Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Architecture as a science, a physical construction, holds the power to deliver our basic rights - housing, shelter, infrastructures of water, food, clean air. It also enables our less tangible rights to social connection, to freedom, our own access to power.
In its more artistic role, architecture is an experiential and symbolic construction with the power to represent, build and reinforce cultures. It communicates beyond its structural presence via image, spatial quality, personality. Just as we shape space to accommodate us, our spaces shape us in return.
Architecture of power reflects the beliefs and power systems that create it through the opportunities it offers and to whom, the emotions and feelings it inspires and the connections it enables or prevents. Spaces (with)hold power by who they make feel safe and who they deter, what/who they render visible and what/who is suppressed and hidden. Whilst some communities are reflected and amplified, others are colonised and erased. Some voices are enabled whilst others that are silenced. Some spaces are enlarged whilst others are tightened and squeezed.
My masters work focused increasingly upon the role of spatial practice in the reproduction of hierarchies and divisions in attempt to uncover the nature and consequences of division under systems of power. When our spaces are designed by, for and according to that which is already centred, they reflect and reinforce the marginalisation of that/those at the periphery. The distinctions we make to define ourselves and eachother are replicated and naturalised all around us, rendered invisible and built into the fabric of society itself. It is this reciprocal relationship between divisive societal constructs and constructed divisions that keeps drawing me in.
The delineation of difference, the construction of ‘the other’, manifests spatially via the border. We create divisions across the scales to define what and who can be considered inside and who becomes estranged, the other. Whether articulated as a hard, opaque wall between nation states, as a cattle grid, ditch or haha around a field or as an invisible red line in legal papers; the divisions that box our built environment are a crucial part of the socio-spatial construction and communication of the self.
Post-modern border studies draw on psychoanalytic theory to view borders beyond their meaning as a final outcome (n) to emphasise the process – bordering as a verb (Henk Van Houtum, 2005).
Philosophers such as Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari frame this process as a reaction to our experiences of fear and desire. We draw safety in times of anxiety from the construction of the (fantasy of the) self via the distancing of ‘the other’. In defining what we are not, we create who we are and protect our self, our family and our tribe from the danger of dissolution in the masses. We defend this identity via divisions and oppositions – I’m a woman, you’re younger than me, darker skinned, from over there, a different culture.
Architecture, created under systems of power, is often used to reinforce this protection of the self and alleviate our fear. Sometimes we design division consciously - the separation of nation states, gendered bathrooms and apartheid policy. Sometimes our spaces segregate due to our naturalised absorption of these constructs. In both cases, architecture created under systems of power gives rise to a powerful perpetuation of division and oppression of ‘the other’, appeasing our fears of loss of privilege and defending the construct of the self.
Divisive Constructions | bodies of division
We have learned to associate freedom with a ‘liberation from others’’, instrumentalised to demarcate the self and push back interference from outside – whether this comes from foreign armies, migrant workers, the homeless, one’s own employees or even family and friends (Stratou and Varoufakis).
Under globalised, individualist systems of competition; this definition of the individual (id)entity has become ever more pressing. Neoliberal ideals champion the construction of the individual self at the cost of the collective, creating ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ via financial liberation, achieved via meritocracy and ‘hard work’.
This vision of autonomy is achieved by free trade, removal of barriers and equal opportunity for all, yet the architecture of neoliberalism reveals the irony within this. The attempted removal of barriers, replacing dense stone walls with tall glazed facades, represents the illusion of freedom that neoliberalism sells. Facades of visibility and accessibility for all reveal little more than the spacious interiors of underused and overpriced real estate, with huge board room tables seating a select elite (White, male) few. Meanwhile, the solid walls of division continue to contain the other, distanced and removed to the periphery.
Economics and psychiatry both define reason as the absence of unreason (Stratou and Varoufakis). We are free by vanishing the criminalised. We belong by refusing citizenship to others. We create wealth through privatised property that others cannot reach. To maintain our own freedom, we must have a stranger to measure against and a barrier to distinguish the two. A centre and a periphery, a normalised and abnormalised, a reasonable and unreasonable.
It creates problems of course for the excluded, the periphery, but it also creates problems for the centred. Divided binaries prevent fluidity, leaving destabilised and vulnerable mono-cultures. A freedom and safety built on exclusion relies upon the fierce defence of privilege, socially and spatially. We divide and dominate, other and detach, creating spatial infrastructures of harm.
The advent of agriculture, settling and the domination of humans over other species was foundational in the construction of permanent barriers, serving to define and divide space according to power and ownership. In our domestication of other animals for use in farming, we created the need to assert and reinforce this division of power spatially. We designed the field to contain and organise the other, bounding the space to police any transgression of this line.
But the new freedom this food security offered homo sapiens came at the cost of the freedom of othered animals. Whilst the agricultural revolution has provided homo sapiens with the energy and security to create settlements, build cities, and dominating empires; the spaces we offer to other animals, particularly in relation to agriculture, have increasingly become tools of oppression and power.
The invention of barbed wire by Michael Kelly and Joseph Glidden between 1868 and 1874 symbolises this. The sharp spikes of coiled metal created a border designed to inflict pain upon anyone trying to escape their newly defined role. Cattle were no longer free to roam the prairies of the Wild West, which previously defined natural limits to farming and ranching practices. Instead, ‘the Devil’s Rope’ began to criss-cross the plains, dividing public commons into squares of overgrazed lands, at once penning cattle into tight sub-ordinance and barring nomadic Native Americans from the lands they lived off (Mary Bellis, 2019).
Animalised bodies of all species are kept at bay with hostile rings of barbed wire, policing spaces of harm both physically and symbolically. Prison walls and detention camps receive a barbed wire finish, supposedly preventing the criminalised and animalised from endangering normalised ‘safe’ society. Pigeon spikes line buildings to prevent perching and 'dirtying', homeless spikes line pavements to defend the privatised interior from the animalised bodies of people sleeping rough.
At scale, the barbed wire enclosure of farming has changed the face of the planet. Almost half of all Earth’s habitable land is now used for agriculture, segregated into pockets of mono-cultured land. It has become so normalised that we rarely stop to consider it, instead thinking of fields and farms as part of a rolling ‘nature’ and further assimilating this power dynamic into our belief systems.
Our scramble for safety via the power of division is wreaking havoc upon our environments, segregating, concealing, mono-culturing, oppressing and removing. We pen in the animalised to erase them from society; the environments we create representing them only through disempowerment, commodification and oppression.
Barbed wire has come to define and symbolise the production of spatial infrastructures of harm.
Walls and Fences
The establishment of settlement enabled ever larger and more sophisticated forms of society to develop and the spatial practices we learned from agriculture have developed alongside. The wall becomes key in the articulation of space and self, dividing and defining new bodies via enclosure.
When European feudalism started to fall, the new power of trade divided the shared resources of the commons into privatised pockets of exclusive land, designed to liberate the peasant from aristocracy via ‘free competition’ to make their own fortune, their own claim over territory. But the liberation of the bourgeouis individual has only ever been constructed at the cost of liberty for the enslaved. Dividing and commodifying land into exclusive, owned spaces requires the exclusion and commodification of non-owners.
Our attitudes to migration reflect our fear of 'otherness'. Borders and barriers police the divisions we have drawn across the planet to prevent the other entering without our knowledge or control, instantaneously turning a fellow human being into a risk, an intruder. We construct borders to sort bodies into binaries of belonging or displaced, citizen or intruder, subject or object. Those on the other side are dehumanised into ‘floods of migrants’, an influx of bodies whom we picture spilling out of cramped boats in impoverished images to be pitied or feared. In its provision for some, the architecture of division oppresses others. Excluded bodies are prevented access to legal protection, political engagement, social connection and safety. For many, we even prevent access to safe shelter, food, drink and clothing.
The ability to ‘purchase’ land is a marker of privilege, the boundary wall a symbol of status. We bound the spaces we 'own' as we bound our individual (id)entity and our articulation of the boundary between private and public communicates the relationship between individual and collective. From the high security borders defending gated ‘communities’, to the ornate gates at the driveway of a manor house; from the trinket decorated balcony in a repetitive housing block, to the dense privet hedge that masquerades as soft division, the boundary between privatised and public speaks volumes about the nature of society.
