The organisers of the “Ha Ha: The Weirdness of Walls” Symposium (8th June 2018), Christina Parte and Miloš Kosec, reflect on the event.

A wall seems like an all-too obvious architectural element: one of the simplest and oldest technologies of structural supports and partition, it is rarely debated outside its immanent stylistic, social or political context. This is especially obvious in the most recent »return of the wall« almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall all over the fringes of the Global North. Trump’s Mexican Wall, European anti-immigrant barriers and the Israeli West Bank Barrier in particular show the wall’s resurgence in both its low-tech as well as high-tech manifestations. The wall, far from becoming a thing of the past or simply dematerialising into a digitalised surveillance field, seems to remain surprisingly resilient and cost-effective spatial and psychological tool of control. The return of the wall also conditioned the renewed critical discourse on barriers and control of space; these, however, often fail to address the ambivalent phenomenological, aesthetic and architectural complexity of this basic architectural building block. After all, a wall can be also a condition for privacy and, by extent, personal freedom. It limits space but also enables different and conflicting uses within the same area. It can be used as a tool of surveillance but is also indispensable in providing secure and comfortable habitation.

In the view of Christina Parte and Miloš Kosec, Birkbeck PhD students and organisers of the symposium, the need for a renewed aesthetic reading and understanding of the wall in all its ambivalence is precisely a precondition for any truly socially and politically relevant discussion of its most recent problematic manifestations. The title of the event alluded to the once-popular English landscaping technology of the “Ha-ha wall” but aimed at a broad series of wall-related issues throughout the period of Modernity. The one-day symposium in the School of Arts Cinema brought together a number of Birkbeck scholars as well as other UK and internationally based authors on walls from the fields of art history, architecture, art and social sciences. The day was organised in three panels. The introductory panel “Building Walls” was opened by Leslie Topp (Birkbeck) and her paper on different ways of tackling with authorities’ embarrassment with walls in psychiatric institutions of fin de siècle Austria-Hungary where the new ideals of openness and integration of psychiatric patients came into conflict with the need for security and separation from the everyday life. Alistair Cartwright (Birkbeck) continued with thematizing more and less permanent ad-hoc partitions in 1960s multiple occupancy homes in London through films and literature of the period. Miloš Kosec (Birkbeck) addressed the contemporary social and spatial control of social housing in Chile exerted not through building walls but rather through not building them where ”incremental principle” pioneered by the architect Alejandro Aravena allows for the mediation between the individuals and the free market. The first session was concluded by Michael Diers (Humboldt University Berlin) and his exploration of the ways the prototypes of the Mexican Wall in the US are spatially constructed and manipulated for everyday political needs.

In the second session, Mark Crinson (Birkbeck) presented the problematics of the painterly qualities of the northern wall in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery through the words of Colin Rowe’s essay. The wall which on the one hand forms part of a larger architectural whole, fascinates in its own right as a flat objects and becomes an intellectual challenge for the architectural critic. In which discourse (art or architectural) should the object in question be confronted? While Christina Parte (Birkbeck) focussed on the fetishization of walls as iconic structures and objects of desire, James O’Leary’s (Bartlett) talk and video encircled and highlighted the diverse structures of separation in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The resulting defensive architecture within the city constitutes an interface, a matrix of partitioned, walled in or walled out areas, in constant exchange with the larger fabric of the city.

In the third session, Janet Ward (University of Oklahoma) stressed the porosity of walls. Due to their exposure to wind, weather, human or animal intervention, walls ‘age’ and must be constantly maintained.  As a result, forbidding separation barriers such as the Berlin Wall, in Cold War rhetoric often seen as an absolute barrier (Iron Curtain), must be conceptualised not as an impenetrable material object but rather as a membrane, which is exposed to external influence and takes an active part in channelling the interaction on site. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius (Birkbeck) laid bare the diverse techniques of seeing available for the Cold War observer. Due to the asymmetrical viewing positions at the Berlin Wall, the viewer was constituted as the Western subject whereas the Eastern subject turned into the object of the Western look. Wendy Pullan (Cambridge) denounced while confirming the inescapabilty of discussing the aesthetics of modern walls as military interventions. Not only does the form and surface of a separation barrier fascinate and invite inscription like any other blank wall. Aesthetic interventions at military walls as well as their very own aesthetics are often part of the military strategy to impress and dazzle the onlooker, while camouflaging and distorting the detrimental effects the separation structures have on those, who have to live with them.

Whether the basic structure of support in private or social housing, barrier and means of separation or defence in the geopolitical context, the wall is at the same time a material object and surface structure, prompting different ways of engaging with them depending on perspective, positionality and their inherent paradoxical characteristics. Its extreme ambivalence makes it an open-ended body with shifting allegiances depending on its physical design, management, control, maintenance and interpretation, forming a sort of a blank canvas for changing political, social and spatial practices*

*The organizers of the ‘Ha Ha: The Weirdness of Walls’ would like to thank the Lorraine Lim Fund and Architecture, Space and Society Centre, Birkbeck, for co-funding the symposium, and Leslie Topp, Mark Crinson and Güneş Tavmen for advice and help with its organisation.