Nazi death machine against the Jewish people – let us not forget the gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped and communists either. Ruins of these villages would have told a narrative involving the Palestinian existence prior to the state of Israel and would have implied their evacuation from it. This narrative was apparently not part of the newly born State that got rid of it through the violent erasing of this historical tracks. The ruin implies a tragic situation, but the negation to the right to the ruin goes even further: it is an absolute re-writing of history as it attempts to erase a part of it (it is understood here as the factual history, not the interpretation of it, also named history).
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.
The immanent domain (see third letter) – Dharavi in Mumbai / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (2009)
FIRST LETTER (New York on July 12th 2012) ///
I read your essay Archiving Burroughs: Interzone, Law, Self-Medication with attention and appreciated, as usual, the way you manage to link narrative, law and space all together. I do think however that we should keep this text for a little bit later in our conversation as its specificity might make us miss the bases of the discussion that we would like to have about law and architecture. In this regard, I would like to ingenuously start by stating some obvious facts which are always good to remember for such a discussion.
Law, understood as a human artifact, constitutes an ensemble of regulations which have been explicitly stated in order to categorize behaviors in two categories: legal and illegal. In order to do so, it expects from every individual subjected to its application a full knowledge of its content in order to moralize and held accountable attitudes that are either respectful or transgressive towards it.
Law is undeniably related to space as it requires a given territory with precise borders to be able to implement itself. Nothing easier to understand this fact than to observe in which space one is allowed to smoke and in which one is not. It also includes within this territory smaller zones of exclusion, from the corner of the class room to the penitentiary, in which another form of the law -supposedly a more restrictive one- is applied for individuals who, through an active refusal of specific parts of it, are to be separated from the rest of society. Those individuals, when captured by law enforcer instances, are brought within those zones of exclusion and are being held in them for a given period of time provisioned by law itself.
Destruction of the Glencairn Tower in Motherwell (near Glasgow) / Photograph by Sam Hardie
Explosions are so ubiquitous in Hollywood Cinema, and the emotion is so intense when one torn-down reality that we do not quite seem to realize what they really are. In 2007, Mike Davis was trying to historicize the car bomb and its urban consequences in his book Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007) but his analysis was legitimately anthropocentric, which I want to avoid in this specific article. “Leaving the human” can sometimes be risky as it potentially leads to the depoliticization of things – depolitics being a form of politics too and a rather totalitarian one – but it also allows to think of a better understanding of the material world in which we live, and from which we exist as a body.
What is an explosion at the pure physics level? A bomb is an apparatus that contains folded within itself the potential liberation of an important volume of energy in the form of an exothermic reaction. Such a volume of energy and the speed with which it gets released provoke a sudden disaggregation of the material bodies (animate or inanimate) that surrounds its center. Insisting on the suddenness or the violence of the explosion would be another anthropocentric way to consider it as it would necessarily associate the scale of time in which it occurs to the scale of time of human perception. In other words, the Big Bang could be considered as a sudden explosion at a certain scale of time even though, 14 billions years later, the universe is still affected by its original release of energy. In a materialist interpretation, the speed to which an explosion is effectuated is therefore irrelevant and such an “event” can be compared to any other modification of matter like erosion or entropy. If we define destruction by the operation in which physical bodies are being “broken down” into smaller material assemblages, we can however define an explosion as a destructive transformation of matter without being anthropocentric.
The recent manhunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston was probably quite shocking to many non-Americans – and probably some Americans too -, for the anachronism it constituted. The latter was caused by the ability for a Police to empty an entire city and therefore implements a sort of state of emergency, as well as the “march of the heroes”, the multitude of police officers acclaimed by the crowd after they arrested their prey. There is a profound feudalism in such absoluteness and one has the right to wonder what motivates this disturbing joy.
