Zeniya Vreugdenhil

Above Ground

Airspace as Malleable Architecture

Above Ground explores how global governing bodies utilise law as a design tool for spatial production, and seeks to unearth the geopolitical, cultural, and territorial architectures that are enacted in the air above us. The sky presents a paradox of abstract space and the technicalities of law. Although airspace may present itself as immaterial, it initiates and perpetuates material consequences, formulated within and through a suspended architecture. This architecture is altered according to the politics of the ground. The alterations are determined by the interplay between nations and national boundaries, the infractions, slippages, and obstructions that occur when laws cease to be followed or disputes fail to be resolved by international congress.

The installation considers air as both malleable force and a space of political and economic value. Air is subject to scales of control: economies of space, economies of movement. The project examines the modalities of air travel and the ways in which architectures of control are imposed upon passengers long before they leave the ground. Air transit is experienced as repeated sets of movement and stillness through universal and standardised systems. Alongside this, air itself is marshalled into territory, with nation states charging for permission to move across a fragmented sky. These repeated and regulated patterns of movement are connected to far larger economies of space. This installation seeks to combine the internal and external realities of transit: regulated movement, defined space, holding patterns.
©Femke Reijerman
©Femke Reijerman

Installation Video:

Above Ground: Airspace as Malleable Architecture
(1000 word version)

There are concessions made within these crossing places With the approximation of time, the narrowing of identity.

In this is a practised exposure to the paradoxes of space
(Infinite and temporary, split wide open)
Onto this void, the seemingly hollow sky, are written punctuations Of form; suspended structures generated overhead
Bounded space gauged

And charted: air is material, spun into invisible paths, designated Constellations that echo the division of nations below Regulated by the push-pull of borders and trade, of bodies
And vapour and wind
Of seated parliaments and carefully placed words.

Consider the space around you, how it shifts and what
It weighs.

Airspace is liminal. It is a space between, of coming-from and going-to. It represents ease of movement with all physical obstructions removed. The formal production of this space – both objective and subjective, territorial and semiotic – is intrinsically tied to systems of power. Shaped, divided and allotted by law, airspace shifts and alters to reflect the politics of the ground. As such, it functions as both medium and material: an architectural form pulled across meridians and hemispheres. This architecture is disrupted in instances of extraterritorial space, which obstructs and reconditions the legislation of existing airspace forms. The design of airspace creates and reinforces a scenography and form of control over territory, bodies, goods and information. Alongside this design also sits a deeply embedded concession of verticality to power: of politics, selective permeability and the language of above and below. Airspace may be articulated as political, not in terms of establishing material form, but rather through its conditions of control: of architectural infrastructure and territorial regulation.

Airspace is intimately linked to sovereign territories and the structures that uphold them. It is split into a double architecture: on one level exists standardised, geometric structures, and on the other exists a patchwork of projected geographies tied to sovereign territories. The production of the latter space acts as an articulation of political manoeuvring and sovereign governance: it reinforces and responds to systems of power. National territories are bound not only to the land but also to the surrounding sea and sky. Sovereignty is pushed beyond terrestrial borders, outwards and upwards.

The insular nation state no longer exists as a singular and designed entity but within increasingly globalised relations. State power is diffused across borders. Because of this, the topographical orders of segmentation and jurisdiction that form the geometry of sovereign space are unfixed, and thus re-designable (Bratton 2015, 4). The geopolitical architecture that exists as a result of such topographical orders is held predominantly not through physical boundaries, but by infrastructure and law. While territory on the ground is performed through border structures and selective access, there is no such physical infrastructure in the air. Instead, there is a series of contingent and intersecting flows of information, capital and bodies, which exist within a standardised and global system of governance.

In The Stack, Bratton (2015, 25) investigates Carl Schmitt’s theory of ‘nomos’, a Greek word for ‘a structural logic in accordance with the primal first act of territorial inscription that gives rise to its subsequent formalisation; it is a making of a territorial order through the execution of a territorial claim and physical occupation that precedes it’. When such territorial complexes are extended upwards, distinctions between the geopolitical orders of the ground and the abstract space of the sky are merged and formulated by law. The division of territory by a governing organisation (such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation) enables a direct and explicit definition of space, as well as designation of authority over that space.

However, what is written may be unwritten, or at least interrupted. Extraterritorial spaces can create a tear in this pattern of forms and vertical topologies. These spaces ‘designate an exceptional state while being alienated from their surrounding order’ (Weizman, Geisler, and Franke 2003). In international law, extraterritoriality refers to instances in which a state extends its control over bodies, areas or actions outside of its borders. These instances represent a confluence of control without express jurisdiction.

When applied to airspace, extraterritorial zones function as a point of disruption that forces a sense of visibility upon normally invisible infrastructures. They present a metaphorical obstruction to existing patterns of movement and infrastructure: if airspace can be imagined as a network of permeable mesh, extraterritorial spaces solidify the walls. Such spaces do not conform to the surrounding standardised structures, whether by political or juridical cause. These ambiguous convergences of law and politics exist as spaces of ongoing change, manipulating existing territories or designing new ones.

While architecture can define and regulate the infrastructure of airspace, it may also question representations of that space and the interplay of power and territory within. Space, therefore, extends perception by means of representation: it ‘makes sign by substitution with the object’ (Pellegrino and Jeanneret 2009, 271). Due to its immaterial nature, the designation of airspace is symbolic, rather than tangible. However, it is no less real, as it exists in both a practical and operational sense.

Vertical scale has long been a direct metaphor for power hierarchies, accompanying a shift from territory being conceived as a two-dimensional line to a three-dimensional volume. As part of the language humans use to describe and experience the world, such metaphors also work to make globe-spanning systems more legible. Just as Schmitt’s concept of ‘nomos’ defines the relationship between law, space and geopolitical order, the metaphorical language about verticality works to further determine and define power dynamics, for example, to ‘have airs’ is to ‘be above oneself’ and to be ‘down to earth’ is to be humble and unpretentious.

Airspace exists as a regulated and designed medium of exchange. Within it are constructed architectures of control, capital, territory, and movement. Aerial geographies generate and reinforce geopolitical systems while encapsulating contradictions of openness and obstruction. Formed, recast, bounded and formed again, airspace presents a constant and entangled system of territorial governance and legislated space.

Bratton, Benjamin. 2015. The Stack. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pellegrino, Pierre, and Emmanuelle P. Jeanneret (2009). “Meaning of Space and Architecture of Place.” Semiotica 175, no. 1: 269–96. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311454048_Meaning_of_space_and_architecture_of_place. PDF.

Franke, Anselm, Ines Geisler, and Eyal Weizman. 2003. “Islands. The geography of extraterritoriality.” Archis, June 2003. http://volumeproject.org/islands-the-geography-of-extraterritoriality/.