I pick out a book in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. I have a vague notion of him as a Nazi war criminal, but no special interest in the guy. The book just happens to catch my eye, is all. I start to read and learn how this totally practical lieutenant colonel in the SS, with his metal-frame glasses and thinning hair, was soon after the war started, assigned by Nazi headquarters to design a "final solution" for the Jews extermination that is, and how he investigated the best ways of actually carrying this out. Apparently it barely crossed his mind to question the morality of what he was doing. All he cared about was how best, in the shortest period of time and for the lowest possible cost, to dispose of the Jews. And we're talking about eleven million Jews he figured needed to me eliminated in Europe.
Eichmann studied how many Jews could be packed into each railroad car, what percentage would die of "natural" causes while being transported, the minimal number of people needed to keep this operation going. The cheapest method of disposing of the dead bodies--burning, or burying, or dissolving them. Seated at his desk Eichmann pored over all these numbers. Once he put it into operation, everything went pretty much according to plan. By the end of the war some six million Jews had been disposed of. Strangely, the guy never felt any remorse. Sitting in court in Tel Aviv, behind bulletproof glass, Eichmann looked like he couldn't for the life of him figure out why he was being tried, or why the eyes of the world were upon him. He was just a technician, he insisted, who found the most efficient solution to the problem assigned to him. Wasn't he doing just what any good bureaucrat would do? So why was he being single out and accused.
Excerpt from Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.
Recently I shared an interview with multi-disciplinary artist and migrants’ rights organizer Tings Chak. Tings is the author of the graphic novel Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention and most recently she was featured on the latest issue of The Funambulist - Carceral environments where she talks about Uk detention centres with Prof. Sarah Turnbill.
Tings and I caught up on skype whilst she was in New Mexico as an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, researching immigration detention in the region. During our session we chatted about the architecture of detention, the Mexico border wall and political neutrality.
Moran: So tell me a bit about your background, how did you develop an interest in the architecture of migrant detention.
Tings: Well I've been doing migrant justice organizing for several years now, primarily through an organization called No One is Illegal in Toronto. I got into this work because I’m an immigrant, and come from a generation of migrants. Though I have never personally experienced incarceration or been undocumented, going from the global South to the North and being educated here, there was a lot of unlearning that I had to do about the myths of multiculturalism and the generosity of the global North. It initially began when several years ago I started digging in to the history of Chinese railway workers that helped build the Canadian Pacific railway, a nation-building project to connect Canada from coast to coast. From this work, I recognized that migrant labour, exploited labour, indentured labour is what the economy on the north was founded on and this goes back to this history of slavery – the idea of stolen labour on stolen land.
About 6 years ago, I started organizing with No One is Illegal in Toronto. The people we work with are undocumented or have precarious immigration status. Whilst I was organizing I was also doing my graduate studies in architecture, I didn't study architecture as an undergraduate so to me it was a new kind of world and I probably had a lot of idealism that was quickly shed. During my 3 and a half years of graduate studies, my life as an organizer and my life as a student did not overlap. It began coming together when I started to look at the different ways architects are complicit in the control of migrant bodies – through border walls, detention, exclusion. During that period, a historic hunger strike began of 191 migrants who were in detention in Lindsay, Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre – a maximum security prison where hundreds are detained indefinitely without charge or trial. We had never seen that level of mobilisation led by migrants.
Drawing of detention cell, from undocumented the architecture of migrant detention
M: How did you come to learn about the hunger strike?
T: There were allied lawyers who had clients in that facility, and when we caught wind, we started mobilising in different cities in Ontario. We set up a phone line, which is still running three years later where the detainees can call collect out directly to our cell phones. It was primarily an organizing tool to get information in and out, to begin mobilising and starting a campaign. Contrast this to being an architecture student working on a thesis… There is something in architecture school that makes it seem like your project or your thesis is your life, which it is not. What I pin up after not sleeping for so many hours isn't my life.
