Between Structure and Anarchy

Can architecture be an apparatus [1] for emancipation? I don’t simply mean a style or a symbol of liberty, but truly an apparatus, in the sense of a scenic or strategic arrangement similar to certain artistic or military installations that influence our individual or collective actions. If I ask myself this, it is because architectural and urban planning projects are increasingly rarely able to escape the demagoguery of consultation processes and the tyranny of public opinion.

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Sealand platform. © Kim Gilmour

Gilles Delalex, architect

Novembre 6, 2021
9 min.
They seem above all intended to validate dominant discourses and justify the political bodies that commissioned them. They bring possibilities to a standstill rather than open them up. Can we then imagine an architecture that allows individuals, users, residents, or visitors to temporarily take control over them to change their destiny? Can we conceive of architecture in such a way that it brings about other values or a different mode of governance than the one that preceded it? Not by becoming more amenable, flexible, easily appropriated, or participatory—as we are keen to imagine a democratic architecture these days—but, on the contrary, by being determinant in both its form and its way of arousing the desire for debate and occupation.

we aren’t only the products of our environment or of where we live, we also transform the climate we depend on

This isn’t an easy one to incorporate because, since Michel Foucault’s work on disciplinary space, the tradition that has become dominant in the fields of philosophy and the social sciences, is that of conceiving architecture as a form of fixed meaning and as an instrument of control and domination. It is customary to assess the manner in which a given architectural space constrains individuals, but much rarer to describe how these individuals, in turn, change this space and how it then becomes conducive to their emancipation. I nonetheless believe that there are places that make us freer than others. German philosopher Ludger Schwarte makes the case for this idea, taking the events of the French Revolution as an example [2]. These unfolded in the newly constructed public spaces of the time, including the courtyard of Palais-Royal, the Champs-de-Mars, the urban squares, boulevards, parks, theaters, and variety halls. According to Schwarte, the architecture of these public spaces have played a determining role in the emergence of the revolutionary crowds. He doesn’t believe in a causal relationship between the architecture of Paris and the revolution. The crowds didn’t attack the Bastille because of there were public spaces. Nevertheless, such places had to exist so that individuals could come out of their homes, gather, and engage in collective actions. They enabled the crowd to come into existence and become aware of itself, and prefigured its emergence well before the crowd would reshape its space and atmosphere. Schwarte therefore establishes the existence of a reciprocal dependence between the architecture of public places and revolutionary crowds because, as he put it, “we aren’t only the products of our environment or of where we live, we also transform the climate we depend on.”

Considering the architecture of buildings, we quite logically think of those of parliaments designed to represent their people. For Schwarte, the architecture of parliaments illustrates the restrictive connection that emerges between the form of architecture and that of the political regime. One simply needs to consider their size, which determines the number of representatives of the people. Schwarte recalls in this regard that the Pnyx in Athens could host 24,000 people, whereas today’s parliaments can only accommodate a few hundred people [3]. The circular form and the presence or absence of a speaker’s tribune shape what is said there as well as providing legitimacy to these speeches [4]. Schwarte laments that the architecture of parliaments constrains the possibilities for participation in public debates, even more than the laws and media do [5]. But, though the architecture of parliaments is restrictive through its size, form, and its own finitude, Schwarte considers that architecture is nevertheless not condemned to restrict what is indeterminate. He therefore calls for an architecture of possibilities that allows something unsuspected to unfold, something completely different than what could be expected. He doesn’t view possibility as the mere capacity to provoke the transformation of a given thing into another, but as a freedom to open up to the unknown. It differs from potentiality, which remains tied to that of predictability, to completing a planified scheme, and to principles of chaining the past, present, and future. Potentiality is also etymologically related to power, and continues to include the intended action and the probability that it will occur or not. Schwarte therefore advocates considering architecture as a construction of possibilities or, to better highlight its performative aspect, as a way of making things possible. He wants us to move beyond the idea that architecture is nothing more than a technology of power that offers no other alternative than subversive processes, and proposes an approach he defines as being between structure and anarchy.

