Introduction: the Architecture of Racialized Incarceration and Its Memorialization

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Article published in The Funambulist 12 (July-August 2017) Racialized Incarceration. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Welcome to the 12th issue of The Funambulist, which concludes a second year of existence for this publication. Racialized Incarceration constitutes a form of sequel of issues 4 (Mar-Apr. 2016) Carceral Environments and 5 (May-June 2016) Design & Racism, which had respectively established two editorial arguments that this present issue attempts to combine.

Through examples of British prisons in Ireland (Fiona McCann), the state of rightlessness in Guantánamo Bay (A. Naomi Paik), the Indian Residential Schools in Canada (Desirée Valadares), and more, issue 4 offered to think of explicitly carceral architectures, in order to distinguish how architecture almost always holds what we may call a carceral propensity. In fact, it is important to see how the fundamental difference between a prison cell and a housing unit lies less in the way their spatial formation is defined (through physical surfaces we call wall, ceiling, and floor) than in the capacity for the bodies situated inside of them to act on the porosity of their boundaries. To put it more simply, the main difference is not so much in the essence of their architectures than in the question of who has access to the key that would allow a body to come and go as they please. Although it might seems fairly obvious, this observation tells us about architecture’s propensity to control bodies in the space it creates.

Issue 5 examined examples of architectures designed to accommodate racist political programs. From the historical slave ships (Eze Imade Eribo & Rasheedah Phillips) to refugee container camps (Miram Ticktin) and the urban formations of the South African Apartheid (Lwandile Fikeni), these analyses showed us how design provided the necessary spatial and physical conditions for structural racism to deploy itself. Without its contribution, the political, legal, and administrative dimensions of such political programs would simply not find ways to fully implement themselves. Reusing the words of its introduction, “while naval architects did not ‘invent’ slavery, without their active participation and that of their counterparts in the Americas designing barracks and other carceral apparatuses for Black bodies, slavery as a systematic industrial system would have simply been impossible”(The Funambulist 5 Design & Racism, May-June 2017).

This present issue builds on these two arguments in demonstrating incarceration as one of the ultimate aims (whether explicitly or not) of processes of racialization. In this regard, it is crucial that the architecture of camps, prisons, and detention centers should here be seen for what it is: the extreme violence and cruelty that constitutes the enforcement of a political order that racializes and puts into cages specific bodies. The examples examined in this issue purposively do not all share the same degree of explicitness in their racialization and incarceration. Historical examples are used as relatively consensual precedents in order to offer useful comparisons with contemporary cases. In this regard, one can legitimately regret the absence of article about the WWII ghettos of Nazi-occupied Eastern European cities, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to live, often prior to their deportation to the holocaust death camps. The photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto on the previous page may nevertheless contribute to the idea of architecture’s ease to surround bodies and keep them captive on a designated territory.

Just like for issue 4, Naomi Murakawa’s definition of structural racism strikes for its aptitude to describe the processes of racialization that make the incarceration of targeted bodies as legitimate: “Race, crime, and punishment are all politically constructed, enmeshed in institutions and ideologies that develop over time, continually remaking the common sense of who is dangerous, where the bad neighborhoods are, what constitutes excessive police force, and why some narcotics heal and other hurt” (The First Civil Right, 2014). Murakawa describes the U.S. criminalization and prison industrial complex here (also discussed with Orisanmi Burton in this issue), but a similar definition can be applied to every situation described here. No racialized form of incarceration occurs without being preceded by such a process of racialization that establishes an administrative, political, economic, social, and policing chiasm between “what must live and what must die” as Michel Foucault defines racism (Society Must Be Defended, 1976).

The articles presented here which describe historical racialized incarceration programs all address the question of their memorialization or the lack thereof. Designers and architects who contribute to this effort of memorialization must be particularly cautious about the narrative that they are crystallizing through their design. In 2016, an aesthetically compelling memorial designed by French renowned architect Ruddy Ricciotti opened in Rivesaltes in French Catalonia. This long and opaque building was meant to commemorate the 17,500 people (9,275 Spanish Republicans, 1,225 French Romanis, and 7,000 Foreign Jews) who were detained in “Camp Joffre” after having been arrested by the French police between 1940 and 1942. The narrative also incorporates (although to a lesser degree) the residency of 91,000 Harkis (Algerian volunteers in the French colonial army) who were housed precariously in the same camp between 1962 and 1964 after the Algerian independence.

What the memorialization however does not include is the existence of a detention center for undocumented immigrants that operated between 1986 and 2007 on the site and that has been relocated near Perpignan airport since then. This state violence, legitimized by current ideologies and politics — as if the historical violence memorialized today had not followed the same logic of legitimization yesterday — was thus reterritorialized to give room to the memorialization of a state violence of the past, more consensually recognized as such. Architects can thus be accomplices to selective national(ist) narratives of memorialization when they refuse to integrate and engage with the continuity of the historic violence that states always acknowledge too late (by definition). 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. This continuation is specifically what this issue would like to demonstrate and I wish you a very good read of it.


Lambert Leopold 1

Léopold Lambert is a trained architect as well as the founding editor-in-chief of The Funambulist. His work examines the inherent violence of architecture on bodies, and its political instrumentalization at various scales and in various geographical contexts. Read more on his contributor page.