Forensic Architecture


For decades now, the bleeding edge of architecture has treated building itself as a foil, even an adversary—the mirror image of a self-styled critical practice. As the paper architecture of the 1960s and ’70s developed into a wide range of institutionalized alternative practices, from curatorial projects to multimedia installations, timeworn disciplinary concerns of matter and materiality seemed condemned to retrograde status, the stuff of unreflective designer-minions serving the interests of powerful clients. But this attitude takes a paradoxical twist in the work of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency of architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers. Forensic Architecture rejects traditional professional practice—indeed, it epitomizes the field at its most multifarious and mediatic, dealing in building surveys, maps, models, animations, and videos—yet its central claim is that the built environment remains a potentially radical medium. As its name suggests, the agency uses architecture as material evidence, leading independent investigations and partnering with international prosecutors and environmental and human-rights groups to find, reconstruct, and expose violence.

Initiated by Eyal Weizman in 2010 and based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture’s development has coincided with a surge in conflict and crisis around the world, and a creeping sense of exhaustion within the academy. The discipline, anxious to engage, struggles with its own historical bias against instrumentalized knowledge. Weizman’s model of theory—a shrewd, pragmatic approach in which methodological tools and concepts are tested against unfolding global events, and findings are made legible in public political forums far removed from both architecture studios and the halls of the academy—is articulated in a new book, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, as well as an outstanding exhibition, “Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aestheticism,” currently on view at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and at Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, the most comprehensive institutional presentation of the practice to date. The exhibition—organized in both locations by Rosario Güiraldes and given incisive graphic form by the design firm Other Means—instantiates this theory-on-the-fly. At MACBA what begins in the opening gallery as a theoretical and historical introduction to the work segues into a display of more than twenty projects—presented as “evidence files,” and comprising narrated videos, supergraphics, 3-D-printed models, and the occasional installation—that interrogate processes of contemporary urban warfare, drone assassinations, environmental violence, refugee emergencies, and accompanying governmental cover-ups.

In the first gallery, we learn that the roots of Weizman’s method can be traced back to “counter-forensics,” a practice that originated in Argentina in the 1980s, when activists exhumed and analyzed the bodily remains of victims of political repression as part of an effort to hold the state accountable for its crimes. By the ’90s, exhumation practices had spread across the globe, as unspeakable atrocities in places such as Chile, the former Yugoslavia, Honduras, and Rwanda lent increased value to physical evidence—primarily bones, but also other types of material. In this “forensic turn,” Weizman saw an opening for architects, arguing that we could understand “the materiality and texture of a building as a surface upon which events get imprinted and upon which process becomes form.” The crucial assumption underlying Forensic Architecture’s work is thus that buildings, cities, and territories are themselves sentient witnesses. Yet the agency’s approach has an undeniable, if grim, logic: In cases of secret drone assassinations, or in the midst of misinformation campaigns and media blackouts, the cracks, holes, and scars in a building’s walls become potentially powerful evidence of violence.

The clearest demonstration of this idea in the exhibition is an investigation of a March 2012 drone strike that killed four people in Miranshah, Pakistan. Forensic Architecture’s point of departure was a forty-three-second video clip of a damaged building (the clip was smuggled out of the military-controlled area and broadcast by NBC News). Breaking down the video frame by frame, the team assembled a panoramic collage, looking for such features as a blast hole in the roof, “the distinct architectural signature of drone strikes.” The composite images were verified against satellite photos, from which a 3-D computer model of the targeted building and its surroundings was constructed. Once the size and location of the structure were determined, the team superimposed still footage from inside the room where the missile struck to locate and analyze scars in walls. As Forensic Architecture alleged in a report prepared for the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and presented at the UN General Assembly in 2013, the absence of fragments in certain portions of the walls could indicate where people were killed, effectively tracing human shadows.

A 2016 investigation of the notorious Saydnaya military prison in Syria, conducted in collaboration with Amnesty International, entailed a shift from eyewitness to “earwitness” testimony. The prison is off-limits to journalists and monitoring groups, and so, to help illuminate this humanitarian black hole, researchers reconstructed the architecture from survivors’ memories, exploiting, in particular, their acute sensitivity to sound within the dim, quiet prison environment. As former prisoners recollected spaces and objects (torture instruments, furniture, and so on), an architect created a 3-D model in real time that aided further recollections, serving as a mnemonic device in itself.

