Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall collapsed. In memory of this historical event, we’d like to write some about the most insane and pointless invention in the history of architecture: The Wall.
Walls are made to separate. In houses, for example, walls are partly meant to separate warm and cold air. Another function is the marking and separation of private and public space. Walls protect the individual from the tough world outside. The wall is built around oneself. It’s a personal choice to stay behind those walls. Fences around private gardens are comparable, as they are meant to mark possession and to guarantee privacy, both physically and visually. Walls are there for multiple reasons. This doesn’t only account for the walls that we experience in daily life, but also for the big ‘political’ walls. Besides the most famous (Berlin) Wall, the world still contains too much of these concrete physical barriers. In this article, I will not focus on the ancient Chinese Wall or Hadrian’s Wall, but instead on the brutal linear objects of modern time.
More recently, the wall between Israel and Palestine has led to commotion, which was built to prevent Palestinian ‘terrorists’ from entering Israel (according to an official statement). But Korea has a wall too, in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. On Cyprus, a wall still separates the Turkish and Greek part of the Mediterranean island, and Belfast has its so-called Peace Line, still running straight through peoples back yards to pronounce the fragile status of the current peace process. (In 2008 a public discussion began about how and when the barriers could be removed.) Apparently these structures seem to work. Focusing on these walls, it’s clear that a wall is being used to separate not only people or other physical and tangible phenomena, but also ideological (Korea), religious (Israel) and nationalistic (Cyprus) values. It’s not a coincidence that conflicts about these three values have been the most prominent reasons to start wars over the last century. Apparently political walls are built when things become important and hopeless at the same time.
Walls are completely senseless, but physically very efficient at the same time. Walls do work, and can serve as non-political but spatial statements. The physical barrier seems to be an important method to split people and to conserve collective values. Some historians argue that the Berlin Wall extended the DDR’s existence with twenty years. History has proven the significance of the wall as an instrument of repression. Although one can seriously ask the question whether this is still a fact in the Information Age.
In fact, the concept of the wall as a society splitting spatial entity is not having a slow death at all. Within the disciplines of urbanism and town planning walls show to be a terrifying trend. This trend isn’t focusing on the spatial and political scale of nations, but rather on the scale of neighborhoods and even smaller communities. The rise of the gated community is a meaningful example here. Gated communities are increasingly popular and emerging all over the world. (Even in the social democratic city of Amsterdam.) Essentially, these communities enforce separation between social classes. Interesting here is the fact that the rich politely choose to lock themselves out of the rest of society. On the other hand, Michel Foucault believed that the legal systems only serves the upper classes, and functions as a mechanism to segregate “the most dynamic of the lowest social class from the rest of society, then forced them together as a group of outcasts, thus rendering them politically harmless”.
This is what actually happens in Rio de Janeiro, where the local authorities decided to build a wall around the favela Morro Dona Marta. The underlying reason is the same as that of the gated community, which is the creation of a spatial division between rich and poor, but the perspective is different. The poor are pushed away from society. This can be compared with the Palestinian Separation Wall. Basically one has the right to separate oneself from the world, but not to exclude another group. Here the mental significance of a wall becomes important – what matters is whose initiative it was to build it. Coming closer to a real point we can conclude that building a wall in itself doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not about its physical presence, but rather about its mental and emotional significance. In fact, walls are everywhere. Walking around in Amsterdam with this article in mind, al sorts of aggressive looking walls pop up on every street corner, around building sites, around private property or around important institutions. But they are only disturbing at a basal level. Important is that these walls don’t disable whoever to do whatever. Although I’d like to enter these building sites…
For this reason the only way to break down a wall is through social reform and bright thinking. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a consequence of a collective emotional eruption after a period of social and mental repression. Breaking a wall will never be a physical activity, although the physical happening on 9 November 1989 will remain as a symbol for freedom and reunification. At this moment it’s threatening to see how new economically motivated walls are built on a local scale. Therefore I want to finish declaring, for the ones that didn’t already know, that tousling a piece of useless concrete is very unlikely to solve any problem.