The Architecture of the State of Emergency in France (Harvard Design Magazine 2016)


Léopold Lambert – Paris on February 10, 2017
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“The Architecture of the State of Emergency in France.” First published in Harvard Design Magazine, number 42 (Spring-Summer 2016) edited by Jennifer Sigler.

In January 2015, two successive attacks in Paris led to the assassination of 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the arbitrary murders of five more at a kosher supermarket two days later. Overshadowing the mourning of the victims of these attacks, an ideological debate quickly fragmented French citizens into those who affirmed the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” and many others who, despite sharing a sense of shock over the violence, refused to associate themselves with a publication famous for insulting religion in general and Islam in particular. While millions of people rallied in France on January 11th to defend “the freedom of speech against terrorism,” others feared the political instrumentalization of an event attended by demagogic politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy, Viktor Orbán, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Liberman. But this gathering was not the only political gesture made in response to the attacks. On January 12th, the implementation of so-called Operation Sentinel enabled the deployment of 11,000 soldiers in major cities across France to patrol airports and train stations, as well as stand guard in front of religious buildings and offices of the press. Police officers, who days earlier carried only handguns, were armed with machine guns and rifles, contributing to an atmosphere of aggression and paranoia—not to mention the economic prosperity of arms manufacturers.

Soldiers in the Paris subway during the state of emergency. / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (2015)

Eleven months later, on November 13th, coordinated attacks left 130 people dead and 352 injured at six sites in Paris and the northern suburb of Saint-Denis. It was then that the political instrumentalization of fear took the form of legal promulgation. A national state of emergency was declared, temporarily restricting certain rights and increasing executive and police power. Such exceptional measures have been decreed in only three other historical contexts: during the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), during revolts in the overseas territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia in 1984 and 1985, and in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in 2005 after a series of revolts. These examples highlight the connection between the history of the state of emergency and the history of colonialism—whether historical colonial subjects (Algeria), assimilated colonial subjects (overseas departments/collectivities), or metropolitan colonial subjects (banlieues, or suburbs, inhabited largely by second- and third-generation immigrants from former French colonies). The logic behind this link is clear: France suspends the rights that it claims as indispensible principles—enshrined in slogans like “the country of human rights” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”—when confronted by its colonial subjects, who are understood as fundamentally outside of the notion of “national identity,” a concept so often deployed by politicians across the political spectrum.

Instead of integrating the estimated 4.7 million Muslim citizens in France into a great “us” that was de facto united around a sense of loss after the attacks, the government chose to implement an antagonistic, racist state of emergency. On February 19, 2016, a few days before the state of emergency was set to end, parliament authorized a three-month extension. During the previous three months, many city inhabitants witnessed the appearance of heavily armed soldiers and police officers patrolling and controlling access to streets via checkpoints controlling access to specific streets (a tedious process for those who happen to live on one of them).

During the bloody suppression against the 1871 Paris Commune—when the city declared its independence from the rest of France during three months—the militarized essence of Parisian Haussmanian architecture was made apparent. The 19th-century piercing of large avenues allowed cavalry and artillery to circulate fluidly in the city to suppress potential insurrections. Today, various police and military vehicles still capitalize on these channels to control the city. The high density of Paris’s urban fabric also facilitates the control of entire neighborhoods through the use of police barricades or concrete blocks, as was the case in Brussels following the March 22, 2016, bombings. Of course, architecture was not conceived in order to implement such a control; yet it has an inherent capacity to enforce certain organizational schemes for bodies in space.

Entrance doors destroyed by the police during their searches. / Photographs by the apartment owners (2015)

These very visible features of the state of emergency hid the fundamental inequality of such exceptional measures. Police searched over 3,300 homes, offices, mosques, and restaurants in numerous cities across the metropolitan and overseas territories, overwhelmingly targeting Muslims (and to a lesser degree Roma, as well as ecologists during the United Nations Climate Change Conference). Admittedly, accounts of these searches vary drastically. Some describe police officers visibly embarrassed to search the offices of a Muslim association, while others depict a fully armed squad searching homes during the middle of the night while insulting the residents. People have reported finding their doors pulverized and their possessions spread chaotically across their apartments. Regardless of whether police officers showed professionalism or abused their power, there is an inherent violence to these perquisitions. Not only was the privacy of homes and other spaces violated, but broken doors came to act as proof of the existence of a tacit sub-citizenry, one whose rights and dignity were of little import to the state.

Broken doors show the will of the state and its police to master the spatial agency embodied by architecture. Architecture’s protective function, materialized by walls—a locked door is nothing else than a wall—is here compromised by the exceptional measures enabled by the state of emergency. Meanwhile, the same walls are alternatively orienting their imprisoning function on the 290 Muslims who were subsequently put under house arrest.

If most of the searches described above have led to no conclusive results, it is because most of these searches do not aim to find anything in particular. They are used as an intimidation technique against persons and communities thought to be practicing a radical interpretation of Islam, as well as a means for the police to construct a cartography of private spaces (an opportunity that only arises during a state of emergency). Reports written and filed by law-enforcement officials of these searches crystallize their collective observations of a normally inaccessible realm, thus constructing a unique cartography of spaces unrelated to the mandate of the search. Here, again, the notion of cartography relates to architecture’s production of knowledge that emerges from surveying and drawing, which corresponds to a higher ability to control the space considered.

Map of wealth disparities per municipality in the Paris metropolitan area. White outlines are cités, i.e. high-density social housing in low density urbanism. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2014)

In the case of France, not just any neighborhoods are searched. The overwhelming majority of searches have been conducted in the banlieues, where a large number of Muslims live under economically precarious conditions. The French police have developed an antagonist relationship with the banlieues, intervening mostly as a form of suppression rather than protection. The state of emergency allowed the police to establish precise cartographic knowledge of what they understand to be the bastions of the adversary. As a result of these legal conditions, the antagonism that the police develop toward residents—especially youth—materializes as an even more asymmetrical violence than that of “normal” times.

Five days after the November attacks, 1,500 officers from various branches of law enforcement, including the RAID—an elite tactical unit of the French National Police—raided a building in the center of Saint-Denis where two suspects and one family member were hiding. The televisual imagery linked to this event was like that of a war zone, with the setting already prepared as the face of the banlieues (despite it possessing what could be defined as a typically Parisian urbanity). The deployment of SWAT teams or soldiers in the banlieues is not uncommon in such neighborhoods, where delinquency, criminality, and threat to national security are often demagogically confused by politicians and the police. In his 2010 book, Opération Banlieues, Hacène Belmessous examined the potential scenarios that would lead the French army to intervene in the banlieues during the most intense years of the Sarkozy administration.[1] Although antagonism between the French government and the suburban youth has always been strong, the seven years of Sarkozy’s governance (four as Minister of Interior Affairs, and five as President) intensified the violence of this relationship.

Belmessous describes how in addition to urban planners, architects, local associations, and social-housing developers, the police have participated, in recent years, in decisions regarding the renovation of some suburban neighborhoods. The relationship between the former and the police seems often to reach a level of complicity in the surveillance and control of the residents. In 2010, a new law “reinforcing the fight against group violence and the protection of persons in charge of a public service mission” allows social developers to set up video surveillance cameras whose feed of common spaces of social housing buildings is sent directly to the police.[2] Such measures resonate with 1970s architectural theories of “design against crime” as defined by architects like Oscar Newman and Barry Poyner, who used architecture’s capacity to control visibility and filter bodies in order to police collective housing spaces.[3] At other times, the policing renovation comes at the expense of the architects’ original scheme: in a recent article for The Funambulist, Belmessous describes how the great pedestrian plain of La Grande Borne—a large postwar housing estate one hour south of Paris—had been transformed to accommodate vehicles crossing it.[4] Although it was claimed that the change would mostly serve the fire department in case of an emergency, Belmessous notes that the residents he interviewed were positive that the transformation was requested by the police.

Police station of Villiers-le-Bel (northern Paris banlieues). / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (2015). For more photographs from this research, click on the photo.

Part of the latter’s influence on urban design and architecture can be also found in the relatively recent constructions of several police stations in the northern and eastern banlieues of Paris. Those communicate themselves—through their spatiality, aesthetics, and choice of material (brick, black steel, and even, in one instance, imitation marble)—as if they were designed by architecture offices also responsible for libraries, schools, or other, less inherently politically charged buildings. However, their careful design fails to disguise their fortified characteristics understood in a broader narrative of a fantasized civil war between the banlieue youth and the police. If there are any windows at all on the ground level, they often resemble medieval arrow slits. Exterior walls sometimes present various degrees of inclination—a technique used by 17th-century fortress architects. Entrances are controlled and uninviting, and adjacent sidewalks are protected from vehicles by metal bollards and furniture.

Comparing these police stations to those built in Paris’s wealthier neighborhoods or western suburbs displays the drastic difference in the relationships between the police and local populations. Police stations in wealthy neighborhoods are a far cry from the fortress-like structures of the banlieues; instead they tend to occupy valuable historical heritage buildings or, alternatively, new buildings with large welcoming glass surfaces. This contrast drives us to question the role of the police in a given environment, and how architecture materializes this role.

The police have a strong sense of space. Like the military, they deploy themselves within space, controlling and appropriating it. Their participation in the design of banlieues, as described above, has drastic consequences in terms of how these urban spaces are defined and experienced. Yet, we should refrain from seeing such involvement as a corruption of the noble discipline we presume architecture to be. While police and architecture do not necessarily share the same aim, their respective functions have in common the organization of bodies in space—the police do so through intimidation and coercion, the architect through walls. Of course, a wall that splits a given urban or national territory into two segregated parts and any “normal” house wall do not bear the same political intensity; yet, both define the social condition of their sides and enforce the position of bodies according to their trace. Architecture does not need the intention of controlling bodies in order to do so, but its deliberate instrumentalization by the police or the military can be considered as another aspect of these forces’ legal recourse to violence that define their function. Architects need therefore to understand this intrinsic correlation between architecture and policing if they intend to take responsibility for the political dimensions of their work, or resist the fears they too often crystalize and reinforce. In order to do so, they need to continuously practice the counterintuitive exercise that consists in thinking against the very essence of their discipline.

[1] Hacène Belmessous, Opération Banlieues: Comment l’état prépare la guerre urbaine dans les cités françaises (Paris: La Découverte, 2010).

[2] See Belmessous, Opération banlieues, 137–38.

[3] Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design (London: Macmillan, 1973); Barry Poyner, Design against Crime: Beyond Defensible Space (Oxford: Butterowrth-Heinemann, 1983).

[4] Hacène Belmessous, “French Banlieues: Neighborhoods in a State of Exception,” trans. Liduam Pong, The Funambulist 2 (November–December 2015).