Forensics, Weizman writes, “slows down time and intensifies sensibility to space, matter, and image.” Taken out of context, this could describe a kind of rarefied connoisseurship, a romantic attitude toward buildings and materials that prioritizes aesthetic contemplation and suggests passivity or even disengagement. Instead, Forensic Architecture has found a way to direct the techniques of the aesthete back onto the world, dissociating urgency from speed, matter from stasis, and architectural knowledge from blind complicity.

"True Detectives," Artforum, October 2017

Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter


Like a lot of inexpensive flat-packed furniture—shipped halfway around the world and arriving with “some assembly required”—the lightweight, pitch-roofed structure at the center of the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” is missing a few parts. But this is not by accident. In a gesture of accommodation within an exhibition otherwise intent on revealing the inhospitality of contemporary migrant and refugee environments, two of the thirty-six polyolefin-foam panels enclosing the structure’s tubular-steel frame have been removed, inviting visitors to enter a phantom household measuring roughly eighteen feet long and ten feet across. The Emergency Temporary Shelter, as it is called, was developed in 2010 by the Swedish “social enterprise” Better Shelter, in collaboration with two of our corporate- and conflict-ridden world’s most ubiquitous brands—IKEA and the United Nations. Though unquestionably more durable, dignified, and secure than the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ conventional canvas or plastic tarpaulin tents, the shelter’s foremost achievement is logistical: Shipped compactly in two cardboard boxes, it can be completely assembled by four people in less than eight hours, using only tools included in the shipment.

There are more than sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Twenty-one million of those are officially considered refugees by the UN, which means that they are fleeing armed conflict or political or religious persecution.Since emergency is everyday, humanitarianism is a permanent business. Organized by Sean Anderson, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, this exhibition foregrounds the tools of this humanitarian trade—UNICEF-issued collapsible water containers, water-purification tablets, tarps, and education kits; a multicolored malnutrition-measuring device by Doctors Without Borders. As modest and nimble as these instruments can seem, they are the products of a vast regime of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental institutions. From sober office spaces in Geneva and midtown Manhattan, these organizations prepare budgets, solicit donations, recruit personnel, devise policies, set standards, and, in some cases, marshal extranational military forces.

This bureaucracy’s greatest work of design is not any single tool, but bureaucracy itself. The most widely recognized set of universal minimum guidelines for humanitarian response, the Sphere handbook, is a voluntary rubric whose first iteration was in 1998 by a committee of relief organizations in an attempt to coordinate their activities and, in managerial terms, to boost quality and accountability. The Temporary Emergency Shelter follows it to a T: A family of five is provided a covered floor area of thirty-eight square feet per person (no more, no less).

Utterly rational and technocratic, humanitarianism perpetuates the distressing legacies of modernism, modernization, and colonialism even as it administers care. This contradiction is nowhere more visible than in a photograph of one part of the world’s largest refugee-camp complex by Brendan Bannon, Ifo 2, Dadaab Refugee Camp, 2011. Shot from a low aerial perspective, the image reveals a Kenyan desert landscape incised with lines and dotted with tents, their white sheets dust-sprayed. The design has an accountant’s rigor, confirmed by a UNHCR fact sheet that describes the planning process: A site of roughly four square miles was first divided into two subcamps (Ifo 2 East and Ifo 2 West), then eighteen sections, then four to nine blocks, and then plots measuring approximately forty by fifty or thirty-three by forty feet. Within each plot, one shelter is installed—the family unit.

The functionalist planning of Ifo 2 and other Dadaab settlements and the component systems of the Emergency Temporary Shelter also recall the more utopian rationalism and economy of an earlier era, the Existenzminimum of the interwar period. Then, standardization, systemization, and flexible and cost-efficient production were technocratic means to political ends: Housing was deemed a right to be afforded to all citizens. But today, when universally applied by international aid organizations to vast numbers of stateless and displaced people, these same strategies only underscore the refugee’s diminished political agency under globalized capitalism.

As a remedy for these cool administrative logics and one-size-fits-all environments, the MoMA exhibition counterposes artworks that revel in their singularity. Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle, 2011/2016, a world map painstakingly rendered in situ with colored electrical wires that have been barbed to evoke danger and plugged into speakers that emit a low atonal sound throughout the gallery, is characteristic. Another work, Woven Panel, 2016, created expressly for the exhibition by the National Union of Sahrawi Women at the request of the Swiss architect Manuel Herz, is a wall tapestry depicting the plan of a Sahrawi refugee camp in southwestern Algeria. Tiffany Chung’s finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble, 2014, presents found photos of the titular detritus within thirty-one floor-mounted vessels hand-crafted from mahogany.

