The University as a Sanctuary: The Architecture of Our Own Bastions


Léopold Lambert – Paris on November 24, 2016
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Memorial to the 1973 student resistance against the military junta in Athens Polytechnic / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (July 2016)

A little more than two weeks after the U.S. presidential elections, many activists are dedicated to already organize forms of resistance before the new administration begins on January 20, 2017. University students and faculty in particular have pushed their respective institution to become sanctuaries for undocumented students who are likely to face deportation during this new administration (see inventory of the petitions here). In a call for such actions in DissentMae Ngai writes “already, some twenty universities have responded with either full declarations of sanctuary or other declarations that do not use the word sanctuary but pledge non-cooperation with immigration enforcement, specifically prohibiting immigration agents from entering campuses and refusing to share information about students’ status, unless forced by warrants or court order.” Furthermore, Xavier Maciel and Aparna Parikh have assembled a map of these institutions that can be visible by clicking here.

The sanctuarization of campuses operates in parallel of the existing model of sanctuary cities in the United States and Canada that organizes a deliberate refusal of cooperation between municipal actors (including the police) and the federal immigration authorities. In other words, this means that any undocumented resident of such a city can freely practice the city without fearing that an interaction with the police or any other municipal officers eventually leads to their arrest and deportation. The 35 sanctuary cities in the United States are Tucson AZ, Berkeley CA, Coachella CA, Los Angeles CA, Oakland CA, Sacramento CA, Salinas CA, San Francisco CA, San Jose CA, Santa Ana CA, Watsonville CA, Aurora CO, Denver CO, New Haven CT, Washington D.C., Miami FL, Jacksonville FL, Chicago IL, Portland ME, Baltimore MD, Takoma Park MD, Cambridge MA, Chelsea MA, Somerville MA, Detroit MI, Minneapolis MN, New York City NY, Jersey City NJ, Newark NJ, Santa Fe NM, Portland OR, Philadelphia PA, Salt Lake City UT, Burlington VT, Seattle WA. The President-Elect has promised to defund these cities as part of his administration’s program of intimidation.

Although the scale of cities provides a scale that can virtually encompass the entire daily life of some of its residents and that cities seem to more and more embody the future of territorial governance (much more than nation-states), these calls for university campuses to become themselves sanctuaries are interesting in their capacity to mobilize the scale of architecture itself. Religious buildings (and later, embassies) have a long tradition of granting asylum to the bodies present within it. In France, one the key events in the history of violence deployed against undocumented bodies is to be found in the summer of 1996 when 1,500 police officers besieged the church Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, where 300 people had seek refuge for more than two months. Regardless of the fact that the church’s priest had authorized the precarious residents to stay in it and that no judge had legitimized the assault and arrest of people inside the church, the Minister of the Interior Jean-Louis Debré ordered this siege.

Saint Bernard Siege
(left) Activists trying in vain to prevent the police from accessing the church Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle on August 23, 1996. (right) Main page of newspaper Liberation the next day quoting ironically the Minister of the Interior’s characterization of the siege saying that the police was treating undocumented arrested people with “humanity and heartily.”

In order to think of the application of the protection that religious buildings can grant (precariously as we can see) to university campuses and to extend this protection from undocumented persons to all students and faculty targeted by a given regime, we can think of the various historical armed interventions against campuses. For instance, the images of arrests of over 200 students of the University of Tehran in the 2009 Green Revolution is still fresh in our minds. In the United States, one of the key images of the suppression of the Occupy movement in 2011 was to be found in the cold and methodical use of pepper spray by police officers on the campus of the University of California in Davis (see the video). This intervention of the campus recalled an even more brutal one in another branch of the University of California, in Berkeley in 1969 when an helicopter from the National Guard (deployed on order by Governor Ronald Reagan who declared the state of emergency in Berkeley on May 15, 1969) dropped airborne teargas on the campus the day before a memorial for James Rector, a student killed by the police when defending People’s Park.

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Students of the University of Tehran defending themselves against the police, then later against the Basij militia on June 14, 2009.
National Guard helicopter dropping teargas against student activists on the University of California campus in Berkeley on May 20, 1969.

Nevertheless, the historical event that arguably encompasses the most the issues related to organizing, defending, and sanctuarizing university campuses consists in the 1973 uprising of Greek students in the Polytechnic University and the subsequent piece of legislation that followed it. On November 14, 1973 students went on strike in resistance to the US-backed military junta ruling Greece since 1967. Three days later, the university was besieged by the army and a tank deliberately crashed into the entrance grid of the campus on which students were clinging. Although a later investigation affirmed that no one died on the campus, the army killed twenty-four students that night. The destroyed grid was kept as a memorial on the campus (see photo above) in order to commemorate the student resistance that contributed to end the rule of the junta half-a-year later. In 1982, considering the students’ political role against the military dictatorship, a piece of legislation was voted to grant Greek universities the ability to constitute themselves as sanctuary, preventing the police and, a fortiori, the army to penetrate on their campuses. The Polytechnic University campus itself was used numerous times as a sanctuary for its direct proximity to the neighborhood of Exarcheia, where many anarchist organizations — some of which took on themselves to organize the hospitality of displaced people from the Middle-East and East-Africa in the recent months — present in many anti-governmental demonstrations and regularly chased by the police. The law was however annulled during the George Papandreou administration in 2011 to allow the intervention of the police on campuses against demonstrators.


Athens Polytechnic2 The Funambulist 2016
The Polytechnic campus and its entrance grid (right) destroyed by a tank of the military junta in 1973.

The various photographs illustrating this article show it to whom wants to read them: architecture cannot be neutral when it comes to the defensible space of sanctuaries. Campuses do not provide the same conditions for political resistance depending on the way they operate spatially and they interact with their environment. Although urban campuses designed to function against the rest of the city, or in fear of the city — we can think of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles or the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for instance — may appear at first glance as the ideal ones to materialize the limits of the bastion that a sanctuary should be, the securitarian logic of their architectures can only be reversed with great difficulty since this logic obeys to an hyper-rationalization that gives always an advantage to dominant forces, in particular when they were involved in the design of this architecture. Urban campuses are however arguably the most susceptible to provide the conditions of defense proportionally to the degree with which the campus is integrated within its neighborhood, rather than existing against it. Such an integration not only provide local solidarity; it also offers alternative access points and flight possibilities.

Although the narrative of a frontal siege of a university by the police as the historical examples presented here may appear as the most violent and spectacular attack that can be lead against the sanctuaries that universities can embody — depending on the geographical/legal context, these attacks occurs relatively often — it illustrates well how architecture should be embraced as a political weapon to serve political programs resisting the dominant ones. Thinking of architecture politically through the spectrum of appeased modes of existence might appear at first as the way to use this discipline for better use than conventional programs, but such a vision is dangerous in the way it refuses to see the forces of domination against some bodies contextualizing and, more often than not, materialized into architecture. It remains more than ever my conviction that the only appropriate architectural answer facing these forces is to deliberately embrace architecture’s intrinsic violence to serve, as one of many other disciplines, the forms of resistance against them.

Ccny 1969
Black and Puerto Rican students barricading the entrances of the City College of New York (Harlem) in 1969 to demand the admission of more students of color.