The royal squares. Theatre project for the square courtyard of the Louvre. Georgi Stanishev, Can Onaner, Mathilde Sari, Joseph Rupp, 2019 The royal squares. Theatre project for the square courtyard of the Louvre. Georgi Stanishev, Can Onaner, Mathilde Sari, Joseph Rupp, 2019
What could such an architecture look like? I am thinking of different types of constructions that do not fit the category at first glance in the field of architecture. First of all, platforms. For example, the maritime military platform that became the site of the Principality of Sealand in the 1960s when Paddy Roy Bates, a former major from the British Navy, decided to settle there with his family and to declare an independent micronation. The platform itself was initially designed as one of the Maunsell Forts, a series of sea forts built by the Royal Navy in the Thames Estuary during the Second World War. These forts were built to help protect the United Kingdom from German air raids. Named after their designer, the British engineer Guy Maunsell. Some of these forts look like platforms supported by large concrete cylinders. They were built in dry dock and then towed out and sunk onto sand banks, with only their towers and their platform emerging from above the water. Starting in the 1950s, these forts were gradually abandoned and have all had different fates. A few were destroyed by storms or collisions with ships. Others were used as weather stations or for pirate radio broadcasting. Recently, artist Stephen Turner took residence in one of the forts for six weeks.

The Rough Sands Fort, which is the site of the Principality of Sealand, has had a more turbulent history. Paddy Roy Bates self-declared as a prince and owner of the fort, created coinage and passports, adopted a national anthem and a coat of arms, and wrote a somewhat libertarian constitution. The British Navy attempted to expel him. The British government then sued him, but the court ruled that the platform was located outside of British territorial waters and beyond its jurisdiction. In 1978, his associate and prime minister, Alfred Achenbach, tried to overthrow him. More recently, the new prince, Michael, engaged in negotiations to sell the platform in turn to a hacker community from MIT, an electronic data storage company, the Swedish hackers of Pirate Bay, and the activists of WikiLeaks, though none of these came to fruition. The history of this platform remains in British memory as a delightful running gag that made the headlines at the time. But we could also very well remember Sealand’s history as one of an architecture that radically changed its political purpose to the point of worrying the British government, and that questioned the hegemonic and rarely controversial status of the nation states, by challenging the very principle of national sovereignty. Perched on top of its two concrete pillars, Sealand indeed questioned, for a time, the broadly accepted idea of the indivisible unity of peoples, territories, culture, and political regimes.

Barricade on rue des Amandiers, seen from boulevard de Ménilmontant - BHVP.
I believe that Sealand’s destiny owes much to its architecture, to the powerful, oversized concrete pillars and its precarious, minuscule platform perched on top and stripped of its military attributes. One easily imagines the exhilaration Bates must have felt where he climbed the strange structure for the first time. I view this platform as forming part of a family of architectures that stimulate a curious desire for appropriation and secession. I am thinking in particular of the architecture of barricades, which generally take the form of heaps of fragments, of sections of streets stacked loosely and growing into walls or small inhabited elevations. The streets and boulevards of Paris were regularly blocked off by barricades over the past four centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, they even went through a period of intense development, culminating with the Paris Commune, and, before that the Revolution of 1848, to the point that Auguste Blanqui drew a few building principles from the experiences, which he shared in his book, Instructions for an Armed Uprising. Closer to us are the squares of the Arab Spring, several of which were in fact designed solely for car traffic, so vast and undefined that no one had imagined that revolted crowds would fill them.

These different types of architecture obviously do not share any physical features. The platforms are characterized by the engineering mindset that underlies them, their permanence, their monumentality, and their remoteness. They strongly contrast with barricades, these temporary heaps of wreckage, cobblestones, sandbags, and vehicles—spontaneous pieces of bricolage that indicate a savage mind and fleeting time. And indeed, even though barricades have undergone some degree of technical improvement over their history, admittedly, in most cases, they remain ephemeral and unfinished. They are vulgar and archaic constructions materializing from a very romantic notion of belonging and civic identity—the opposite of platforms, which express a desire for independence and a technical ideal.

© Ahmed Abd El-Fatah
Though the architecture doesn’t look the same, each nevertheless shares commonalities in relation with the way they stoke the desire for actions and occupation. The first of these shared attributes is that they are architectures of the crowd. When they are occupied, they form a dialectic relationship with their occupants, in the sense that they are mutually reinforcing, working through confrontation, and sometimes even amalgamation, switching roles and characteristics. In the event of an uprising, for example, the roundabouts are taken over, dismantled, blackened by soot, covered in banners and slogans—they mobilize and transform themselves. As for the revolutionary crowds, they occupy, besiege, and interrupt the traffic—they become static and stationary. The whole purpose of an occupation is to bring a place to a halt. The relationship between the crowds and architecture is reversed, however, as crowds are suddenly immobilizing, while architecture is mobilizing. They merge, not by becoming akin to one another, but by switching roles and mutually staging one another, as if to dramatize the event.