While these artworks and others shift the affective register, at times reflecting poignantly on the subjects they address, their presence in the galleries tends to create a false dichotomy by casting architecture and design as patently instrumental, as aids to power more than agents of change, and at worst as just more symptoms of crisis. In a typical presentation of architecture, a grid of twenty identical-size images positioned in a far corner of the gallery is presented as an illustration of, per the wall text, “the scope of living conditions that confront today’s refugees and displaced populations around the globe.” The diversity is disingenuous, however, since the lack of consistent contextual information and the scattershot selection flatten out significant differences—functional, material, political, legal, or otherwise. A contemporary rendering of a speculative shelter design is treated in the same manner as an undated black-and-white archival photograph of a UN Relief and Works Agency camp in the West Bank (where Palestinians continue to live). This sequestration of architecture is a deliberate decision, though. As the curator remarked at the exhibition’s opening, “If we propose architecture as a solution, then it ignores the problem.”

But what exactly is the problem? Concerning mass displacement, there are myriad—too many for any single exhibition to address. Yet too few of the underlying social, political, and economic conditions—and their geographic and spatial dimensions—have been presented with enough depth or surprise to reshape the contours of our understanding. By judging architecture as guilty before the trial even began, the exhibition has deprived us of the fruits of due process. Architecture is cast as hopelessly instrumentalized; its capacity to reflect on its own forms of production—concepts and ideas as much as material objects—and entanglements with power is sold short. Consider the Paper Emergency Shelters, designed in 1999 by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban for the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, which are represented in the exhibition by a single photograph of a tarp being draped over a cardboard-tube structure. The novel choice of material was motivated not just by low cost and ubiquity but a UNHCR request for an alternative to its standard-issue temporary shelters, since refugees would sell the valuable aluminum support poles and replace them with tree branches, securing for themselves a degree of economic independence but contributing to deforestation. Against the image of a heroic intervention, a more dynamic story unfolds—of an agonistic relationship between displaced persons, architect, and institution, and of competing claims over individual freedom and ecological preservation.

Indeed, it is not simply that architecture is ineffective but that designers and curators and critics and journalists (the list goes on) are too narrow in their understanding of architecture itself. We fail to recognize architecture as ongoing and contested, subject to a host of contradictory pressures and demands. But its critical potential lies in its frequent status as solution and problem. Instead of consigning messy forms of engagement to the corner and elevating museum-ready artworks in their place, another curatorial approach might link different aesthetic praxes—art and design, past and present—around common activities and shared concerns. A lot of critical practice on both sides of the traditional disciplinary divide is already here, scrambling the codes of art and activism, denying divisions between research and intervention, refusing the cover of autonomy.

Two works in “Insecurities” make an overture toward such an approach. Created more than seventy years apart, they situate distinct moments of migration in relation to emerging forms of media and surveillance technologies. As an employee of the Farm Security Administration documenting rural poverty, Dorothea Lange instrumentalized her photographic practice in the service of reform. Before entering the museum, Lange’s images, such as Young Mother, a Migrant, California, 1937, appeared in newspapers and circulated in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), which she coauthored with her husband, the economist Paul Taylor. Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat, 2011, an eighteen-minute video by Forensic Oceanography—a research project by filmmaker Charles Heller and sometime architect Lorenzo Pezzani—focuses on the case of sixty-three migrants who died while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime-surveillance area off the coast of Libya in spring 2011. Turning the information generated through surveillance (satellite photography, various sensing technologies) into evidence of responsibility, Forensic Oceanography worked with NGOs to file legal petitions for the crime of nonassistance. A map the duo created circulated in the international press, acquiring additional meaning as it proliferated.

Of course, awareness is not enough. “Thanks to the actions of the media, the public is getting mobilized in a way that I would say is unique in recent times in solidarity with the victims,” said then-UNHCR chief António Guterres in September 2015, after a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach provoked international outrage. Yet more than a year later, what has changed? The museum offers political tools, but we must find new ways to put them to use.

