Prisons

by Marcelo Danza




We are subjected to the inevitable violence of architecture. There it is, always present. It blocks our way, conditions our sight, encloses us within the boundaries of what is permitted, and reminds us that there is a world outside to which we will never have access. Every wall, every window, every framing, unveils the limits of different spaces of power. The impenetrable, forbidden, sanctified areas… the forgotten and the "free" areas –though never totally free– have their corporeal form in architecture.

Also architectural culture commits us to limited epistemic spaces. Our construction of knowledge, our tools to interpret reality, are also –inevitably- our cognitive limits. 

As the utmost expression of confinement, prison represents the strictest subjection to architecture that a human being may endure. Total and involuntary isolation exacerbates violence. Absolute confinement to a few square meters, which conditions perception of space and time through one single architecture, is nothing but a smart metaphor of the inevitable conditioning inflicted upon all of us. "Prison to Prison" applies this keen reflection to architectural practices and knowledge, taking two adjoining prisons in Uruguay as a case study. The proposal reflects on architecture production models and their impact on human lives. It drastically breaks the rules of the traditional sources of architectural knowledge, and shifts the focus to uncomfortable areas for contemporary ethics and aesthetics. 

This should not be considered as a naive or erratic operation but as a solid attempt to welcome new spaces of thought and action for current architecture, which is still too self-rejoicing.

"The true knowledge revolves around the boundary between knowledge and ignorance. The tension between certainty and uncertainty is the genuine fuel of thinkers, scientists, creators. And of man’s history and society as well. Pure, brilliant knowledge is nothing but a poor, harmful illusion doomed to triviality.” [1]



The Archive as a Prison

 
Boris Groys spreads light on the cultural construction of contemporary art. His perspicuous analysis classifies human cultural production in "cultural archive" and "profane realm". The "cultural archive" legitimizes art, while the "profane realm" gathers everything not collected in cultural archives.

Without archives for backup and perpetuation purposes, the "profane realm" is extremely heterogeneous and dynamic. It does not have any kind of records either; therefore, its practices and aesthetics, unless saved from destruction by chance, eventually disappear. Not being recognized as important by the institutions dealing with culture, they are not worth keeping.

However, this feature is exactly what turns the profane realm into a reserve of "the new". Being "the other", it becomes a fascinating field full of discovery and growth opportunities. This is why Groys says that "the source of the new is the valorizing comparison between cultural values and things in the profane realm”. [2]

Thus, innovation does not mean creating something that did not exist before but the cultural operation of changing the values ascribed to a certain fact or object, and their transfer from the profane realm to the cultural archive. [3]

"Innovation does not operate with extra-cultural things themselves, but with cultural hierarchies and values. Innovation does not consist in the emergence of something previously hidden, but in the fact that the value of something always already seen and known is re-valued. The revaluation of values is the general form of innovation: Here the true or the refined that is regarded as valuable is devalorized, while that which was formerly considered profane, alien, primitive, or vulgar, and therefore valueless, is valorized.[4]

Marcel Duchamp’s "Ready-Mades" wouldn’t be other than a clear case of this change of values. The urinal renamed "Fountain", signed under the pseudonym R. Mutt in 1917, and exhibited as a museum piece, clearly illustrates this cultural operation.

Not by chance one of Le Corbusier’s "Toward an architecture" chapters is titled "Out of sight"[5], an allusion to the selective blindness of architecture that, isolated in its "cultivated archive", had not perceived the fascinating changes that had taken place in the profane realm. In this case, Le Corbusier’s activism aims at transferring the value of profane practices and aesthetics –represented by engineering and machines– to architectural culture. 

Some time later, modern revolutionary manifestos had already become the new "cultural archive". And again, the profane was not included in the archives. The profane was now represented by the ordinary, neither heroic nor modern city; anybody’s architecture built by anyone, anywhere. While the archive culture only cares about a certain functional and volumetric purity considered as a foolproof method to interact with the world, the natural and "impure" transformation of the profane realm continues. The city of builders and plots, of vernacular building techniques, of skills and of different building typologies is the city spreading along banal space. Nowadays, the profane is what modern architects would call vulgar, meaningless or with no aesthetic quality. Again, revaluation of values takes place through the texts of some architectural thinkers that redescribe the other with an unexpected attention. The titles of some of today’s most relevant essays are clarifying enough: "Learning from Las Vegas"[6], "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture"[7] or "The architecture of the City"[8], are some of the best known. Revaluation as an operation viewing what already exists under a new light is in action again.

On the basis of Groys’ hypothesis of the cultural construction of art, the huge profane realm of an architectural practice free from formal culture control acquires a renewed interest. "Prison to Prison" smartly adheres to this trend. It points out practices until now alien to architectural study, and proposes to enrich the architectural archive with them.

