The AJ Writing Prize 2013: Shortlisted
They physically and psychologically divide communities based on race, religion or creed. They protect but provoke fear, anger and hate, yet they still have the power to attract millions who are struck by their awe. So powerful that myths abound they can be seen from space, yet they are fought with violence, protests, graffiti or the physical exertion of going over, under or through them. A silver coin, some paperwork or a physical search may allow safe passage, but their imposing presence affects millions. Possibly the greatest and most imposing architecture in the history of mankind have been simple constructs, a meandering line through rivers and seas, over mountain and plain, within and around our countries, cities and towns. Brickwork or steel, concrete or stone - walls as architecture, the architecture of walls…
Constantinople, Jerusalem, Athens and Rome - the great cities and civilisations are testament to their use, with no less than 11 walls listed as part ofUNESCO World Heritage sites - we admire a good wall. The Roman Empire defended its north-western frontier with Hadrian’s Wall, while the walls at Constantinople repelled attack from land and sea. Great world cities continue to be defined by them - De Waal Straat became Wall Street in New York, one of the World’s most important financial powerhouses. The shifting east of world finances prompts thoughts of the next great civilisation, a Chinese superpower previously defined and fortified by their imposing Great Wall and their Ming Dynasty city wall at Xi’an amongst others. Walls provide reassurance and promote security, protecting people lucky enough to gain refuge within or behind them.
Prisons mirrored this use, keeping people in rather than out, imprisoned due to bad judgement or bad luck. Concentration camps were an unnecessarily evil progression, the Wall of Death at Auschwitz was not just a wall, but a symbol of hatred and murder. If these walls could talk… Walls encircled and oppressed political ideology in Berlin, and many died in attempts to defy it, to find family and friends, to seek peace and avoid depression or oppression. Many were gunned down in architecture-less no-man’s land, a term intrinsically interlinked and intertwined with walls. Protests and graffiti became a symbol of contempt and upon the fall of the Wall, the world rejoiced. So much emotion, so much joy - ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ (Ronald Reagan).
Not confined to history, walls continue to divide. The Peace Walls in Belfast, a Separation Wall in Israel (frequently described as the Apartheid Wall in Palestinian), the Border Wall on the US-Mexican border amongst others. Different names, different purposes, but still the most basic form of architecture. Belfast - not just a wall, but a source of tension yet a suppressor of fear. Israel, with a wall lurking and looming around many a corner - not just a wall, but: ‘A visible and clear act of territorial annexation under the guise of security’ (John Dugard, United Nations Commission on Human Rights). The US-Mexico Border, ‘the most militarised border since the fall of the Berlin Wall’ (John McCain, US Senator), which thousands overcome, but to which hundreds succumb - hypothermia, sunstroke, dehydration and death being a very real danger accepted as a result of architecture.
Generations of oppressed fight back with sticks and stones, violence and death. Patrolled and protected, militarised by the gun, yet fought by the pen, they are not just a simple wall but a symbol of man’s hostility towards each other, of fear and loathing, of dislike and distrust. Where there’s a wall there’s a way, and human ingenuity continually attempts to outthink, outmanoeuvre or out-engineer it. Trojan horses and tunnels led the fight, but a 4m-high wall quickly led to the invention of a 5m-high ladder. The wall stands firm, developing and changing to defy its critics.
The wall evolves, attempting to overcome geography, geology and Mother Nature. Walls built across rivers create dams, popular with those hungry for electricity, but despised by those removed from their homes while their lands are flooded. Sea walls both protect against coastal erosion and give new land to our ever-expanding populations - countries willing or needing to spend billions do. The Netherlands mastered the sea wall, but still worry about its limitations. Venice, under attack from the acqua alta went hi-tech with MOSE, but it remains a wall. Global warming promises rising seas and the answer is a wall. Japan, overpowered by a tsunami that prompts concerns about sea defences, but faith in the wall remains - they will be built higher and stronger. Where architecture or engineering has failed this world, such as at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the answer is inevitably a wall - a subterranean evolution of it, but an ‘ice wall’ 100ft deep, ironically to protect, rather than protect from, the sea.
Symbolism and significance continue to be placed on the wall, but it’s never a burden - the wall will cope. The western Wailing Wall in Jerusalem remains impartial, despite its religious significance being a source of dispute for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Memorial walls provoke emotion and tears - a tribute defined and represented by a wall. A human wall with arms interlinked, not quite architecture but paying homage to it, becomes a symbol of the fight against oppression - the collective being stronger than the sum of its parts.
A roof gives us shelter, but a wall gives us so much more. Death and destruction, safety and security - is there another architecture that affects so many? Mene, mene - the writing is on the wall - it most certainly is not for the wall. It has evolved to suit human needs and wants over time; the simplest architecture is the one that affects us most of all.