Lacaton & Vassal


Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal may be architects, but their real métier is doubt. Unstinting skeptics, low-key mavericks, the Paris-based duo—born in 1955 in Saint-Pardoux, France, and in 1954 in Casablanca, Morocco, respectively—have relentlessly questioned the orthodoxies of architecture, disrupting force-fed assumptions about the economies and practices that drive the design, construction, and inhabitation of space. Lacaton and Vassal often make insides that are like outsides, airy structures that host everything from homes and schools to museums and offices in open-ended environs that shirk strict climatological and behavioral control—environments that leave room to linger and live in. At other times, defying a global culture that seems to value iconic architecture at any cost, they deem building itself to be altogether unnecessary.

Take, for example, Lacaton and Vassal’s project for Place Léon Aucoc, a small triangular square in Bordeaux, France. In 1996, their eponymous studio was commissioned, at the behest of a new mayor’s citywide beautification effort, to redesign the tree-shaded expanse of gravel. But after observing the pétanque terrain and talking with the square’s bench sitters and passersby, Lacaton and Vassal concluded that an overhaul was gratuitous. Instead, they prescribed a few basic maintenance tasks: Replace the gravel, clean more frequently, take care of the lime trees. “Embellishment has no place here,” their project statement went. “Quality, charm, life [already] exist.”City officials, flummoxed, at first rejected the scheme. The proposal confounded not only their expectation of a physical intervention in the park (presumably some of the faddish pavings and overelaborate street furniture endemic to urban touch-ups) but also their underlying assumption that improving public space was primarily a matter of aesthetics. Ultimately realized—if practically invisible—the project is now an archetype in Lacaton and Vassal’s oeuvre. The decision to add nothing, they contend, was not a denial of architecture; it was simply a different way of approaching their role. “The work of an architect is not only to build,” Lacaton explained in an interview in 2003. “The first [thing] to do is to think, and only after that are you able to say whether you should build or not.”

Sometimes architecture is already there. That was the case with the west wing of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, a hulking Neoclassical exhibition hall that had been occupied and abandoned by a string of cultural institutions by the time the design competition for a new contemporary art center was held in 1999. Lacaton and Vassal’s winning proposal was based on the approach of putting as much of the building “back in service” as possible. Built for the 1937 World’s Fair, the landmark’s stately stone exterior masked a reinforced-concrete interior so expansive, open, and unexpectedly modern that it seemed to Lacaton and Vassal to exceed the category of building and to approach the condition of an urban square or market. This observation became central to their design. Referencing the Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech, host to a daily flux of transitory stalls, storytellers, and hawkers, Lacaton and Vassal proposed a minimally invasive approach whereby the architecture accommodates—without determining—a vast range of provisional activities, the many forms of encounter imagined by the venue’s then directors, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans. With most of the project’s minuscule budget going toward essential technical upgrades and structural stabilization, the third of the building reserved for use by the kunsthalle remained, on opening in 2002, largely as Lacaton and Vassal found it—threadbare ceilings, crumbling columns, marble staircases, and all. To those architects anxious to distinguish the products of their discipline from mere building—often through exotic finishes and highly resolved geometries—the barely there renovation offered a perplexing challenge.

What’s more, by shunning clean walls as well as wholesale transformation, Lacaton and Vassal at once flouted the two categories around which debates on contemporary art museums tend to turn: the white cube and heavy-handed “signature architecture.” Of course, the repurposing of historically significant or typologically defunct buildings for the display of art is not uncommon. Yet unlike, for instance, the Musée d’Orsay across the Seine, which shows Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks in a lustrous fin-de-siècle railway station, or Dia:Beacon in upstate New York, where Minimalist and post-Minimalist artworks are installed in an impeccably gridded box-printing factory, the Palais de Tokyo doesn’t offer a carefully orchestrated embrace between art and architecture based on close historical or formal correspondence. Instead, Lacaton and Vassal’s approach produces a kind of baggy fit. By freeing up and leaving unfinished as much room as possible, the architects deferred the partitioning and occupation of space to the artists, the curators, the visitors—to the inhabitants, as it were. This strategy was made more extreme with the completion, in April 2012, of an expansion designed by Lacaton and Vassal that tripled the art center’s size to 240,000 square feet spread across four levels. The excess and irregularity of the space almost seem to stretch time, letting people linger in ways foreign to the turnstile-like museums of today. Perhaps the most remarkable new expanse is the basement, a bituminous exhibition space (into which one descends via a lazily spiraling steel staircase stitched through a thatch of abject columns and girders), its floor a patchwork of worn concrete and billowing asphalt like that of some illicit skate park or slipshod parking structure. Even now, when “raw” is so chic, these are strange precincts.

