Resistance is fertile

Our cities tell us everything we need to know about architecture and resistance.

Our cities tell the tale of architects’ relationship with resistance. In the 17th century, after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn proposed ambitious rebuilding schemes for London. None of these plans was implemented, scuppered by pragmatism, not least because it was impossible to discover the true ownership of land and buildings and there were no means to calculate compensation to put in place compulsory purchase orders.

Much of the City’s old street plan was simply resurrected, modified by fire-preventative measures (such as wider streets and better materials), improved sanitation and the creation of open wharves along the Thames to boost trade. Logistical resistance may have been fatal to master-planning but it proved to be a vital force in the future development of London. By honouring the medieval street pattern, our capital has allowed a chaos and looseness to prevail, which have encouraged its continual evolution.

In 19th-century Paris, there was no such politesse or resistance to title-holders’ rights. The movement of citizens was deliberately restricted by planning to limit the mob’s ability to resist: boulevards were placed over the existing grain of labyrinthine, medieval alleyways to facilitate military movement. Individual buildings became subservient to the wider urban aesthetic with regimented facades. As beautiful as it may be, Haussmann’s plan for the city did not countenance change. Instead, it became the new baseline that Parisians have had to adopt or adapt to ever since: it’s a coherent city but also an irresistible one. Perhaps it is the legacy of Haussmann’s totalitarian move that is being played out in the conservative cultures of Paris today, a city struggling to reconcile itself to the demands of the 21st century.

By contrast, New York’s grid, laid down by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, is deceptive in its rigidity. The liberty to defy the grid in the third dimension was the real masterstroke, giving Manhattan one of the great skylines of the world. Occasionally, when the grid is resisted – in cases such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim or, more recently, the High Line – a previously unimagined respite from the city is created and the break is exhilarating.

Resistance is built into the architectural discipline and touches on the essence of what design means to me as an architect – that is, to work with resistance by weaving it into the design process, balancing the tension between complexity and intuition.

There is another more literal aspect to resistance embedded in the process of design, in the territory between thinking and making. We make models to test our thinking in three dimensions. Whether it is kneading a piece of plasticine, cutting and gluing card or folding a piece of paper, it is a precious stage in the evolution of an idea. So much can happen at this fragile moment: the scalpel might slip but suggest a cleverer way of dealing with a difficult junction; the search for a material to take up your imagined form can reveal a structural solution; a chance exchange with a colleague at the model-making table might cause the pursuit of a different route. Equally, the banality of an idea might be exposed – but as the confrontation with failure is so visceral, you are driven to start again.

I make this point to counter what I see as the creep of an unchecked evangelism around the advent of 3-D printing, a technology that offers no resistance. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes of the intimate connection between problem-solving and problem-finding, how a designer is willing to risk losing control: “Machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.”

Chris Anderson, author of Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, writes of the liberation that 3-D printers bring: how they turn us all into designers and how complexity now comes at no cost. It may come without economic cost at a small scale but in architecture, if we are not careful, this is at the expense of integrity. Complexity for its own sake is the path to baroque mannerism and lazy thinking. The second you press that button to transmit your computer file to the machine that builds up your design, layer by microscopic layer of resin, you relinquish all control. There is none of the positive resistance that comes from the relationship between the hand and the intellect. The design process stops right there. Your design is printed as imperfectly as it has been conceived but the conceit is the appearance of achievable perfection.        

Resistance is the fuel in the process of design because it forces us to think more deeply and keeps alive the risk of failure. Cities fail and are never perfect because they are the aggregate of imperfect humans. But the most vibrant cities, such as London, are those that harness the benefits of resistance, accept failures and learn from them.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A

The Guggenheim museum in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism