Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A small death in the nomadic fortress' bosom

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the images of hundreds of thousands of Gazans pouring into Egypt after Palestinian militants blew the border fence in Rafah to pieces just a few days ago; or, more generally, in some places causing it to completely fall over while scores of people toppled it in what has become surely now a cliché reference to the images of the Berlin Wall’s historic smashing, setting loose a similar stampede of thousands of families from East to West Berlin.

I mean, there is such a fine line between walls that are meant to keep people 'in' and walls that are meant to keep people 'out', if you think about it. Despite any stated intention, either way, a border wall will produce both consequences. For instance, while the US-Mexico border fence’s formal purpose is to keep unwanted immigrants out, its ultimate effect is to keep them inside Mexico. This is made even more paradoxical when you think about the border fence’s impact on those undocumented immigrants who are already within the U.S. and now probably feel trapped there because the risk of exiting the country and not being able to return has become too great.
So, again, the wall achieves both inside and outside conditions.

Same with the Gaza wall – while it’s been built to keep “terrorists” out it’s final goal is keeping Gazans within their own territory, where they are essentially starved of any sort of national livelihood. No wall has a singular dimensional effect, in fact it goes far beyond both sides who share it. The walls impact entire regions of migrant and labor flow, hardly beginning or ending at the site of the border itself.

With this notion, it’s nearly impossible not to correlate the Gaza and Berlin walls this way -– if for the sheer visual potency of their images alone – and the legacy that walls have always continued to build through out history, that –- in this case -- forces one (at the very least) to consider the ironic connections between the Fall of Nazi Germany and the subsequent ignominious rise of Israel as a brutal occupier that must protect itself today behind miles and miles of resurrected barricade. Talk about a lineage of psycho-cultural impact. If the wounding the German psyche faces today as a result of its own heinous history is any indication, then the Israeli ego will have lots more to endure in generations to come. Or, as Daniel Levy asks, can Israelis ever recover from the self-inflicted damage of becoming a brutal occupier? I might add, can they ever recover from the damage that was done to them prior, because isn’t the current psychic identity of the Jewish state really just an extension of that wounding?

I make this connection not to pass judgment, but merely to suggest that a deeper language of political walls seems to be telling the story of global foreign policy, and what (if any) psycho-cultural morphology is revealing itself in the process. If the author of modern geopolitics were an architect then his narrative seems to unfold in the self-tortured pages of endlessly rising and crumbling walls. One can only wonder what the ripple effect of this latest un-walling in Palestine will bring to the future chapters of geopolitical space, and what new unborn references will eventually lead back to this one with similar wall-worn imagery.

Now that the world is embarked on such a border fence-building craze, I wonder, is it setting itself up for yet another day of wall reckoning with equally fervent domino effect where all the walls –- not just one this time –- will suddenly fall, wresting millions instead of thousands from de facto geographies of captivity? Will there be a spectacular moment of global un-walling? Is the nomadic fortress, that bombastic universal border wall I’ve described spanning multiple continents, destined for the greatest urban collapse ever known to man?

Today we have hundreds of thousands of Gazans to consider (just think about that number) breaching one of -- if not the most -- contentious political walls in history. It may not seem like a very significant number if you compare it to other disaster displacements around the world, but as Christian Lorentzen points out in his piece for Harpers, that’s roughly 13 percent of the territory’s entire population fleeing in a matter of moments, from the urban prison that is truly Gaza, surging past the brief and jagged openings of a nation not their own for dear life.

Having spent the last couple of days collecting tons of images of the whole thing it’s difficult actually to select just a few to post here (since I’d love to post them all!), and because over the last hundred hours or so the pictures themselves have woven a sort of equally twisted narrative of the whole event that is interesting to gage in the media’s own eyes. Yet, I can only imagine what it must feel like to be over there, in that sudden space of chaotic bliss and confusion—that epic fleeting pandemonium of momentary relief; the architectural pulse of facing a wall that has finally fallen.

You've heard the stories now about men stocking up on gallons of gas with hopes of sustaining their families for months to come, people lining up in Egyptian towns just to get bread, light bulbs, batteries, rice – uh...bare essentials, people.

Yet, aside from the swarms of analysis surrounding the situation, I am (as you surely have guessed by now) totally obsessed with the images themselves.
Last Thursday night an audience member asked me if I thought ‘walls’ could be positive in any way; if ‘walls’ always had to connote negativity, or something to that effect anyway.
It’s a question that comes up a lot (not because I do a lot of presentations since we all know that I don’t), but here on Subtopia and in conversations whenever talking about borders and fences and alternatives to the “practical necessities of immigration enforcement” (whatever that may mean). And I usually say, you know, walls are the building blocks of space – they are the currency of architecture (to some extent) – and so, it’s not that I find walls at their very essence inherently wrong or inhumane, it’s more so in the context the walls are used, for precise political purposes, at what human expense, etc.

Anyway, that conversation resonates for me viewing these gnarled almost Richard Serra-like whirls of scrap metal that have been made out of the Gaza-Egypt border fence. I mean, I don’t want to attribute any sensationalistic over-symbolism here (of course, I can't really help myself either!), but there is something utterly stunning in the contortions of twisted steel that lay under the feet of thousands of women and children and families trampling over it like some kind of ghettoized rusted-red carpet; no longer towering over them as a symbol of tyranny and strangulation but becoming now the very structure that leads them to -- at least for the moment -- some temporary freedom, some temporary breathing room; a combustible space of border subversion and hope.

Parts of it looked like a great wilted helix, or a mythological border staircase unfolding over the territories, delivering this entire population from the insidious prison of their own homeland, while other parts were suddenly made a kind of post-catastrophic playground.

The image of the fence turning into this new pedestrial route that literally bridged them with some tiny epoch of freedom is irresistibly beautiful, rather than being this obstinate architecture of their demise. And how it came to so instantaneously, I guess I just find epically poetic, in a way. The symbolic power of converting the fence into a vessel, or a kind of demolished yet adapted freeway, even; an avenue of exodus navigated over obliterated steel – that’s some triumphant shit, right there, if you ask me.