As skeptical as they are of the presumed role of architecture, Lacaton and Vassal do not reject building outright. Consider a more recent, and particularly fecund, bout of naysaying: In 2009, a design competition was launched to convert a roomy postwar shipbuilding workshop into the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, an affiliate of France’s Regional Contemporary Art Fund located in the far-north port city of Dunkirk. Officially, the building was named Atelier de Préfabrication no. 2, or AP2; but locals, out of deference to taller-than-wide proportions and Chartres-esque acoustics, had long ago anointed this concrete shell the “cathedral.” Measuring 246 feet long, 82 feet wide, and 98 feet tall, this hulking boat hangar cuts a sharp, iconic profile against a background that’s all North Sea and open sky, its surroundings having been flattened following the collapse of the shipbuilding industry. A waterfront-redevelopment plan identified the landmark as a good home for a cultural anchor, and the FRAC, occupying a cramped former hospital with little room to show its collection of nearly fifteen hundred works, needed bigger quarters.

On a visit to the site, Lacaton and Vassal immediately sensed dissonance in the competition mandate: The preservationist instinct that had spared the shell was, by installing a museum inside, about to destroy the space. Wasn’t the vast, vacant interior the hangar’s most exceptional quality? Though touching on a general paradox of architectural preservation, which persists in telling history through facades but shows little concern for the embodied affects of buildings, Lacaton and Vassal are not pious conservationists. Their attitude toward existing structures, like their approach to design in general, privileges mutability over posterity. The AP2’s interior needed to be saved because it still had potential.

Filling the cathedral wasn’t just senseless, Lacaton and Vassal argued: It was unnecessary. They proposed that a new structure of the same volume and shape be erected beside the AP2, one specifically designed to house the required galleries, cinema, offices, educational spaces, and art storage. This doubling operation would free up the AP2 to do what it does best: to be empty, or, in other words, to be free to accommodate not only a flexible range of art installations but an ebb and flow of concerts, sporting events, idle wandering,and other to-be-determined activities. They also reasoned that this plan could be carried out within the given budget by making use of low-cost greenhouse construction techniques, which they have appropriated for decades as a kind of open-source spatial framework ideally suited to the light and flexible type of architecture they favor. Defying convention, Lacaton and Vassal were selected to design the project.

In the fall of 2013, the first exhibitions went up and the doors of the FRAC were opened; inside the hangar, a local brass band played Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, 1997. But only later this year, once a spindly steel footbridge that links Dunkirk’s beachfront to a pair of double doors seventeen feet above the FRAC’s main entrance is completed, will the effects of Lacaton and Vassal’s guideline-sidestepping practice be able to be fully measured. While a link between the FRAC and the waterfront promenade was a required element of the redevelopment plan, Lacaton and Vassal chose to absorb the bridge directly into their plastic-clad addition, extending the path through its entire length. This so-called interior street is now the hinge point within the hybrid complex formed by the twin structures, whose compound name, FRAC/AP2, designates the freed-up hangar as an indeterminate institution, separate from yet related to the art museum with which it is conjoined. With the inauguration of the bridge, the interior street and the hangar will both operate as a public park, their hours and access regulated by the city, independently of the FRAC. This basic administrative distinction, though it may go unnoticed by many wandering into the hangar, is a measurable departure from a trend among high-profile museums in recent years to bill hypercontrolled lobbies, sculpture gardens, and atriums as “public” amenities. By literally displacing art from the hangar, Lacaton and Vassal have created a viable and vital interior public space, one interwoven with the FRAC rather than swallowed up by it.

