New Geographies of Violence: Redefining the Wall


Geographies of separation

And this palace was surrounded by ten walls, one inside the other, and all ten walls were made of water. And because the palace and walls consisted of water, it was impossible to enter there, for whoever tried to do so would surely drown.[1]

The wall is at once banal and incomprehensibly sophisticated. It may pose as pure architecture, but by virtue of the inextricable relationship between its function and form is unavoidably political. The wall creates otherness; it operates according to the logic and politics of separation. However, it is not merely one of the essential tropes of architecture, but also of nation-ness. Most significantly, the wall emblematises ebbs and flows in the history of violence. Walls and fences have divided property since time immemorial. A rising wall betrays political dysfunction; and conversely, the fall of a wall may symbolise political accord.

In 2002, a wall began to grow from the decay and deterioration of the decades old Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The West Bank Barrier is now a series of walls and fortresses that carve the West Bank into geographical fragments, separating Palestinian villages from Israeli outposts and cities. It is a discontinuous and sinuous line in four dimensions, a symbol of political failure and ideological incongruence.

As an architectural proposition, a wall may act as structure, as in the monolith, or it may simply create a separation between zones. However, even the monolith divides as it serves. It is this paradoxical peculiarity that has elevated the wall to the symbol of architectural violence par excellence. The Wall is now synonymous with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It represents the violent usurpation of Palestinian occupied territories by the Israeli government; its material discontinuity is analogous with the ideological failures of the peace process. It is here that architecture reveals its limit; architecture is a symptom of, and not a cure for, political and ideological failure.


NATO ANNIVERSARY: City of Berlin West Berliner at the foot of the wall talks to East Berliner, November 1962. NATO celebrates its fiftieth anniversary on Washington DC on April 23rd 1999. (photo by NATO)

The history of violence within which the wall is protagonist, is synonymous with a variety of respective geo-political arcs and trajectories. The wall appears repeatedly in this retelling of the same story. A natural predecessor of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, the infamous Berlin Wall exemplifies this narrative genre.

Rem Koolhaas’ early academic career was marked by a preoccupation with the political wall. One such research project in Berlin, Field Trip, revealed to Koolhaas the politically violent dimensions of the architectural wall.

“The Berlin Wall was a very graphic demonstration of the power of architecture and some of its unpleasant consequences…. The wall suggested that architecture’s beauty was directly proportional to its horror.”[2]

In an analogous fashion to the Israeli West Bank Barrier, the Berlin Wall totalled an immense distance and exacted a massive physical presence, though it too was physically discontinuous. Koolhaas identified within the material deficiencies of the Wall, the creation of an architectural situation; both planned and improvised.[3]The wall was not an object but an erasure, a freshly created absence… it was a first demonstration of the capacity of the void… absence would always win in a contest with presence.”[4]

Further exploration of the wall as instrument of violent architectural interventionism, was conducted by Koolhaas in yet another early project, Exodus, of the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture. Here he hypothesised the segregation of London by a wall-fortress: Attempts to curb migration have failed… Authorities build a wall around the good part of the city, making it inaccessible. It began as mere barbed wire but had an immediate psychological impact.[5]

‘Division, isolation, inequality, aggression, destruction’, these were all both the causes and effects of the architectural warfare exacted against the ‘undesirable’ influx of migration to the city in this theoretical project.[6] Paradoxically, what rises to the fore in Koolhaas’ analysis of ‘wall-ness’ are the simultaneous conditions of power and impotency. Ultimately, Koolhaas concedes that ‘Architecture is the guilty instrument of despair.’[7]

Koolhaas Berlin

In this discourse, with the wall as ‘guilty instrument of despair’, the recurring global agenda and impetus for architectural interventionism is national security; as one wall falls in one part of the world another is born elsewhere.

The logic of security is thus employed beyond the narrow military sense of the word – as protection from bodily harm or damage to property – as a political ideological concept that promotes itself through the configuration of the built environment, resource allocation, and freedom of movement.[8]

Imagined Communities

The wall is the natural instrument of security; it both creates and deters otherness. In a global-political environment where security itself has become justification for all means of conceivable violence and aggression, security can no longer be defined in terms of mere defence, but is instead now synonymous with war itself. Similarly, the wall must now be understood as an instrument of war; it is no longer a symbol of passive violence, but instead provides the active means for dividing and conquering. The preoccupation with ‘national- security’ is now of global proportions, and the wall is the default position in this discourse.

