Short history of spaces of drug consumption

"It is a calm and placid beatitude. Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians and brings despair to thoughtful men becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods."
Charles Baudelaire - Les paradis artificiels

As Barney Wraf wrote in introduction of his text -which is one of the main reference for this text- High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis: «three conceptual tools can be utilized in understanding the geographies of cannabis use: biopower and biopolitics, world-systems theory, and cultural political-economy» Let’s explore the history of drugs following the architectural typologies emerging from it.

Sacred spaces
        The use of drugs which we consider illegal for most of  them when not controlled by the medical system or delivered by them appeared 10 000 years ago. The professor Elisa Guerra-Doce from the university of Valladolid in Spain discovered traces of consumed opium on neolithic human bodies which date back 8600 years BC in Peru, and 4000 BC in Europe. It seems that the use was reserved for rituals and medicine; therefore just a section of the population. Sumerian texts contains representation of the opium flower, «joy’s flower» (hul gil), which could suppose a recreational use of it and not only a sacred one. The relationship between drug and sacred is tight all along the history. It is also in Mesopotamia that the first traces of alcohol making have been found, and the female god associated with it Ninkasi. Sumerian have exported opium to Egypt, where traces can be found as far as 1300 BC, then the flower was exported to Greece, used to make laudanum (10% opium and 90% alcohol) and then Arabian peninsula.
        Meanwhile opium was spread around the world, cannabis did as well. Cannabis can be psychoactive or not, it has three subspecies: sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Cannabis appeared 9 000 years ago in Asia, probably what is today Mongolia or southern Siberia. Hemp  and  psychoactive  cannabis were both used in China. The first record of medicinal use of cannabis sativa dates to 4000 BC, before being exported to Korea, India when south Asia was invided by Aryans; and Middle East used by Scythians. They caried the drug to Russia, and then the seeds where carried to Germany. Cannabis was introduced to the New world during the XVIth century and ended its travel in United States during the XIX/XXth century. The plant has been associated with sacred, «elixirs were incorporated into certain Daoist religious ceremonies»2 but also used by the Jomon culture in Japan. Later on hashish was used by Arabs, especially Sufi, since the discovery of hashish was attributable to Haydar who founded a Sufi order in the mid-12th century. The use of this drug was spread around the muslim world, and according to the legend was given by the 11th-century  ruler  Hasan-i  Sabah to his soldier before suicidal missions, as a «a taste of heaven». 
        Magic mushrooms have been also use widely, especially in India and Siberia. Most of the time associated with Shamanism, Fly Agaric is one of the most known mushroom. It exist diverse types of shamanism which differ a lot, from South America to Asia. Let’s take the Mongolian ger as an architectural example of shamanic space. Built as it was a smaller version of the world, the ger or yurt is a round space with a fire in the middle. It is believed to be a sacred space, where one can understand its place in the world. Mongolians don’t use the same names for the four directions as us -South, North, East and West- but call them the front, which is associated with the fire and where the door should be facing; the back, associated with water, where a small altar lies and where special guest will sit; the left, associated with air and considered female where the woman sits and where the kitchen lies and the right, associated with earth, considered masculine and where the man sits and keeps his belongings. The center is the most important part of the ger, sacred, where the ceremonies happen. It is interesting to see that Mongolians are not the only civilisations using round space to represent a sacred space. The top of the ger represents the Upper World and during ceremonies where he takes Fly Agaric, the shaman climbs up the pole and it is said he turns into a bird before coming back to his human shape.

