Architecture = Power

Stéphanie Vidal

Je ne bâtis que pierres vives ce sont des hommes.
I only build with living stones, those are men.
--Rabelais, French humanist (1494-1553)

The Code of Hammurabi, a basalt stone covered with cuneiform script, preserved at Le Louvre in Paris, is recognized as an important artifact for both art and history. Erected by the King of Babylon, Hammurabi, “protector of the weak and oppressed” circa 1792–1750 BC, the Code is the most complete legal compendium of Antiquity, written even before the Biblical laws. Emblematic of the Mesopotamian civilization, the stone embodied the Law into a single, indivisible object.

On rocks, monuments, or in city topologies, societies through the ages have inscribed their rules into architecture. Today, we no longer engrave laws onto stone, but architecture remains powerful at a symbolic level. ISIS, as a recent example, is destroying ancient temples in Palmyra and elsewhere in the Cradle of Humanity, because they recognize its representation of older culture. By desecrating these old monuments and broadcasting their destruction online, ISIS wants to show the world that it is destroying the memory of a period before the Prophet, and deleting the cultural symbols of Bashar Al Assad’s power, making way for their new Caliphate.

Whether a smooth basalt stone, a Hindu temple, the Eiffel Tower, the pentagon, the Twin Towers, or your own house, architecture is always the manifestation of a system. A signifier of values, it contains a will to express the inherent power it represents. Building or destroying architecture is a mechanism for power to send a strong message to its audience.

Digital tools now allow further options. They can express the willingness to rebuild, and to oppose brutality with creativity; not with real stone, but with people that are the “living stones” of Rabelais.

The #NEWPALMYRA project is at the cutting-edge of this international movement. Born out of the emergency of the Syrian crisis, the #NEWPALMYRA project is an online community platform and data repository dedicated to the capture, preservation, sharing, and creative reuse of data about the ancient city of Palmyra.

In this project, the power engaged is the power of people to channel their outrage and create hope through action. Aiming to virtually reconstruct Palmyra’s cultural heritage, gathering data and knowledge, #NEWPALMYRA is an expression of a collective consciousness.

People often make an opposition between the digital and the real but it is a pointless statement: the digital should be considered as an actualisation of real desire, as a space-and-time singularity where everything and everyone (even the dead and the missing) can be a presence for someone else.

We are now living in a world where the digital is omnipresent, and where power is embodied in virtual and intangible architectures, and code still comes from stone: computers are produced from geological sources such as quartz or coltan.

This so-called virtual place is made out of real materials and is based on infrastructures, such as data centers, embedded in our ecology. The Internet and all complex information systems are real architectures, and so are also an expression of power: their structure is not pre-existent, but created intentionally by their designers.

We are all evolving a world made of digital and spatial layers, where technologies are now able to follow and record our traces. The German architect Jürgen Mayer H. has expressed this contemporary double effect in his work, documenting where inhabitants leave traces of their presence over the ground and walls as they pass. According to Mayer H., “there is no such thing as a naive or innocent surface.”

Archaeology is the science of identifying and studying ancient traces now preserved in ground or wall, to understand what or who left them in their present time.

In the network, we are living in the traces we leave in our everyday lives, using social media, producing or sharing content, taking pictures or being tagged by others, having a real-time narrative approach to our lives, valuing our past and accomplishments, confessing to all our followers or stalkers what we were, are, and want to be with words or metrics, and in which kind of world we wish to live.

In ancient times, the worst punishment that could ever be pronounced over someone, even worse than death, was called Damnatio Memoriae. This post-mortem sentence given to a public persona implied that their name would be erased from all public monuments, and their statues pulled down or destroyed so they would be forgotten by the people over time. But, today, we cannot be forgotten or discreet because of the constant traces we leave on the Internet.

The Internet era is the age of the Chiaroscuro, where shades of intention coexist: the impossibility of being forgotten and the craving for attention, the use of the same tool by some to preserve the history of ancient Palmyra, while others use it to delete the past and broadcast their terror and destruction; the desire, through technology, for both individual empowerment and mass surveillance.

If navigation into the digital spaces is no longer naive and can be used for surveillance, what about a system where the law could judge your intentions as well as your actions? Could we be tracked and trialed for moving freely within it?

This awful and highly complex current war is devastating Syria, harming its cultural heritage, and persecuting its “living stones.” What is happening there shows the international community that people are being tracked for expressing their will for freedom, be it with something as simple as a “like” on a Facebook Page, or more arduous, such as founding an entire hackerspace.

This cruel reality has to sensitize us to the power of information technology, that it can be used, like any tool, for good or evil. The ancient Greeks were aware of the dual nature of the pharmakon: in a coercive system, the way you live or the path you take is enough to make you suspect, and those systems punish intentions and actions equally because of their potential for disruption.

The other lesson we, in the “free world” (where we don’t have to be afraid of being shot by a hidden sniper), have to learn, is that liking a Facebook page, or founding a hackerspace, does not have the same cost for people living under a different system than ours. For us it’s just a social interaction, for others it’s a social action that can have terrible effects on their lives or the lives of their loved ones.

We have to find a way to move freely in our minds and within the systemic information architecture for it to remain a tool that can empower the people and not enable a few to reduce freedom, enact personal censorship, or jail those they perceive as threats for their oppressive systems.

Ancient Greek orators used to create mental and imaginary architecture as mnemonic techniques, to remember their long speeches so they could easily express their arguments in the Agora. Today, technology helps us acquire knowledge, express our opinions, and remind us that freedom is not something slight to be taken for granted.

We are all at risk if someone more powerful than us doesn’t want us to move anymore, in the streets or on the network, so we all have to ask ourselves: What is the price we have to pay to inhabit this new architecture we are collectively building, and what do we have to do to preserve our freedom within it?