Saudi Arabia has recently installed monolithic concrete walls along its border with Yemen. Botswana is installing electrified fencing along its border with Zimbabwe. India has built ten-feet high mud-walls across Kashmir, with a view to fencing the entire border with Pakistan, and for the past 25 years has also been building an ad-hoc barrier along its border with Bangladesh; social commentators have been quick to contend that the construction of a fence between India and Bangladesh, two countries on politically good terms, has created a climate of violence where none previously existed, triggering a wave of needless shootings.[9] The prevalence of national-security concerns has resulted in physical scars across the landscape. These trace the elastic, arbitrary and synthetic borders of nation-states.

The contemporary mania for nation-ness, it may be argued, is rooted in a condition of collective delusion. After all, analysis and definition of the nation and nation-ness is contentious, problematic, and at worst, potentially impossible.

 Benedict Anderson’s seminal work on nation-ness, Imagined Communities, offers an unravelling of those elements that render the nation an indefinable construct. The kernel of Anderson’s analysis is the revelation of a delusion, in the form of the imagined homogeneity of nation-members. After all, it is impossible for members of a nation to know, or even to know of, a minority of other members of the very same nation[10].

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them… has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship… it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly die for such limited imaginings.[11]

The Wall

In lieu of any tangible personal connectedness, political geography, itself indeterminate and dynamic, rises to the fore as one of the defining contemporary characteristics of nation-ness, and subsequently, the wall emerges as the privileged instrument of intra-national discernment.

When the relationship between nation-ness and geography is further destabilised, as in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the paradoxical power and impotency of architectural interventionism, is exponentially multiplied. The wall becomes a great serpent, caught in the Sisyphean act of continuously devouring itself.

In this context, architecture becomes symptomatic of the Israeli and Palestinian desire, and subsequent inability, to define nation-ness respectively. The physical manifestation of the Wall, and its after-effects take on a human dimension, as the everyday, pragmatic reality of its presence serves to undermine, and further fragment, the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.

At the human-scale, the Wall makes life dangerous for Palestinians, by segregating villages and cutting-off families in nearby villages, as well as restricting access to jobs, property, medical care, and schools.[12] Similarly, the serpentine trajectory of the Wall means that the shortest-distance between neighbouring Israeli settlements is rarely a straight-line. Further disruptions, are caused by the Wall fragmenting not only the landscape, but also its own continuity. It is a highly elastic and dynamic phenomenon, and constant rerouting and shape shifting further destabilises already vain attempts at creating regularity and normality for those trapped in the shadow of the Wall.

kids at israeli wall

Fluctuations, fragmentations and alterations in the trajectory of the Wall have been instigated by a variety of proponents, including the Israeli High Court of Justice, the Israeli Ministry of Defence, and social and political lobbyists. The Wall is a point of high contention even in Israel, and at times the efficacy of the Wall has itself been undermined by the absurdity of requests for its rerouting. Eyal Weizman writes:

In one particularly strange case, some of the residents of the settlement of Sal’it near the Green Line protested, without success, that the Wall’s path separated them from the nearby village of Ar-Ras, where their Palestinian housemaids lived…[13]

And in another instance:

Along a ridge on the northern edge of the West Bank, one rerouting responded to pressure from Israeli environmentalists, who believed that the protection of a nature reserve of rare irises could only be guaranteed if it were to remain under Israeli control…[14]

The latent intentions of the Wall as geopolitical instrument are here made evident, in a preoccupation with geography that extends beyond the concern for security. The Israeli Ministry of Defence has long argued that the Wall exists, first and foremost, to ensure the security of the Israeli state. This is the same argument that has been repeatedly used in the usurpation of land in the Palestinian occupied territories by Israeli outpost-settlements. It may be argued, in both instances, that the politically strategic annexing of land in the occupied territories overshadows any genuine concerns for state-security.

With these myriad competing and conflicting agendas, and legal and media contention both in Israel and internationally, a new kind of wall, and a new species of geography has emerged, with political dimensions that far exceed physical mass:

A new way of imagining space has emerged. After fragmenting the surface of the West Bank by walls and barriers, Israeli planners started attempting to weave it together as two separate but overlapping national geographies – two territorial networks overlapping across the same area in three dimensions, without having to cross or come together. One is an upper-land – the land of the settlements – a scattering of well-tended hilltop neighbourhoods woven together by modern highways for the exclusive use of its inhabitants; the other, Palestine – crowded cities, towns, and villages that inhabit the valleys between and underneath the hills, maintaining fragile connections on improvised underpasses… Out of the endless search for the forms and mechanisms of ‘perfect’ separation emerges the realization that a viable solution may not necessarily lie within the realm of territorial design.[15]

New Geographies

Metaphorical cracks of desire begin to appear in sections of the Wall – Internationally acclaimed artists, such as Banksy, have helped to focus international attention to the injustices of the Wall…