Access to the property market buys us financial security, privilege, a place we can retreat to, defend and make safe; but the mechanism of ownership is also one of power. The commodification of land and territory runs hand in hand with the commodification of bodies. Whilst the wall signals liberation and access to some, to others it has always been ‘the handmaiden of slavery, expropriation and genocide’ (Stratou and Varoufakis, 2018). Just as bodies of land and water are divided and owned, living bodies are commodified, owned and (ab)used.
By establishing a wall between us and them, between here and there; the line of invasion is established. Walls repeatedly mark lines of violence, the war to claim ownership over territory and whomever is implicated within the fight. We empower our own kind by colonising others, invading and excluding to centralise the self. From indigenous peoples, to other races and other species, the claiming of land as our own is marked by walls of exclusion that centre the white marble of privilege, enable the mainstream and overwrite diversity.
Just like barbed wire, the wall has become a Trumpian symbol of exclusion, denial of rights, and an infrastructure of denial, preventing access to care.
Spaces of Detention
total institution – places of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life
- Goffman, 1961
Whereas walls bounding property and territory are built to protect a zone of privilege via exclusion of the rest, we also bound zones of exclusion, distinguishing the centred by extracting and containing the ‘other.’ Borders become embodied within each of us – some more than others - and can manifest throughout space to reinforce this exclusion.
Beyond the construction of perimeter walls or fences, the airport too becomes a zone of sovereign power, dividing based upon biometrics such as race, nationality and legal status. The wall of unsmiling passport control prevents a snaking line of bodies from entering until citizenship can be proved, dividing them into neat lines of EU ‘easy to approve’ and ‘other origins’ - less conforming, less deserving, more (at) risk.
Anyone who doesn’t fit the criteria we set up to be permitted across the border will beremoved to a detention centre, another walled enclosure of harm. The British ‘detention estate’ comprises a number of Short Term Holding Facilities (STHFs), where people can be held for a maximum of 7 days whilst their case is reviewed, plus nine Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). IRCs can hold people indefinitely – a huge transgression of human rights.
Their architecture reveals the power at play behind immigration law. Rather than creating a caring living environment to support this incredibly vulnerable group, IRCs are designed for a criminalised, othered and dismissed body. They are the cheap, defensive and often repurposed architectures of displacement. Around 24000 people are confined behind these walls every year (DetentionAction, 2020).
“Just as the people are detained without papers, so too are the buildings without photos or drawings. They, too, are undocumented”
- Tings Chak, 2014
These buildings are hidden from public knowledge. Offshore locations serve to extract the othered from public awareness, as seen by Priti Patel’s recent suggestion to ship illegal immigrants off 4000 miles away to Ascension Island. Rendered invisible, undoumented, the architecture of confinement is concealed by its spatial removal and architectural banality. Military barracks are commonly reused with little adaptation, whilst two of the nine IRCs are operated by the prison service – revealing the intersection between those detained for their othered nationality, and those othered via criminalisation.
Barren cells prompt reactions to ‘total institution’, triggering self harm, hunger strikes and rioting. Mental illness and deteriorating physical health are both long term and short term tragedies of these spaces of oppressive power.
Carceral logic uses criminalisation both as a tool to punish but also as a way to identify and control our fears. We create the criminal to serve as the opposite of the normalised, creating comparative ‘sanity’ against the ‘dangerous individual’. By concentrating evil within defined actions, then embodying these actions within the criminalised, we attempt to bound and exclude danger behind secure, opaque walls that contain the undesirable and keep the rest of us safe.
The physical prison wall is a deep, solid barrier between those deemed risky and those deemed at risk, yet the illusion of safety serves only as a facade. Behaviours that lead to harm, such as violence, unrest and drug abuse cannot be contained within a particular body, behind a particular wall. Prisons fail to work for society - 47% adults and 73% under 18s are reconvicted within 1 year of release (CAPE, 2020). They fail the criminalised, with suicide more than six times as common in prisons as in the general population and trauma events almost guaranteed, reported by between 62-100% of inmates (BBC, 2019).