"the death of the museum –and of the art history embodied by the museum– must be interpreted as a resurrection of true, living art, as a turning toward true reality, life, toward the great Other”. [9]



The Prison of Discourse


"Police encompasses an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that the speech is understood as discourse and another as noise". [10]

Jaques Rancière suggests an interpretation of the social body of the polis, where he identifies two different and opposite situations as far as power and the order of things are concerned. On the one hand, the "police", which he urges not to confuse with law enforcement but to consider as the power distributing the spaces, order and hierarchies of things in the city, and allocating to each part its place and specific role within the social framework. On the other hand, Rancière defines "politics" as a sector of the social body that when subjected to that distribution of order and power, responds with a drive for equality. Both terms –police and politics– have a common root: "polis", and represent essential parts of the city. Both sectors exist and are activated in relation to each other. 

Bodies and their allocated places in the polis, permitted and inappropriate activities, sounds that are part of discourse and the non encodable: noise. The intelligible and the undecipherable. Sound and the inaudible. This is how Rancière describes city spaces (as cultural constructions), their orders of legitimacy power, and their drive for equality. Formal culture is only capable of understanding, investigating and conveying as knowledge all that can be decoded as a discourse. All that is not understood or cannot be decoded is considered undecipherable noise. Politics finds sense and discourse in what was only perceived as noise.   

"Politics is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place's destination; it makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only a place for noise.[11]

The city –polis– experiences and feels all these somatic tensions. Within the city, architecture, as materialization of this social body, is not alien to this logic: there is police and there is politics in architecture. While architectural culture is still chiefly obsessed by creating and controlling iconic, representative and structuring objects, alternative practices and activities promoting egalitarianism flourish beyond its domain.

Politics in architecture becomes evident when those not belonging to the dominant group claim for equality and challenge the logic of domination considered as "natural" by the dominant group.

There are lots of annoying noises for architectural culture in the cities where we live. In some cities, as South-American ones, these noises may even overshadow the discourse, unsettling and often neutralizing architectural culture. One of the challenges of contemporary city planners is to identify the discourse among the noise through careful and attentive listening. 

The real and symbolic alterations of space spontaneously made by social bodies are rich sources of discourse still incomprehensible for architectural culture. Its police, as "an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying" is not prepared to find in itself the potential for new discourses. 

The tension between politics and police represented by the "cárcel pueblo" (village-like prison) and the "generic prison", respectively, is undeniable when their proximity becomes exacerbated. "Prison to Prison" reveals this case study and evidences the rigidity and ineffectiveness of the established discourse when applied to certain architectural structures, and manages to formulate a new discourse among the noise, which is one of the foremost challenges to contemporary architectural culture.


Marcelo Danza is a Uruguayan architect. He is Dean of the School of Architecture, Design and Urbanism of the Universidad de la República of Uruguay, where he also acts as Professor of Architectural and Urban Projects, Director of the Taller Danza. He is partner of the architecture practice Sprechmann-Danza Arquitectos. He has been curator of the Uruguayan Pavilion in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008 and 2016.



[1] ZÁTONYI, Marta, (2005), “Aportes a la Estética desde el Arte y la Ciencia del Siglo XX”, Buenos Aires, Argentina, "Biblioteca de la Mirada" Series, Editorial La Marca, Page 21.

[2] GROYS, Boris, (2008), “Sobre lo nuevo. Ensayo de una economía cultural”. "Ensayo" Series, Editorial Pre-textos, Page 77.

[3] GROYS suggests the existence of a "cultural archive" that organizes and legitimates art and culture in general. Everything else belongs to the "profane realm".

[4] GROYS, Boris, (2008), “Sobre lo nuevo. Ensayo de una economía cultural”. "Ensayo" Series, Editorial Pre-textos, Page 19.

[5] LE CORBUSIER, (1998), “Hacia una arquitectura”, Barcelona, Spain, "Poseidón" Series, Editorial Apóstrofe, Page 65

[6] VENTURI, Robert, Denisse Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, (1998), “Aprendiendo de Las Vegas, El simbolismo olvidado de la forma arquitectónica”, Editorial Gustavo Gili.       

[7] VENTURI, Robert, (2008), ”Complejidad y contradicción en la arquitectura”, Editorial Gustavo Gili.

[8] ROSSI, Aldo, (2015), “La arquitectura de la ciudad”, Editorial Gustavo Gili.        

[9] GROYS, Boris, (2008), “Sobre lo nuevo. Ensayo de una economía cultural”, "Ensayo" Series, Editorial Pre-textos.

[10] RANCIÈRE, Jacques, (1995),  “El desacuerdo. Política y filosofía”, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ediciones Nueva Visión, page 22.

[11] Ibidem.