Introduction: Proletarian Fortresses, Against Humanitarian And Orientalist Narratives



Welcome to the sixteenth issue of The Funambulist. Although, as we will see, the topic of this particular volume comes primarily from our frustration regarding the violence of the status quo and, in particular, the way this violence is perpetuated by narratives that claim to be constructed against it, this issue is, I believe, one of this magazine’s most ‘positivist’ so far. By this I mean that its editorial argument is not solely introducing political situations in which state violence appear as ineluctable and mighty, but it is also resolutely dedicated to forms of resistance to the various geographical situations presented in the following pages. As such, we hope for it to be an inspiration for future issues to not solely focus on what we are fighting against, but also on how are we fighting against it.

This issue looks primarily at urban proletarian formations that were either self-built or appropriated from their original architectural schemes. The frustration I mention above corresponds to the feeling many of us experience when witnessing the prominence of two paradigms of supposed solidarity with the residents of such urban formations. The first is a classic of the Western Left: humanitarianism. Authors of this persuasion, when looking at images of shantytowns, refugee camps, or worker districts declare “the State does not do enough! This is unacceptable, it must do more! We must help!” We can see how this rhetoric and its “We Are the World” soundtrack has constructed imaginaries of passive poverty, stripping away any agency from the population of entire continents, without ever challenging the very structures that produce wealth inequality both nationally and internationally.

The second paradigm is perhaps less common at a mainstream level, yet is particularly present in the architectural scene: fetishism and orientalism. Firstly, we might somehow appreciate the efforts of some architects and intellectuals to advocate for constructing an imaginary around self-built neighborhoods that does not comply with that of humanitarianism and its images of crying children and starving families. Their insistence on the ingenuity and creativity deployed by the builders of these neighborhoods would be salutary if the tone of these descriptions did not ring with the same condescending encouragement as that of a parent surveying the work of a child. In the case of architects, this paternalism sometimes goes even further: in their research, they occasionally draw maps of self-built neighborhoods and spaces of political protest which incorporate codes (axonometric drawings and plans in particular) that are usually exclusive to architectural projects. From this act of drawing urban formations that did not need to be drawn to exist in the first place, one starts to suspect in these architects a subconscious claim to these architectures that came about without them. This is how we now have drawings of the Torre David occupation in Caracas (a high-rise whose construction had never been completed and was the home of hundreds of squatters until their eviction in 2014), the space of Occupy Gezi and its multiple forms of furniture and stalls — some of them were even reproduced in a New York exhibition! — in Istanbul in 2013, the so-called “Jungle” in Calais (a self-built border town that many architects in France and in the UK have invited us to learn from, before losing interest after it was destroyed by the French authorities in October 2016), and many other spaces of the kind.

In an informal conversation I had with Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi and Sophia Azeb, contributors to issue 10 of The Funambulist (Architecture & Colonialism, March-April 2017), we tried to determine what the actual common point of these urban formations was, aside from their role in hosting the world’s proletariat. My proposition is that we should consider these architectures less for what they are and more for what they are prevented from becoming. By this, I mean that self-built neighborhoods do not exist in a political vacuum in which people simply choose to build their own homes despite having limited skills and access to material resources. These neighborhoods may be precarious in their ability to offer the conditions for a dignified existence, but this has nothing to do with the skills of residents or their access to materials: they are instead kept in a state of extreme fragility and poverty through the violence of the state, enforced through various means. So-called “informal areas” of cities are therefore caught in the tension between what they are, and what they are prevented from being; or in other words, between being subjects of state violence and assuming new forms of resistance. This tension is precisely what this issue proposes to examine.

Although these urban forms are more commonly associated with Global South metropolises, they are also present in many Global North cities — both historically and currently — as this issue illustrates in the cases of Lisbon (Ana Naomi de Sousa & António Brito Guterres) and Paris (Henry Shah). These two cities are linked insofar as many of the proletarian neighborhoods they host are strongly related to the history of colonialism. In Lisbon, Cape Verdean and Angolan residents have self-built or appropriated neighborhoods in several parts of the city, while the shantytowns of Nanterre and Saint-Denis (western and northern banlieues of Paris) used to be the fiefs of Algerian residents remotely engaged in the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), as well as a certain number of Portuguese defectors who refused to join the colonial Portuguese army in its war in Angola.

Intro The Funambulist Proletarian Fortresses (1)
Extraction of data from France’s Institut Géographique National (IGN) to follow the political palimpsest and the evolution of one of Nanterre’s Algerian shantytowns next to the Seine river. These photographs reveal the construction of so-called “transit quarters,” and social-housing complexes, as well as the destruction of the shantytown itself and, later on, the construction of a highway.

