Architecture in a World of Enclosures

JMW Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming), 1840. Source: Museum of Fine Art, Boston

This text is a short provocation prepared for a book launch event held at The Storefront for Art and Architecture for the publication of Lydia Kallipoliti’s The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What Is the Power of Shit (Lars Müller Publishers), 6 December 2018


What precedes and gives rise to the architecture of closed worlds? What constitutes a ‘closed world’ as something desirable in the first place? What makes it a concept that can become reproducible, one that can generate a historically durable, consistent body of work that we see in Lydia’s book? I ask this to think on two things: on one hand, I’m curious to see what the afterlives of this genealogy might be—how the experiments documented so exquisitely and incisively by Lydia have exceeded their confines to live on silently in the diagrams or templates of a broader section of mainstream architectural and urban practices in the age of climate change. On the other hand, I’m equally compelled to situate this genealogy within a broader epistemological horizon that gives it consistency outside of its own. I’m compelled, in other words, to understand these projects against a history of a concept ontologically and conceptually central to these projects: namely enclosure. 


These projects extend from a long history whose point of departure is the invention of a new nature, one that for the most part continues to animate our present imaginaries. It is a nature forged in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe that would no longer trust the organic harmonies and relations that nature had long been said to demonstrate; instead, nature was argued to have grown chaotic, tempestuous, monstrous; nature, unless ordered by ‘man’, had come to be seen as dangerous.


In the shadows of the witch-hunts, nature (always imagined as a woman) would have to ‘be restrained’, ‘bound into service’, ‘made a slave’ and ‘penetrated’ to reveal her secrets. The tools and techniques that would enslave nature to man would thus also open her up to a desperate era of exploration, colonial appropriation and of course unfettered exploitation. This is a nature of enclosures, a condition that required new tools and techniques to mediate between the life of the explorer-colonizer-empirical scientist and the natural world. It is the self-destructive wilderness demanding its divisions and fences, its mines and furnaces; it is the standing reserve whose perceived infinity gives rise to the perversion of perpetual growth, the myth of progress and the elevation of technology to a secular divinity.


Perhaps some of the first closed worlds that punctuate our extended genealogy are colonial settlements. These compounds experience ‘nature’ as the source of infinite existential threat as well as the irresistible site of extraction—a condition from which the first modern techniques of self-enclosed life support may have arisen. The abstract planning of colonial space mirrors the abstract violence that such an imaginary of nature would increasingly prescribe.


And what of the ship and its hold as the ultimate diagram of a closed world in a hostile nature? How easily did this architecture’s life-sustaining capacities open it up to the necropolitical practices of the slave trade? And with the advent of insurance, was it not the technology that enclosed the ship that also served as an abstract threshold of death when too many bodies were packed in its hold? As architecture in the age of climate change cavorts with insurance experts, it would serve us well to remember that the point of origin in the history of modern insurance and risk management is the ship of the Middle Passage.


The boomerang effect of Europe’s colonial project is well known. Cerdá’s urbe is a nineteenth century architecture of a closed world—a bio-economic machine of machines whose dual functions were to extend a single space of capitalist accumulation across the surface of the planet while conceiving of its interior as a coordinated technology of life’s biological preservation and reproduction. It accomplishes both by incorporating the natural world in measured, distributed parcels while enclosing women’s bodies to perform endless unwaged domestic housework and reproductive labor essential for capitalism’s growth. A space without an outside, the fundamental barrier appears here as a strictly regulated meshwork that separates domesticity from infrastructure—reproduction from production. Aligning itself with a discourse of conquering, developing and salvation—urbanización as a ‘civilizing’ force—this was a project Cerdá would come to call the ‘colonization of our country’


Today, the architecture of closed worlds lives on most visibly in the project of resilience. Viewed outside of capitalism, resilience may appear as our last attempt to wrangle with the slow violence of ecological transformation—preservative measures that speak to the universality of climate change and thus appear as urgent solutions for the collective survival of the human species. Yet, like sustainability, ecological urbanism and all green design, we must look to these projects to discover what they refuse to represent; namely the neo-Malthusian contours of their outsides and the necropolitics that their elusive enclosures promise as the effects of climate change bear down—what and who are to be saved, and what and who are to be left, exposed to the extraordinary violence of unprecedented weather.


In this, the architecture of closed worlds may present us with a set of diagrams for the near future. For if, like capitalism, the architecture of closed worlds insists on organizing natures through forms of enclosure, we may better understand these projects as a kind of testing ground for future human worlds in which environmental technologies double as diagrams of social division, exclusion and ecological withdrawal. 


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