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23 April 2016


Text from Traces

Certain projects raise ethical issues more readily than others. When a space is asked to express forms of culture or power, an architect will have a hard time not questioning the values that this place is asked to embody.Power demands that it be actualized, rendered visible to an audience – its abstract reality must be made manifest. 
The space has to embody this content. This two-way interaction has a symbolic function: by concretely representing power – for example, a state over a particular territory – the place allocated for this representation itself becomes a symbol.

Architecture is one of the languages through which we perceive the culture and society of a particular era. This view of the discipline was very current in 19th-century German philosophy. When Goethe called architecture “verstummte Tonkunst”(a silent music), he was echoing Schelling, for whom architecture was a “frozen music” (“der Baukunst ist erstarrte Musik”)[3].

In fact, architecture is one of a regime’s favorite means of expression. Buildings are often built as a result of proactive policymaking that seeks to endow a city with facilities, especially cultural ones, and by extension, to leave a tangible trace of a government or a personality for future generations. For example, the “great public works projects,” a series of monuments constructed during François Mitterrand’s presidency, are more than just a reflection of France’s cultural policies in the 1980s; they also project an image of a “builder president,” who once wrote: “I feel in every city as if I am the emperor or an architect. I resolve, I decide, and I judge.”[4]

On a much more somber and dramatic note, the ordering of a space can become the vehicle for an ideology. Through the Nazi rehabilitations of Thingplätze, the “Gesamtbauplan für die Reichshauptstadt,” Albert Speer’s design for the “ideal capital” of the Third Reich, the Eur quarter in Rome, and Stalin’s skyscrapers, the “Seven Sisters of Moscow,” 20th-century totalitarian governments appropriated architecture as a language which used space to create and embody a new world order.

“For Hitler – no less than for his contemporaries, Mies and Gropius – architecture was an expression of the central spirit of an epoch, possessing some eternal magical power that could lead men from confusion and chaos into the serene realm of Order.”
These examples demonstrate how power views space as a way to explain its paradigms, and uses it as a strategy that extends far beyond merely promoting an official culture. It can be a small gathering place or an entire ideal city: the scale matters little. The idea is to stake out a territory to communicate, if not proclaim, a worldview. 

We kept ourselves very aware of the symbolic weight that places of power exert when we entered the competition to design the Nanterre prison and the Saint-Malo courthouse. Prisons, courthouses, city halls, or any kind of public building first and foremost express the symbolic power of the state over its territory, above and beyond their primary functions. They are in fact highly iconic places.

As a result, we thought it both necessary and fundamental to reflect on the values underlying our projects and to ask ourselves whether we agreed with the political strategy underpinning the decision-making on these new projects.

A new government had just launched a new law and order-oriented policy that was characterized on the one hand by a tougher legislative stance and, on the other, judiciary reform. Prisons and courthouses were supposed to reflect the state’s will to crack down harder on crime and prevent re-offending. The two projects we were invited to participate in were supposed to showcase the government’s new political stance and a new legal paradigm we do not support.

This realization confronted us with some tricky decisions. We had the choice of either not participating in these projects, or keeping a critical distance by trying to change things from within. Gilles Clément took the first option and wrote an extraordinary letter to back up his clear political position: “In consideration of the fact that the ‘Jardin Planétaire’ is my main concern, that what is needed to bring it about will never happen in the social project chosen by France on May 6, 2007, and in my refusal to rubber-stamp the actions of the current government, I have decided to focus my work, my efforts, and all my energy on the success of the ‘Jardin Planétaire’ project, because there, under all circumstances, I can develop a project that helps humanity instead of acting against it.

Therefore, I am canceling all commitments made to public and private entities in France, except for those official or non-official authorities that are havens of resistance.”[6]

It takes great courage to give up actively participating in the construction of our society. We chose the second option instead. Our idea was to enshrine civic commitments in our projects that would get the better of political will. Our aim was to influence political attitudes by tackling how they were materialized in architecture.

We were aware of the issues underlying this competition and refused to let our projects be co-opted by the government. We considered how to come to terms with and create judicial buildings within a political context with which we sharply disagreed. We decided to modify the customary – and expected – architectural language of such programs so as to redefine the program’s values from the inside and mitigate their overly coercive image. In terms of content, traditional judiciary vocabulary was shunned in favor of a quest for abstraction. This radical, deliberate softening was hard to bring about, and initially we implemented it intuitively.

Abstraction doesn’t really make any sense in architecture, because there’s nothing less abstract than a building.

At the same time, erasing scale, challenging typologies, and breaking up the characters that form representational systems enable us to interpret history and to insert projects within a newer, more submerged and implicit narrative into an underground strategy.

The five projects we presented underscore this belief: a city hall became a square, prisons are longer surrounded by walls; the smoothness and quiet of the courthouse refuse to associate justice with authority; a gymnasium is not just a sports building, but rather an object that generates the city around it; and the Beirut tower becomes a way for the city to see itself.