The destruction of the Vendome Column, Paris. 1871 /// Photograph by Auguste Hippolyte Collard
THE POSITIVE HOLES OF REVOLUTIONARY URBANISM ///
(originally written in French for Swiss magazine Tracés as a synthesis of two older articles: “Destruction of Vendôme Column in 1871: Architecture in Negative,” and “The Guillotined Statue of Empress Joséphine in Martinique: The Incarnation of an Anti-Colonial Narrative.“)
On May 16, 1871, the Paris Commune dramatically organized the destruction of the Vendôme Column on top of which was sitting a statue of Napoleon. Many other Parisian buildings were burnt during these three revolutionary months of 1871; nevertheless, the organized destruction of the Vendôme Column – now rebuilt the same way – remains the political paradigm of what I would like to designate through an oxymoron: constructive destruction.
I do not mean to play on words here, but rather to evoke the process that is needed to trigger when there is a profound change of political sovereignty within a given society: the inversion or the subversion of physical or/and symbolical mechanisms of the relationships of power as they used to be effectuated before the concerned revolution. Since no architecture can be said to be neutral vis-à-vis a political regime, whether at the transcendental level of the authority, or at the immanent level of the norm, it is then not surprising that architecture ‘pays the price’ of the construction of new relationships of power.
The text written by the Situationists about the Paris Commune in March 1962 (Internationale situationniste 12, 1969) is particularly useful to understand this notion of constructive destruction. Rather than the example of the Vendôme Column, Guy Debord, Attila Kotànyi and Raoul Vaneigem chose the potential destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in order to describe the “revolutionary urbanism” for which they are calling. The Artists Society of the Commune had then interfered to save the Parisian cathedral. This is a proof for the Situationists that even within revolutions there is a conservative reflex that is linked to the old regime. In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Internationale situationniste 6, 1961), they write:
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 hole concept developed by modern physics.
This notion of “positive hole” can be associated to constructive destruction. We would be wrong to think that the Situationists were calling for an absolute tabula rasa to destroy the totality of the old regime’s tracks. The choice of the word “hole,” in particular, can only make sense if there is some matter in which one can dig. This matter is also the one that keeps framing the hole; without it, a hole would no longer be a hole. In their struggle against the capitalist mechanisms, they have themselves materialized these “positive holes” by subverting (détournant) the capitalist system’s own symbols. Similarly, the “revolutionary urbanism,” in order to keep its essence, should not simply focus on its destructive act, but should also recount the subversive act that it triggered against a matter that is considered as oppressive.
This does not mean to deny the notion of destruction with which this text started, but rather to understand this notion as incomplete. Let us take a particularly illustrative example: in 1856, a statue of Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, was set up in a public space of Fort de France in Martinique. This woman, who became impress in 1804, grew up in Martinique in a plantation that counted more than 300 slaves ‘belonging’ to her dad. In this regard, it is said that she influenced her husband to re-establish slavery. Erecting a statue of her is therefore a strong symbol of the white French colonial domination on the local black population that was then emancipated from slavery. The great Martinique poet Aimé Césaire who was Fort de France’s mayor from 1945 to 2001 did not want to dismantle this statue in order to keep a memory of the slavery era and the resistance against it. The statue’s physical integrity was however remaining problematic and in 1991, an independentist group – Martinique is still under French sovereignty – had it symbolically beheaded (guillotinée) by cutting its head and adding red paint stains to evoke blood. Despite the numerous debates around it, the statue remained in this state since 1991 and can still be seen this way in Fort de France. Dismantling the statue would have provided a historical moment for Martinique but it would have been only punctual. The fact that the statue carries on itself the marks of its subversion are making out of it a symbol that operates in the opposite way than the one in which it had been originally produced.
Anticolonialist narrative is thus recounted in an explicit way through the two historical operations that produced this block of stone : its foundation and its ‘profanation.’ If we go back to our starting point, the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, the instant ruin that offered its fallen ‘corpse’ can also express this explicit (hi)story and thus to be part of a urbanism that is said revolutionary. The Commune being exterminated, the city of Paris coming back to the hands of the old regime, the Vendôme Column being reconstructed exactly the same – thus denying the historical narrative of its destruction – there is nothing material left that can tell the story of this attempt for a revolutionary urbanism. This is probably the observation that pushed historian David Gissen to imagine the reconstruction of the small earth month where the column fell in 1871 in order to manifest this episode. We then all have to imagine more of these “positive holes.”