Kabul’s Architectures of Fear

The Architecture Of Fear, a project of architect George Agnew, has something new up. After nearly five months of silence, Agnew has posted the full text description of an organized visit to Kabul published earlier this year. Fingers crossed that this means TAOF will be returning to some sort of active online status. Meanwhile, some tidbits…

On walls, the securitization of urban space in Kabul, and how architects feel about all of it, Agnew recounts his group’s link-up with Anne Feenstra, “a Dutch architect with a
busy practice in Kabul”  who “had immersed himself in the ways of the
city and the country at large”. Feenstra harbored an abiding concern for “the prevalence of ‘security’ and the way it had destroyed
Kabul’s public realm piece by piece.”  He
“takes it personally,” Agnew writes, “when organizations set up their walls with blatant
disregard for those around them, a practice taken very much for granted
– so much so that most of the embassies and missions have completely
ignored a decree straight from President Karzai to remove them.”

On thinking outside the box, improvisational skills and survival amidst chaos, Agnew notes Feenstra’s “impressive collection of security badges he
had accumulated during his time in Kabul.” One in particular: “out of frustration Anne and his office (AFIR) had created
their own security badges to combat useless and meaningless
checkpoints.” I sympathize. More: “The tag was an AFIR badge identifying himself as an
employee of AFIR and stating that he had clearance to enter any secured
area and had access to all information. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often
this works,’ he told us.”

Agnew describes how they set out to test the waters with their bogus ID. “Our
plan,” he writes, “was to pick a few areas in 
the city secured by various
check-points and essentially off limits to the public and see how far
we could get as a group of eight or nine with his security badges.” He describes the city’s compartmentation, segments of it “cordoned off as property adjacent to embassies or government offices”, and the “often arbitrary and sometimes useless screening
process at these checkpoints. ” Recalling some family wisdom, Agnew writes “My father had always told me that if you
act like you belong somewhere you usually won’t be bothered. I had a
feeling we were about to put this to the test in the most extreme way.

Getting into Wazir Akbar Khan, the embassy sector of the city, was straightforward enough. Passage through it, on the other hand, was a lesson learned in architectures of control. Agnew describes the impact of concrete walls on human dynamics. “Although we had
easily passed through, walking around this empty street was quite
unsettling. Even as the only westerner I felt more comfortable walking
through a busy street market than there.”

I wonder how a local would feel. Part of  Agnew’s response, no doubt, had to be the newness of the situation, a reaction to the alienness of the environment. He goes on: “Standing in a canyon of
reinforced concrete walls while having every move presumably watched
really made me aware of my strategic disadvantage. During the entire
excursion I felt pressure to leave, immediately.” No doubt, this was the intended effect. Who designed it?

Second on our
trip was a block which was home to the Asia Foundation, an economic
trade group. Anne  pointed out the standard compound walls and the marks
on the sidewalk where larger concrete fortifications had been built. We
spoke to a security guard at an adjacent site and he explained that
prior to the Asia Foundation occupying that site it was home to
DynCorp, an American security company. During that time a car bomb had
been detonated next to it and done severe damage to the neighboring
area. DynCorp then left and the Asia Foundation arrived. As mentioned,
all NGOs and embassies had been instructed to dismantle their
fortifications by presidential order. The Asia Foundation obliged and
what we saw was the pared down version. We were told that since they
had done this the residents of the neighborhood felt much safer as by
creating the outward appearance that they were trying hard to improve
security, the compound still remained a target. This was a
typical example of a kind of ‘security machismo’ which was rife in
Kabul. I would guess that more than half the people we saw driving in
big, armored SUVs were doing more harm than good by calling unnecessary
attention to themselves. I felt perfectly safe for the duration of our
stay in our small, unassuming Toyota van. I’ll take stealth over
strength any day.

Indeed. I’ve read plenty analyses on the international political economy of war and peace. This makes for an interesting corollary (… is there a causal element?), consistent with my own experiences of life in Sarajevo, site of the longest wartime siege in modern history; consistent also with my memory of attenuated territorial dead zones in northwestern Bosnia, across which I walked endless kilometers, through abandoned, gutted villages… enforcing a skewed post-war peace in landscapes absent the human life that might break it.

How an international presence can carve up and reapportion space in ways and forms that suit its immediate, practical, but non-local needs. How the shear between endogenous and exogenous spaces can generate new hybrid forms and human behaviors.


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