Let us focus on the urban condition that contextualize this manhunt. I have been repeatedly writing in the past, each house through its impermeability due to the implementation of private property is susceptible to become a prison for the bodies living inside of it in the sudden legal implementation of a quarantine. For an important part of Boston, the quarantine was not implemented stricto sensu but it was highly recommend to each resident to stay inside and the context of fear created by the ubiquitous media made such a recommendation a quasi-order. In the areas of Boston where the police and army was actually deployed, the quarantine was very much effectuated as this article illustrates: Looking through the windows seems to have been prohibited and enforced through the threats of weapons.
While this event was unfolding I was thinking of the descriptions that Michel Foucault makes in his seminar Abnormal (Les Anormaux) at the College de France (1975) of a Medieval/Renaissance city when contaminated by the Plague. Foucault distinguishes two things historically: the negative reaction to cases of leprosy in the same city that consists in the effective exclusion of the sick bodies from it, to the point that they are declared socially dead; and the positive (in the sense that there is an inclusion) reaction to the Plague that provokes a state of emergency and the absolute reorganization of the city according to a quadrillage which has been not so well translated into partitioning. Quadrillage involves indeed a sort of physical or virtual partitioning of a space, but it also implies a detailed, systematic and extensive examination of this same space by a controlling entity. Such an action is thoroughly described by Foucault in his class of January 15th 1975 in this same seminar:
Israeli settlement of Rimmonim on the road from Ramallah to Jericho
I am not quite sure to know the reasons that made me take so much time to write this article, three years after my last trip in Palestine; better late than never as one says so here it is: a majority of the photographs (see below) I took when I was there of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It seemed important here that I include only my own photographs in order to reduce the “degree of separation” between the readers and them.
Those photographs are important to me as they give another approach to the multitude of maps that have been traced to ‘cartograph’ the situation in Palestinian territories. The latter are effectively fundamental to understand the legal implications of the occupation but it also tends to desincarnate any discourse one might have about it. It is therefore extremely important to add to them a more subjective approach, not so much for emotion to emerge, but rather to trigger a clear understanding of the physicality of the occupation on the field. Without this understanding, everything remains abstract and in the realms of territories, thus forgetting that these territories are actually physical and host physical bodies on it.
I want to stress the fact that approaching the problem in a more incarnate and subjective way does not mean in any way that we should focus on the ‘news items’ however tragic they may be. What I mean by that is that what requires all our attention is what systematize the colonial organization of space and the bodies, what affects them on a daily basis. That might be less spectacular than the “news items” I was just evoking; however, there lies the real and durable condition of occupation. In this regard, I would like to link this article with another I wrote a bit more than a year ago entitled The Ordinary Violence of the Colonial Apparatuses in the West Bank that was addressing a similar dimension of the occupation through the various devices that control and hurt the Palestinian bodies on a daily basis.
Wind map of the US North East (detail of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York & Connecticut). Map modified by the author based on the wind patterns/data of the fantastic wind project by Hint.fm.
About a week ago, the website of WNYC (a New York radio broadcast part of the National Public Radio) published a news according to which “The NYPD [New York Police Department] and a national laboratory will be studying how chemical weapons could spread in the air and throughout the subway system this summer in what is the first study of its kind in such a large urban environment.” The rest of the article is short enough for me to copy it here:
Researchers with the Brookhaven National Laboratory will release non-toxic, odorless gas in that mimics how chemical, biological and radiological weapons would disperse. About 200 sampling devices will be used to detect to the gas.
“We want to be able to determine how toxic material can flow through the transit system, it’s one of the concerns that we’ve had for a while and how it flows on the streets of our city,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement.
The tests will begin in July in all five boroughs in 21 subway stations. It is not expected to have an impact on commuting or other activity, police say.
Boston and Washington have conducted similar tests, but this will be the largest.
Original Scheme of Fleur Agema’s Prison project as she imagined it in 1999
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.
