Insurgent Architectures: Introduction



In this introduction, editor-in-chief and trained-architect Léopold Lambert describes how architecture almost always materializes and enforces the dominant order, but also how the rare exceptions that challenge such an order need to be celebrated as they are attempted to be throughout this issue.

Welcome to the 23rd issue of The Funambulist. This magazine is often described as an architecture magazine, and there are legitimate reasons for that to be partially true. Nevertheless, we have always tried to avoid such a characterization. Issue 10 (March-April 2017) Architecture & Colonialism was a notable exception in which architecture was at the core of the issue’s editorial line, and numerous other articles we published were either written by architects and/or focused on a particular architectural dimension of politics. When we decide to approach architecture as “the discipline that organizes bodies in space” — the definition I have personally been using for the past ten years — countless texts can be commissioned and written about how architecture materializes various forms of political violence. Yet, it is much harder to articulate a tactical ‘positive’ discourse about political architectures as we propose to do throughout this issue, as part of our 2019 series dedicated to various dimensions of political struggles.

The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that, despite what many in the field of architecture would feel comforted to think, architecture is not a neutral medium waiting to be activated by any political agenda. Architecture, in its capacity to materially enforce the location of bodies on either side of its lines (paradigm of the wall), impose trajectories of movement (paradigm of the corridor), or grant spatial access to some and refuse it to others (paradigm of the door-key apparatus), can be perceived as fundamentally violent. Violence here, is to be understood in a politically neutral manner, as the effects of a relationship that is detrimental to both parties involved. In this case, these two parties are the bodies and architecture, although the latter is usually conceived in such a way that the violence it receives from a body is close to negligible — one just has to try to punch a wall with their bare hand to be convinced by this. What makes this inherent violence political is the agenda that is enforced through architecture and here, one has to admit that there is nothing easier for architecture than to embody a dictatorial program. After all, hasn’t the current U.S. President run an entire electoral campaign in 2016 on the idea of materializing a settler colonial line on a map, into a coercitive wall? Similarly, aren’t the various carceral environments that constitute the prisons and camps of the world, some of the easiest architectures to bring into existence? The line that forms the wall simply has to inflect a right angle three times and span an unmovable structure around one or several bodies, without having to consider the wellbeing of these bodies contained within it.

Insurgent architectures are architectures that understand this violence. But, far from being paralyzed by it or to shy away from it, they embrace it and re-orient it against the logic of the dominant order. Yet, this process is immensely difficult as “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde tells us (Sister Outsider, 1984). If we paraphrase her, these tools will only build our house if we learn how to subvert their inner logics. Of course, there’s always the example of the barricade, the tunnel, and of the various architectures built for the sole purpose of defense in a direct conflict; but this is not to assume the many other functions of these structures in daily life (even those under siege). The architectures presented throughout this issue, whether they are undermining the logics of colonialism, racism, capitalism, or patriarchy, instead attempt to exist in the various contingencies of daily, (sometimes more mundane) resistance. Of course, the best instances of such architectures are to be found in what architects have called (in a self-centric manner) “architectures without architects” (i.e. the many self-built neighborhoods and towns of the world) to which we had dedicated the entirety of issue 16 (March-April 2018) Proletarian Fortresses. Yet, in this case, we wanted to focus specifically on architectures designed by those for whom it would be easier to side with the dominant order.

A new generation of architects understand the violence of their discipline and the power it enforces on bodies. Many, however, feel paralyzed by such conclusions: some adopt an ironic if not cynical approach to this conundrum, while others, more productively, redirect their architectural skills to research — or publishing! — or to the production of spatial evidence in the context of political investigations. We often hear from the latter in the pages of The Funambulist but, this time, we wanted to hear from the few (many of whom belong to this new generation) who have not given up on designing spaces, and who, rather than opting for the humanitarian illusion of non-violence (that usually barely hides the tropes of orientalism and colonialism), have decided to embrace the disruptive dimension of activism into their spatial schemes. Others could certainly have been featured in this issue: the architectural embodiment of the Palestinian struggle as conceived by Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), the memorialization of slavery in the South of the U.S. by Mabel Wilson, the spaces no longer calibrated on normative bodies imagined by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins — cited countless times in The Funambulist —, the stateless parliaments constructed for the New World Summit — we are however happy to feature one of them on this issue’s cover —, the architectures that reclaim Indigenous lands from Aotearoa to Turtle Island, etc.

These architects’ imaginaries of the world (and through it, their professions) are also formed by radically different works than those that have formed the imaginaries of (in the context of the western world, much more white, much more male) previous generations of architects. In 2017, I asked six young architects (Olivia Ahn, Zulaikha Ayub, Alicia Olushola Ajayi, Melisa Betts, Ylan Vo, and Whitney Hansley) based in the U.S. and who have previously contributed to The Funambulist: “what would be the five books that influenced the most your understanding of society?” Although two of them included books by Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi, traditionally taught in U.S. architecture schools, the other 28 books did not belong to the usual canon of architecture books. The few author architects cited are also activists (Lori Brown in feminism and reproductive justice, Craig Wilkins in anti-racism, Jan Gehl in environmentalism). But this bibliography mostly consists of authors who have little to do explicitly about architecture. Some are written by poets, other by novelists, but most of them are written by historical and contemporary activists involved in the African American struggle (W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, bell hooks), gender fluidity (Paul B. Preciado), self-care (Carolyn McLeod), as well as the ongoing global fight against racism, the carceral system, and neocolonialism. 

Although it is clear that these architects constitute the exception rather than the norm, there is no arguing that the architects’ responsibility for the materialization of numerous colonial, capitalist, patriarchal, and normative political programs is becoming more known and visible. Our hope for this issue is therefore double: allowing architects to ‘count themselves’ amongst those who not only refuse to be complicit with such programs but also organize against them, as well as promoting another possible dimension of the political imagination: the difficult yet potentially effective modification of architectural conditions in organizing work. I wish you an excellent read.