Far from isolating and removing harmful behaviour, prisons instead create an environment of concentrated harm and imprison some of the most vulnerable members of society within their walls. They fail to work, either for those ‘on the inside’ or for society overall.
Prison buildings are designed via the barbed wire image of oppression, the solid wall of division and the invisibility of confinement. Hierarchies of power are built into inhumane architectures, the barren prison cell designed to cause harm and to reassure the public that ‘justice is being served’, that fears of prison becoming ‘too comfortable’ are not true.
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish recognises the power of prison architecture as a tool of disciplinary control. They exemplify Bentham’s panopticon model of surveillance, imposing power via the threat of constant examination. Whilst prisoners occupy dark cells with little visibility or connection, the prison guard is centred, able to watch over anyone at any time.
Architecture manipulates visibility to reinforce power. On the one hand, architecture renders the criminalised invisible from the rest of society, segregating and removing; whilst on the other it makes them hyper visible to prison guards. We manipulate space to reinforce hierarchies, further empowering those in control.
Mental Health Treatment
Immigration policy creates citzenship for the centred through the removal of the stateless. Incarceration creates the law abiding through the removal of the criminalised. Psychiatry creates normality through the removal of madness.
The architecture of mental illness responds to our fear of the unknown by sending those who embody madness to the outskirts of society. Historically, this took the form of asylums, where people could be permanently excluded from society for ‘madnesses’ such as childbirth out of wedlock or menstruation. Though the asylum itself now feels a Victorian concept, we still overwhelmingly treat madness as something to exclude and confine.
Treatment and care still follows a mostly privatised, individualised model of power. Western societies segregate and disable aging, removing care from the centre of society to privatised care homes, hospices or hospitals.
Mental health treatment is segregated according to diagnosis, defining and dividing people according to a label that describes their difference from ‘normality’. It is treated separately from physical health, dividing mind from body and sufferers of mental illness from sufferers of physical illness. We treat mental illness as a biological or psychological condition, to be cured as an individual, removing care from society to the institution.
The architecture of the mental health ward reflects the power imbalance between healthy, ‘normal’ professionals and the dis-abled ‘abnormal’ patients. The mental health act allows service users to be sectioned and ‘detained’ if deemed at risk to themselves or to others, meaning wards are often designed via long corridors of locked doors. Staff have access throughout, whilst patients are confined, watched over and allowed leave only at the approval of staff. Access to locked corridors and rooms is safeguarded and granted only to the empowered. The label of diagnosis is reinforced architecturally to divide risky bodies/minds from those at risk.
Even as an outpatient, therapy is carried out in an isolated room on an individual basis. We are normalised to the idea of therapy being the ultimate confidential, private conversation, but how much of this isolation liberates us to speak honestly, and how much does it reinforce the shame of mental illness and abstraction of therapy, care and healing from society? The sound-proofed walls of the therapy room still act to reinforce the divide between ill and well, normal and abnormal, giving power to the person who has been normalised as sane.
Divisive Constructs | division of bodies
“To be able to live a life that is in consonance with your nature and be free to express that openly and with pride in the public arena is a benchmark for how inclusive society is at any given point in history”
- Adam Nathaniel Furman, 2019
Alongside these direct physical barriers between the accepted and the rejected, the bounded infrastrures of harm; divisive spaces also take a more insidious form, harder to recognise and acknowledge. Architecture holds power in its symbolic representation, causing harm via its absorption and mirroring of hierarchies and social constructs, dividing space according to social divides.
Beyond the idea of sovereign power from above, Foucault describes power in its distributed form, played out within each of us in our everyday lives through the processes of normalisation and naturalisation. Societal standards are policed within ourselves and each other, normalising what is already centred through constant conformity to societal ideals and the removal of the non-conforming other.
Whilst heterotopic spaces of detention separate individuals from hegemonic public life, in hegemonic space, we enable the strengthening of the status quo, the absorption of normalised social constructs and the exclusion of certain bodies via biased design.
