Weaponized Architecture: A Discussion with Léopold Lambert

The following is an interview with Léopold Lambert (@TheFunambulist_), author of ‘Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence’ (published by dpr-barcelona), a new publication that offers an analysis of Israel’s architecture of colonization in the context of global trends in architecture and urbanism, and uses architectural design as a tool to highlight and subvert the spatial constraints imposed on Palestinians living in the West Bank. In addition to the print version of the book, a mobile version is available for free download, with integrated Augmented Reality content.

This interview is published on arenaofspeculation.org to coincide with the release of the book. A ‘sister’ interview will also be published in the coming days on We Make Money Not Art.

Fictitious representation of the power of the line

Fictitious representation of the power of the line in the physical world as well as an attempt to use it as a weapon: the line here becomes porous and hosts in its “thickness” a three-dimensional labyrinth whose control has escaped from its creator. Page extracted from the graphic novel Lost in the Line (2010) (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: Your book takes a novel approach in juxtaposing Israeli colonial practices with trends of global capitalism in the privatization and commodification of public space, and the surveillance and control of populations. How did you come to focus on Israel-Palestine in your research? Did you start from this specific place, or was it your research that brought you here?

Léopold Lambert: I resolutely oriented my research in a very general realm as I wanted to make a point about something absolutely inherent to architecture, which is that architecture is never politically innocent whether it has been conceived as a political weapon or not. I thought that many research studies had been made around this thesis but was always disappointed to see that architecture was always considered at a symbolic level or that its weaponization needed to be activated somehow. What I wanted to really insist on is the fact that architecture is violent in essence –the act of transforming lines into walls etc.- and that the conditioning and use of this violence was the political act inherently involved.

At some point in my work, when I needed to move towards something more specific I had to face a dilemma: Either to go with the most extreme situation of such “weaponization” or, on the contrary, to choose an architectural typology that would have, at first sight, appeared as benign, like a type of house for example, but which would have had to eventually be envisioned as another embodiment of a political structure. In the end, my emotions chose for me as I feel strongly connected to the Palestinian struggle against the daily injustice which they suffer.

Metaphorical map of the West Bank/East Jerusalem as an archipelago

Metaphorical map of the West Bank/East Jerusalem as an archipelago. Islands are embodied by Area A and B, the sea consists in territory controlled by the Israeli Army (+ Jordan on the extreme East) and reefs represent the Israeli civil colonies. (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: The academic world in architecture seems to have a fascination at present with the spatial mechanisms that successive Israeli governments – and various non-governmental groups – have adopted in colonizing and cementing control over Palestinian lands. Without doubt, the writings of Eyal Weizman have been instrumental in stoking this interest. However, common to many of these derivative works is a ‘sanitisation’ that diminishes the injustice and absurdity of many of the physical and pseudo-legal devices he describes, and specifically how their efficacy relies upon an ‘obedient’ population conditioned by a crude underlying threat of violence.

By removing this perspective, such academic work has the potential to simply embed the perceived rootedness and unassailability of Israeli power structures, diminishing the position of collective agency in resisting and overturning an ongoing process of dispossession. In your work, you talk explicitly about ‘disobedient architecture’, implying parallels with ‘civil disobedience’ and grassroots social struggle. Would you expand on this concept of ‘disobedient architecture’, and where it takes its inspiration from?

Léopold Lambert: Disobedience appears when there is a discrepancy between a personal or collective ethics and the transcendental content of the law. When it is really understood and experienced as such, disobedience becomes something beyond the notion of choice, it is a necessity, despite an awareness of the mechanisms of enforcement of the law.

The architectural project I designed for this book is a Palestinian building built in what the Oslo Accords defines as Area C near Salfit. Such a disobedient scenario was created in the frame of the definition I just gave. The legal conditions applied to this project’s territorial context (Area C) have been clearly conceived as a colonial/apartheid apparatus that consolidate the power of one ethnic group over another. The consequence in terms of architecture of such a legal context is the impossibility for the Palestinians to build on the majority of their land. It therefore becomes a necessity to disobey the colonial law, firstly in order to benefit from the actual object that was prohibited by the unjust law, but also to express the violence of such a law through the violence of disobeying it.

