Issue #019 Published: 02-08-2018 // Written by: Jacqueline Schoemaker

What Design Can Do: Handbook of Tyranny (book review)

Handbook of Tyranny, made by architect Leo Deutinger, is an atlas of coercive design. A vast range of instruments of control, from the walls built globally between nation states and other territories till park benches in the city and reed grass to protect private (and public) property, is depicted in two-colour maps and graphic illustrations, showing in simple black and red the extent to which we are all somehow subjected to these devices, while we are also the agents of them.

The book consists of two sections. The first, ‘The tragedy of Territory’, focuses on instruments of control related to nations, cities and other territories. In the introduction Deutinger explains the relation between human beings, the space we inhabit and the technology we develop to control that space. He says, “We are not just people, but citizens …. As citizens, we surrender, we disarm and hand over the right to use our weapons (our technology) to the state, so that the state can fight for us and protect us.” (p. 9). That is how we’ve organised living together. We are born into a set of pre-existing rules that belong to a particular territory. We are immediately assigned to one of the 203 existing nation states. And while in earlier times the power of a certain territory only went so far as, for example, the city walls and actual unclaimed ‘land’ between cities existed, modern technologies of surveillance and warfare allow for each state to exert power throughout its entire territory (p. 10), leaving no terrain uncovered.

Using a minimum of lines, dots and words, Deutinger goes on to illustrate how the principle of territorial law and power works all over the world. In the chapter ‘Human Range’, he depicts in simple curved dotted lines the evolution of the distance reached by several weapons, from the javelin in the premodern age (100 metres) till the sniper rifle today (3540 metres). The consequences of this evolution can be seen on the map of Africa, which is shown on the next pages. On the left, the map of the continent shows a myriad of meandering borderlines, much like a street plan of a medieval inner city. These were the boundaries of the historical ethnicities before the colonization of the continent. On the right side, we see the map with the national boundaries as we know them today. The distance between the borderlines is visibly wider and the lines are distinctly more orderly. The design looks like a simplified version of the map on the left, with even a few completely straight lines in the north, the result of colonising countries dividing the land between themselves without any regard for existing cultures and organic borders.

Next, 199 miniature maps of the world show to how many countries (black patches on the world map) citizens of a particular nation state have visa-free access. It starts with Germany (where the people have visa-free access to 159 countries), and ends with Afghanistan (where the people have access to 22 other countries). If you flip the pages quickly, you can see the black patches of land disappear in a moving image, as the countries your eyes move over are more and more isolated in the world, like islands, and only a few black dots (pied-a-terres) remain at the end.

Other graphics follow: walls, fences and other barriers, depicted in detail with reference to the materials used and where in the world they are located; organisations designated as terrorist groups since 1900 and the evolution of the colours of their flags; various spatial variants of refugee camps and where in the world they occur (by far the largest amount is situated in Central and East Africa); various means of demolishing buildings; various means of controlling crowds; sizes of prison cells as defined by law per country, depicted in a grey-tone image of square frames, one inside another, where the outer frame is light grey (and refers to the 12 square metres that Switzerland defines as a minimum surface for a prison cell) and the inner frame is anthracite (the 2 square metres that Guinea allows), leaving a black square in the middle, which through the effect of the grading becomes the innermost centre of your attention. 

A chapter named ‘The Defensive City’ focusses on how the ordinary citizen is approached as an enemy by the authorities. ’Unwanted behaviour’ is the accusatory basis for the implementation of subtle design elements that try to influence the use of public space without being noticed,” Deutinger writes in the introduction to the chapter (p. 85). The ‘Camden bench’ in London is a street bench designed in such a way that all possible ‘abuse’ of the bench (like lying down on it, skateboarding over it or littering on it) is resisted. Another strategy to resist actual life in the city is the “strategy of absence” (no bench at all), but, Deutinger comically remarks, that strategy is difficult to illustrate (p. 86). What he does illustrate, are the very ordinary means, small measures against ‘deviant behaviour’ that we hardly notice, like anti-sticker garbage cans, half benches at tram and bus stops, CCTV camera’s disguised as street lamps and anti-climb paint on walls. Through these means, citizens are discouraged to do anything other than walk, shop, and, maybe, sit. Moreover, in the “ram-proof city” (p. 92), we are also ‘protected’ against (terrorist) attacks carried out with the use of vehicles by ditches, ornamental rocks, slopes, hidden bollards etc. In total Deutinger lists, explains and illustrates 26 defence mechanisms against ‘unwanted behaviour’ and 17 ways to prevent attacks with vehicles in the city. 

The second section of the book deals with the ‘vast conspiracy’ behind the use of the instruments of control, the fact that many organisations, companies and individuals, but also animate and inanimate objects agree with / collaborate on / happen to be part of systems of power and control. Brendan McGetrick, who writes the essay that introduces this section, writes: “It is … the link between the human and the nonhuman, that turns a dog into a guard dog and bamboo into a fence” (p. 112).

If you always wanted to know how the existing varieties of the death penalty are carried out throughout the world, or which exact steps are taken in the killing and processing of animals, this is the place to do your research. 1966 miniature chickens are depicted, in red, on the page which shows how many chickens, ducks, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, geese, sheep, goats, cattle and bison are killed per second worldwide. The most treacherous chapter, however, is without doubt the last one, named ‘Green Fortress’, which focuses on how nature is manipulated to control human behaviour, while at the same time it is propagated as pristine, untouched, innocent. A double page shows 22 defence mechanisms used to keep possible intruders at bay from a private house. The following pages show details of the illustrations and explain how columnar trees, hedges, prickly vines, ponds, gravel walkways and raised garden beds all conspire to protect property in the guise of lovely landscaping. 

Handbook of Tyranny simply shows what design can do in its all-encompassing territory of its own. The strength of the book lies in the fact that Deutinger combines excellent and thorough research with letting the graphics speak for themselves. Instead on elaborating on the horrors of the speed with which animals are continually slaughtered worldwide, he presents the facts on a single page without further ado, so that it is left to the reader / viewer to decode the horrors. Through graphic representation, a densification of reality takes place until the essence of things is reached without the actual reality present. That is why what is graphically depicted is both not the real thing and the very real thing. Deutinger uses this power of graphic visualisation to reveal the existing architectures of power in the world. He lets design beat itself at its own game. Without many words and with only a few lines and colours, he reminds us of what we already know but have never pictured so aptly.

Handbook of Tyranny, Leo Deutinger, Lars Müller Publishers, Zürich, 2018.
The images are reproduced with kind permission of the publisher.