As I mentioned in one the most recent articles, I was feeling odd never to have dedicated a full article to the fascinating machine invented by Franz Kafka in his short story In the Penal Colony (1919). This machine is probably the most famous torturing apparatus of the history of literature; even Le Marquis de Sade does not seem to have created such an elaborated piece of equipment (see previous article). The plot introduces a character visiting a penal colony in which he is invited to attend an execution of a disobeying soldier. The entire first half of the story involves the executioner officer who presents the dreadful apparatus to the visitor with great enthusiasm for this machine that was invented by his former master. The device is divided into three parts, the bed below, the inscriber above and, in the middle, the harrow. The latter is composed of multiple needles that draw a pattern on the back of the convict’s body. The pattern is specific to the sentence attributed to the condemned person and, for this reason, it needs to be first set-up in the inscriber. Once the machine is operating the pattern is inscribed in the body of the convict for hours. The latter does not know his sentence and has therefore to learn it in his very flesh. When the visitor disapprove of this execution, the officer frees the prisoner and takes his place on the machine, he then dies in horrific pain when the latter dysfunctions.
Aleppo, January 29, 2013. (Reuters/Zain Karam)
As an introduction to this article, I would like to say that I have been hesitant to write the latter as many of the thirty eight photographs posted by The Atlantic on February 20th 2013 (thank you Guilhem) carry enough visual power to bring to them the noxious pictorial fetishism that Western society (at peace mostly) have contributed to develop and exacerbated. Seeing a fighter of the Free Syrian Army piloting an automated machine gun with a playstation controller triggers in us (probably the male part in all of us) a disturbing confusion between game and reality, heroism and survival. That is why an image of this importance should never be shown without a reflective framework to avoid its epidemic (online) reproduction leading inexorably to the domain of the “cool”, this ill-defined realms of things that give us the contentment of an aesthetics without its intellectual “burden”.
Another thing that needs to be said as a preamble is that journalism tends to be more interested in the domain of the spectacular in opposition to the familiar and therefore, we need to see most of this images for what they are: exceptions, accidents, unique manifestations of something larger. In other words, most Syrians, right now, whether they are fully part of the rebellion or simply subjected to the continuous bombing and persecutions of Bashar al-Assad’s government’s army, probably do not have access to weapons having a certain degree of sophistication, if not weapons at all. Reading these photographs in another way would mislead us and draw inaccurate conclusions on the future of warfare and immanent resistance.
We continue today to explore the “cruel designs” that collects each piece of architecture or objects that have been specifically designed to assess a hurtful power upon the body.
Many people know the main characteristics of the Mayan Pyramids as the steepness of their steps. Such a steepness is proper to religious architecture in the symbolical effortful approach to transcendence. However, it also had very “down to earth” killing function in times of peace and war. The sacrificial pyramids’ steps were used as a mean to “finish off” the sacrificed bodies by throwing them from the top of the stair to the bottom of the pyramid. The steepness in that case insured that the body would indeed roll all the way down. In times of war, the stairs could become a veritable defensive apparatus. The Mayans would take refuge on the top of the pyramids and have soldiers, attached to the top by ropes around their bodies, fighting on the stairs pushing the assailants down the steps who were likely to be severely wounded if not killed by the fall.
What I find fascinating in these stories (which would probably deserve to be more detailed by a legitimate expert of the Mayan civilization), is the fact that the killing apparatus invented by the Mayans is nothing else than the stair that we have in almost every building built by humans. The steepness here is merely a way to sharpen the weapon like one sharpen a knife. What does that mean for architecture that an “innocent” stair can become such a violent device? Was the stair even innocent in the first place? Considered abstractly this quasi-inevitable element of the architectural tool set is rather strange. After all, it is nothing else than a series of small pieces of floor that are assembled in such a way that it successively reach a certain height. Many elderlies and disabled persons are very aware of this essential reading of the stairs; they know that it requires a certain degree of energy and fitness to bring a body to go from one of those pieces of floor to another. The stair, in its essence, has already a clear impact on the body.