Arriving at the interior street from the footbridge, you find yourself within a tall slot of space, topped, seventy feet above, by a transparent greenhouse roof. To your left is the concrete (formerly exterior) wall of the hangar, and on the other side the post-and- beam structure of the FRAC. Standing here, you feel as though you are occupying the gap between two buildings, existing in a weird categorical limbo. You’re not quite inside a museum, but there is plenty of art—and art viewing—on display. You might descend one level via the stairs or elevator to the main floor of the hangar. Or you could proceed along the street, admiring, to your right, through glass panels set into the FRAC’s wall, Latifa Echakhch’s À chaque stencil une revolution(For Each Stencil a Revolution), 2007, its gorgeous electric blue having run off the walls and onto the floors of the gallery where it is semipermanently installed.You could walk farther, turn, and look up thirty feet or so, where you might see a host of museumgoers, faces pressed against the transparent partition, looking down into the street and enjoying being looked at in turn. They would be in the fifth-floor Forum, the largest and tallest of the FRAC’s three exhibition halls, a part of which spans the street and then cantilevers like a balcony out over the AP2 hall, letting visitors hang out in its voluminous, unrestored interior somewhere other than the open floor below. One level up, about seventeen feet higher, bodies lean against the metal railing wrapping the Belvedere, a kind of covered patio beneath the inflated plastic pouch panels that compose the roof and continue partway down the building’s sides. And you will have seen all of this without actually having entered the museum.

When I visited the FRAC/AP2 this past winter, the temperature outside approached zero. I entered on the ground floor and ascended the museum by stairs. Passing between the different levels of exhibition space, I moved back and forth through a threshold-like space separated from the galleries by motion-sensor-controlled sliding glass doors and from the exterior by wavy, wafer-thin panels of corrugated polycarbonate, overlapped and then unfussily mounted to galvanized steel supports with hothouse verismo. The temperature there was at least twenty degrees Fahrenheit below that of the exhibition halls. It was not uncomfortably cold, but a strange space for bodies like mine, habituated to building enclosures that offer the predictable comfort of a homogeneous interior climate, never mind the steep ecological costs and variable side effects (sick building syndrome is a particularly extreme effect of artificial environments). The space is even stranger in an art museum, an institutional type that is typically a sensory-deprivation chamber of norms, regulations, and legally enforceable loan agreements specifying everything from the range of relative humidity levels and temperature to footcandle hours and vermin-mitigation measures.

These in-between spaces offer the best view into Lacaton and Vassal’s unorthodox practice. In a sense, they reformulate the calculus of architecture, decreasing the value, both economic and symbolic, typically assigned to formal novelty, surface treatments, and frivolous customization, while elevating the value of spatial volume—the sheer quantity of inhabitable space—and flexibility. And these spaces are where the variables of volume, environment, and material converge most clearly, as well as where the social and atmospheric effects of this convergence are most palpable. The FRAC’s circulation space is a climatic threshold, performing the insulation functions typically consigned to surfaces (thick walls, double facades, double-insulated glass). It is an inhabitable zone with a distinct third climate somewhere between the outside weather and the evenly climatized interior. There are environmental benefits to this approach, but they can’t be considered independently of Lacaton and Vassal’s overriding goal: freedom. By doubling the volume of their Dunkirk project, the architects have produced a structure abundant enough to evade both uniform environmental control (more than half of the FRAC/AP2 interior is not heated or cooled artificially) and total programming (less than half of the FRAC/AP2 functions as an art institution). Here, space, if not quite radically liberating, becomes available for subtle appropriation by occupants—making itself hospitable to unexpected forms of inhabitation.

Like good members of the post-’68 generation, Lacaton and Vassal are enamored of the provisional, the nonproscriptive. They are doggedly critical of modern architecture’s behavior-controlling functionalism, too. But their attitude diverges significantly from earlier attacks on—and aesthetic responses to—modernist orthodoxy. If most postmodernist critiques of functionalism were fueled by antihumanism, a displacement of the subject and a hotheaded visual combativeness—think of deconstructivism’s affinity for fragmentation and disorientation—Lacaton and Vassal have never abandoned the idea that architecture is necessarily about inhabitation, the rhythms of bodies and space. There is, then, a basic tension at the core of Lacaton and Vassal’s work: between their immense optimism about the transformative potential of architecture’s materials—air, light, sound, and space, plus all the heavy stuff—and their deep apprehension about architecture’s propensity to regulate and control.

“Architecture is not so important in life,” remarked Lacaton in a 2003 interview. “We can have a life without architecture.” This may, to some, sound a forlorn note. Yet the weird, marvelous work of Lacaton and Vassal points to something else: a great expansion of what architecture and architects can be and do. In place of a knee-jerk will to form, their hesitations urge a poetics of appraisal. Imagine a posture in which, no longer ensnared by dubious orthodoxies and a priori obligations to design, architecture’s impulse to accommodate—its reflexive Yes—assumes the dexterity of Perhaps and I prefer not to and Why?