Be that as it may, I will try to say more in the future but this is obviously what you get when you apply the most extreme tactics of urban segregation through brutal military means, engineering perhaps one of the most pressurized conflict spaces this side of humanity has ever seen. The walls become the devices of their own demise, and a symbol of victory for the subjugated. On the frontlines of backlash, the walls become the burden of those who build them. At the very least, they expose the intolerable degrees of desperation that are raised by the isolationist politics of occupation.

Diagnosing Slum

[Image: Photograph by SEBASTIÃO SALGADO.]

I recently posted this to Archinect but in case you missed it I am posting it here, too. Lebbeus Woods is continuing the conversation we had here in this thread over at his own blog with an excellent post surmising the geo-economic conditions that produce “slums.” Particularly striking to me was this statement:

There is much that is admirable in the way that slum dwellers struggle against overwhelming adversity, but admiration must be tempered by the realization that they do not struggle because they choose to, out of principle, or in the service of high social or political ideals, but because of their desperation at the brutal limits of survival. It is a mistake—and a grave disservice to them—to imagine that their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and capacities for self-organization can in any way serve as models for our present global society. To believe so would be to endorse the dog-eat-dog ethics that rule their lives and, all too often, those occupying society’s more economically advantaged classes.

This is such a good reminder and an interesting quote in light of a previous post of mine on Squatter Mimicry, and the idea that the innovation from within the “slum" (regardless of whatever has motivated it) may one day serve as an ironic – albeit informal – model for some sort of spatial practice as the developed world begins to implode under the weight of its own continual uneven urban development. Who knows, we may soon all find ourselves facing more and more conditions similar to the "slums" if the global economy is not retooled in favor of strengthening a global middle class, at which point our own children may be forced themselves into slum-like survivalism emerging from the heart of the developed world. I am not saying 'slum innovation' is a counter or caveat to the present inequality of global society, or represents anything thing corrective, but rather might offer a glimpse of a tactic potentially usable to us all as we continue to polarize the world. In this sense, the squatters are the pioneers for our future if it continues in this direction, not necessarily the optimal means for recalibrating the disparities of the global economy today. I hope that makes sense and my distinction is clear.
There’s been a bit of discussion generated at both Archinect and Lebbeus’ blog, some definitely worth reading, and when I get more time I’ll try to respond with some thoughts of my own. But, in the meantime, also be sure to read this article (Slumming it is better than bulldozing) pointed to us by Rob, who cites, as usual, the most progressive piece of insight in the article with this statement:

"The best plans generally let the slum dwellers themselves make the main decisions in planning their future. You should provide clean water, toilets, electricity, garbage collection and disposal, and maybe let people build their own houses if they can using materials that you can provide," says Aprodicio Laquian, the Filipino-Canadian planner who practically invented the idea of slum-dweller-designed urban rehabilitation in the 1960s and is now at the University of British Columbia.

"Eventually," Mr. Laquian says, "you want to make available a better sort of housing, a five-storey walk-up apartment, but planned according to the needs of the community, not by some central plan."

How to address these conditions? Who should lead, though what sorts of planning, for whose ultimate benefit? Can models in one context be successfully reproduced in another, or does each place need to devise its own community panning? Anyway, just more for the cauldron.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My very own border outpost

So, I made it back from another jaunt to the border, this time – my very own little border zone down south, of new places filled between San Diego and Tijuana, and I have to say – I really didn’t feel like coming back! Seriously, it was so nice down there. I had a ridiculously amazing time, so let me just say thanks to Catherine Herbst for inviting me, having me (I’m glad you thought I came across like an old pro!) how cool. And to Andrea Dietz, for taking such good care of me, setting me up, shuttling me around, and for setting me straight on my lack of history in regards to the precarious relationship architects have always shared with political power – much needed insight, and I will have to dive deeper before making future assertions about architects relationships with the clouds – so thanks again!

Also, a huge thanks goes out to Erre for the opportunity to present at his incredibly cool space Estación Tijuana, which was perfectly enough totally surrounded by cops just as I got there (apparently they knew I was coming into town and cordoned off the entire neighborhood!) – great time, great conversation afterward, and I can’t wait to get back down there and hang out some more.

And of course, a super huge thanks to Rene Peralta – whom I call The Architectural Mayor of Tijuana – seriously, if you ever want to get a tour of the city (which I am thoroughly in love with at this point), roll around with Rene. I can’t imagine getting a more contextualized urban lesson in the making, unmaking, and remaking of the Tijuana landscape. Not only did I get to climb wicked vantages over the outskirts of the city in his gutsy little truck, or roam the strange securitized maquiladora districts along the border with all their corporate logos, or check out Mona! and a sweet little look out spot over the fence; not to mention the tunnel house or that sexy salsa club, or a brief history of old TJ jazz bars, and even the birth spot of the Cesar Salad!; there was also that vintage little sidewalk Cuban cigar shop, and Dandy’s Del Sur, and of course the fact that I had the best mole probably ever prepared on the planet – man, I feel like I have a new little family down there now, a new comuna! I mean, my very own little border-watching network, that looks both ways!

What a great time. THANKS TO EVERYONE who came to hang out (Jesie all the way from LA, I'll be in touch soon!), MOST appreciated y'all. And thanks for the good questions and conversation after, and for ganging me around for beers, and those tasty tacos on the roof!
Damn, it’s over, went by quick. Man, I need to learn Spanish ASAPS (that's for sure), and I need to learn to Salsa! But, who knows, there may already be some plans in the works to get my ass down there again real soon. Stay tuned.

For any new readers looking to get a bead on what this Subtopia thing is all about after hearing my long winded tour of the globe’s borders that was described “as opening Pandora’s Box”, here are a few links to get you started.

