Enthrallment makes up a good chunk of our ‘once upon a time’. On examining society today, the nature of slavery may have changed, but it is still an ongoing phenomenon in this contemporary, structured society. A slave is defined as a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them or alternatively, it can mean to work excessively hard. Whereas, slavery is the state of being a slave. So, you may see where it makes space in the present, every-day situations in architecture. But first, let’s expound on what the history of slavery looks like in architecture.
There are clashing theories of whether it was the Mesopotamian region or the Indus Valley that incepted the world’s first civilization. While Indus Valley shows no indication of labor-intensive suppression, the earliest signs of slavery can be seen in the Sumerian region, the southern Mesopotamia. Linked to present-day Iraq, it then, comprised of independent city-states, divided by canals and boundary stones. Each city was temple-centric, dedicated to a particular patron God. The temple was supervised by a priestly governor (ensi) or by a king (lugal) who was intimately tied to the city’s religious rites. To be concise, it was an ambitious scale, what they were trying to achieve with the tools that existed. Hence, it may not seem surprising; a civilization of such grandeur, overseen with a hierarchal structure such as this is based on the blood, sweat, and tears of a few oppressed unfortunates. We are all quite acclimatized to the idea of such a ‘once upon a time’; thanks to the history-based cinema (The prince of Egypt, 1998) or familiarity with literature, like the Book of Exodus and so on. To be fair, our whole mental image with respect to the early cultivation of Egypt as a historically revered architectural space rests on slaves. Done by raising from the ground, multi-edifices on the order of their pompous pharaohs, tight-roping on the beliefs of Ma’at, the order of the cosmos.
This was when slavery was a norm and as time passed, the term transfigured to ‘legal’. Legality meant ‘bonds people’ were seen as a symbol of wealth and stature, not too different from the architecture of yesterday and today. ‘The more the merrier’ was an equivalence of the bigger, the better. While this went on, dominating communities were the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British and Arabs. The upcoming middle ages saw the sights of the Byzantine-Ottoman wars of which the consequence fell on the majestic Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia rests in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey. Famous for it’s the breath-taking engineering and vaulting of the nave. It was initially a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, which after the win of the Ottoman Empire was converted into a mosque. As authority shifted, a place for refuge became a horrific site as people– mainly women, children and the elderly – were enslaved, sexually violated and even slaughtered. Architecture is in this case seen as a sophisticated fishnet, as a means to obtain; to objectify those who were once seen as beings.
Another case example could be that of the Taj Mahal where Emperor Shah Jahan dismembered arms of slaves who built the marbled beauty. In this case, architecture took from the slaves, not just their hard work, but in the most literal sense, parts of them. The slaves contributed to the respected ‘wonder of the world’ and an entire country (India): unparalleled glory, a forever history, and for those who are not aware, it was a token of the emperor’s love for his wife. Hence, an eternal love story.
Akin are tales of every nation which has seen colonies take over, change of command, a sovereignty switch and have had a lineage of some sort of authoritative oppression over a sect of their population. Throughout history we see as power transcends; the act of slavery shifting from one ‘people’ to another, allows the architecture to be built, morphed and broken. Architecture is consequently scaled. Other instances encourage additions and subtractions in the built form; challenging its identity as architecture, while the power-play seduces the urban fabric. Structures are multiplied and divided to build a form that intends to make space to symbolize an unspoken dialect, acting as a mode of communication from the powerful to their audience, which may or may not involve the slaves themselves.
Today, we exist in a time where ‘slavery’ as we knew it, is deemed illegal. Contemporary shackles may not be made of bulky iron bows, its pin may not hold our ankles while clearance piecing our bone. Nevertheless, it has taken a form of what is termed as ‘neo-slavery’ or institutional slavery. To explain, ideate on the following terms- prison labor, bonded labor, forced-migrant labor, sex-slavery, forced marriage, and child marriage or child labor. Issues such as these have made architecture. Some temporary, some semi-structured while some are beyond the physicality of construction; seeped into cultural roots. Picture a red-light district; to realize, it too has an identity comprising of volume and mass, color, texture. Injecting a peculiar sense of spatial quality. Color palettes or snippets of what you may add on to a mood board might appear when you think about each term carefully. This is another association slavery has with architecture. One of memory and intuition.
Another way to associate contemporary slavery with architecture would be ‘dignity’. The question you ask is when you see every day, a symbol of your woeful past which instills a sense of pseudo-inferiority. When your daily visual (or otherwise) language spoken, belongs to your oppressors more than it can ever belong to you. How can you have a sole sense of belonging?
Many statues may be sculpted in the bygone, but are inculcated in the everyday architecture of the people today. They are silent but prominent in present-day America, standing tall as a reminder of the oppressed that were once slaves in the country. Long abolished, officially the concept still shines when visitors pass by public squares and parks as a reminder of the dark, cold history of a community that considers the nation as home. Mabel O. Wilson suggests in her paper, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums, a term called black ‘counter-public’ sphere – which is inherently spaces in which African American leaders could represent black history and identity on their own terms.”