Architects Accomplices of a Selective National(ist) Narrative of Memorialization – Rivesaltes, France


Léopold Lambert – Paris on March 8, 2017
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Earlier today, I encountered the presentation of a new building designed by well-known French architect Rudy Ricciotti in collaboration with Passelac & Roques on the popular website, Archdaily. This building is the Memorial of the Camp of Rivesaltes (formerly known as “Camp Joffre”) in French Catalonia, and the press release that Archdaily docilely reproduced without any critique, comment, or request for additional information, only introduces the history curated by the Memorial through the following extremely vague sentence: “We cannot remain detached from the history of Camp Joffre through a discourse that is indifferent to the human drama that unfolded on this very site,” before continuing with the usual architectural considerations one may find for any other building — Ricciotti’s office’s official website does not even include a textual description of the project. This short article will therefore attempt to present the camp’s history, the selective memorialization of this history of incarceration and State violence, and the subsequent responsibility Ricciotti and Archdaily bear in silencing this fundamental dimension of this project.

Situated five kilometers away from the city of Perpignan, the Camp Joffre was created in 1939 as a military facility — Joseph Joffre was a WWI French General — that quickly became a carceral one as part of the massive arrest accomplished by the French Police in the so-called “Free Zone” during the occupation of the Northern part of the country by the German army (1940-1942). The camp, under the Vichy sovereignty, was then used to incarcerate 17,500 people: 9,275 Spanish Republicans (the Spanish border is only 25 kilometer away), 1,225 French Romanis, and 7,000 Foreign Jews arrested by the French police, 2313 of whom will later be”handed” to the Nazis to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust. In this regard, the Camp Joffre was sinisterly called the “Drancy of the Free Zone” in reference to the camp of Drancy in the northeastern banlieue of Paris, where 67,400 Jews were incarcerated between 1942 and 1944 before being deported to the death camps. 215 people died during their incarceration in Camp Joffre. After 1942 and the invasion of the “Free Zone,” the camp was used by the German army as a military facility. At the end of the war, more than 10,000 German, Austrian, and Italian prisoners of war, as well as some French collaborators were incarcerated in the camp until their liberation in 1948. Many will die in the two first years of captivity due to the very poor conditions of detention.


In the beginning of the 1960s and, with the novel independence of its former colonies, the French government had to provide accommodation for dozens of thousands of families of colonized subjects who were engaged with the French army in its war against the decolonial movements. It is particularly the case of the 91,000 so-called “Harkis” from Algeria who had to relocate to France after their participation in the war effort against the Algerian Revolution between 1954 and 1962. Between 1962 and 1964, 21,000 of them were housed in the Camp Joffre, which was not modified in its military and carceral original urban plan and, as such, remained a highly controllable, segregated and oppressive spatial setting. Later on, about 800 Guineans soldiers and their families moved in the camp after living in remaining military facilities in Senegal or Ivory Coast — these countries’ independence did not mean the end of colonialism, or at least a part of it — as well as some Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian soldiers who fought alongside the French army against the decolonial movements of Indochina.

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View of some of the camp’s barracks whose architecture did not change from their carceral function to their accommodation one.

This history, in particular the contribution of the camp to the Holocaust and the incarceration of Spanish Republicans, is well-acknowledged by the Memorial and the national narrative that legitimized its creation. As such, it takes part in the relatively recent acknowledgment of France’s eager collaboration with the Nazis during WWII —although the term “France” is usually substituted with “the Vichy Regime.” The history of the camp in its relation to colonialism is under emphasized, but the situation of the Harkis can be said to have been addressed by the national narrative as their abandonment by the French government after these first years of precarious accommodation was also acknowledged by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. Of course, such acknowledgement changed nothing to the conditions of life of their descendants and of other former colonized subjects, but this specific article solely focuses on the national memorialization of historic violence.

A last historical episode of the camp is however completely obliterated from this memorialization. The Memorial’s official website barely give us an indication: “…between 1986 and 2007, a small [sic] administrative detention center for soon-to-be-expelled foreigners was set up there. This center was eventually transferred to Perpignan as it appeared as incompatible with the creation of a place for memory and history.” Although this migrant detention center can be said to be small in relation to others in the European Union (its detention capacity is only 21 people), we can see how the term “small” is used here to minimize the continuation of violence in the Camp Joffre. Moreover, its propensity in expelling people rapidly increases significantly the amount of people who were detained in it (1,094 in 2006 for instance, see source).

Detention Center Perpignan
The migrant detention center of Perpignan that replaced the one of Rivesaltes in 2007.

This capacity was also more than doubled (48) when the transfer occurred from a site deemed to host a memorial about historical violence to the airport surroundings of Perpignan — a common location and remote urban typology for migrant detention centers. This State violence, non-recognized as such or legitimized by current ideologies and politics — as if the historical violence memorialized today had not followed the same logic of legitimization yesterday — is thus reterritorialized, perhaps waiting for its future memorialization. Architects and journalists (in this case, Archdaily editors) are accomplices to selective national(ist) narratives of memorialization when they refuse to acknowledge and engage with the continuity of the historic violence that States (in particular Western ones) memorialize, by definition, always too late since it is their very own violence that is being memorialized. Although we can celebrate the creation of such architecture of remembrance and sensitization to the national responsibility in historic violence, they are useless if they do not fundamentally engage with the continuation of the logics that allows the conditions for this violence to occur.