Preview: Do these walls know?

A preview from Issue #5 Moment, Movement

Cafes have long been associated with intellectualism and counterculture. The association goes back to the very first coffee shop in Constantinople and its descendants that soon gained prevalence throughout the Ottoman Empire, and a century later, in Europe. Since these early stages, and up until the period of post-war French intellectualism, these small hubs of social spaces have been a melting pot for ideological movements often deemed dangerous by authorities.

Eleven o’clock they all went to a certain door on a certain street where there usually was a cafe. The doors open into a basement with red carpets, deep armchairs, jazz music, bar, and a piano. The artists from Saint-Germain-des-Pres danced and got ever more drunk. Many carried their political convictions visibly, and the mood got ever more tense until, around three o’clock, fascists and communists started fighting while their respective girlfriends yawned. Others threw up in the corner, or fell asleep in the middle of the floor. When the communists left the existentialists took over.

Åsbrink, Elisabeth: 1947: Where Now Begins (2017)

The experiences of Simone de Beauvoir, catalogued in Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 2017 autobiography, paint the picture of a bubble bursting — in a single moment the contradictions of post-war underground Paris, home to several formational social movements, spill outwards.

Moments and movement are polar opposite on a scale of phenomena. On one hand you have a moment; lasting an undefined minimal amount of time, an event almost non-existent and which fades as soon as it appears. An echo. On the other hand, movement has a more dynamic time frame and can be warped around any historical happening, spanning an unquestionable number of years. It is through ‘movements’ that humans have managed to categorise our shared social history, while the moments are left to an individual experience and scale.

Bring this to an architectural context — how do the coffee shop pockets of social spaces speak to us in architectural language throughout time? Are there lessons to be learned from such places, both for the people who use them as breathing ground for radicalism, and for the authorities who want to prevent that? How have the social movements of the world’s history been influenced and led forth by the architecture of their surroundings?

At the start of the French revolution of 1798, the non-privileged classes defied the rule of the absolute monarchy, the aristocracy and the clergy and proclaimed a new National Assembly of France. This was not done in a building built to carry the weight of the birth of modern democracy, it was done in a tennis court. Immortalised by Jacques-Louis David’s painting “The Tennis Court Room Oath.” Among those present, Maximilian Robespierre, the man responsible for the reign of Terror. Little could the tennis court know what sort of fire was being ignited within its innocent walls. A light that would carry the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity while simultaneously setting a blaze a terror that would execute — within a month — 40,000 French men and woman, including Louis XVI and Robespierre himself. In the early hours of the Russian revolution in 1917 the Bolsheviks and their more moderate counterparts settled down in the Smolny Institute in the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

The building was used by the revolutionaries for debate and was where the drafts of many Soviet policies under Vladimir Lenin were made. However, one does not need to be a scholar in architecture to see the striking contrast between the material design of the building and its eventual inhabitants. The Smolny Institute is a neoclassical building in Palladian style, built for the education of aristocratic women. Grand entrance, ornate arches and ionic columns. It’s hard to conceive of a style further away from socialist modernist architecture, like the renowned mass housing designs.

The American Civil Rights movement had a completely public appearance. Rallying against segregation and racial discrimination, African Americans claimed the streets, public transport and sporting events. The movement was largely about being seen, about publicity. The civil rights movement can be seen as the pinnacle of total disregard for obstacle which was architecture, instead embracing free unhindered space. The act of claiming the streets is one perhaps associated with political movements and civil disobedience. A clear line can be drawn from the American Civil Rights movement to the Arab Spring, the Yellow Vest protests in France, and the protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon and Chile, in addition to the student marches for the climate. All fuelled by political discontent. All occurring in the wide public space.

The significant correlation between all of these movements is, first, the disregard of their surrounding architecture. Second, they are all accidental, unscripted movements ignited through a small moment. What this moment inspires often happens in non-spaces, in negative architecture. It is the negation of the surrounding architecture that is of the essence. As the moment evolves into a movement, the emphasis is not about architecture and changing architecture, but about space, about changing the space. Such observations suggest that architecture does not create movements. Rather the opposite. Social movements utilise architectural design retrospectively, as a means of cementing associations with historical periods and epochs, manifesting themselves in the built environment retrospectively. This is an attempt (often by revival or commemoration) to give the movement a wider historical significance beyond its own contemporary time, but has its pitfalls. In trying to preserve an movement through the architectural form, there is also the preservation of ideology. The commemorative act of conservation — and the architecture that consequently derives — becomes a hollow parody of itself, often out of touch with the original ideology of the movement.

With this comes architecture that starts to collect dust upon its completion, whose contextual creation is immediately out of date, too greatly ‘of the moment.’ It seems that the architecture that surrounds us, formed by both universal movements and personal moments, might be fundamentally irrelevant. We may inhabit these spaces, walk these corridors, mount these stairs, but at the end of the day it is the non-architectural parts of life that guide and make us. Who would have guessed that the people of France would proclaim their citizen rights in a tennis court, or that the Soviet Union would find its humble beginning in classical styled school for aristocratic women. Nothing about the architecture of Olympic Stadium in Mexico City would have predicted Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute in 1968. It is evident that our social conditions triumph their material counterparts in the world of architecture.

A library need not always be a library, a courtroom not forever a courtroom. You cannot design your way to political or social reform. A space will become what the moment calls for; humans will give new meaning to old spaces and meaning to non-spaces. The architecture will always be something more. Build architecture not for movements, but for the moments which occur and ephemerally cease to again.

Do these walls know?’ features in Crumble Issue 5 Moment, Movement which will be available to purchase in Summer 2020

Article by Tayyeb Jilani. Illustration Illustration by Roseanne Tye. All Rights Reserved.