In Nanterre in the early 1960s, the police would inspect the self-built villages on a quasi-daily basis and destroy any new constructions they found. When, on October 17, 1961, a massive protest organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in France against an Algerian-only curfew took place in the French capital, in which the Paris police murdered over 300 Algerian demonstrators (see the “From the Blog” section in The Funambulist 12), thousands of those participating were residents of the Nanterre shantytowns. And when, in the late 1960s, a governmental plan was initiated to address the situation of great precariousness experienced by the residents of these shantytowns, it seems like it was unthinkable to allow these neighborhoods to continue growing on their own, to link them to the city’s infrastructure, and to let them acquire a veritable sense of urbanity, as defined by the community’s aspiration, rather than by systematic colonial policing. The French government might have wanted to prevent the creation of little casbahs on its soil after the battle of Algiers (1957-1958) had proven that dense, labyrinthine, and complex neighborhoods could provide spatial conditions in which the asymmetry of power between the French army and the Algerian revolutionary forces (in particular, the FLN) could be significantly reduced. Instead, the French State evicted the shantytowns and relocated some of their residents to the social housing complexes in the banlieues that now symbolize the social and racial segregation of French cities. Others were only offered the option to move to “transit quarters”; i.e., temporary architectures whose urbanism was only informed by the desire for an optimal method of housing bodies. These facilities, built to last a maximum of two years, were inhabited for over a decade by residents who were consequently some of the most active participants in the antiracist struggles of the 1970s.

The apprehensiveness of the state to allow the creation of dense and labyrinthine neighborhoods is tantamount to an acknowledgment of its own violence — for why would it have need to fear an insurrection otherwise? — as well as its obsession for the control of bodies in space. One of the most striking examples of such contrast can be found in Chandigarh, the capital city of Indian Punjab and Haryana, whose master plan was designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s after an initial plan was conceived by European and U.S. architects and planners. As in all cities constructed according to a comprehensive master plan, the potential to control space is nearly total, as every urban and architectural component responds to one explicit rational system. That the coup d’état by the Brazilian military in 1964 would take place in the brand-new capital city of Brasilia, where it was able to remain in power for 21 years, despite the socialist and democratic intentions of planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer (who exiled himself during the totality of the dictatorship), is a particularly potent illustration of this controllable character of all “new” cities. Similarly, the Sisi administration’s current project to design and build a new capital city for Egypt certainly reinforces this idea, as the dense and predominantly informal urbanism of Cairo has proven to provide the appropriable spatial conditions necessary for a revolution.

Intro The Funambulist Proletarian Fortresses (3)
Aerial view of Burail in Sector 45 of Chandigarh. What used to be a rural village built around an ancient fort has become a casbah-like space existing within the rigid grid of the Corbusean city. / Google Earth (2013).

Chandigarh shares another characteristic with virtually all “new” cities; the very idea that it is, in fact, “new” and, as such, built on unoccupied, empty land. The European settler colonial project in the Americas, just like the Zionist project in Palestine, illustrates well how such dispossessive and exploitative projects necessitate a founding myth denying the presence of any pre-existing population on the site where they are deployed. This founding mythology can be found in all architecture history books describing the “birth” of Chandigarh. None of them mention the violent use of eminent domain by the new state of India (which needed a new capital for Punjab only because it had partitioned away from Pakistan in general, and former capital, Lahore, in particular).

Intro The Funambulist Proletarian Fortresses (2)
Burail at night time. While the photographs on top insists on the economic activity targeting Chandigarh’s ‘regular’ inhabitants, the photographs below, on the contrary, illustrate the internal forms of commerce. / All photographs by Léopold Lambert (2013). / Special thanks to Mayank Ojha.

As Mayank Ojha shows in his undergraduate thesis (2013), 59 farming villages were thus stripped of their fields to allow the new city and its 56 sectors to be built. The villages themselves were not demolished, and they earned the right to exist within their original urban boundaries, within the rigid grid of Chandigarh. The conversion of farmers into urban citizens implied an internal development of the villages and a diversification of economic production, which culminated in some of the city’s current autonomous neighborhoods, whose density (ten times higher than in other neighborhoods) and curved streets mark a striking contrast from Chandigarh’s famous grid. Parallel and alternative economies (some of which, accessible at the edges of the neighborhoods, are clearly aimed at “regular” Chandigarh residents) and forms of policing comprise an important part of these neighborhoods, like in the case of the former village of Burail in Sector 45, whose aggregative constructions as well as its increasing density to accommodate rural migrants into the city turned into a space comparable to a casbah.

In conclusion, we could say that the purpose of documenting self-built and appropriated neighborhoods is neither to lay out what outsiders in general and architects and planners in particular can teach their residents, as the humanitarian narrative proposes, nor to define what can be learned from them, as the romanticizing/orientalist narrative suggests. Rather, we should insist that these urban formations are in essence the sites where the state’s greatest internal violence is focused, and thus the very existence of these spaces constitutes a daily resistance to this violence. This struggle doesn’t need to be saved or fetishized, but reinforced through forms of political solidarity. I wish you an excellent reading.