Floating Prisons, and Other Miniature Prefabricated Islands of Carceral Territoriality
Squatter Imaginaries
Tracking Border Ghosts with Ronen Eidelman
A Dialogue on Walls with Jay Isenberg
Portable Justice
Urbanization of Panic
The City in the Crosshairs: A Conversation with Stephen Graham (Pt. 2)
The City in the Crosshairs: A Conversation with Stephen Graham (Pt. 1) . . .
The Military Planks of Capital Accumulation: An Interview with Neil Smith
Subtopia Meets Lebbeus Woods
Migrant Housing (extended play)
Post-Slum Payatas
One Small Project: Wes Janz
Hitching Stealth with Trevor Paglen
De:constructing Recidivism
Designing for the Homeless (Book Review)
Compared to What? (editor)
Blinding At The Border
An Exceptional Paradise
A Camp Called Justice
Imperial Blue
"Fenceland" (The Greatest Show On Earth!)
Border to Border, Wall to Wall, Fence to Fence
Orwellian Wormholes
Circus of Detention
Call it 'Border Ball'
Washington's New 'Survival City'
DIY infrastructure
Architects of Nebulous Detention
War Room
The Panoptic Arcade
Virtual Police State
Globalization of Forced Migration, and the nomadic fortress (pt 1)
The Saudi's Immigrant-hunting Border Fence (the nomadic fortress (pt 2)
'Tactical Infrastructure' and the 'Border Calculus'
fortress urbanism: Superbowl City (Detroit)
Good Buildings, Bad Buildings
The Entomomechanophilic Army

[Images: Subtopia / Bryan Finoki, 2008]

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Subtopia at the border...

So, I am headed off to San Diego where (as mentioned before) I will be delivering – at best – an epic Subtopia post on global migration and the architectures of control used to contain it; or, at worst – a massive sequence of overworded sentences and depressing images of border fences and detention halls linked together by sweaty palms and the unpredictable tones of an insatiably dry cotton mouth. Sound fun? Ha!
Well, it should be, regardless. So if you are in the neck of the woods this Thursday evening, around 7PM, zip on over to the Woodbury University School of Architecture. It’s all part of their ongoing lecture series -- The Young and the Restless -- that certainly neither starts nor ends with me, so if you can’t make it on the 24th then you still have some time to check out other presentations who’ll be passing through until April.

And, just to let you know, my fun doesn’t stop on Thursday. The following evening on Friday I will be popping through the turnstiles at San Ysidro to talk for a bit at Estacion Tijuana, which I guess is just off to the right hand side somewhere once you make your way past the gates into Tijuana.
It’s a studio founded by artist Marcos Ramirez ("Erre") who, as you may remember, designed, built and wheeled a 30-foot tall two-headed Trojan Horse (!) up to the border back in ’97 as pat of InSite. I mean, seriously, how sick is that? Got to be one of the coolest border projects I’ve ever heard of, sad to say – ever missed.
Anyway, can’t wait to meet everyone down there!

Rene sent me this bit of text about the studio:
"Estación Tijuana was started in 2003 as an exhibition and event venue in Tijuana. It provides a forum for local and international cultural producers in which to exhibit, present lectures, and stage conferences. Sitting on the US-Mexico border, Estación Tijuana embraces the region’s hybridity in a number of ways. It supports a broad spectrum of practices and disciplines including artists, architects, poets, urban planners, cultural theorists, political activists, writers, curators, and filmmakers. The space also functions as an exhibition venue, artist studio and residence, lecture hall, film/video theater, and social space for informal gatherings.”

Every Thursday evening I’m told the studio hosts events for local artists, while Friday evenings are reserved for non-locals. Sounds like a very cool spot, SO – try to make it Thursday in San Diego if you can, or Tijuana on Friday; or both if you’re that crazy. We love crazy, and we’d love to see you there.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Volume : OUA : Subtopia

Volume magazine just released its 14th issue dedicated to establishing a new speculative Office for Unsolicited Architecture, where architects take a more pro-active role as initiators and doers of change and landscape address, rather than just being content to sit back as reactive service industrialites.
Actually, it’s about exploring how we can bridge the two – the commercial and financial sustainability of a typical practice with the more responsible and rugged pursuit of affecting the environment from the periphery.

Ole Bouman writes -
Architecture, whether designed by agents in the real estate market or the small elite of star architects, is giving up its utopian impulse only to become a modest player among many in the average building process. Architects as demiurges, geniuses or saviors who didn’t really die in a heroic struggle. No, they just became outdated. Even death has been taken away from them.

The good news is: if the architect is still alive, s/he can only start living independently again and stop acting as either slave or clown. For instance: why not act as an initiator by exploring all those opportunities to which architecture can come to rescue, but nobody has thought of yet? If the architect turns out to me immortal, why not revive the role attributed to hi in the first place: to organize our spaces intelligently.

If professional choice in recent decades has been reduced to either becoming a passive facilitator or a court jester with special permission to do weird things every now and then, perhaps the time has come to no longer respond to others’ questions and expectations but to pose them yourself, perhaps the time has come to design not as a solicited by a client, site or available budget, but to design unsolicited architecture, and find sites, budgets and client for it.

I love the idea, of architects seeking out the lesser obvious informal niches of spatial neglect to apply themselves, and to examine their own relevancy in terms of taking new risks and finding ways of offering their skills without waiting for some form of consent, without worrying about the AIA’s stamp of approval.
In fact, it is quite literally about turning the AIA and establishment upside down on its head and re-inventing a new body of organizers and activists, a new social and political agency to represent architecture as it should be.
While this notion isn't groundbreakingly new, since there are voices out there who have been critical and suggestive like this for years, and other architects out there who have been fulfilling this role for years as well, (and, probably, deep down in their soul of souls every architect would respond this way to the architectural dilemma), I love it for being radical in such a sensible way. It’s needed guerilla; it’s noble outlaw; it’s unflappably humanitarian; it’s fed up! It’s a call to arms; it’s a time to roll up the sleeves and DO the kinds of projects you ultimately want to and that ultimately NEED doing; it’s a critical reflection on self in the face of an architectural gap; it’s restless, hungry, it's ready…
And, it’s a cool issue! -- with some funky proposals, like the one to turn the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge into a floating columbarium; a kind of joint barrier / cemetery / crematorium / memorial for the suicidal souls who have, sadly -- or would sadly plan -- to jump off the world’s most popular suicide magnet.
Or a schematic, which I hope to refer to later in a future post when I get time, that would allow the residents of Lebanon to voluntary dismantle their civil infrastructure (like highways and bridges) to somehow repurpose them along a strategic coastal linear network of refugee evacuation barges, so that the city is in a sense not only spared the prospect of future military destruction but it also becomes the vehicle for safely retreating from their mainland and to join together again in a massive floatilla of interconnected barges. A crazy crazy prospect, still not totally sure of how it is supposed to work, but it is referred to as Offshore Urbanism, and I love it.