A second shared feature is that these architectures present themselves as constructions that must be taken, seized, or climbed. They attract crowds, not because they are neutral, free, and available, but, on the contrary, because occupying them is something to be earned. They don’t give themselves easily. Sealand’s platform, for example, was only accessible by boat or helicopter. As for barricades, they must be climbed. And even the squares of the Arab Spring were difficult to occupy given how large and poor delineated they were. Occupying these architectures therefore requires a degree of effort, calling for preparation, mobility, climbing, and a degree of commitment. It is indeed from this constraint, from this difficulty in being climbed and occupied, that the desire for occupation stems.

They trace borders and dividing lines, which have the double effect of separating and sharing. These are then architectures that divide, not to rule, but to create moments of pure politics, by differentiating the insiders and the outsiders, those in favor and those against, creating, at the same time, temporary coalitions and contrary or convergent opinions.

A third commonality that I perceive between these architectures is that they are places of secession. They set apart, segment, divide, and segregate. They do the precise opposite of what we’re expecting from architecture nowadays. But, on the other hand, at the very moment they are occupied, these architectures create otherness, distance, and difference. Looking closely, they both are a part of a network. The roundabouts are a part of a road network, Sealand’s platform is one of a network of marine forts, and even the barricades often form part of a network of other barricades. All these networks set boundaries. They trace borders and dividing lines, which have the double effect of separating and sharing. These are then architectures that divide, not to rule, but to create moments of pure politics, by differentiating the insiders and the outsiders, those in favor and those against, resulting in temporary coalitions and contrary or convergent opinions.

The fourth similarity between the architecture of platforms, barricades, and roundabouts, is that they are versatile in the face of events. As soon as they are occupied, their significance is turned upside down. They tune themselves to the occupants and their demands as occupation is their main raison d’être. Over the course of this occupation, these architectures become outposts or rear positions, battlefronts or fortified camps. Their meaning and significance changes as fast as they change hands from the insurgents to the authorities. Once evacuated, they return to being inert items, devoid of meaning and orientation. They therefore remain autonomous from any political ideology, as their appropriation is never final. They can be temporarily appropriated, yet are fundamentally inappropriable.

The final shared feature I see between them is that they are architectures of beginning. In a sense they are pioneers, contrary to most others, which tend to bring situations to an end and to settle them after a long process of research, thinking, and construction. It is obvious that barricades are never really completed. The same is true of a roundabout,unless a monumental sculpture or a fountain is installed at its center. And even Sealand’s platform has something precarious to it, akin to temporary scaffolding. These are nonetheless architectures in an etymological sense, given that for Anaximander, arkhế conveyed the sense of an origin, the beginning of all things—not as a starting point or a definite origin, but as a substance, a chaotic origin of the world, a perpetual and underlying origin that continuously begets what it there—reality or appearances.

So, can architecture be a device for emancipation? Probably, when it manages to emancipate itself from its own desire to signify once and for all. Architecture only becomes liberating through the way we use it. As Ludger Schwarte points out, before receiving revolutionary bodies, those places that became the setting of the French Revolution were associated with the ideology of Enlightenment. These were ordered, bright spaces, dominated by concerns for hygiene and public order. They were places of power and nothing predetermined them to become places of uprising. I would add to this that the fact that they were places of power could also have stoked the desire for occupation. Neutral and easily accessible spaces wouldn’t have been enough. What was needed were places that were capable of both arousing and constraining, freeing and repressing. What was required were spaces capable of accommodating the large revolutionary crowds, but also a Bastille, a place that resists. What was needed was an architecture that embraced its ambivalence towards powers that were then opposed. In other words, an architecture that was contrary to our open, easily appropriated, and pacified public spaces.

Gilles Delalex
Gilles Delalex (1972) is a French architect. He studied architecture in Grenoble and Montreal, and holds a Master’s in urban planning and a Doctorate of Arts from Alvar Aalto University, Helsinki. He co-founded the architectural firm Mutuo in Paris with Yves Moreau in 2003. After teaching at the École des Ponts et Chaussées engineering school from 2004 to 2008, he is currently a professor at ENSA Paris-Malaquais School of Architecture. Since 1998, he is also a research fellow at the LIAT Lab, where he coordinates an area of research on the image of great modern infrastructure. His research focuses on esthetics and the imaginaries of hypermodernity.

1. The Foucauldian apparatus (dispositif).
2. Schwarte Ludger, Philosophie de l'architecture, trans. Grégoire Chamayou (Paris: Éditions de la Découverte, 2019), Label Zones.
3. Ibid. p. 438
4. Ibid. p. 436
5. Ibid. p. 459