Hebron is the unfortunate most illustrative example of the oppressive power of architecture

Hebron is the unfortunate most illustrative example of the oppressive power of architecture. The Palestinian market street, which has seen many of its merchants evicted from their shops constitutes a dangerous corridor surmounted by an Israeli settlement inhabited by the most violent part of the Orthodox Jewish population. The net seen on the photograph has been set-up in order to avoid the various objects thrown by this settlement’s windows and roof to hurt the Palestinian population. (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: I found a lot of interest in your effort to define precedents for “resistive architectures” globally, within spheres that you define as “legality, “unexpected legality”, and illegality”. Here, the definition of ‘legality’ is obviously prescribed by the dominant political power, but – as your analysis implies – there is a need to understand such forces in order to effectively resist them. On this point, would you expand on this terminology and the precedents you have come across where “illegal” or “unexpectedly legal” spatial actions – whether permanent or temporary – have been instrumental in highlighting unjust laws, or have actually been influential in bringing about a positive change in such laws?

Léopold Lambert: Just like Gandhi probably understood that the way of non-violence was the most appropriate means of fighting the Indian cause, I think that those three attitudes should be carefully chosen depending on the institutional framework of one’s action. The three examples I give in the book are those of Teddy Cruz, Santiago Cirugeda and Max Rameau. While Teddy Cruz negotiates with the local institutions for the implementation of an architecture beneficial to the population along the US/Mexican border, Max Rameau illegally requisitions land dedicated to financial speculations to allow poor families to live on while organizing a profitable negotiation with the neighbourhood. Santiago Cirugeda stands in between those two attitudes. In fact, he dedicates an important part of his work to a deep knowledge of the local urban code –in his case, in Seville- in order to set up in what I called, “an unexpected legality”, projects which trigger a sense of community within a given neighbourhood. This legality is indeed unexpected as they “play” with the law by unfolding itself in its ambiguity.

In the case of Palestinians, just like in any other example of colonization, they have been submitted to an absolute and militarized imposition of a transcendental legal system. It is therefore legitimate to resist this law by simply disobeying it as we were talking about in the last question. In a conversation I had with Raja Shehadeh, as a lawyer, he was however arguing that we also need to infiltrate the Occupier’s Law (title of a book he wrote) in order to act on it from the inside. This is also the attitude of some Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Haneen Zoabi or Azmi Bishara who have been elected to the Knesset and are (or were) trying to act at the very root of the creation of this same law. I think that it is an extremely interesting problem: do you accept to act within the structure of an oppressive order in order to change it but risk to ratifying it, or do you fundamentally refuse to compromise at any level with this same structure.

I think that architects are confronted with the exact same question continuously. Do you accept to design a prison thinking that you might be able to improve a little bit the prisoners’ life conditions or do you simply refuse it? Furthermore, in the latter situation, does that mean that you would then accept to design, an office building, a retail, a school, or any building which would require the eviction of people from the site? I don’t pretend in any way to have an answer to this question, but I think that we have to be very much aware of it.

From far, the building looks like a fragile Bedouin encampment

Representation of the architectural project Weaponized Architecture in Area C near Salfit (West Bank). From far, the building looks like a fragile Bedouin encampment when in fact, the layer of tents hides a solid and effective Qasr (قصر) (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: I feel that it is important to contrast your theoretical design proposal with the many acts of ‘illegal’ construction continually taking place in defiance of Israeli restrictions, not only in Area C of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, but also within Israel itself. A recent action saw residents of Bil’in begin to construct a series of communal buildings on ‘Area C’ land, reclaimed following the long delayed re-routing of the separation barrier around the village.

Alongside such concrete acts of defiance, the apparent deference in your project to the invisible and legally defunct Oslo-era lines between Areas A, B and C seems somehow timid. As you explain, it was not your intention to present a utopian vision, and while it would be problematic to overstep your position as an outside observer, did you consider more extreme interventions in the course of your design process, or did you consciously reject such approaches?

Léopold Lambert: The very principle of colonization, or of apartheid consists, I believe, in the invasion of daily life and its reorganization on the administrative level. In that matter, I am convinced that very localized actions based on this modified daily life –like Raja Shehadeh’s walks in Ramallah’s hills for example- can be considered as much more subversive than other actions that register themselves in a traditional radical repertoire. The project I designed is, in fact, introducing an intervention in the daily life of people who decide to accomplish their work on a land which has been administratively confiscated from them. Their production –I am talking more specifically of the farmers- is also liberated from colonial control in a similar way to the Indian independent production of salt in 1930, liberated from the British tax.

If I may comment on your question, I did not write that I did not want to present a “utopian vision”; what I wrote is that architecture, in my opinion, can only intervene in the resistive struggle rather than what we now commonly called “a solution”.