And, best part of the issue for me is that I actually have an article of my own in there, called Subversive Border Suture, that tries to help figure how architects can interface with border zones in an informal and transcendent sort of way. Here’s an extract:

Haunted by spatial traumas of political violence and conflict, rabid capitalism and militarization, the urban morphology of the world's national borders today amounts to a rash of barriers, impoverished settlements, blistered factory spaces, and immigration detention facilities that swell despite a colossal void of any real formal infrastructure. The geography of exclusion is enforced under a tyranny of walls, fences, trenches, tunnels, and checkpoints that inscribe deep physical and psychic scars on the landscape. For the most part, the border has been left to fester in the abandoned niches of globalization's fallout where very little proper spatial mediator exists, if any at all.

This has grave implications for architecture: how can architects and planners make their own mark in the subversion of this chronic border regime? How can architecture instigate a means for undoing this condition towards a practice of spatial justice?

First, we must acknowledge these barriers as products of contemporary colonialism, uneven capitalist development, and the 'war on terror', which are organized within a spatial logic of militarization and securitization. In this context the border is an intensely wounded landscape that has been hacked apart and guillotined from the spaces of global progress. Suffering interminable neglect, it beckons for some kind of urban relief or architectural healing.

Second, we must accept that as a profession architecture today also exists in its own parallel state of crisis and disjuncture; we must also accept that to a certain degree the field has unconsciously contributed to the border issue. In the future, architecture needs to completely re-examine its own course of action, its own narcissistic wounding, by confronting its historic collusion with the hierarchies of power that over time have helped spatialize the greater economic divide and border regimes that plague the world today.

The border represents a vital opportunity because it offers both the potential for architecture to assist in a geopolitical mending – a spatial suture of international conflict – as well as providing the therapeutic space for architecture to self-reflect and treat the relevance of its own internal hierarchies and misguided social legacy. It might also help architecture rediscover its political identity.

The article goes on for another page and a half more than pictured above, and offers a little survey of some different projects that I see as pioneering a kind of geopolitical spatial mending, most of which I have mentioned here on Subtopia at some point, or another.
Anyway, if you happen to get your hands on a copy, check it out – super cool issue. And if you want to get your hands on a copy, you can order one (or as many as you like!) from the Archis website right here.

In the White House's Shadow

The Storefront in New York City couldn’t have picked a better time to solicit ideas for speculatively redesigning the White House. With the presidential primaries in full tilt circulating the nation right now, and some tight races taking shape between egos that seem already too big to be contained by any single piece of architecture, this competition could make for a real good parody on the road to the White House. Talk about the politics of space, this might be it in its most blatant form – I mean, come on, it’s the White House Redux, who wouldn’t want to chime in on that? I suppose the only next best thing could be the redesign of the Pentagon; who knows, maybe that’s next? Actually, the White House is much better. No doubt. (On a sidenote, check out current presidential candidates' cribs right here).

Anyway, the White House, the brief says, is:

“Home of the world's most powerful individual. Universally recognized symbol of political authority. One of America's greatest tourist attractions. Nerve-center of the world's most complex communications system. The ultimate architectural embodiment of power.

Few people realize the extent of the White House, since much of it is below ground or otherwise concealed by landscaping. The White House includes: Six stories and 55,000 square feet of floor space, 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, twenty-eight fireplaces, eight staircases, three elevators, five full-time chefs, a tennis court, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a jogging track, a swimming pool, and a putting green. It receives about 5,000 visitors a day.”

Maybe its replacement should be something more in line with the assertion of global democracy via the White House’s other foreign surrogate halls of justice, broken down, pre-packaged and turned into a nifty and deportable tent city like the Rule of Law Complex in Iraq, for example, or the new Military Commissions Courthouse at Guantanamo; remember the pneumatic parliament? That might have some relevance here. I'm thinking a kind of White House that may come in some massive toy box that could be bought at K-Mart, or something. But, that's pretty uninteresting, I admit.

Maybe I'd build a tiny replica of the white house encased in thousands of transparent onion layers of bubble-wrap shielding; a shrinking White House cast in the throes of waning geopolitical significance, in the dwarfing of its power of influence and determinancy; and, behind these billowing see-through sheets of gossamer insulation working like lenticulars that from some angles super magnify the White House making it appear much larger than it really is, we'd glimpse little scenes of maids dusting old photographs, officials gargling mouthwash in front of some mirror, there'd be ghosts plotting in the corner, robots taking notes, and so on. I’d subject the whole thing to some holographic model trapped in the light of its own surveillance; reduced to a silly ornament of cheap showy projection -- its fortress secrecy swapped now for unlimited public scrutiny. Though, I guess if that we're my only intention we could just remake the thing as is but entirely out of bullet proof glass.

But, as I recently got a little hair choppage (man I’ve got some big-ass ears!), and thus feel slightly more light-headed than usual, that half-assed idea might be kind of a deflated let down, for ya. Maybe I got a little too obsessed with the aspect of Redux. So, maybe we should take this thing in a completely different direction.

This little sentence however from the project brief caught my attention: Few people realize the extent of the White House, since much of it is below ground or otherwise concealed by landscaping.