The panopticon in its totality / assembled photographs by Léopold Lambert
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The building is particular as it was one of the first prisons to implement the panopticon scheme invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. This scheme is not fully applied as what is actually visible from the center of the building are the ten alleys and not the cells themselves; however, the centralization and totalization of surveillance is manifested here and were probably operative to a great extent. The prison was operative between 1829 and 1971 and along the years, some additional branches were even incorporated to the original layout, bringing the amount of visible alleys to twelve (two of them can be watched thanks to mirrors). The small montage above corresponds to a 360-degree view from the center of the building.
I often argues that Michel Foucault, who contributed to made the panopticon well known, paradoxically never thought in terms of architecture (see my essay Foucault and Architecture: The Encounter that never was) as, when he was writing or talking about architecture, what he was really doing was to speak only of diagrams (we could say the architect’s plan). What is true nevertheless, is that such a diagrammatically based architecture definitely tends to reinforce the machinic functioning of this building in the way it absolutely controls the bodies (that is the definition of a prison). If we remain at the diagrammatic level, there is no escape from this systematic operation; if we explore the physicality of architecture however, the means of escapibility correspond to the ability of a body to use the fallibility of architecture in its physicality (there no fallibility at the diagrammatic level). Here is one example: In 1945, two inmates of the Eastern State Penitentiary dug a hundred feet long tunnel and escaped from the prison’s periphery.
This article is not a sequel as such of the previous one, but rather starts where the last post ended. I was evoking the possibility for the corpse of Remus to have been buried in the thickness of the line traced by his twin brother Romulus to found his city. This narrative reminds me of another that I published almost two years ago: the sad sadian tale that Eduardo McIntosh created to tell us how far can architecture be an accomplice in the realization of the worst crimes. In that case, Afghans masons were forced by the Talibans to build an architecture with the dead bodies of the Northern Alliance (commanded back then by Massoud) used as human bricks. The imagery created by Eduardo helped any viewer to fathom the horror introduced by the narrative.
Some other stories are ever worse however. Back when I presented Eduardo’s narrative, I evoked another article written few days earlier about the book Camouflage written by Neil Leach, in which he tells the Central European tale of Mason Manole who had to immure his own wife to grant success to the Monastery he promised he will build (see the full story in the same article). As he had the opportunity to point out, N. Leach’s interest in this story is focused on the notion of sacrifice, the price to pay to give a soul to a building; what I am more interested (for the moment) to examine is the role of architecture in this particular form of murder. Just like a gun or any similar weapon, architecture in its inherent violence is able to kill a body subjugated by its power. In this regard, the cries of the wife in the tale of mason Manole are particularly expressive in their characterization of the absolute violence on the body it develops:
Manole, Manole, Master Manole! The wall presses me too hard and breaks my little body! [...] Manole, Manole, Master Manole, the wall presses me too hard and crushes my breasts and breaks my child.
One of the most famous fratricide of the world mythology is the one of Romulus and Remus. Similarly to Cain killing his brother Abel in the Bible/Quran or Seth killing his brother Osiris in the Egyptian mythology, it is written that Antic Rome was founded on a murder between brothers, specifically twins in that case. Romulus and Remus were abandoned by their mothers, fed by a female wolf and raised by a couple of shepherds. They both wanted to found a new city on one of the hills that are now famous as characteristics of Rome. After both interpreted the auguries in their own favor, Romulus starts digging a trench around what will be the new city. Remus, in protest, jump over the trench and get killed by his brother. The new city named after Romulus was born.
This story, many of us know it, but it is interesting to re-read it through the filter of architecture and the law. When Romulus digs a trench around the future city, he circumscribe and appropriate a territory, in other words he proclaims his property. Such thing would not be possible without a modification of the physical environment, that is why he is digging a trench, but he could have just as well build a fence or a wall. Architecture, understood as the voluntary act on the material context – in this regard, a wall or a trench are both as much architecture – is used to implement the law. We can also observe that what we call the law can be unilaterally declared and subjugate each body present on the territory on which the law apply. It is therefore important that architecture delimits the territory as one of the axiom of the law is that anybody who is subject to respect it is supposed to know about it. Just like when Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, when Remus jumps the trench, he is full aware of his trespassing, he is so much aware of it that he is accomplishing his act only to disobey the law as a form of protest against it (which is the only reason one is legitimate to disobey the law).