M: Yes studying architecture tends to feel quite isolating. But now we are beginning to see tendencies or at least an acknowledgement of the social responsibility, the social involvement of architecture. Gradually the remit of the architect is changing. Generally speaking, the profession is isolated and disconnected from a lot of social issues. As an organiser do you think the remit of the architect needs to be redefined? Should architects be mobilising and organising?
T: Personally, I have some limited experience in practice and I am not sure that I will return to it. This seems like something a lot of people struggle with. Referring back to your question, of whether a social practice can exist in a capitalist, neo-liberal society. Maybe I could point to a couple of examples of ways that architects can use their social standing or position in society that is beneficial. For instance, I don't know if you are familiar with ADPSR, Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility.
M: No I am not.
T: For several years they have been running a campaign to get firms to boycott prison design. They use a human rights framework which has it's limitations but also strengths. They have narrowed down their campaign to specifically abolishing the design of solitary confinement units and execution chambers (the fact that we have to discuss designing execution chambers is in itself bizarre to me but that is the reality here in the United States).
They have gotten a lot of media attention by using the AIA’s (American Institute of Architects) code of conduct as a way to argue that architects shouldn't do projects that violate basic human rights, and according to international standards solitary confinement for 15 days or more is considered a form of torture. They are using international legal language as a way to advocate their agenda within the professional body. They get media attention by using the architect’s "hat" as a way to talk about the prison industrial complex. They have been using those means to get the message out even if it is softened by only thinking about the worst of the worst when it comes to design crimes. So that's one way of thinking about advocacy or campaigning using whatever credibility architects might have.
M: ....So consolidating frameworks that already exist and using a human rights framework as an ethical guide for professional practise. I want to now talk about the prison typology. I recently read an article that referred to the architect’s obsession with Bentham's Panopticon.
The Panopticon, a type of prison typology places the prisoner under constant surveillance by having the guard tower as a focal centre and orienting the cells around it. To be frank, I think architects have an obsession over how well it works - a certain fetish for efficient design and order. To add to this I remember reading a quote from Mies Van De Rohe who is generally considered a master architect, where he says "I am not a world improver, never was, never wanted to be. I am an architect, only interested in building." In contrast you have architect Teddy Cruz who says, " The politics of neutrality has rendered architecture a pure decoration of very unjust policies."
To me these quotes raise a long-standing issue, which is whether architecture can be purely design without any surrounding politics.
T: I am familiar with the Panopticon, it's an often-used example of the idea of self-discipline that is a consequence of the form – the idea that constant surveillance makes prisoners practise self-discipline and this will prevent certain “undesirable” behaviours. The idea of the Panopticon is no longer particular to a prison typology anymore, we all are subject to mass surveillance (differentially, of course) – the carceral logic that has always been experienced by many, including poor, migrant, and racialised communities has just intensified. Therefore the idea of the Panopticon as this totalitarian form is pervasive everywhere, its beyond the building, beyond the walls.
The Panopticon as this totalitarian form is pervasive everywhere, its beyond the building..
On the notion of efficient design, this is something that I've considered by looking at different design standards. Whilst writing the book I started looking at everything I could get my hands on from prison design standards to using references from the immigration and customs enforcement facilities here in the U.S and also international recommendations from organizations such as the Red Cross. These standards try to quantify the idea of a “humane” or a minimal “habitable space,” so for instance the International Red Cross said that 2 sqm floor area and 3.5 cubic metres of airspace is what a prisoner needs to live. So I started questioning the logic of this kind of "efficient" design that defines human life and needs in terms of the minimum material, minimum cost, minimum air, and so on.
Generally when architects try to create a normative design standard they think of ways to create better conditions for as many as people possible, from this premise they try to design things such as social housing. So ideally a minimum efficient design would create the best possible conditions for everyone. But then what happens is, and this is something that Eyal Weizman wrote about, is usually to design according to the least of all possible evils. So these standards and efficiencies do not challenge nor prevent violence but instead they are used to moderate violence, to “minimize” violence to an acceptable level. My position on this is that as architects and activists, we can't just minimize violence, nor can we reform what is inherently violent.
A minimum efficient design should create the best possible conditions for everyone but what usually happens is to create the least of all possible evils.