So, for example, what if the White House were actually a portal to the greatest subterranean underworld ever known to man, spanning in long labyrinthine metacarpals all across the globe like some dark infinitely-fingered hand groping and pilfering all the cookie jars of the world, while from the outside the structure never changed? That is, the redesign of the White House would have absolutely no effect on the exterior architecture whatsoever, but rather leave it as a superior façade and testament to the White House’s ominous consistency; it’s obstinate image; parabolic symbolism; it’s unyielding reputation as the most powerful piece of architecture anywhere in the world that could forever stand up to the test of time and greatest of geopolitical challenge.
Instead, what if the White House were the gateway to the craziest cross-border tunnel system any future rogue engineers could fancy? The globe’s first physically interconnected corporate bunker system. So, the president, or even his little dog, could at any time slip through a mistakenly left-open pantry door and hours later end up in some cigar boutique in, say, Havana, Cuba? Or, from there, his cronies decide to whisk him off (the dog, the president, or both, it doesn’t matter) to quickly inspect some clandestine pipeline project in Kazakhstan, and just like that – through some magical feat of Mr. Rogers trolley – bang! He’s there with a hardhat barking and jerking at the chains himself of slave laborers from Bangladesh?
Of course, we could dream up endless scenarios here of amazing tectonic fissure travel that would lead to all sorts of sovereign expansion sites scattered around like global manholes, but the idea is that the White House is -- more so than anything else -- the largest underground system of passages and hallways and bunkers and transit tubes and training facilities and gambling halls and narcissistic boudoirs and 'black' infrastructure you could possibly conceive. In essence, my redesign would have nothing to do with the actual house itself, but, rather this skeletal shadow house that lurks in every direction underneath, like some militarized root system lined with gun racks, trophy rooms, board rooms, data server dungeons, periscopic lounges; and yes, why not, a few fossilized torture chambers where the whole gang occasionally gets together to reminisce over the good old times with sloppy beer games.
Anyway, maybe I got a little carried away there, but I think I would run with the notion of designing something that is every bit an extension of the White House rather than re-architecting the icon itself. But, that’s just me, and I would probably not make the cover of Surface magazine – oh, well.

The details once again: The White House Redux / sponsored by the Storefront for Art and Architecture and Control Group / Timeline: registration and submissions deadline: April 20, 2008. Oh, and fellow homeboy Geoff Manaugh from BLDGBLOG will be one of the jurors picking this one, so don't be afraid to go conceptually wild and totally over the top ! (He likes that.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Young and the Restless [Subtopia in San Diego]

Two weeks from tonight I will be in San Diego giving a presentation for the Woodbury University School of Architecture. The Lecture Series, entitled ‘The Young and the Restless,’ began last year and continues through April focusing on young architects who are engaged in dynamic volatile urban areas and/or are working within other venues and media, like blogs, non profits, publishers, etc. A refreshing focus, to say the least.
Being that this is my first ever official public lecture-like presentation as the author of Subtopia, I am super excited about this. So let me just say thanks right now to Rene Peralta and Teddy Cruz for inviting me, and to Andrea Dietz for helping to organize it all. This should be really cool, and I’ll also be touring Tijuana a bit while I'm there,too, with Rene, who (as you may or not know) pulled together the Arch League’s amazing Worldview focus on the city a while back, and who co-wrote the fascinating book, Here Is Tijuana!

As I am hardly a lecturer, an educator, or even an architect for that matter, I promise to be bouncy, nervous and a bit freaked out for ya. But, don’t let my little social phobias scare you off. If you're interested in hearing about global migration and the mock military hyrdology of global border controls in urban contexts of the War on Terror and globalization, and the concept of this nomadic fortress thing I keep yammering on about, then come on down and hang out for an hour or so. I think they're even serving tacos afterwards --yum yum--so, at the very least you won’t go home starved. And, it’d be cool to meet any of you out there who have somehow kept interested in our little chronicle here. And if you can't make it that night, then consider catching some of the other presentations either before or after, there's a lot of intriguing speakers lined up.

Details: Thurs. night, January 24th, at 7:00pm / Woodbury University School of Architecture , 1060 8th Ave., San Diego. It will be held in the gallery. See you there!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Floating Prisons, and Other Miniature Prefabricated Islands of Carceral Territoriality

[Image: The Bibby Renaissance, via Is this the first prison ship?]

The deeper I get into it, the more I realize an entire book could probably be written about the subject of floating prisons -– and who knows, maybe in another dream one day I’ll write it –- (there is probably already some magnificent mini opus out there that I have -- for at least the time being -- overlooked) but for now, let’s just settle for a quick and dirty Googleized survey.
Though it’s been mentioned here before (albeit pretty minimally, I’m afraid), some recent media coverage makes it’s worth highlighting again with maybe a bit more depth this time –- not to mention the fact I’ve taken a long break from posting and need get my own ship sailing again. And, more importantly, the topic’s relevance to our perpetual little niche of spacio-political inquiry here that, as Squarepusher puts it, stares sideways into infinity.

[Image: The Warrior, prison hulk.]

There is of course a long lineage of slave ships that date back probably as far as the birth of ancient civilization, but in more recent histories the prison boat (something different, though a seemingly natural progression) really started to evolve during the colonial era; and, not to our surprise, they served as a solution to the overpopulated modern prison systems that were falling apart, (not that different from today’s prison crisis or the similarly bursting detention facilities that hold scores of intercepted migrants, refugees and other global transients.) With that, it is hardly shocking that the construct of a floating prison continues to develop today.
I won’t even try to get into a complete timeline of such a quasi-architectural morphology of the prison ship (not that I wouldn’t love to some day, some how), but in today’s post 9/11 political climate where we are seeing more and more of an interlacing of ambiguously fused, or -– collated -- spaces associated with the issues of terrorism and immigration, I didn’t want to let at least a brief glimpse at the buoyant landscape of ocean bound imprisonment escape our attention.
One place to begin, in addition to the obvious Wikipedia entries for ‘prison ship’ or ‘prison hulk’, is perhaps this article, The archaeological potential of colonial prison hulks: The Tasmanian case study, by Brad Williams. Without summarizing it, let me say it is (no pun intended) a very interesting and useful docking point to gain background on how prison hulks were built and expanded into a major industry for transporting criminals during the reign of the British Empire through out the 17th and 18th centuries.

To some extent, the colonial history of Australia emerged as a dumping grounds for Britain’s overcrowded criminal society, timed with Britain’s loss of American colonies (a prison system problem lost on none of these three countries still today). So, in essence, an early identity of Australia itself was as a floating prison – a giant contientnal island prison, more like it - making Australia’s use of other nearby islands today as isolated detention centers for Asian refugees barely ironic. The article, however, also gets a bit into the material and spatial qualities of the hulks themselves as they were designed for certain capacities, long term voyages, and ultimately how they would be maintained in proximity to different coastal conditions and land spaces. I found it a good place to start, to be sure.

