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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The Metropoliz Wall: the architectural dispositif as (re)calibrating agent

By Camillo Boano, on 28 November 2011

It has long been argued that urban design is a variegated practice in search of a discipline, caught between – on one side – design practitioners and academics searching for a specific role in investigating the complexities of urbanism and in designing spaces that enable social justice and produce alternatives towards engagement and participation and – on the other – the reflexive, critical and ethical rediscovery of architecture, planning and design. Recent literature speaks a lot on this ethical turn and exhibitions are mushrooming. Such processes are particularly relevant to the complexity and contradiction inherent in contemporary cities and contested geographies of the Global South. These challenges are as much about process as they are about form, but such legitimacy requires serious intellectual engagement to provide the appropriate conceptual tools for dealing with the kinetic circumstance of cities in developing countries.

I was always attracted and fascinated by the Foucaultian ontology captured by his intricate reading and its now omnipresent usage in different field of studies. Innovative, provocative though impenetrable, his thoughts are profoundly challenging praxis and everyday life. Particularly fundamental to my research and architectural interests has been his notion of Dispositif to depict and investigate the relationship between spatial production, design and the exertion of, and response to, power. The dispositif serves as an aggregate source to (re)calibrate design (architectural and urban) discourse as both a way to define an interpretive perspective over the contemporary challenges of urban design, as well as to enrich the practice of development practitioners dealing with the spatial manifestation of injustices, complex urban challenges and spatial transformations in the global south.

For Foucault the Dispositif (apparatus, in its english translation) is: “[…] firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements” (Foucault, 1977: 194).

The capacity to become the device of connection between heterogeneous elements is the Dispositif’s first important behavioural feature. The dispositif has the key capacity to concurrently act as the apparatus of multiple connections and take on multiple behaviours simultaneously to achieve this multiplicity. A dispositif is then something able to bring heterogeneous elements together in an identifiable assemblage: the city as a whole and its peripheries (both spatial and conceptual) might be considered as assemblages on their own, a heap of negotiated knowledges, whose clear picture is difficult to render because of the convergence of multiple narratives and absence of a cohesive one.

In September 2011, the Development Planning Unit held its inaugural summerLab, structured as a six-day immersion into a scenario of contested urbanism in Rome. This new initiative attracted students and practitioners from Italy, Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, England, and Malta and was developed in partnership with Roma Tre – Laboratorio Arti Civiche and Francesco Careri.

The specific case, grounded in the Metropoliz occupation, dealt with two adjacent sites, each containing derelict factory buildings, occupied by squatters in early 2009 in an attempt to both secure a home within the peripheral urban limits but also to actively resist pressures from market and authorities to force them into a marginalised and ‘invisible’ status. The two sites were divided by a two-meter high masonry wall, pierced in only one location by a gated opening which allows some degrees of interaction between the first nucleus of Metropoliz – a very heterogeneous population of migrants from all over the world – on one side and the Roma people on the other one: the Roma joined the occupation later carrying with them both their political potential and social stigmaThis wall has been the central investigative focus and catalyst driving the design proposals of the DPU summerLab, which aimed to deconstruct it along with its historical evolution, revealing its traced impressions, its daily uses, its permeability, and its wounds. It was a dispositive to counter-act – to profane in Giorgio Agamben’s words (Agamben, 2007).

What the Rome summerLab wanted to devise was a counter-dispositif that, while accepting and somehow endorsing the persistence of the wall, could highly improve the cycles of transaction within Metropoliz as well as between Metropoliz and the greater city. The peripheries of the city can be read as archives, made through uneven cycles of destruction and growth: the groups were asked to shape their counter-dispositifs looking at these archives, and the summerLab itself dove into those, confronting the vast variety of unofficial transformations in Rome, searching for clues and traces in several occupations, understanding their logic and functioning. This was done while also, hopefully, trying to play a role in de-coding and re-coding them, exactly through the counter-dispositifs: in other words, trying to deterritorialise and re-signify the wall(s).