I apologize to those of my readers who would reasonably see this article as a form of self-promotion, this will be the first and only post about this book. Following the research I undertook in 2010 and the architectural project that emerged from it in 2011, My good friends Ethel and Cesar from DPR-Barcelona and I have worked together to come out with a book, Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence that would be available for all. This is now the case and you can find the book on any national franchise of amazon and (preferably!) in some bookstores in various countries. For a presentation of this work, you can see the small lecture I was lucky to be able to do at the school of architecture of Lund (Sweden) in September 2012. One particularity of the book that is also worth noting, was developed by dpr-barcelona is the introduction of a dose of augmented reality through smart phones and tablets that allow a second layer of multimedia information for each chapter.
More information after the break.
Do not let the fancy renderings of the winning entry for the new American Embassy in London mislead you, what you see is nothing else than the contemporaneous version of the Middle Age castle. The project, designed by Kieran Timberlake carries many characteristics of medieval means of defense and thus constitutes the paradigm of the post-2001 American Embassy. As I already pointed out in a previous article about the competition for the US Embassy in Belgrade, this paradigm is defined by the contradiction between the appearance and the essence of the building, the former representing the traditional discourse of openness, “democracy, liberty and America” (quoting the issue of proudly American Metropolis dedicated to US Embassies) while the latter is really about the protection of the building and what it contains.
Just like for the new World Trade Center in New York, the base of the building has to be solid enough to contain a bomb-car attack. In the London case, the building is separated from the city by an earth motte as well as a moat filed with water (see the wired article about those apparatuses). As many people also realize a square-base building ensures to have the least contact surface with the outside. Usually it represents a useful way to control the energy transfers and thus to make the building more ecoLogical, in that case, it ensures to the core of the building to be protected from any exterior attack. The peripheral glass is therefore only a decoy which indicates what truly needs to be protected in an Embassy, not as much people, but documents that are stored in the center of the building. It would be interesting to see the plans but of course, they are kept secret, which brings the attention on the architect’s responsibility once again. The generation of architects currently practicing has been built on the disillusion of the previous one (the moderns), and has therefore accepted the idea that, as simple cogs of the mechanisms, they were not responsible for the political consequences of their products. The very fact that their plans could be kept secret brings attention on the power of the scheme that they participated to conceive.
Photograph by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (1871)
On May 16th 1871, at the core of the Paris Commune, a ceremony is organized to demolish the Vendôme Column, symbol of the Napoleonian imperialism (as usual for La Commune, refer to Raspouteam’s website for more information). Although an important amount of buildings were burnt down (for various reasons) during La Commune, the destruction of the Vendôme Column is the most expressive symbol of what I would like to call architecture in negative, or to use an oxymoron, destructive construction. On the contrary of what was affirmed by the Versaillais press and officials, this act was very far from being motivated by a thoughtless barbarian will of destruction. Indeed, the ensemble of buildings being representative -we might say symptomatic- of a given scheme of relationships of power, it is necessary for a new form of governance to subvert or demolish the same ensemble in order to avoid to reproduce the same relationships of domination of one group over another.
In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Programme Elementaire du Bureau d’Urbanisme Unitaire) in the Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961), the Situationists, through the writings of Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, affirms the following:
All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its basic laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics. Materializing freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet.
This notion of positive void is precisely what the demolition of the Vendôme Column was about: the suppression of the power of a paradigmatic artifact to allow the construction of something new.
