A Conditioned Breathing

Migrant Camps, Hal Far, Malta / 05.07.2020

The story of migration in Malta is long and entangled, and yet the role of architecture in this narrative is understated and often missing from the plot. This is perhaps because normal discourse on architecture revolves around construction and stylistic concerns. However, suppose architecture is thought of less formalistically (not in terms of building) and more broadly as an exercise of ordering space, like how landscape (our living environment) is authored by the hands of individuals. By extension then, the lives of people dwelling in such a landscape are conditioned by the author’s design intent over the landscape, making visible a direct exchange between the author and the dweller. 

Consider the authority endowed on those who shape our living environments: the control of living environments and in turn of persons is made accessible through architecture. While this ‘access’ may seem exaggerated, one need only look towards buildings such as prisons to recognise the extent of control and power that people may exert on each other through architecture. This is certainly not to say that architecture is only instrumentalised for nefarious purposes; for example architecture for healthcare is a field which marries the benefits of architecture and medical treatment for the benefit and well-being of people. And neither is power through architecture limited to the physical experience of people in an environment.

Much like words in a book tell a story which forms and reinforces ideas, ambitions, emotions or even expectations in a reader’s mind, the authoring of our living environments scripts similar ideas and narratives in the minds of people. This is because people engage not only with the physical facade of environments, but they also resonate with the intangible components of environments. The histories, the myths, the motivations and prejudices; these are inescapably produced and reinforced as we live our lives in our authored environments. 

This was understood and epitomised by Colonial Empires, who for years instrumentalised architecture for the purposes of controlling, subduing and dehumanising their subjects not just on the physical level (incarceration or killing) but also on the cultural plain (institutionalisation and stereotyping). From Franz Fanon in A Dying Colonialism:

“There is not occupation of territory on the one hand and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing.”

How is this extrapolation of architecture relevant to the narrative on migration in Malta? The migration paradigm has over the course of time formed a sedimentation of myths, histories, desires, prejudices and constructs that revolve, primarily, around the concept of the migrant. One particularly powerful sample from this sedimentation is the term suwed (blacks), a term which has noticeably become synonymous for ‘migrant’. The use of the maltese term suwed rather than “blacks” is not an arbitrary choice here; when used, the speaker is accessing the underlying nuances that reach deeper than its literal reference to colour. It positions the black migrant as sub-human, undeserving of the status of equal to the speaker, and devoid of individuality (it collects all black migrants under a single category purposely ignoring the individual characteristics such as faith, nationality and gender). There is no denying that suwed is a linguistic construct. But it is one that is also conceived and propagated through the authoring of our living environments. In short, architecture (inadvertently or not) is complicit in the construction of suwed.

This claim is perhaps most transparent in the space of intersection between the migrant and the adoptive territory: the migrant camp. Located in the vicinity of the Malta Freeport – an area dedicated to industry – on the southern end of the island, the Hal-Far compound for migrants is a contained area roughly 19,000sq.m in size. By establishing a camp at the geographical periphery of the island, far from the centre, encourages the cultural segregation of a people trapped in a purgatory of in-between. Because although the compound is territorially located in Malta, the site is contained within real and imagined boundaries: within the walls of the compound is not Malta, but an-Other place, a place tas-suwed (belonging to blacks). This form of territorial segregation is an effective method of dehumanisation reinforcing the label suwed and desensitisation to the migrant struggle – out of sight and out of mind. It is racism by design, making it far easier on a collective conscious to condemn suwed to a miserable death out at sea or incarcerate them on boats turned floating prisons offshore but cruelly in sight of land.

The development of the compound from virgin land, to tent “village” and then into container compound closely resembles the deployment of a militarised logic by Colonial powers. Spatial grids deployed by Colonialists encouraged repeatable and standardised units necessary to forge the disciplined disciples expected of the military, while making difficult the possibility for difference and individuality. The combination of institutional mechanisms and spatial mechanisms (such as the grid) enabled colonial authorities to craft subjects according to specification. When adopted within a civilian context, the combination of institution and spatial authoring extends beyond military performance into social conditioning. Sameness is reinforced, individuality is choked and the migrant breathing becomes a conditioned breathing. No matter the individual’s story, here the migrant enters to become iswed.

Further Reading:
The Invisible Wall of Lampedusa: Landscaping Europe’s Outer Frontier by Chiara Dorbolò / Failed Architecture

Photo Credits:
Google photos
Rene Rossignaud
Alamy Photos:
Migrant Camp 2014 / Tom Schulze
Tent Village 2008 / MediaWorldImages
Tent Village 2011 / Dominic Dudley