Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Building made Me Do It

Is space capable of having a moral character, of being good or evil? Can architecture effect the actions of those who occupy it? Markus Miessen in his piece titled “The Statu(t)e of Liberty; Spatial Location as a Blueprint of Evil”, raises these questions as well.

What I find interesting is Miessen’s examination of the creation of isolated geographical locations to match the isolated political and ethical ground that was created by the United States government and used to ignore and violate basic human rights at places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “Camp X-Ray (at Guantanamo Bay) is an island, on an island, on an island” (p.46), this physically isolated spatial setting is used to strip prisoners of access to judicial framework, association to territory (they become placeless) and even the spectacle of punishment (as defined by Foucault). In addition to the effects of detachment from the exterior, the introverted effects of the space are also designed to deprive. Isolated prisoners cells are meant to cause chronic depression, suicide, interpersonal rejection and psychiatric disorder and trauma. Clearly the design of the built space plays a key role on the activity within it but Miessen asks us whether there should be an Architectural Geneva Convention to prevent this from happening. To this I would answer no. Here’s my reason, I think the architecture plays its part as an island of ethical lawlessness and as a psychological hammer because it is supplementary to the conscious will of those who wish to do this. While the architecture can be designed to do these things for these people, it cannot do it without them. What I mean to say is that if the normal laws of the Geneva Convention are followed, there would be no reason for an architectural version. Without human will, I don’t think the architecture can be given a moral character. This means it cannot be judged bad or good.

Miessen cites an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo carried out in 1971 where he asked “what happens when you put ‘good’ people in a ‘evil space’?” To determine this he placed students in a prison in the roles of guards and prisoners. After six days they had to stop the experiment as the students in the roles of guards became sadistic and the prisoners began showing severe signs of depression. This might seem to be pretty damming evidence for the argument of evil architecture but I would counter this with one observation; when they were given their roles they were also given subliminal instruction on how o behave. They were told to be either guards or prisoners, both being terms loaded with behavioral meaning. Now had they been strictly given instructions on their duties the outcome might have been different.

When we discuss the role of architecture in relation to fear and safety it is impossible to separate it from the events that are associated to them and these events of actual or anticipated terror and tragedy are human (for the purpose of this study). Human interaction with the built environment around us is what ascribes significance, emotion and affect to an otherwise inanimate world. Human emotion is a fickle thing and as a result, meaning in architecture can also change. Because of this potential for a changing understanding of architecture, I feel that the built work itself therefore cannot hold meaning in its own autonomous way and therefore cannot be judged evil or good without the tinted lens of the human eye.


Jeannie said...

I don't have anything instrumental or critical to add to this post, except to note that it is interesting that you are somewhat accepting of architecture's 'slowness' and the limits of its role in the larger geopolitical sphere. This is also true of your suggestion that the autonomous project (borne out of the need to invent the discipline for itself in the 1970s) is over. Is architecture necessarily reactionary, though? I'm somewhat reluctant to accept that, given our wider understanding of what qualifies as 'architecture' and the relative speediness of its impact despite the built-in slowness of building. Although it is true that, if the tenets of the Geneva Convention were adhered to, the subsequent rampant architecture of control would be unnecessary, some of what you suggest also alludes to a certain impossibility of architectural agency in any context, even one that is politically less distasteful.

g+a said...

I concede that in writing this that my mind was specifically directed towards “architecture” in the traditional sense (with its inherent slowness) with less of a mind for newer forms of architecture with our current techniques and technology and the abilities these afford.

If by autonomous architecture you mean architecture for the sake of architecture, (the autonomous project or folly. I think of Eisneman's numbered houses for example) while extremely important to the development of the theory of architecture I think it falls under the category of sculpture unless it engages on the level of human interaction.

I don’t think that because architecture requires human direction for its meaning that it doesn’t possess agency. On the contrary, it’s exactly because it takes meaning from our input and our hands that it creates agency. I just don’t think that the agency created by architecture sustains itself without the meaningful support of a humanistic background.

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