Enabled vs Disabled
We curate our environments to enable access, freedom, safety, improved living conditions, yet our spaces have overwhelmingly been designed by and for a very narrow demographic. Space standards, dimensions, even seatbelts are all designed to keep the Corbusian straight, White, male ideal safe, disabling bodies that don’t conform.
Physical accessibility is still only readily available to those in a thin, traditionally healthy, able body. ‘Unruly bodies’ (Jos Boys, 2018) such as those that require more rest, more space, softer acoustics; are abnormalised and disabled by our environments, forced to rest on hard uncaring surfaces, squeezed between armrests or sheltering from anxiety provoking, echoing space.
The invisibility of disability is perpetuated as unruly bodies are written out of our spaces. Our environments make no space for the diverse ways of conceiving, creating or occupying space that could be and instead reinforce our pre-existing assumptions of normality. Alternative experiences are limited to a wheelchair space at the back or an add-on audio guide, whilst the visual language of architecture and ambulatory navigation takes centre stage. With accessibility determined so narrowly, many people are othered into poor health, becoming house-bound or institutionalised and written out of public space and mind.
Success and power is normalised as a middle aged privilege and our spaces serve to further enable this narrow demographic. We make space for the rush of the businessman overthe caring negotiation of a slowing body, a trendy new coffee shop over the dated pensioners' tea shop. We rarely design for children, or the child within us, dividing play from work and potential chaos from organised order.
There is little room for appropriation, our environments instead encouraging conformity to societally accepted behaviours. Hard surfaced interiors echo noisily with any childish sounds and park benches shape us into stiff, upright seats, leaving little legs stuck awkwardly off the edge. Open-plan spaces expose anxiety attacks, moments of madness or unexpected behaviours.
Madness is unaccepted by the reasoned corporate and public world. We remove emotionality from the open, glazed workplace and conceal our outbursts, our periods and our anxieties in the seclusion of the WC. Public spaces care only for those already in control, shining a light on deviation and leaving those struggling with illness, addiction, learning difficulties or social exclusion to live on the outskirts - on the streets, under a bridge, removed to an institution.
Masculinised vs Feminised
In the same way that Simone de Beauvoir recognises femininity as ‘the second sex’, defined in comparison to the normalised male; the domestic interior is the reclusive space of care work that enables the public realm. Whilst masculinity and the middle-aged White male have dominated design with form over feeling - Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living in’ - the feminine has been relegated to architecture’s ‘second’ - the soft and gentle realm of interior design. Even the scale of the domestic is diminished. Whilst the masculine office and the public institution take double height atriums and 4m, 5m floor to ceiling heights, in the home we occupy 2.3m, single storey rooms.
When we took to the skies in the first aircraft, the hard sell was their safety. The role of the gender construct is evident in the architectural language of flight. The cockpit is articulated as a safe, masculine machine for a trustworthy pilot, whilst the feminine provides the safety of a caring interior. Domesticated by symbols of home, the armchair and table, a feminised flight attendant is employed as ‘a symbol of domesticity… the watchful mother, the helpful nurse, the glamorous sex symbol or the possible new wife’ (Greenberg, 2020).
It was the feminist critical spatial theory of the 70s and 80s that introduced the idea of gendered space to architecture, drawing attention to the divisive architectures that replicate and perpetuate gender roles. Feminist collectives such as Matrix and MUF sought new ways of working, bringing a greater diversity to design and unearthing the gendered division of space.
The typical terraced house of the past treats the most masculinised as the most public. A light-filled office with a chintz armchair in the bay window reached out towards the street in a dual expression of masculine wealth and class, whilst the epitome of the domestic, the kitchen, was located in servitude in a small and dark room at the rear. A move up perhaps from servants cooking and sleeping in the basement, yet still an ashamed concealment of domesticity and invisibilising of the woman.
Whilst the private performs the role of safety, solitude and independence, it also functions to conceal, to segregate and marginalise. The unpaid demands of cleaning and care work still fall upon women, especially Black and Brown women, backgrounded to the service spaces, their time, status and careers falling behind. The ‘safety’ of the private home still duplicates as a concealment for domestic abuse, power and control.
Meanwhile the empowered masculinity of the public, knowledge institutions, business and politics still narrate aspiration and opportunity to men over women, housed in fallic glass towers with oversized boardroom tables and a statue of a celebrated White man outside the door.
