It has now been three months that I have the chance to write a monthly carte blanche column in Swiss architectural journal Tracés entitled Le Funambule. This third article is a re-articulation of various ideas that I have been writing in the past on this blog. I apologize for the clear redundancy.
What Do We Find in the Thickness of a Line? ///
(originally published in French in Tracés)
The line constitutes the principal medium of the architect. Of course, the lines that (s)he traces represent more than a simple drawing; they are thought as descriptive of an architecture that other humans will have to build. Nevertheless, it might not be exaggerated to state that the only veritably material act of the architect consists in tracing lines. The latter are mathematical entities that, by definition, have no thickness. When the architectural elements that they describe are translated in reality however, they acquire a thickness even it if it very small. This thickness is precisely the means for architecture to unfold its power on the bodies. A simple line traced on a map to delimit the American territory from the Mexican one, and, in reality, a thirty-feet tall wall to prevent the access to a country for bodies that seem to be considered to brown for it. The few millimeters of steel that embody this line insure of its physical and, by extension, political impermeability.
The line, in its geometrical perfection, is inscribed in a legal diagram that also benefits from a theoretical perfection. Its materialization as an architecture is an apparatus of implementation of this legal diagram in reality. A very simple of this statement can be found in the fact that a large majority of the world’s wall are the violent expression of a law that guarantees private property. Of course, this translation in to reality of the legal diagram cannot be perfectly executed: the material apparatus is fallible, and that is how hundreds of clandestine Mexican immigrants still manage to penetrate on the United States’ territory for example.
Each line corresponds to a law, or rather, each line determines a legal mode for each of its two sides (the differentiation between what is said to be private and public for example). This idea functions theoretically but when it is applied to reality and that the line acquires its thickness, we can wonder about the following question: what do we find in the thickness of a line? And, which legal mode is operative within the thickness of a line? Such questions have important (geo)political implications. For example, in September 2012, a group of twenty Eritrean refugees found themselves trapped for more than a week within the few yards of thickness of the border that separates Egypt from Israel. During seven days, these refugees were offered only the vital minimum of water from the Israeli authorities. In these conditions, one of the women who was pregnant miscarried her child. It therefore seems that there is no legal mode for such a geometrically impossible but actually existing zone. That means that the bodies that reside in it are liberated from any sovereignty to which they would be subjugated, but that they also do not own any legal status, not even the one of human. They are thus reduced to what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (Homo Sacer I, 1998).
At a mythological point of view, we can also evoke the example of Romulus’s fratricide on Remus. In Roman mythology, Romulus delimits his new city (Rome) by digging a trench all around and then declares unilaterally the application of the Roman law that finds itself expressed and implemented through this trench. Remus cross this border, disobeying the law to contest it, he receives what the law designs as a punishment when it is negated in such a way: he is killed by his brother. I would like to continue this myth by imagining that Remus’s corpse has been left inside Romulus’s trench, that is in the thickness of the line where he would remain symbolically liberated from this law that he wanted to contest.
This violent power that architecture has on the bodies, the architect has to carry its responsibility. (S)he traces these lines knowing what their power is. If (s)he is not aware of it, her/his ignorance is just much prejudicial since one could not possibly defend oneself by invoking a sort of humility in a system whose understanding is beyond us. As for our own bodies, they can still attempt to subvert — nobody can escape — the power of these lines, by digging their oxymoronic thickness, or by walking on it , like the funambulists of November 9, 1989, who did not express the obsolescence of the Wall by any other way than by setting themselves up on the foot-wide thickness of its line.