If These Walls Could Talk

Deconstructing architectures of separation


In 2017 the interdisciplinary collective resolve initiated a series of labs with students from East London, called If These Walls Could Talk. Participants were challenged to design a response to the question: what if walls brought us together? Working collaboratively with the team of eight students, the collective realised the response and exhibited it at the Stockwell Festival that year.

Walls, a central element in the discipline of architecture, have long been archetypes of separation. It is through separation that walls traditionally create domestic space; defending the privacy of our homes from the openness of the commons whilst preserving the function of one room from the contents, stimuli and purposes of another. Yet, it is through separation that they also divide our cities and nations. Through their remarkable utility in the separation of “them” and “us”, “inside” and “outside”, the concept of the wall has become pervasive. They are just as metaphorical as they are physical; we put up our walls to retreat emotionally from others, we “talk to the wall” when conversation is not reciprocated.

The question that underpins resolve’s vision for the future of architecture is simple: what if walls did not separate us, but instead brought us together? To aid in answering this question we have proposed a methodological shift in the various disciplines that constitute and inform architecture, which we call “building by deconstruction”. This entails building, creating and synthesising new forms and ideas, through the close examination and deconstruction of old ones. To us, and more importantly to non‑architects – like community members, local government groups, activists, developers – this can be difficult to visualise. So to exemplify the approach, we might start by deconstructing the central focus of our project and really try to understand or re‑understand: What is a wall? What else do they do? What are they made of? What can they be made of?

Walls can shape

The Fra Mauro Map (see overleaf) is a map of the world that was made by a Camaldolese monk in fifteenth‑century Italy. In what’s depicted as South East Asia on the map, the landscape is littered with walled cities, between which lie vast swathes of unknowable, impermeable wilderness. Here, in perception at least, walls not only divide the urban from the rural, but demark the effective shape of Late Medieval, Western European imagination.

Walls can be resistance

In the book Keep Your Eyes on the Wall, containing responses to the West Bank Barrier wall, Raeda Saadeh’s moving photographic portrait, One Day, demonstrates how that which resists might become “resistance”. The artist is shown with a length of rope attached to a particularly decrepit section of the wall. Poised as though dragging the concrete behemoth, her very presence in, and interaction with, the scene obscures the relationship between context and content. For the duration of the camera’s shutter-speed, resistance is not political struggle against the apparatus of an oppressive regime or the mechanical properties of hardened concrete. Instead, in the grip of Saadeh’s yoke, the wall is without power, its purpose co-opted to empower, as a site of resistance.

Walls can make places

London Wall is a familiar sight to anyone who knows the Barbican area in central London. Long past any practical utility, this Ancient Roman vestige exists primarily through its creation of place. The city is no longer contained within its gates but has grown from them, as anyone who has ever experienced the hustle and bustle of Aldgate, Bishopsgate or Moorgate can attest to. Once gates at the edges of the city, they are now at its heart.

Walls can be made of rooms

The walled city of Kowloon, demolished by the British and Chinese governments in 1994, stood without walls ever since they were broken down to make an airport during the Second World War. Thereafter, the city grew – in typical, albeit slightly augmented, Hong Kong fashion – upwards. Its city walls became all the bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens that found themselves at the border between Kowloon and the world beyond.

If These Walls Could Talk

Aerial view of the Kowloon Walled City taken in 1989.
Image: Ian Lambot cc by-sa 4.0

Walls can be made of nothing

Unlike many other government-led or UN-sanctioned refugee camps, Dadaab in Kenya, once the largest camp in the world, has no walls, fences or boundaries. Its inhabitants are instead walled in by the war in neighbouring Somalia, hundreds of miles of desert and strict employment restrictions under Kenyan law. In his book City of Thorns, which follows the lives of nine refugees in Dadaab, Ben Rawlence writes: “There were no fences around the makeshift city… there was simply nowhere to go.”

If These Walls Could Talk

The Venetian monk Fra Mauro’s map, dated from 1450. This is perhaps the first modern world map. It points south because fiftheenth‑century compasses were south‑pointing.
Image: Public Domain

Walls can be made from absence

For the construction of the so-called Great Firewall of China, no one “sank the first stone into the ground” as Franz Kafka wrote in his 1917 short story The Great Wall of China. Yet, as in Kafka’s short story, it is a wall made of an abundance of human material: data, or more specifically the code to filter data. This is a wall that, like walls before it, surrounds a nation, separates “them” from “us” and yet it bears no similarity to the material of those walls. This is a wall made from the absence of information.

People can be walls

Donald Trump’s much-trumpeted border wall between the United States and Mexico may well be the one of most famous walls in non-existence. Despite not being there, Trump’s wall has worked to insidiously divide opinions and encapsulate the country’s fast increasing divisions. Since the US presidential election in November 2016, race‑related hate crimes and bias incidents have been reported to have risen dramatically, with its perpetrators almost unfailingly all standing behind the same imaginary wall.

The inhabitable wall / the wall that inhabits you

In the 1990s, in his book The Borderline Concept: On Private Madness the psychoanalyst André Green observed: “You can be a citizen or you can be stateless, but it is difficult to imagine being a border”. Using data taken from a 2010 consensus in the US city of Detroit, researchers from the University of Virginia produced a map in which each blue dot represents one person deemed as white, and each green dot representing an individual deemed as black. In this demographic representation the infamous Eight Mile Road appears akin to any other wall. That, or the bodies of the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, who occupy the houses that run along it.

Having explored the conceptual plasticity of walls, our labs then looked at how the students might materialise their new understanding of this ubiquitous archetype. After two intense days of designing, project managing and constructing, the participants together devised a 1:1 module that would form a wider configuration of an “inhabitable wall”. Containing various amenities aimed at bringing people both to the wall and together around it, the modular assemblage also created a network of multi‑level interior spaces – the wall’s inhabitable space became a non-hierarchical, Escher‑esque maze of chance encounters and random movement.

If These Walls Could Talk

RESOLVE’s Akil Scafe-Smith with students during the lab.
Image: Vishnu Jay

Importantly, the product of the lab was not the object alone. In deconstructing the processes and perceptions that fortify the divisive notion of walls, it was essential to also reflect upon our own divisions and the divisiveness of our process and perceptions. In light of this, we aimed to carry out the lab less like a workshop and more so as a co‑productive endeavour. This was an obvious but integral step in breaking down perhaps the most pervasive division in urban practice: the wall between the practiced‑with and the practitioner.