Heteronormative vs. queered
Intersectional feminist theory now highlights the role of the public/private divide across our identities to conceal, shame and segregate. What is allowed in public vs what is confined to the private speaks volumes about what accepted within society, what we consider safe and to whom we are willing to offer safety.
The process of legalising queer sex for example. The step it takes in 'permitting' homosexual sex is made as a bargain via the public/private divide. The theory of homosexuality as an act either of an ‘invert, born afflicted’ or a ‘pervert, otherwise ‘normal’ man who, given the right situation, could be persuaded to indulge’ (Huw Lemmy, 2019) led to policies designed to hide away the ‘afflicted’ and to protect the vulnerable public from 'corruption'. Homosexuality was legalised, so long as it was done out of sight. In reality it legalised sex along class lines, for those who could afford it in the privacy of their home.
Safe sex is not part of the public sphere. Any building where more than one person practices sex work is defined as a brothel and criminalised. Marginalised from the mainstream economic market, LGBTQ+ persons are estimated to be 7 times more likely to offer or rely on sex work, and more frequently from a place of vulnerability and financial need over sexual empowerment (Survivors against SESTA, 2020). Despite this huge over-represention of vulnerable populations, we are still unwilling to offer social and spatial protection for sex workers in favour of maintaining the status quo of monogamous, heterosexual, private sex in the bedroom.
Visual expression plays a vital role in moving from ashamed tolerance to an embracing acceptance, even celebration. Our architecture reveals the distance we still have to go to unravel heteronormativity and gender conformity. Whilst it is becoming more acceptable to be queer in your private life, expressing that queerness in the architecture you produce is immediately othered by the narrow ‘taste’ of design. The expression of queerness is instantly unserious, outrageous or exotic against the backdrop of white minimalism and rational grids.
Queer expression and queer space is marginalised to the periphery. With no space in the centre, gay bars occupy the impoverished outskirts, the concealment of the darkness and the nightlife of the club. Vulnerable to gentrification and overwriting, queer space contracted by 60% between 2006 and 2017 (Tom Wilkinson, 2018) as tax rates and property prices have taken over liminal spaces, claiming them back for the centred. Once again, the hetero, cisgender male dominates and anyone other is overwritten.
Middle Class vs Working Class
We design to communicate hierarchy, aspiration and social climbing. Prestigious universities, parliaments, finance and capital occupy prime locations, preseting facades designed to express their power. Oversized porticos project proudly into the street, supported by columns that taper slightly to exaggerate perspective and symbolise power. Meanwhile, other forms of work and knowledge are marginalised to the outskirts, unmarked. Learning via play, practical apprenticeship or community engagement happens as an afterthought, as and where they can fit in. Undervalued work such as production, mutual aid and the informal sector must apply to occupy space, from non-profit groups hiring temporary space with grant money, to buskers or beggars, competing for street corners.
Lower class neighbourhoods live under constant threat of eviction and destruction. We fear the aesthetics of council estates as we fear the aesthetics of poverty, constantly demolishing stable structures to overwrite them with newness in the hope to refresh and revive 'undersired' communities.
An economy reliant upon constant growth and ever increasing property prices offers success to the successful. Monopoly was originally designed to bring this pattern to life, played first in the capitalist version of property accumulation to gain power and ruin other players. The second ‘prosperity’ version instead mimics Henry George’s land value tax, played as a team game won by all when the player starting with the least has doubled their fortune.
As more land and resource becomes privatised, the availability and value of public space is diminished. Neoliberalism sells social housing to the private sector and developments to private funders. Public spaces of refuge for the homeless, the poor or the lacking in resource instead require money and a certain class to feel welcome. Libraries turn into restaurants, youth centres into gym memberships, public squares into private gardens.
Space is valuable as a mechanism of wealth creation and the power of wealth dominates the centre. The rich get richer and the poor are displaced further as extortionate land prices rely upon constant profit to survive. Our city centres are rich with the architecture of capitalism. Glazed spaces of advertising, consumerism and individualist competition sell a pin up of life to those who are already the status quo.