Metropoliz is characterised in fact by a lack of visibility and fortress-like presence for protection and defence. The guard post and letter-boxes seem to hint at what the gates conceal: communal principles and multi-cultural axioms which need to remain somehow hidden to survive. The participants grasped the intrinsic nature of the (emergent or official) housing landscape of Rome as an agglomeration of states of exception, where a different concept of citizenship is springing out from their segregration itself.

A possible counter-dispositif was devised by a project that identified a strategic point along the wall as the locus of its disassembly and expansion into a zone of mediation and meeting. By opening up the wall and transecting it with an extended covered space, scaled to facilitate social interaction, the intervention revealed new potentials of integration and mutual understanding. This newly created zone, by provocatively exaggerating the thickness of the wall and inverting its meaning from that of blockade to pathway, served as a counter-dispositif to generate new processes and dynamics not with the prescription of, but rather with the potential for, social progress and political cohesion: a “Solomon’s garden” which would begin, paradoxically, with the initial ‘privatisation’ of one space, carried on by one of the inhabitants who could play the role of mediator between the two sides and between them and the BPM leaders. The incipit of a pathway that in the next stages could expand toward the two sides, implemented by the inhabitants themselves. Putting in relation heterogeneous elements the counter-dispositifs produce a fertile ground for interacting and write new common discourses.

Common discourses that are at the moment still being written thanks to the idea of two movie-directors along with the research group Laboratorio Arti Civiche (who helped us running the summerLab). After we left a new counter-dispositif has been put in place: using materials that were leftover on the site, the inhabitants have built a rocket that will soon depart toward the Moon. Metropoliz is at the same time departing and landing point of this science fiction journey, which have involved both sides stimulating new behaviours, alternative visions and higher level of interaction and exposure toward the surroundings.

DPU summerLab was certainly fertile in deconstructing a timely design reflection on some elements of “periphery”, both spatial and conceptual, while the complexity of the urban assemblage in making such spaces a literal archive depended as much upon what is subtracted (closure, cesurae, isolation, partition), or destroyed (cycles of adaptations and creative destructions) as upon what is added (habitations, meanings, etc) and moreover develop translocal fluxes and economies of habitation and identities. Elaborating on the potential of dispositif and counter-dispositif as architectural/design gestures enable a kind of mutual witnessing of how such spaces are imagined and operate the space and the city as a whole, discovering and playing the possibilities through which occupants become and act as urban residents which insists on the divergent aspirations and practices to intersect among each others and from the internal to the external (at different scales) without the availability of a “common language” or from the whole city perspective. Metropoliz per se beyond being a visible space of struggle, occupation and marginalization morphed as fractal space that existed between consolidated urban patterns and mega-transformation projects. Their rediscovery and re-signification as “actually existing urbanisms” but also as distinctive, though interstitial, urban discourses could potentially generate a particular understanding of the city itself.

In a way, using Latour’s words, getting closer to the facts in a renewed empiricism and praxis to be able to deconstruct the real apparatuses of the complex neoliberal conflictive derive that this presupposes at different scales: the contested nature of transformations, the strategies of morphing and re-morphing urban areas as conceived as resistant, formalized or informal practices and experiences of individual and communities and the role and agency of design as creative but not only physical dimension of transformation and then moving away from facts. Thus, design is simultaneously the production of physical form, the creation of social, cultural and symbolic resources and also, critically, the outcome of a facilitative process in which enablement, activism, alternatives and insurgence become central ideas.

An earlier version of this article written with Giorgio Talocci and
Andrew Wade, appeared in ABITARE
Image credits DPU Summerlab participants
Agamben, G. (2007) Profanations, Jeff Fort (tr.), Zone Books
Foucault, M. (1977)“The Confession of the Flesh” interview. In: Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings (ed Colin Gordon), 1980: pp. 194-228.
Latur, B. (2004) Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 30(2), pp: 225-248.
Shatkin, G., (2011) Coping with actually existing urbanisms: The real politics of planning in the global era. Planning Theory, Vol. 10, pp: 79-87.

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