On Territory, Architecture and the Urban

Boucquet Plan for a Frontier camp
Henri Boucquet, Plan for Frontier Camp (1765)
Introduction for a seminar given at the Architectural Association in Diploma 14’s ongoing research on The Architecture of Territory, 16 November 2015Thanks to Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Giudicci for the invitation

Clearly there is something about the way questions present themselves to us today, and the issues that they carry, that refer us more and more to territory. Questions of resources, extraction and logistics draw our attention to it, as does the ‘scaling up’ thesis of prominent Marxian urban geographies. And of course, much more pressing questions brought about by climate change, contemporary warfare, migration and so on, all force us to consider posing questions at larger scales. In many cases, however, the fixation on territory is a kind of placeholder for other things: landscape, nature, ecology, an area of land, a prescribed ‘zone’ of activity, or a realm in which something else dwells (‘urban territory’) and so on. And while many of the questions that assign themselves the figure of territory like this illuminate truly fascinating problems, often posed with real urgency, there is sometimes an all-too-quick reduction of territory to stand in for ‘large scale’; territory reduced to landscape, to resources; territory as borders; territory as the spatial shorthand for geopolitics in general. Territory, we could say, has become a synonym for an aesthetic of the horizontal.

This isn’t just a problem of academic diligence: The problem here is that in doing so, we often miss another, more sustained investigation into territory that reveals the multiplicity through which it operates today: Territory appears in many scales at once, it works through objects, architectures, orders and organizations, circulations and technologies, all of which belie the all too overdetermined depictions as we’ve seen. Indeed, by looking at territory more precisely as a political technology (Elden), we paradoxically open it out to understanding it in more general manifestations in the world—manifestations that have some surprising outcomes. Most importantly, seeing territory as a political technology can help to deconstruct the urban in more precise terms. In a way, it is true: there is a coinciding of the urban with territory, but it’s one which is all too easily presumed to reside in a certain scalar convergence between the two that we can observe today in something like ‘sprawl’. But associating territory or the urban with an inherent ‘scale’ is, I’d like to argue, a fundamental mistake. Both of these categories are scaleless.

I’d like to open by suggesting the following: In order to understand the relation between architecture and territory, we have to realize that, first and foremost, while appearing in various forms throughout modern history, the bond between the architecture and territory is forged irrevocably in the late nineteenth century and generalized with the introduction of the urban.

What is the urban? Answering this question, as I’ll try to show, is crucial to interrogating at least one of the most predominant relations between architecture and territory today. I argue that the urban is a hybrid spatiality, both city and territory while being neither at the same time. The urban deploys architecture in the name of producing territory: it constructs territory architecturally. How? When did this happen more precisely? What does this imply about territory? About architecture? About the city?

I want to explore these questions by suggesting that territory first gained a degree of consistency in the early modern world of Europe. It emerged historically as a result of several centuries of violent and ontological crises that shook apart what we can call the ‘pre-modern world’, leaving in its wake a precarious world without orientation; thus, because of this, we can say that territory arose as an epistemological category just as much as it denoted a physical space and the activities needed to maintain it as such, all in a desperate attempt to imprint order onto a world which increasingly seemed to lack it. This is the essence of understanding territory as a political technology—both a form of knowledge and the technologies it prescribes to maintain, develop and continually know itself, and those required to actually produce its space: how to secure it as a closed entity; how to make its interior functional, controllable, neutral—the spatial extents of modern sovereignty.

By approaching territory as the answer to a certain set of epistemological demands placed on the political and social order of the European world, we’ll be able to see how territory can be traced both in the way Europe (or at least a handful of its states) restructured its space in the seventeenth century accordingly, and also, just as importantly, we’ll see how the very same epistemological demands produced an entirely different spatial order—perhaps even its inverse—in Europe’s colonial spaces. From here, we’ll look at how a certain fundamental reinterpretation of territory, that coincided with the political transformation of the state in the early nineteenth century, allowed territory to conceptually inhabit multiple scales and types of space at once, spanning from architecture to the globe. It was in this way that a radically new spatiality—the urban—was made possible.

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