White vs Racialised
The colonial logic of slum clearance creates a binary between ‘drawn design’ and ‘undrawn construction’ to value buildings and homes only when designed by the hand of a qualified official. The unruly constructions of informal settlement face the constant threat of removal, destruction and displacement.
Centred space is whitened space, ‘cleansed’ and slick. Cultures other than Eurocentric White neighbourhoods are viewed as cluttered and undesigned, their use of space unvalued. Curated farmers markets overwrite street traders, shabby chic coffee shops push out ‘shabby’ corner stores.
We fear urban deterioration and lump it in with our fear of the 'other'. We fear an influx of clutter, of immigrants, other cultures, smells and shops. Patterns of White flight move enabled bodies to fresh new developments leaving concentrations of racialised communities with less resource and less power.
Colonial power centres the architecture of Whiteness, from the white-washed stone facades of the colonial style to the climate and culture insensitive Western tower block, drag and dropped into the Global South. Architecture mirrors the Eurocentric aesthetics of beauty standards. Just as the image of Whiteness is celebrated in our bodies, Western modernism has globaalised and colonised to mark status in our environments.
Policy has historically been employed to segregate and oppress according to race, creating spatial infrastructures of extreme harm such as the plantation, the slave ship. Apartheid policy has divided territory into Black space and White space with swathes of no mans' land in between. Toilets, buses, public buildings and education were infamously segregated, containing Blackness within substandard, uncaring spaces and preventing interaction between races.
Today, spatial practice still replicates racist constructs, we are just normalised to different conditions. Prisons still disproportionately remove Blackness from society and confine it behind bars. White architects design full-height glazing, visibility and surveillance as the answer to crime, yet safety for a Black man is far more likely to be reduced surveillance, reduced policing.
This constant displacement, lack of representation and devaluing of othered communities feeds the creation of identity, forming a self that is defined by being undervalued, out of place and needing approval to be included. By centring Whiteness in our architecture, we perpetuate the message that Blackness has no place in the mainstream, no aspiration and no care.
Humanised vs Animalised
Animalised bodies are hyper controlled at the border between periphery and centre. Farmed animals are segregated and concealed on the outskirts, entering the centre only as a commodified and reconstituted products. This spatial division between the life of those on the periphery and the cleansed package of the interior creates a perpetuating ignorance that invisibilises production and deepens the cycle of oppression, an idea I explored more fully in my written masters thesis.
Other species make it into the centre in an alternative commodified form – as a pet, an accessory or a decoration. Mostly they make it only as far as the domestic private however, trapped in a cage, a decorative fish tank or a designer handbag on a tube. Any species that isn’t favoured by our society for their use, their appearance or the taste of their flesh is designed out as we pave the way for cars over flora and fauna to enable the human to succeed. Other animals become displaced, with any survivors quickly branded ‘pests’ to be exterminated, ‘weeds’ to control.
Sea defences, hahas, even a line of slug repellent or a ‘pest’ proof building are all designs to prevent inundation of anything other, serving to reinforce binaries of here/there and us/them. We construct binaries of space to design out the fear of inundation of the other, fluidity and flow. We order any liminal spaces of muddy, incomprehensible marsh that threaten that creation of our bounded individual (id)entity.
Humanity is defined in opposition to nature, denying the nature within us and us within nature. We separate the elements via control barriers, containing humanised bodies within climate-controlled boxes throughout space. We treasure our humanity through architecture, articulating privatised, cleansed and protected interiors at the cost of the environment we share. We design to symbolise domination over nature, the power of technology and the liberation of the machine.
Our environments segregate the humanised from the animalised and the more humanised the body, the more our spaces enable health and success. Whilst rich, White neighbourhoods overflow with excess food, leak energy and hoard space, Black and Brown communities occupy uncaring environments of cramped conditions, food deserts and lack of access to healthcare.
The normalisation of the humanised body as the status quo leaves us alienated from our wider natural self, living in environments without access to green spaces, diversity of bodies, species and ecosystems. The health of the planet is suffering, and ours alongside as the anthropocentric architecture of power designs out the power of nature. We live in polluted cities that cause respiratory disease, in monolithic concrete environments that cause anxiety and stress. We farm other animals, creating antibiotic resistance and zoonotic pandemics.