The Qasr (قصر) is composed by three layers

The Qasr (قصر) is composed by three layers: An upper layer of tents camouflages the building as well as provides shade to it. A surface layer claims a piece of territory via a shotcrete uneven terrain which is used as a small agricultural platform. The last layer is subterranean; it can be used as a storage for agricultural goods as well as a shared shelter for the farmers and the Bedouins. (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: There were elements of your final conclusion that appeared slightly ambiguous. You speak of the obvious need for political change in tandem with spatial transformation. However, I didn’t follow your characterisation of ‘resistance’ as an act of the present, and your stated desire to ‘disregard’ past and future in your project: “The architecture developed in this book thus ignores everything from the past just as much as the future. It … disregards the debate of a “one state solution” which qualifies the current Israeli policies as an apartheid, as well as a “two state solution,” which qualifies them as a form of colonization. Resistance is always conjugated in the present and so is this project.”

I couldn’t help but think that this misconstrues the nature of ‘resistance’ and ‘steadfastness’ (sumud) in Palestine, which is almost entirely predicated on challenging a historic and ongoing process of displacement and dispossession, and where acts of defiance (or ‘disobedience’) tend to be informed very much by both past experience and future possibility. For example, we could look at the simple act of ‘staying put’, which endures in many cases in spite of sustained economic and legal pressures, as well as threats to security. Such acts can be understood only in the context of a repeated experience of Israeli-enforced displacement since 1948, and can only be justified by a belief that in time the present political situation can – and will – make way for restorative justice. Could you perhaps clarify this idea of taking the present as a subject of study in isolation?

Léopold Lambert: I realize that I should define what I call resistance here as I understand your legitimate confusion. Resistance, as I use it, consists in one’s embrace for the antagonism that splits apart a given order and one’s personal or collective ethics. Resistance then implies the creation of or participation in actions that take part within this same antagonism as the necessary expression of one’s political manifesto. The metaphor I have in my mind every time I think about it is the image of two hands somehow managing to pull apart an elasticized material, thus creating a hole within it for a certain time before letting it close in on itself again. For a brief instant, a territory of emancipation would have existed and liberated the bodies present on it. Once this instant is over for an internal reason (conflict, reproduction of systems of domination, competition etc.) or an external one (suppression), we need to work on the next one.

What I meant by stating that resistance only conjugates in the present consists in the fact that it registers in time as an action that is self-sufficient and that can be fully understood only as long as it is being effectuated.

The two populations, farmers and Bedouins, have to negotiate together

The two populations, farmers and Bedouins, both victims of the Israeli colonial apparatuses have to negotiate together to share this space that attempts to physically accommodate their two different ways of life, culture and production. (Léopold Lambert/DPR-Barcelona, 2011)

Ahmad Barclay: At least to some extent, your book seems to be written for two parallel audiences; an academic architectural one, and an activist one. What would you hope that each of these audiences will take from your work?

Léopold Lambert: It is difficult to answer this question as I don’t feel that I wrote this book for a particular audience; but you are right, it is something that is always there in filigree. I guess that, just like for the blog I edit, I start from a traditional academic architectural audience as you pointed out, and then try to reach a broader audience of people who are interested in questioning the act of creation in general and to think of its political implication more specifically. I would like architects to understand that no line they trace can possibly be innocent –which explains the subtitle of the book: The Impossibility of Innocence.

As for a broader audience that you define as being activist, I think that I have to be very humble here since I don’t think that my documentation work in Palestine constitutes something new in any way. However, I did compile a small inventory of architectural colonial apparatuses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, mostly with my own photographs in order to illustrate how ubiquitous is the Israeli control over daily life in the occupied territories. I don’t think that the word activist comes alone. Depending on your job, your skills, your passion, your social background, etc. you always try to “activate” something in a given field or issue. That is the thing that I have been experiencing here in New York with Occupy Wall Street for which we all came with our small sphere of knowledge and political involvement to constitute a common struggle. In my case, I resolutely try to act with architecture in a realm which goes much beyond architecture. That is what I tried to do with these texts and this architectural project. The effect/affect that I hope from there, is as much the observation that one cannot escape from the politics, as the realization that embracing this political act empowers you in the public debate.

More specifically to the Palestinian struggle, unfortunately, too many things about the enforcement of International Law on Israel, depend on a strict problem of information. In that matter, I think that we are many who cannot stand any longer on the face of continuous disinformation, observed on a daily basis in the European and American press. In front of these news behemoths we need to constitute a multitude of alternative channels of information that try to be as independent as possible from the economic forces which orient the content. I hope that this is a little bit what we managed to do through this conversation.

Léopold Lambert is a French architect currently working in New York. In addition of being a designer, he is the editor of the blog The Funambulist which attempts to approach architecture via indirect means such as literature, philosophy, cinema, politics etc.

For more on ‘Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence’, please visit the dpr-barcelona website. Léopold also produced a blog cataloging the evolution of the project itself. Highlights include his interview with Raja Shehadeh, founder of Al-Haq and author of Palestinian Walks

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