In another article, I discovered that Australia around this time used abandoned ships to warehouse criminals in conjunction with the construction of the Pentridge Prison, a notorious site for Australia’s hardest criminals. More could probably be found digging into this history there.
There are tons of books, as you might imagine (more so than I can name or certainly even know about), but one of particular note is The Floating Prison: The Extraordinary Account of Nine Years Captivity on the British Prison Hulks During the Napoleonic Wars written by L. Garneray, which I guess is considered to be one of the longest and most detailed accounts of life on a prison hulk. Add it to the list.
Another book that looks totally worthwhile as well is The Slave Ship: A Human History, or, as Adam Hochschild puts it, when trade in human beings was lucrative and respectable. A crazy subtitle made even more eerie considering that we are really only referring to a few generations ago, which always blows me away looking back at the dark histories of colonialism -- not that much time has passed! Anyway, a review can be read here if you are interested.

[Image: The HMS Prison Ship 'Jersey'. (via Diacritic).]

For some additional reference on the maritime roots of housing prisoners offshore in England, there are a couple of more sites I came across with some minorly detailed histories both here and here, that offer additional historical context on how the Thames, during the Victorian era, was a dangerous place with great concentrations of wealth and therefore attracted a thriving criminal underworld. It was here that eventually early prison hulks were moored for punishment.

Militarily speaking, there is a more contemporary history to this ongoing narrative of sea-bound detention.

According to this blogger, with a hefty knowledge it seems of the US’s development of concrete naval ships, (s)he ("Ms. Cornelius") says that “The SS San Pasquale at one time was a floating prison for Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution and is now a ten-room hotel in Cayo las Brujas”, which seems at least vaguely confirmed by this article, too.

[Image: The USS Bataan.]

Here we read that ‘The USS Bataan was known to have been used as a floating prison, and to have been in the Indian Ocean near Diego Garcia at some point.” According to this site it was used as a vessel to intercept refugees, but for how long they were held and where they were eventually taken is not clear to me. Still looking into this one for more details. Human Rights First, however, lists the USS Bataan as a suspected detention facility for War on Terror suspects. Back to the blurring of immigration/terrorist space, interestingly enough, this ship was on hand post-Katrina to provide a number of civil aid services. A gray area cloud certainly looms over the Bataan's head.

[Image: Chile's Esmeralda, via The Dark Side of the White Lady (official film website).]

Ashamedly, I still know very little about Chile's notorious vessel, the Esmeralda, which sailed into Sydney’s Harbor in 2002 bearing with it crude and controversial implications for Australia’s own floating detention island policies. From what I gather, there have been several ships with this name through out the course of the Chilean Navy’s history, but the most recent rendition is still used today, as a kind of “floating embassy” around the world. However, that’s the least interesting point here. Digging through my own ignorance, we learn that:

“The pride of the Chilean Navy, the Esmeralda, might be a magnificent example of marine architecture, but it has skeletons in its closet. To thousands of Chileans, the ship is a symbol of the country's brutal past.

In the weeks after General Augusto Pinochet's bloody coup in 1973, the Esmeralda was used as a floating prison and torture chamber.”

“Reports from Amnesty International, the US Senate and Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission describe the ship as a kind of a floating jail-torture chamber for political prisoners of the Augusto Pinochet's military regime from 1973 to 1980. It is claimed that probably over a hundred persons were kept there at times and subjected to hideous treatment.[1]” - Wikipedia

[Image: If you can get your hands on it, a documentary film was made about The Dark Side of the White Lady (official film website).]

There is also the tragedy of the Cap Arcona, a massive German sea vessel that was used during WWII, transformed into a floating prison to transport inmates from the Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg between April 26th and 28th 1945. Reading this, it turns out, that British air forces saw the ship and, unable to resist the target, mercilessly bombed the Cap Arcona, killing many refugees inside, but surprisingly leaving some survivors.

In my future dream book I would love to explore more the political and legal guidelines that were used to secure these vessels for imprisonment purposes given their precise historical contexts, and learn more about the rise in the barge industries that profited off building ships used for prisons. Very curious about whether there was any public opposition at the time, and why/how the hulks were gradually phased out. If anybody has any information on this topic worth sharing, I’d love to hear from you.

[Image The Bain]

To those ends, you may even recall during the early 90’s when New York City, aiming to fix its overcrowded prison problems, built a “five-story jail barge” –- the Bain -- as big as two football fields, to store 800 prisoners, that was at one point being considered as something perhaps to be mimicked in Norfolk, Virginia, and New Jersey, but who would later scrap that plan. At the time, it was considered New York’s most expensive jail at $161m, and was delivered 2 years late and considerably over budget. The city operated two other barges prior - the Bibby Venture and Bibby Resolution – which were eventually closed in 1992 when “they ran afoul of federal authorities.” The Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), moored nearby Rikers Island (an island jail) is still used today.

[Image: Terminal Air is a project that explores complex interconnections between government agencies and private contractors involved with the United States Central Intelligence Agency's extraordinary rendition program.]

And, in light of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which broke in the media for using unmarked jetliners and secret airport real estate as well as clandestine black sites worldwide to kidnap and whisk terrorist suspects off to be tortured, there were, via Diacritic, reports that these suspects were being kept on military ships as well. Though I haven’t found much more about that.
So, even though prison hulks became somewhat obsolete in the mid-19th century, floating prisons never really seemed to die, in fact they may even be making a quiet comeback in various corners of the world again right now.

The Netherlands -- unable to lease bankrupt islands in the Pacific, and lacking needed real estate –- have somewhat mimicked the Australian system of offshore warehousing for intercepted refugees and migrants by stocking a new wave of hulks moored off its own docks in the industrial zone of Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam (via No Border Network).

A BBC article a few weeks ago took a peak inside them, when at full capacity are capable of holding as many as 576 captured migrants each. Boasting an urban flexibility, officials say, in some ways they are more ideal than traditionally built ground-based prisons or detention facilities because they are now –- if need be –- fully mobile and fully transportable. That doesn’t exactly set my stirred stomach much at ease, I have to say.

[Image: Via At Last It's Time to Cell-ebrate.]

Structurally, the prison, we are told, “sits on two concrete platforms, each in turn moored to large steel pilings.” Adjoining them to dry land are “two white domes” specially designed by a Dutch artist (surprisingly enough) “made of a lattice-work of metal” where “the inmates play sports like football or basketball.” The prison boats are entered through small bridges and inside are “corridors of cells” and “communal areas with table football, table-tennis and payphones.” The BBC say the cells each hold two people “with bunk beds, a desk, fridge, TV, even a coffee machine”, while a shared bathroom provides a toilet and shower. Another article says, “While detainees await their expulsion they are subjected to a fairly mild prison regime with the cell doors opened during the day. There is television in every cell and a communal fitness room, a recreation room, a library, a room for religious services, a film room and an arts and crafts room.”

The migrants are locked here for 15 hours each day, and apparently can remain there “for six months or longer, as the authorities try to identify them and persuade them to go home voluntarily.” After nine months, “If the authorities cannot identify someone properly, Dutch law says that after nine months in detention they have to be released back onto the streets.”
If I must acknowledge something positive about these facilities they do sound much more humane than plenty of other immigration holding camps I can name. And the guiding philosophy of keeping the detainees active and not rotting idly inside their cells speaks mini-volumes to the more progressive approaches that can be taken to dealing with the refugee crisis, despite the fact I don’t support refugee incarceration of any kind, really. And the strategy to keep them separated from the criminal population in the nation’s formal prisons is the very least they could do, though it is more so probably motivated by the fact that prison space is simply too lacking to house additionally large numbers of asylum seekers. There are also groups like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) working closely with the migrants, if only to persuade them to return back to their home country, it seems, but who at least appear to have some kind of oversight of their treatment, which again cannot be said of many other places.
Sliding down the human dignity scale of floating prisons, however, I recall back in October of 2006, when Britain announced plans to open a new “super-prison ship” to hold hundreds of overflow inmates that would be moored on the country’s coast as well. The Home Office admitted in the London Times that the immigration crisis was so severe, a new floating vessel was being sought to hold between 200 and 800 prisoners -- “either low-level offenders or illegal immigrants facing deportation,” one government spokesman said. The fact that captured migrants and petty criminals would share the same detention space just points out further how the issue of immigration is being dealt with primarily as one of criminality, and as a security threat issue rather than a humanitarian one. It is deplorable, frankly.

Ten years ago, Britain bought a prison ship from the US to cope with overcrowded cells. HMP Weare is a prison ship berthed in Portland Harbor in Dorset, England. HMP stands for "Her Majesty's Prison". The UK established it in 1997 “as a temporary measure to ease prison overcrowding. Weare was docked at the disused Royal Navy dockyard at the Isle of Portland. On 9 March 2005 it was announced that Weare was to close, mainly due to the costly running and it being unnecessary. But now the Government is said to be in the market for another floating jail.

[Image: Bibby Renaissance (via).]

Whether England still plans to build a new prison ship or convert an old barge remains to be seen, I guess. But, according to this article, there were talks both back in the 90’s and even more recently of the British government using an old barge -- the Bibby Renaissance -- as a floating jail, but apparently that was decided against. Instead, the six-storey high barge is now on a “75-day, 10,000-mile journey to China where its empty shell interior will be fitted out as a hotel.” Interesting enough, “the Bibby Renaissance belongs to Bibby Marine of Liverpool which owns several other so called “floatel” barges,” including the two that are being used by the Dutch government.

[Image: Nauru Island, South Asia. An Australian Refugee detention island.]

Thinking of these floating camps in the greater context of detention archipelagos -– a la Australia’s offshore detention islands -- we can’t help but be reminded of the refugees from New Orleans who, after hurricane Katrina, were temporarily relocated to a few vacant cruise ships docked in the Mississippi River, and then were moved again due to contract issues and the fact that the harsh season was keeping them in grave danger there. More importantly, not to mention the obvious fact that the boat space itself was literally and politically dislocated from everything essential to making it possible for these refugees to rebuild their lives again. These refuge boats, like Australia’s detention islands, altogether indicate how different spaces of exception manifest, not only as politically dislocated sites but as literal physically detached products from the shores of political inclusion as well. You may or may not recall but there was even debate about whether to call them refugees or not, that would somehow decide the legal and political responsibilities and treatment of the hurricane victims based on that determination. While they were no doubt refugees within their homeland, what might that mean for their status at that point? Their classification may have not been as easy as it seemed.
When I then read that Honolulu is floating around the idea of converting a vacant cruise ship into some kind of Rehab Center that would house homeless and formerly incarcerated persons, my enthusiasm for any sort of cleverness associated with this plan is overshadowed by a deeper suspicion of the perpetual logics of exclusion such spaces of “rehabilitation” are constantly embedded within that, in the end, only further banishes and quarantines people to the fringes of biopolitical bankruptcy where their lives are ushered from one space of exclusion to another.
While the dislocated spaces of the prison cell and the rehabilitative cruise ship cabin may seem miles apart, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the spatial political connections that may underlie them? Now, I admit, I know very little about any of these real examples, or about the political guidelines that have established their viability. But from a purely spatial point of view (forgive this perspective as a flimsy spatial fetish) perhaps these spaces are merely different kinds of architectural isotopes meant to permanently suspend the biopolitically inferior ‘floating populations’ of the homeless, or the refugee, the migrant, or the released prison inmate, altogether holding them captives along the same shores of limited access to a properly politically-grounded space of inclusion. Instead, they become endless spatial by-products of the architectures of perpetual displacement.
At the very least, it is certainly the last place you’d ever want to be in the event of a tsunami, which only makes me more deeply skeptical about how certain subgroups of people are, in a sense, left out on the slab and hidden from any sort of integrative visibility within the more legally and physically protected mainlands of society.
This also reminds me of hearing a year or so ago about these offshore floating sweat shops that were popping up far off of California’s coastlines where Mexican and Indian migrants alike were said to be assembling cheap consumer products, or programming software packages outside the bounds of enforceable fair labor practice, bobbing up and down on the run-on waves of globalization’s boundless economy. I don’t have much more on that, and can’t say how reliable that story is, but one can only imagine a future where chains of old cruise ships, and abandoned military vessels, and random sea born architectures create topological barrier reefs outside capitalist nations with fleets of floating maquilladoras and loosely linked networks of anchored factory barges, while smaller piratical trade boats peddle cheap wares to and from the coast.