Our quest to enable the security of the humanised race has brought us to a disabling stand still this year. We need to understand and address our constant rearticulation of separation and learn to find safety together, to deconstruct our divides.
Deleuze's and Guattari's creation of the self in reaction to fear and desire gives me a framework to understand the function bordering performs for us. Foucault’s lens of distributed power within us all shows me how it persists, how it may always persist. But just like with social constructs of gender, race and class, that doesn’t leave me feeling we should just act colour blind and hope the walls fall on their own, nor blindly accept them as inevitable and perpetuate their normalisation.
By recognising and identifying the divisive binaries we construct, we gain the power to begin their deconstruction towards the liminal fluidity in between. We can move away from periphery vs centrality, public vs private, individual vs collective towards the freedom for all bodies to cross borders at ease.
I see the construction of division as another issue of morality and ethics and architecture as a tool in the process of envisaging our utopia and working gradually towards it through our actions and behaviours. We can start by questioning the assumption of what has been centred so far and by revaluing the periphery. Make space for the othered within the centre and overwrite our monocultures, whilst at the same time celebrating the darkness of the nightclub, the chaos of informality, the fluid mixing of cultures.
We can disseminate the power from the individual to the collective: creation becomes co-creation, inhabitation becomes co-habitation, design becomes co-design. Can we even move away from architecture as a commodity, spaces that commodify and towards an architecture of care, provision and opportunity? Away from a barricaded interior of privilege, reliant upon exclusion, towards an infrastructure of care, co-created by and for all?
Architecture holds the power to build walls, to conceal, to oppress; but it equally holds the power to amplify, to represent, to enable and to care. My next thoughts will be on architecture as activism, the power of space as an enabler, a visual reminder and a representation of change.
- Teeter Totter Wall by Rael San Fratello and Colectivo Chopeke
“I believe that the way people live can always be directed a little by architecture”
- Tadao Ando
My thoughts on these issues have been informed from so many directions, but here are a few I've enjoyed reently and fed into this thought...
- The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective – a really great short book that argues for why and how we must restructure our spaces and societies to be designed around care
- Bordering, Ordering and Othering by Henk van Houtum - introduced me to the idea of bordering and othering as a creation and protection of the self
- Biometric Borders: governing mobilities in the war on terror by Louise Amoore - on bordering within airports, biometrics
- Vanishing Points: abolition and spatial infrastructures of harm by Diversity Working Group - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgrIh0ZWJ3M – this discussion really framed my current thinking and wording around how power impacts space
- Space and Power by Paul Hirst
- Discipline and Punish, the Birth of the Clinic and Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
- Aphro-ism by Aph and Syl Ko - opened my eyes to animalisation and humanisation beyond species divides
- The Ungrateful Refugee - https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/dina-nayeri-ungrateful-refugee – on how we accept refugees only when they recognise and constantly acknowledge our benevolence, our power
- Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe - great book and podcast about power dynamics in sex and sex work
- Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis - a fantastic exploration of the injustices of imprisonment and argument for their abolition
Some great articles from the Architectural Review, in particular:
- Only Resist: a feminist approach to critical spatial practices by Jane Rendell
- Flights of Fancy: masculinity in airspace by Cassandre Greenberg
- Out of Space: changing homosexual geographies by Huw Lemmy
- Outrage: the prejudice against queer aesthetics by Adam Nathaniel Furman
- The Globalising Wall: globalisation, conflict and division by Danae Stratou and Yanis Varoufakis
Some spatial activists I like:
- Matrix Feminist Design Cooperative
- muf architecture/art
- Jos Boys on design for dis/ability - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqowuGx3mNQ – this talk is great!
- Peg Rawes on ecologies and space
- Resolve Collective on co-design with the community
- Lesley Lokko on race and architecture
- New Architecture Writers - a free programme for young BAME design critics who have hosted some really informative discussions, available on YouTube
- Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) - do great work to seek alternatives to the prison complex, check out their podcast too
- Detention Action - work to find alternatives to immigrant detention