The impossible innocence of architecture

There are as many definitions of architecture as there are architects. It is something that will never be set in stone, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, ‘What is architecture?’ is an essential question; a question that every architect and others in the field should continue to ask themselves. At the very least, to fully assume the position they have taken on, both in their profession and in society.

This life-long and fascinating quest begins for most architects during their time as a student. And so it began for some students at the Academy of Architecture in Groningen. In a class discussing the role you take on as an architect, I illustrated with a few extreme examples, including Trump’s plans for the wall at the border between the United States and Mexico.

A relevant example in this respect since the border wall is not only a call for tender, but also several designers have responded to the assignment by proposing critical design solutions. In doing so, these designers have taken a clear stand in relation to the assignment. (See the links below.)

This seemed to be a straightforward example for taking a stand, until a student expressed an understanding for serious participation in the tender. ‘It is just work, isn’t it?’

This comment got me thinking… because this was exactly what the lesson was all about. Architecture is not neutral. And in this particular example, to me it seemed to be so clearly politically charged and anything but ‘just another job’.

It is precisely the explanation of this architecture as a polarising political statement which shows the necessity for architects to take a stand and that it is impossible for architecture to be neutral.

The wall
What is this wall other than a dividing construct? A physical border between inside and outside. A division between the United States and Mexico. And why is that problematic? After all, isn’t there already a wall? (See the links below.)*

The symbolism of this wall has a greater impact than the actual construction of it. The meaning behind the wall confirms the division between ‘us’ (Americans) and ‘them’ (Mexicans). It is a confirmation that some people belong within a particular system and that other people do not. It is a confirmation of the idea that some people have more rights than others.

This symbolism goes far beyond the obvious challenges faced locally along the border. This wall supports the belief that differences between people are a justification for having different rights. The idea that one human body is not the same as another, and that they are therefore not equal. And so we arrive at the core of the deeply problematic symbolism of the wall. By viewing human beings as ‘others’ and labelling them as ‘outsiders’, it becomes easier to treat them as ‘objects’, as property and as criminals.

In her speech on New Year’s Eve in 2016, in the Metropolitan AME Church in D.C., Valerie Kaur (an American film producer and lawyer) describes wonderfully the impact of such a division, ‘a wall between people’:

‘…if black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls are seen as someone else’s property. When we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters, then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.’

The wall facilitates the exclusion and the stigmatisation of people, not only literally with the divisive, physical nature of the thing, but also it justifies the separation symbolically in other places.

Architecture is the work of man
This fact seems to answer the question of whether Trump’s wall can be considered ‘just work’. With Trump’s divide-and-conquer-politics, this wall is a clear example. And the reason why this wall can never be neutral is quite obvious.

Yet, can we ever really consider architecture to be neutral? Architecture always divides and connects. Physically and symbolically, the spaces around us always have an influence on our daily experience. Although usually in a less drastic manner…

As already described by Hillier and Hanson in ‘The Social Logic of Space’ in 1984:

‘By giving shape and form to our material world, architecture structures the system of space in which we live and move. In that it does so, it has a direct relation … to social life, since it provides the material preconditions for the patterns of movement, encounter and avoidance which are the material realization –as well as sometimes the generator- of social relations.’ (Hillier & Hanson 1984 p.7)

The conclusion we should draw on the topic of Trump’s wall is that architecture not only has a physical meaning, but also a symbolic one. With that said, it not only changes the assumption of ‘just work’, but also the symbolic and social meaning of space.

Especially in every day work, this meaning is often less apparent, which is not to say that it is not there. It is less visible, and therefore more clearly calls for taking a stand, because architecture is the work of man. It is not possible for us to be objective, and so architecture cannot possibly be innocent. Let us focus our efforts on an architecture that brings us together rather than one that divides and conquers.

Maartje ter Veen is architect, researcher & teacher at the Academy of Architecture in Groningen, The Netherlands

This article was first published on ArchiNed (in Dutch):

* A critical consideration of ‘just work’ and its feasibility goes beyond the scope of this article (although the film ‘Best of Luck with the Wall’ by Josh Begley serves as a nice starting point for a discussion on feasibility).

Links to the wall tender
The tender
The tender on dezeen

Critical design proposals for the wall
Trump’s Mexican border wall envisioned as Barragán-inspired pink barrier
IKEA Börder Wåll provides Trump with affordable construction option
Beautifying the Border proposal replaces US-Mexico fence with landscaping

The speech of Valarie Kaur

The wall today
CNN, January 25, 2017
NBC news, January 26, 2017

Hillier, B. & J. Hanson (1984). The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.