[Image: Riker's Island, New York. An American prison.]

I’d love to hear Keller Easterling’s thoughts on this subject. In her book Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades, she nicely dissolves the philosophic and metaphoric temptation of referring to the sea as a political landscape of multiple logics, where both the neoliberal and hyper-Marxist rationales are lured by the frictionless, borderless, de-territorializing and amorphous liquid space of the ocean, that can be used to either boast the fluidity of an egalitarian and globalized world economy, or the subversive wet plains of piracy and counter-empire spaces that resist any singular overarching political constitution. Either way, she has a great chapter about the oceanic relevance of the nature of politicized space, the logistic and anti-logistic productions of territoriality, and a couple of passages seem too relevant not to include here.
“Worlds and empires shelter and fatten offshore, dropping into protected enclaves, free economic zones, and paper sovereignties long enough to avoid taxes, engage inexpensive labor, or launder an identity. Streamlined logistics and loosened legalities are among the bullet-pointed features of every logistics park and free economic zone in the world. Their segregation from other worlds and other nations helps them to garner power, and shapes them into distended and dominating territories that are constantly expanding and excluding. They are the world with their own seas.”

“In Jacques Ranciere’s speculations, the sea is a medium of insurgency and democracy. Ranciere’s sea is not a frictionless sea but, rather, a rough space of contention: “It smells of sailors.” The sea is capable of enriching and disrupting the landed politics of consensus. Once on a shore, political organs dilute the sea’s raw democracy, as if secretly wishing for the end of politics or a delivery from the sea’s unknowns. Land and sea again appear to be a pair, or two halves of a single world. Yet the site of this contemplation is the shore, the interface between raw democracy and political organization. Wherever that interface exists, there is a platform for which to counter what Carl Schmitt called the “shoreless sea” of legal exception. In Ranciere’s characterization, this slipstream is not a space of least resistance but, rather, a space of traction and contention.”

“like shores, these areas of intolerance between worlds sustain and are sustained by error piracy, or the contentions of democracy. As interfaces between worlds, they form a perpetual wilderness with limitless surface area – always newly minted, and often underexplored. However rough they may be, these seas are also spacious, mixing different waters and different political constitutions.”

And so, what shores have we moored these futuristic immigration prisons on? What dark and contentious legal waters have we cast the management of untried terrorist suspects and unsorted global refugees to, either inside the bowels of some classified naval destroyer, or perhaps packed inside the cargo spaces of the greatest floating prisons of all time – the CIA’s unmarked 747? If the archipelagic networks of detention islands are no longer outside but now included within the sovereignated seas of Empire's subtle creeping expanse, then what political constitutions have been traded for the nomad who now finds himself locked inside a prison cell with miles of oceanic gap separating him from both his homeland of old and new?

While we are at it, don’t forget about Australia’s other more nimble maritime floating prison, the Triton (previously mentioned here), a 98-meter trimaran capable of detaining and storing up to 30 people for a month once captured crossing into Australian sea territory. It’s not a floating warehouse but rather a military cruiser armed with machine guns.
In fact, the BBC even reported a proposal last year between the U.S. and Australian governments to conduct swaps of up to 200 asylum seekers each year, as a kind of deterrent for migrants looking to try their luck sneaking into the U.S. The idea would be to set an example, that to try and enter American territory without permission could potentially land you on a remote refugee camp somewhere in the Indian Ocean instead, or, perhaps the new migration holding facilities they are building on Guantanamo Bay. But, analysts have been quick to point out that Australia could face new boat loads of Asian refugees hoping to luckily get swapped to a vantage closer to America’s shores, thus producing the opposite of the intended effect. Instead, what if it generated a kind of informal human smuggler’s lottery?

[Image: Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco, California.]

Anyway, while devising refugee spaces on water may seem in some scenarios like an inventive architectural solution to a critical lack of land space, their physical detachment from any landscape reflects a much more alarming concern that the crisis of global migration isn’t being met by new and inventive spaces of humanitarianism, but rather it is only being compartmentalized, peripheralized –- incarceralized -- perpetually suspended and disenfranchised amidst the more hidden and distancing folds of a barely observable political shorebreak.
Either way, the whole notion conjures a sense that refugees and migrants are just an excess of biomass to be herded around on prison islands or in prison vessels, traded like geo-economic commodities, removed and disposed of like capitalist human waste, reinforcing the state of exception that goes on re-organizing the architectural spheres of global migration.
Will there come a day when the world’s oceans are dotted with new hegemonic naval networks of prison floatillas patrolling the human smuggler routes of lost seas, scooping up thousands of refugees like schools of fish in a great surveillance net –- are these seafaring detention schooners the foretold aquatic walls of a nomadic fortress? Retroactively honoring the nautical roots of globalization, this new industrialized human cargo business would circulate these detention ocean liners through an endless maze of militarized channels, winding in and out of the 21st century’s great detention archipelago, where they may or may not be lucky enough ever to set foot on soiled land again.
God forbid Hollywood should offer any premonition, but (and perhaps this is a grossly a ridiculously sensationalistic way to end this post), you may remember John Woo’s movie Face/Off where one of the main characters gets shipped off to Erewhon prison, a converted derelict oil platform at sea. Based on a novel by the same name written by Samuel Butler, the film is much different, but depicts a secret futuristic remote prison where inmates wear heavy steel bound boots that magnetically bolt them to the floor, and wall projections of little fauns feeding in dewy forests provide spooky therapeutic effect over the chaotic dinning hall. With guards eager to abuse the inmates with their electric taser wands perhaps the most telling moment in the film is when the Warden addresses him upon entry, and says: “You are now the property of Erewhon Prison. A citizen of nowhere. The Geneva Convention is void here; Amnesty International doesn't know we exist. When I say your ass belongs to me, I mean exactly that.”