The prospects for the section cruel designs continues with, once again, a carceral invention from the 19th century: a treadmill for prisoners as a disciplinary apparatus. JF Ptak Science Books’ website gives us an overlook to this device implemented in the prison of Cold Field Baths in London. The principle is as simple as it sounds, a series of wheels that prisoners have to make a physical effort in order to walk on it and thus perpetuate an immobile movement. We can legitimately doubt that the energy thus produced was not used for anything and can be therefore compared to the traditional penitentiary stone breaking punishment, as useless as physically enduring.
With this example, we can interrogate the design status of the treadmill we are more familiar with, the one that populates our gyms whose vision considered coldly has something of industrial farming. What can be said of the voluntarily participation of all those bodies found in the common yet very much individual will of sweating? What is for sure is that such (expensive) systematization of human effort emptied from anything that would possibly characterizes sport, requires a piece of design that has been thought for such use. We might want to use a cinematographic example that many will know to illustrate the smallness of a difference there is between Cold Field Baths’ prisoners and those happy gym addicts who voluntarily run for miles without actually going anywhere: In Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), we can see (if not, see below) the character played by Bill Murray running on a treadmill (something that probably has another name actually) that gradually accelerates to the point that his body is soon being tortured to be able to follow the rhythm imposed by the machine. The cry “help” is then both comical and tragic, expressing the complete powerlessness of the character when subjected to the cruel design.
El ángel exterminador (1962) is a film by Luis Buñuel in which the group of main characters are stuck for weeks in a living room after a urbane dinner. Nothing visually seems to prevent them from actually exiting the living room but for a mysterious reason none of them seems to try to actually get out despite the fact that they are close from dying from hunger.
This narrative is a good subject of investigation for the theory often attempted here (thank you Nick for pointing that out) according to which architecture has a fundamental power on the bodies. Of course, in that case the living room does not appear as a prison as the large double door at its entrance remains open all along the film but we can, once again, interrogate ourselves about the power that the line drawn by the architect carries in itself.
What is a door after all? Isn’t it simply an apparatus that organize architecture’s porosity or, in other words, a device that control the carceral characteristics of a room. After all, a prison always have a door. A locked door is nothing else than a wall for which (most of the time) the human body cannot develop a sufficient effort to modify or destroy it. Each interior space (aka room), traced by the architect as a continuous closed line is a prison en puissance (“in power”, “potentially”). On a side note, I recently learned that the word “prisoner” has the interesting characteristic to be written 囚 in Chinese and Japanese. Whoever has been learning the very basics of Chinese characters will recognize 人 i.e. a person, surrounded by a continuous and closed line. As often, those characters are fascinating by their minimal representation of their meaning.
DMZ is a comic book that I discovered in my research for references for the NY Commune Project. It constitutes a quite literal precedent indeed. Written by Brian Wood and drawn by Riccardo Burchielli between 2005 and 2012, it introduces the United States in a second civil war that opposes the “loyalist” states to the “free states” which declared secession from the rest of the country. The particularity of the plot which gives its title to the series can be found in the status of Manhattan within this story: a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two camps leaving its 400,000 inhabitants to a state of anarchy in which each has to find strategies of survival. The main character of the comic is Matthew Roth, a young journalist who find himself “lost” in this war zone and discovers the cogs of the city’s organization.
The scenario is close from the one developed in John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York which will probably be the subject of a forthcoming article, but at the difference of the latter, it tries to describe episode after episode how such a society, however violent it is, can actually holds together (one of the episode is even built around an election in Manhattan). It also presents the very interesting conditions of a city under siege whose rhythm of ceasefire and heavy attacks authorizes or not a certain form of daily life. One can think of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 as a reference for it (Governor Island is called “Sniper Heaven” in a probable reference to “sniper alley”) but also Gaza and its supposedly “surgical” air raids. The checkpoints at each access to the island, tunnels and bridges, help us to think of it that way.
The series is composed of 72 episodes. Such extensive narrative allows its authors to develop a piece of scenario for each district or building with their own each “psychogeography”. See a few excerpts below: