Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Architecture of Authority

Recently I came across a visually interesting book by Richard Ross called the “Architecture of Authority”. The book is a dramatic collection of photographs chronicling architectural space of authority. The images include a classroom, prison cells, incredibly rare photographs of interrogation rooms and classified interior photos of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. If left to dwell on the images one gets shivers contemplating their purpose and effects on the mind and body. To use a cliché, these images are hauntingly beautiful in their own right.

In the forward by John R. MacArthur he finds himself “struggling to evaluate the harsh political meaning versus the gentler artistic content” p7. While indeed the images in this book are all loaded with political meaning which cannot be wholly separated, it is the gentler, artistic aspect which intrigues me. What MacArthur confirms is that in part, the fear of these spaces is subverted by celebrating or at least examining them in an aesthetic or artistic way. Richard Ross himself explains that even when photographing in extremely sensitive locations like Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in Iraq that “most people were disarmed by my interest in photographing the architecture rather than people. They felt this was more benign” p143.

This begs the question then that if while looking at these striking photographs we are in some way removed from the purpose and fear of these spaces, is there some way to achieve this in the real world? Can we subvert architecture of authority, of fear by changing our perceptions? It’s much easier said than done granted, a change in ones perception usually occurs as the result or in response to something rather than at ones whim. I will do well if ever detained to appreciate the zero detail work of the interrogation room I am locked in while awaiting a good cop, bad cop grilling.

I suppose what I am really thinking is what if you were to take an image of one of the isolation “rubber rooms” and tell people that this is your new gallery space? Better yet what if you were to actually build it and do that? I know I’ve heard the term “prison chic” from somewhere before.

But in all seriousness if one were to actually look at the elements of these images that give them their zen like effect I would have to say that it’s the resounding consistency of a feeling of order and in a lot of cases this is also derived from an incredible austerity. MacArthur writes about fitting into a system as a theme. This is evident with the first image of the circle on the floor of a Montessori school and in the photos of the Central London Mosque or the barracks at a Marine Corps Depot. What strikes me in all these rigid and controlled environments is the lack of distraction. In all of these cases its purpose is to foster some form of obedience. In even more extreme examples, waiting rooms, interrogation rooms, and segregation cells, I assume the complete lack of detail or interest is deliberate method of fostering fear. MacArthur notes that “what’s visually absent is likely to be filled in by the viewer” p10. Now in this instance he is referring to those of us looking at the book but I don’t think it’s a far stretch from what might happen to those unlucky enough to find themselves actually in these spaces. Does the elimination of distraction eliminate the ability of the mind to think or does it create a blank canvas for the imagination?

This makes me think about hyper detail. In an all white room with no detail, no distinguishing features of any kind I wonder if the mind would just zoom up the scale and start to pick apart even the smallest bumps in the paint, or the cracks in the wall? Imagine that you were designing on a level so minute with the aim of manipulating the users. Even if the only distinguishing feature is an uneven tile pattern, the most untrained eye will still notice given enough time alone in that room. Now this sounds completely diabolical, but what if it were just another level of design in someone’s house? I’m curious about the non-militaristic applications of this, if there are any.

Another thing MacArthur mentions that makes me think is his separation of images as “frightening and sinister” or “elegant and inspiring”. While none of the photographs in the book show any actual people in them, the difference is that the “elegant and inspiring” images have cues to the inclusion of an audience or witness. He includes the UN Security Council and a Santa Monica courthouse as inspiring. In both these cases the inclusion of a witness or committee equals fairness. It is the isolation and the vulnerability that it implies that is truly frightening.

Ross’ book is a fantastic window into many places we have heard of but never seen. His presentation of the spaces on their own without the influence of people allows for a deeper reading of just what they are or what they could be. If you can take a look at it and stare at the photographs on the page, let your imagination wander and hope that don’t ever find yourself there.