Surveilling for Liberation

Title images
Sources: Wikipedia

Surveilling for Liberation                                                          

Densely populated spaces have the property of being experienced by large numbers of people on a daily basis. These spaces range in function from business to residential use, and span great lengths of modern history. In Africa, the Yoruba people of Nigeria have built up communities that serve various functions and are highly centralized for several reasons. Of these reasons, the overall security of the communities is of importance for the purpose of these discussions. Yoruba’s various tribes aid in demonstrating the use of a primitive physical architectural surveillance system. Their walls’ lack of modern sophistication never prevented them from providing two great security features; an outright dominating presence that deterred crime from entering the walls confines, and the accompanying component of social surveillance for liberation purposes. Yoruba’s system is very basic and saw its use elsewhere around the world both before its own employment and in recent years. The 16th century town of Edinburgh sought an almost identical system as their own defense mechanism. Progressing to modern times, The Fondation Cartier utilized the same fundamental components as these other two systems, but evoked a modern sense of architectural sophistication into its basic formula. By studying these various societal surveillance systems in close relation to one another, it can be seen how architecture has the ability to induce a more complex surveillance system than may be inherently apparent. Furthermore, the architectural form of a primitive wall has the potential to liberate its respective denizens while simultaneously disciplining behavior.

Flodden Wall, Edinburgh, 1513, unknown planner

It is with the 16th century battles in Edinburgh, Scotland that we see the first of these three surveillance walls being erected. In early 1500’s Scotland, after suffering a great military defeat, new precautionary measures were considered that would attempt to provide security within the towns’ future. As a result, it was decided that a wall would best accommodate their existing defensive needs. The continuous wall was erected around several major parts of Edinburgh and was twenty feet tall on average with a four foot thick cross section. This substantial four foot thickness can be related back to its need to stop then increasingly used heavy artillery (Edinburgh). It is at this point that we can see how the wall acts as a liberating device. External attempts to deliberate people within the confines of the wall are greatly lessened just through the existence of a physical barrier.

As the first purpose of the wall was a military defense system against external attacks, the second purpose was an internal security system. In a concentrated-effort to lessen the amount of smuggling in the city, the physical barrier was placed around the town to serve as a mental barrier. Minimal entry points were located along its length, which would in turn help to further liberate those inside by surveilling its internal society. Just as the wall operated externally through means of oppressing prospective attacks through intimidation tactics, the wall operated internally on the same premise. Strategically placed guards and un-scalable wall heights made smuggling a daunting task, thus liberating those within the walls confines (Edinburgh). This external and internal liberation technique of the wall is what provides it with this complex liberality and disciplining duality.

(Flodden Wall plan view)
Flodden Wall plan view. Source: Yourphotocard

Image 1: Flodden Wall Plan

Yoruba people of Nigeria, Nigeria, 19th century, collective group

Hundreds of years later, heavy-duty walls were still being used as securing and liberating measures. In response to crime and slave trading, Nigeria’s Yoruba people rethought their community security methods. There was a need for a collective based security system that relied on the cooperation of the entire community to liberate everyone involved. “The ultimate objective is to get most participating individuals to engage in cooperative action in order to achieve an appropriate time-and-space match between the problems of defense and security they face and the institutional arrangements needed to confront those problems.” (Oyerinde 2). As a direct response, communities were divided into collective-choice compounds. These compounds were comprised of a walled enclosure with one entryway. This allowed for guards to monitor activity at night as well as extramarital sexual acts that were often being committed. These crimes were lessened in number due to the difficulty of traveling between compounds, “The wall built around the compound served as a barrier to prevent men and women from using the cover of darkness to come into the compound and engage in extramarital sexual acts with members” (Oyerinde 9). Because of this, people were liberated by the walls that encompassed their compounds.

The small scale walls of the Yoruba people provide security for their compounds, but it is on a larger community based scale that security was needed as well. Just as the compound walls liberated the people within them, larger walled rings around the major communities helped provide liberation by deterring slave traders from operating and neighboring tribes from attacking, “The walls served to strengthen defense against slave raiders from hostile neighboring Yoruba communities” (Oyerinde 15). The architecture of these two types of walls was similar; the walls were made out of twenty feet tall mud walls with limited access, “The wall in each community was a broad-topped mud wall of about 20 feet in height with corresponding deep ditches and several gates. Each gate had a custom house for the collection of tolls and was manned by hunters/warriors” (Oyerinde 9). Additionally, one of the tribes has two walls, an inner and an outer for additional protection.

Architecturally, the walls of Yoruba mostly parallel those of Edinburgh’s; their height is difficult to pass over and visually the wall looks intimidating. Additionally, both walls utilize local easy to find materials. This shows how the walls operate on an unsophisticated manner that nevertheless remained technologically stagnant up until this point.

Yoruba tribe maps. The three tribes had mud walls built in rings to prevent attackers.
Yoruba tribe maps. The three tribes had mud walls built in rings to prevent attackers. (Source: Oyerinde)

Image 2: Yoruba Mud Wall Map

Fondation Cartier, Paris, 1984, Jean Nouvel

Dissimilar to the compounds of Nigeria and the Flodden Wall, the Fondation Cartier of Paris, France employs a different architectural strategy to achieve its liberating surveillance system. The use of hard stone is instead replaced with a thin glass curtain wall. This shift in material choice represents a clear modernist shift. What it may also immediately appear to be showing is a neglectful manner of dealing with the issue at hand, security. In the previous examples, the architectural elements in the respective societies was designed on the intrinsic performance properties of hard earthen materials. A twenty foot tall stone wall has the advantage of simply appearing impenetrable, so in comparison translucent glass seems penetrable and unsecure. To understand the reasoning behind this material use, additional factors are needed to be understood when analyzing the Fondation Cartier wall in relation to the other two walls. As a modern building in Paris, France, the Fondation Cartier is protected from a new type of attack, modern crime. No longer are surprise heavy artillery attacks viewed as highly likely in modern Paris. Instead, small crime such as theft, and terrorist attacks are of greater concern for the context.

To counteract this new class of external crime, the Fondation is protected physically through the unpredictable lens that is the wall itself. As the day progresses the glass wall dances with the sunlight, dynamically collaging the true interior with that of the outside, “Here, the darker side of transparency emerges, particularly its potential to encourage imposed control” (Fierro 123). As a result, one is left with a questionable probability that they are being surveilled from within the building itself. The result is that one’s ability to commit crime in the presence of the building is hindered. In this complexity, the people within the wall are liberated by a dual nature. Crime from outside the wall is ideally lessened due to this internal gaze, and behavior inside is simultaneously monitored from this outside would.

Fondation Cartier ortho 1
(A side view of the Fondation Cartier showing the thin separated curtain wall. Source: Fierro)

Image 3: Fondation Cartier Section


The architectural and programmatic differences in each cultures defense systems provides insight in to the modernization of these cultures and the types of attacks they fear the most. The Flodden wall aimed to liberate its people by capitalizing on the performance properties of earthen materials. In Yoruba, a similar method of defense was used, however, due to a less modernized society, more primitive and less defensive walls were built. Importantly, though, Yoruba’s material difference was sufficient for the context as the weapons used were less sophisticated. In the most modern part of the world, weaponry continued to become increasingly sophisticated over time. At the time of its completion, the Fondation Cartier was not assumed a target for terrorist activity or wars. Because of this, the Fondation Cartier did not incorporate anti-terror security measures into its design, but rather utilized the principles of its design to concurrently operate as a defense mechanism. As a whole, the three societies relied on the same underlying principles of walls to devise defense systems that liberated the people within their confines, while also disciplining behavior of those same people.



Fierro, Annette. 2003. The Glass State: The Technology of the Spectacle, Paris, 1981-1998. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2013)

Oyebade Kunle Oyerinde, “Institutions and Organization of Defense and Security among the Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century” (Conference, Indiana University, 2006).


Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Edinburgh,” accessed October 27, 2013, “”

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Cartier Foundation,” accessed October 27, 2013, “”

Government Site

Edinburgh, City of Council. Historical Scotland. Available at: “”


Image 1: Jonathan Oldenbuck, “A Map of Central Edinburgh,” Drawing. October 19, 2009., accessed October 13, 2013,

Image 2: Oyerinde, “Abeokuta Tribe Maps,” Drawing. 2001. Nigeria Masterweb, accessed October 10, 2013,

Image 3: Fierro, “Fondation Cartier Section,” Drawing. 2009. ArchDaily, accessed October 12, 2013,


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