In the meantime, new zones emerging around the seam-line of the Wall offer platforms for political communication and opportunities to destabilise political power-relations in the conflict:

Zones of crisis are the only places where actualities of the dominant culture are confronted, and from which new ideas essential to the growth of a new culture can emerge.[16]

At the threshold of the Wall, and in interstitial zones, new, compromised modes of life begin to form, and a political and economic hierarchy of marginalisation emerges. Yet from the margins necessity may breed invention. The Wall automatically draws political and international attention to its edges, and Palestinians occupying the seam-line have done the most to bring the atrocities of the Wall to the international stage. Ironically, the threshold of the Wall reveals that which it attempts to obscure: the reality of political failure and subversion. At the core… crisis is effectively disguised, while towards the boundaries, which are always to some degree neglected or at the limits of control from centers of authority, the disguise slips somewhat and the crisis is revealed.[17]

Yet despite the revelation of crisis, the Wall continues to stand like a festering, open wound, postponing the healing process that would potentially bring about political and geographical accord. As an act of architectural violence, the Wall stands in defiance of reconciliation; this is its power. Its impotence is that it offers no alternative and no solution


In Radical Reconstruction, Lebbeus Woods describes a responsive architecture that is both sensitive and progressive. The zone of crisis becomes a site for healing. This is not the vocabulary of the architecture of the West Bank, yet should be. As the Wall continues to fragment, and eventually deteriorate, Woods’ lexicon of architecturally sensitive responses to crisis will only grow in relevance and poignancy in the context of the West Bank.

The process he describes consists of two conditions:

The scab is a first layer of reconstruction, shielding an exposed interior space or void, protecting it during its transformation… The natural stages of healing may not be pretty, judged by conventional aesthetic standards, but they are beautiful in the existential sense.


The scar is a deeper level of reconstruction that fuses the new and the old, reconciling, coalescing them, without compromising either one in the name of some contextual form of unity.[18]

To this medico-architectural lexicon I would like to add a pejorative term, the tumour: a tectonic deviant, subsisting on the nutrition of the host, with the potential for malignancy. This is the Wall; a product of political malfunction that is itself malfunctioning and self-replicating. It is only once the tumour has been successfully removed that the healing process may commence.

End Game

The Wall has revealed itself in its many guises; as a symptom of political failure; as ‘the guilty instrument of despair’, and as a malignant tumour. It has proved itself synonymous with nation-ness, security, and with war. A wall is also a wall, but never exclusively so. The Wall is in constant flux; it is in furious oscillation between poles of power and impotence. At times, it is paradoxically both power and impotence simultaneously. Despite, or in spite of, the Wall, all previous attempts to assert geographical authority have failed on both sides, as have all past attempts to frame and resolve the conflict in terms of nation-ness and security. A resolution is still nowhere in sight.

The limit of architecture has now been reached.

Architecture is the symptom of, and not the cure for, political failure. The Wall is a robust, yet malignant tumour, mutating in place of slow healing wounds. Where scabs should be healing into scars, instead cancers persist to grow. When architecture reaches this end-point, the cause of the symptom can no longer be denied; it must be admitted that the cure exists beyond the remit of architecture.

Architecture has the capacity to improve the lived world when the will to do so exists, yet will fall impotent when latent desires are couched in violence and misunderstanding. The Wall is merely incidental; if a cure to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict exists, it must be found beyond architecture, in conversation and human-interaction; in the radical reinterpretation of human relationships.

The essence of that vision is coexistence and sharing in ways that require an innovative, daring, and theoretical willingness to get beyond the arid stalemate of assertion, exclusivism, and rejection. Once the initial acknowledgement of the Other as equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but attractive.[19]

Jason Anthony Dibbs, 2012

[1] p.1282. Koolhaas, R & Mau, B. S,M,L,XL. The Monacelli Press: 1995.

[2] ibid. p.226.

[3] ibid.p.222.

[4] ibid.p.228.

[5] ibid.p.5.

[6] ibid.p.5.

[7] ibid.p.5.

[8] p.240. Sorkin, Michael. Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace. The New Press: New York, 2005.

[9] p.18. Doherty, Ben. India’s border force has crossed the line – The Sydney Morning Herald: April 21-22, 2012.

[10] p.6. Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. 1983.

[11] ibid.p.7.

[12] pp.VII-VIII. Sorkin, Michael. Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace. The New Press: New York, 2005.

[13] p.169. Weizman, E. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. 2007.

[14] ibid.p.169.

[15] ibid. p.182.

[16] p.13. Woods, Lebbeus. Radical Reconstruction. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.

[17] ibid.p.13.

[18] ibid.p.16.

[19] p.XIV. Sorkin, Michael. Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace. The New Press: New York, 2005.