# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// Social Violence that Could Not Exist Without Architecture

Two screenshots from the website of “Colony 1209” in Bushwick (New York)

Last month, one more of these outrages with little investigative depth (see past article for another one) occurred on the internet and in New York newspapers: the new Upper West Side (New York) development of One Riverside Park, currently being built in the continuity of the infamous Trump Towers along the Hudson River, is going to implement segregated entrances for its wealthy residents and its lower-income ones. Many development projects like this one integrate publicly subsidized rent-stabilized units in exchange for tax breaks from the city of New York; however, in an effort not to mix its two resident populations, these buildings implement a strict segregation in its semi-private spaces. It is the very logic of luxury to provide the exclusivity of the service it provides: prohibitive prices do not simply relate to an expensive cost to produce the luxury product (food, objects, cars or architecture), they also integrate a large part that corresponds to nothing else than the guarantee that only a few people are able to afford it. The social violence here is manifest, since the price of luxury contains its strategic prohibition to most people. The door attributed to lower-income residents — One Riverside Park is very far to be the only case of such a practice — corresponds to the same violence that segregates populations based on their social status.

We should however not see this segregated entrances as the only architectural symptom of this violence. In another article about One Riverside ParkPedro Hernández (see his Funambulist Paper) reminds us of another architectural invention that prevented the servants of a bourgeois or aristocratic house from remaining in the ‘noble’ parts of the building: the corridor (see also the conversation I had with Ann Laura Stoler about it in a colonial context). Corridors indeed allowed to organize the servants’ work in the house through a distributing space that was the least noble place of the house because of its narrowness and, often, its absence of window. Such characteristics also applied to the servants’ dwelling within the house itself — on can think of the well-known “chambre de bonne” (maid’s bedroom) under the Parisian roofs — but the corridor was particular in its inventive intersticiality in the architectural plan: it is as if the corridor was a space contained within the walls, allowing the discreet invisibility required to service. The space within the wall, the “thickness of the line,” also carries an ambiguous legal regime as I have been writing regularly in the past. The point that I would like to convey all along this article is that the social segregation depicted here could not be possible without these architectural inventions. This is not to say that social segregation is fundamentally architectural but, rather, that many of its means of implementation could simply not exist without architecture.

What is true at the scale of a building is also true at the scale of a city: the very fact that most cities are organized according to the real estate’s fluctuation of land/architectural value develops the urban space in a segregated manner — socially, and in many cities, also racially. Cities are also characterized by their mutability, which tends to reinforce the social violence of its organization. In other words, it is not ‘simply’ that there are some wealthy neighborhoods, and other poor ones, but that some poor neighborhoods can be the objects of real estate value intensification that results in the impossibility for the local population to continue to live in them: this is the process of gentrification. I already described in a previous article how gentrification could not be enabled without the help of architecture and the material transformation of the concerned neighborhood, but a recent article written by Samantha Maldonado for The Awl (posted by my friends of The State this morning on their facebook) provided one more example of the embraced violence for such a process.

The article written by Maldonado targets one particular recent condominium building built in Bushwick (Brooklyn) at 1209 Dekalb Ave. This building does not appear as particularly different from the multitude of other ones built in the last decade in Brooklyn (in particular in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Green Point); what gives it its specificity as spotted by Maldonado is the marketing discourse presented on its website. The name given to the building, “Colony 1209,” is already expressive of its social violence, but this name is followed by an entire rhetoric of ‘settlerism’ supposed to re-affirm the American narrative of settling on a new land, thus casually forgetting the genocide that provided the conditions of existence of this new society. The first page of the website evokes “Brooklyn’s new frontier,” when other pages explains the following:

We Already Surveyed the Territory for You: Once you’ve discovered the burgeoning art scene, cutting-edge eateries, historic mansions, yoga studios, and parks, you’ll feel like a Bushwick native in no time.

Here in bohemian Bushwick, Brooklyn, you’ll find a group of like-minded settlers, mixing the customs of their original homeland with those of one of NYC’s most historic neighborhoods to create art, community, and a new lifestyle

This language carries every characteristics of a colonial discourse that could be critiqued as such. However, it would be a mistake to attack this particular development for the language it uses, since it only constitutes a visible symptom of a much larger problem. In other words, other gentrifying developments implement the same social violence than the despicable Colony 1209, although they might not embrace as much this violence in their self-descriptions. Here again, violence implements itself through architecture since the latter provides the material conditions for the gentrifying bodies to replace others, and crystallizes their presence on this given territory. As we saw a few months ago in the case of San Francisco, it also provides the defensive embodiment of a paranoid fantasy that somehow proves that the gentrifying body understands the antagonism that its occupation creates.

Once again, it is important to state that social violence is, by definition, social, which means that it can be exercised in many other manners than the architectural one. Nevertheless, the ‘weight’ of architecture allows this violence to be systematized and crystallized in ways that few other means of exercise allow. As I had argued in the extreme historical case of the slave ship, slavery was not essentially architectural, but it could have never be implemented without the careful design of the architectural apparatus that is the slave ship. Similarly, some less extreme, yet still devastating cases of social violence could not exist without the thorough production of architecture offices — the fact that architects need profits-hungry developers to sustain their practice is simply not true — with which many of us are familiar. The distribution of responsibility is admittedly complex — should a young architect having student loans (and other potential forms of precariousness) quit an office that designs such buildings? — just like the responsibility of gentrification itself — many of gentrifying bodies also carry forms of economic precariousness — but focusing this responsibility to the sole developers would be missing the way the process of social segregation operates: through the voluntarily participation of many actors with various degrees of responsibility in it. Recognizing our own participation and its degree of social violence is a first step towards the elaboration of a counter-strategy.

END NOTE: I apologize for the amount of self-referencing in this text and hope that the readers will see in them less the narcissistic need of quoting myself, than the attempted gradual production of knowledge, article after article as this blog as a medium allows.


2 Comments on “# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// Social Violence that Could Not Exist Without Architecture

  1. “Slavery was not essentially architectural”…unless one has visited La Maison des Esclaves, Ile de Goree, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. Built by the Dutch in the late 1700’s, it was used as a demarcation point for slaves from West Africa. I recall my first thoughts upon entering the main house (back in ’88) where the Dutch traders lived which was directly above/on top of the slave holding-cells/cages (those destined for a life of slavery, stolen from their homes and families). It was savage and brutal architecture which reflected the slavery-trade itself.

    Later, upon my return to the US, while working as a carpenter in St. Louis, MO, I had the occasion of working on a former plantation mansion. The eerie thing about it is that the grounds still possessed a former slave hut made out of bricks and wooden plank flooring, no bigger than an 8’x12′ box. It was empty and remained as a historical remnant. Again, the conditions/design of windowless, cramped quarters spoke of squalor compared to the large, white mansion nearby.

    Finally, to my home town of Chicago, where modern day “slaves” were forced to live in concrete boxes stacked one on top of the other. Places like Cabrini Green remained ignored by City Hall for 50 years until the value of the land made those buildings ripe for demolition and the neighborhood fit for well-heeled gentrification. And the former inhabitants of that ‘hood? Another forced diaspora…

    • Thank you Robert.
      When I write “not essentially” I mean it literally: not in essence. But the entire argument of this article as well as the past one I referenced is to say that slavery could have not existed without architecture. I simply believe that there is a differentiation between the essence of something and its conditions of existence but both are fully responsible for it.