Cruel Design: Body Choreographies and Architectural Production of Torture

| by Léopold Lambert |

In October 2009, the online investigative news platform Mediapart released a 64-page document leaked from the French Ministry of Interior. This manual is addressed to the 180 police officers in charge of escorting back to their country of origin, people ruled as clandestine on European territory. The particularity of these expulsions is that they are often accomplished through regular flights, and therefore require for the officer to keep the migrant body calm and silent. Through photos and text, the manual thus precisely explains the various instruments and body techniques available for the officer to achieve this goal. In it, we can see the procedural use of a restraining belt, as well as various techniques of strangulation associated to an anatomic description of the throat. The latent idea behind these descriptions is to maximize their controlling effects while minimizing the appearance of violence. Indeed, it has happened, in the past, that the regular customers and / or the crew of such a flight refused to cooperate when the person forcefully expelled succeeded to scream or manifest his or her presence in a pronounced manner.

Leaked French police manual / Excerpt of Lambert, Cruel Designs, 14-15.

Leaked French police manual / Excerpt of Lambert, Cruel Designs, 14-15.

The striking aspect of this manual, besides its very existence, is the atmosphere suggested by its iconography. Its photographs correspond to the reconstruction of a scene, – a police officer probably playing the role of the migrant – involving the techniques evoked above. This scene requires its violence to be discreet in order to avoid attracting attention; what these photographs show therefore tends towards something more akin to an embrace than strangulation. Even more striking, however, is the methodical description of the violent gestures. For example, body positions are described simultaneously from the front and from the side (or the back), which tends brings to mind an architectural drawing, describing a building by a set of different elevations. That torture can be investigated through such architectural approach is what I would like to propose in this text, through the presentation of three manuals of this kind. All bear witness to the similarity of the design process in the description of the desired organization of space, as well as the anticipation of body behaviors within it. In this regard, these documents might tell us less about torture proper than the organization of the (architectural and behavioral) conditions that make it possible. As we will see, in this regard the double meaning of the word manipulation (acted by the hand + instrumentalized for one’s aim) is useful to consider.

What I define by torture here is not what its legal definition traditionally describes. By torture, I mean all situations where one or several bodies methodically exercise a power so absolute over another that the latter is fully dispossessed of any form of agency. The techniques used by the CIA overseas on persons suspected of ties with terrorism fully belong to this definition of torture, and I have no interest here in questioning their ambiguous legality[1]. In 2009, a US Justice Department memo created in 2002 was released to the public. It describes “interrogation techniques” proposed by the CIA to be used during such torture exercises. We can add this document to others that became accessible to public, in particular with the KUBARK manual redacted at the height of the Cold War in 1963 and only released in 1997[2]. The main difference between both of these manuals consists in the fact that KUBARK was primarily written to manipulate the subject’s in a psychological manner, whereas the 2002 CIA memo understood manipulation in a more physical manner. In both cases, the descriptions stress the importance of the immediate physical environment that surrounds the tortured body: we call it architecture.

Lambert-interrogation-techniques-justice-departmentHere, again, the methodical precision of the choreography is striking. The similitude between the CIA memo and the French police manual consists in their attempt to maximize the physical effect of the violence while minimizing its visual effect. While the migrant body must remain visually calm, the interrogated suspect must have no visual proof of the torture he or she experienced. The main difference however, is that in the case of the CIA interrogation, the entire environment can be controlled in order to optimize the conditions of the torture. It is therefore not surprising to see that the architectural dimension is integrated within the techniques described in the memo. One of these techniques is even called “walling” and involves violently pushing the interrogated body against a “false flexible wall” to create a loud and intimidating noise. Another technique uses the wall to force the body to support itself only on its fingers, unable to change position.

Yet, the most architectural dimension of these techniques of torture consists in the forceful confinement of a body in a minimal volume. It is indicated that a body should not remain confined for more than two hours in a volume which only allows for a sitting position, while another, allowing for the body to stand, can be used for confinement for up to eighteen successive hours. It seems legitimate, however, to doubt that these temporal indications would be systematically followed. These techniques can be put in parallel with those studied (and most likely tested) by the CIA during the cold war as Grégoire Chamayou put it in his publication of the KUBARK manual:

“In the beginning of the 1950s, Doctor Donald Hebb, from McGill University, conducted promising researches about the effects of “radical isolation.” The results of his experimentation even surprised himself. After a few hours spent wearing an isolating helmet on their ears, confined in a sort of sealed box, blocked eyes, and their body covered with solid foam, the subjects were experiencing difficulties focusing, cognitive ability troubles, visual hallucinations, the feeling of being separated from their body. As Hebb quickly noted, when deprived of physical stimuli, “the very identity of the subject had started to disintegrate”[3].

Experiment at the University of Manitoba (1966) / Excerpt from Chamayou (ed), KUBARK, 13.

Experiment at the University of Manitoba (1966) / Excerpt from Chamayou (ed), KUBARK, 13.

The physical environment is thus fully part of the exercise of torture, just like the choreographies described above. Being an architect, I see two possible reactions to such observation, the first being outrage that this “noble” discipline could possibly be weaponized in such a manner. I could thus join the efforts of Raphael Sperry and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, and engage in making sure that architects never design “spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”[4]. Although I have great respect and admiration for this work, I remain convinced that architecture is not a noble or innocent discipline that can, at times, get corrupted by malevolent entities like the CIA. I believe that architecture holds violent characteristics within itself, and thus presents itself as potentially available to implement the highest degree of this violence exercised through torture.

This, of course, does not mean that all architecture is designed for torture: the degree of violence implemented by architecture always varies. However, looking at essences rather than degrees, we should recognize the violence of the wall enforcing cramped confinement in the walls of our homes, expelling hundreds of bodies (that we call homeless) to one of their sides. The same is true for national borders which increasingly materialize and enforce their politics through walls. As architects we are responsible for the organization of this violence, and the recognition of this responsibility is the first step towards a reorientation of political violence.

[1] Although tempting, it is not my interest either to comment on the discursive regime in which torture is defined in the United States. Cf. President Obama’s historical sentence “We tortured some folks” (August 1, 2014)
[2] The KUBARK manual has been published and introduced by Grégoire Chamayou in 2012: Grégoire Chamayou (ed), KUBARK: Le manuel secret de manipulation mentale et de torture psychologique de la CIA, Émilien et Jean-Baptiste Bernard (trans), Paris : La Découverte (Zones), 2012
[3] Ibid., my translation
[4] Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, “American Institute of Architects (AIA): Prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” (1,937 signatures on April 16, 2015)


Léopold Lambert is an architect, writer and editor of the blog The Funambulist, as well as its podcast platform, Archipelago. He is the author of Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), The Funambulist Pamphlets Vol.1-11 (Punctum Books, 2013-2015), and Topie Impitoyable: The Corporeal Politics of the Cloth, the Wall, and the Street (Punctum Books, forthcoming 2015).