A/D/O by MINI | Theo Deutinger’s Tools of Tyranny



Theo Deutinger’s Tools of Tyranny

In his Handbook of Tyranny, architect Theo Deutinger surveys “spatial manifestations of power and control” to explore the blurred line between enforcing security and oppression.

Borders, some may argue, are imposed to keep us safe. As a means of security, they exist at many different scales – from global to personal, in a series of protective shields. “It’s like an onion,” said architect Theo Deutinger during his recent lecture at A/D/O. Using a local example, he descriptively unpeeled the layers: starting with America’s national borders, past Manhattan island’s geographical boundary, and down to the security fencing around government buildings and bollards lining public squares. But where is the line between safety and confinement?

The layers of physical and metaphorical barriers found around the world are explored in Deutinger’s Handbook of Tyranny. The publication, laid out and illustrated in the style of The Architect's Handbook, compiles his research into “the routine cruelties of the 21st century”. Its 12 chapters address groups of items, systems and infrastructure that ultimately regulate society and restrict freedom.

Deutinger created maps showing parts of the world accessible for passport holders of each country

Starting at macro level, the book’s first chapter focuses on passports. These personal documents were standardized globally only 100 years ago, during a League of Nations conference in Paris, but are today essential to prove identity proof and to permit international travel. “It's interesting how young the passport is and how logical it is for us,” said Deutinger. “The whole thing was highly discussed [during the conference] and nobody was really convinced about the need of a passport. And today it's a document that can decide between life and death.”

He pointed out that the little booklet effectively “creates different spaces” depending on its holder’s nationality. To demonstrate this, his team mapped the world according to where each country’s passport permitted their holders to access without a visa. The freely visitable world of a German passport holder looks very different to that of someone in Afghanistan. “We  see that the world is not the same for everybody,” Deutinger said.

A chapter of the handbook includes scale drawings of border walls and fences around the world

The book’s second chapter makes an important distinction between “walls” and “fences”, using to-scale technical illustrations of the physical barriers that separate nations – past, present and proposed. These structures, typically erected to keep people safe on one side and to keep people away on the other, are also shown together on a world map for context. The highest concentration can be found in the Middle East, an area experiencing multiple territorial disputes, but others exist all over the globe. “What is actually almost shocking is that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it only just started,” said Deutinger. “We thought the world would be liberated of walls, but that was just the starting point for all the rest of the world to build walls.”

Further into the handbook, a chapter titled Defensive Cities outlines measures taken to control the actions of citizens in urban environments – sometimes for protection and other times for control. It points out examples of street furniture designed to prevent unwanted activity, such as benches with shallow seats and multiple armrests to deter sleeping; bumps or notches along low walls to stop skateboarders; and spikes installed in even the most unlikely places to prevent people from sitting and loitering in designated public spaces. “It is very difficult to make a law that says that you are not allowed to sleep on a bench,” said Deutinger. “It's easier to design a space in a way that it cannot be used.”

The walls and fences are mapped to show their positions

On a slightly larger scale, the book details types of barriers placed to prevent vehicle attacks on pedestrians, many of which have taken place in cities around the world over the past few years. Varieties range from concrete blocks and giant planters to “tiger traps”, and many of these elements are disguised so as not to strike constant fear in passers-by. “It's very important for us, as users of the city, that we are not confronted with signs of danger,” Deutinger said.

Many of these designs can be seen in real life along Deutinger’s Tyranny Trail, which leads participants on a self-guided tour of Lower Manhattan – one of the most heavily surveilled and tightly controlled areas of land in the world. The walk takes in three main zones: the Civic Center, the Financial District, and Ground Zero – each protected by various fortifications, deterrents, checkpoints and smaller infrastructure designed to prevent terrorist attacks or other incidents.

Other spatial elements explored in the book include prison cells

Deutinger’s team carefully surveyed the southern tip of the island to create a detailed map of the area’s defenses – and the walkable route that connects them. Along the trail, 11 stops are annotated with descriptions of particular elements, ranging in scale from landscape design to hidden cameras. 

Sites include Federal Plaza, which was completely re-landscaped in 2013 to make it more secure but is now fenced off entirely and inaccessible for the public, and the so-called Frozen Zone around the New York Stock Exchange. State-of-the-art security at the redeveloped Ground Zero site and 9/11 Memorial is also explained.

The trail was also created to coincide with an exhibition called State of Tyranny, open from March 28 to May 4, 2019, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. Deutinger’s studio worked with the gallery to curate a selection of objects and tools of urban design that “seek to disable public agency in the name of public safety”, arranged like a hardware store and complete with prices and information about where they can be purchased. “It's always very interesting that you can buy these ‘tools of tyranny’ very easily online,” Deutinger said.

Deutinger's Tyranny Trail takes participants on a self-guided tour of Lower Manhattan

With the Handbook of Tyranny – which also covers designed systems for crowd control, refugee camps, and even carrying out the death penalty – and its associated projects, Deutinger sheds light on the reality that we live in an ever-closely monitored and tightly controlled society. Borders exist at every onion-layer of our environments, whether we notice or indeed benefit from them, or not.

As Deutinger points out in the last line of the Tyranny Trail text: “The future of public safety lies not only in the expression of our fears and anxieties as a culture, but also – and, perhaps, more immediately – in the design of our streets, our places of work and relaxation, our commutes, and even our homes. Yet the question remains: how much freedom are we willing to trade for security? For whom, and against whom?”

Theo Deutinger presented his Tools of Tyranny lecture on September 23, 2019, as part of the year-long At The Border research program at A/D/O, curated in partnership with Jan Boelen and Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence.

Handbook of Tyranny (2018) is published by Lars Muller Publishers.

Text by Dan Howarth.

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