Bayan-Ölgi Province, Mongolia. Source: Dimitry Kobsev

Opium den
        China is the first country which banned sale and smoking of opium in 1729, due to the Emperor Yongzheng in 1729. Hundred years later the demand was still high and the British exploited it, smuggling opium in China and leading to the two wars of opium since the Chinese wanted to stop the import, a big economical lost for the Brits. Use of opium did not stop, and its use rubbed off over western countries.
        In 1700, the physician John Jones (1645-1709) published «The mysteries of Opium revealed» summary of its research on opium. He describes the positive effect on the drugs, but also the pain of the patient who stops consuming it. It is the first written western scientific book published on this drug, with no moral value towards its use.
«The effects of sudden leaving off the uses of opium after long and lavish use therefore [were] even great and intolerable distresses, anxieties and depressions of the spirit, which commonly end in a most miserable death, attended with strange agonies.». 
Opium has been eaten, mixed with other substances for centuries but the art of smoking it came later, probably after tobacco habits appeared in extreme-orient. A specific posture corresponding to the special pipe used to smoke opium is required and therefore the smoker needs to be lying while using it. Almost a ceremonial then, a specific space is required, with a bed or a long chair for the user to be confortable in. The person preparing the pipe and the smoker lie in front of each other, and if a visitor comes to smoke he will wait his turn lying on the feet of the others. Woman were usually not smoking, except prostitutes.
        In 1821 «Confessions of an English Opium-Eater» is published, revealing a new ear for opium. The authors describes the pleasures of opium but the pain released by its use as well in different chapters. The two chapters about pains are longer than the one on pleasure. He describes his own use of opium and the perceptions he gets from it, like the sense of space and architecture.
«The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to conceive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.» 
        Opium was then very popular in Britain under the Victorian age and not seen as a disease. The opium den in London at this time was a space were one could smoke opium far from the public, surrounded by other opium smokers. Some pictures suggest different types of opium den, some extravagant some poorly decorated; of course used by different classes. In the newspaper, one can find at the same time a huge propaganda anti-opium, where its described as a place of misery. “It is a wretched hole... so low that we are unable to stand upright. Lying pell-mell on a mattress placed on the ground are Chinamen, Lascars, and a few English blackguards who have imbibed a taste for opium.” A myth around these spaces emerged from this propaganda, but what is sure is that opiums dens popped up a bit every where in the world and where popular.

        Opium became very popular in France later on, in 1900 after the colonisation of Indochina and the creation of Fort Bayard in China -Zhanjiang- true hub of opium until 1945, date of its retrocession. In Paris at the beginning of the XXth century some opium den opened, where artistes, marine officers, colonialist met. True social spaces, the Parisian opium den were world apart as some pictures testify. From orientalist inspiration to smaller spaces the idea to disconnect from the «real» world is present. They usually occupied existing building and the atmosphere was created by decoration with the bed or the floor as the main element because of the rituals around the way of smoking opium.

        One of the most extraordinary opium den one could find in Paris around 1900 was supposed to be contained in the elephant of the Moulin Rouge, bought from the 1900’s World Fair, before it burned down in 1915. Men only were allowed to enter it, through a spiral staircase for 1 franc. As I am still trying to find relyable sources I won’t tell more about it now. Because of the ritual of preparation of Opium and the specific way of taking it, the fact that it wasn’t accessible to all, the architecture created around this activity was mainly outrageous and specific.


Copyright Corbis 

Intimate spaces
        More or less at the same time as opium, cannabis is brought by Napoleonian troups from Egypt in 1798. Napoleon himself is one of the first one to lead a campaign against drug-use in France, by an arrest warrant which could lead the person arrested to three-months-jail. Still, some years ago in 1844 the famous «club of Haschichins» dedicated to the use and experimentation of drugs was founded by the doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours. The hotel Pimodan, house of the painter Joseph Ferdinand Boissard de Boisdenier housed their experimentations, which they called «fantasias». They mainly took dawamesk, a comestible preparation from hashish. Poets, artists and writers assisted to these meeting such as Gustave Flaubert, Eugène Delacroix,  Théophile Gautier ou Charles Baudelaire. Drugs were then consumed in an intimate space, the home. 
«During these famous parties, Boissard wanted by diverse means his hosts to feel in an atmosphere similar as the paradise described by the Prophète. The beauty of the apartments, their luxurious ornementation, complexe and evocative, presence of beautiful women, such as Marix, famous muse of the painter, the insinuation of an appropriate music (Boissard, during these meetings would play violin), everything was there to contribute to create a singular atmosphere, a true «invitation to the trip». The hôtel would become a enchanted world, a castle of the Sleeping Beauty in the middle of Paris»6
        The description of the hotel shows that it was a real décor, an ambiance generated by many means. Therefore the ritual of taking drugs here include as physical imaginary world.

Hotel Lauzun which was named hotel Pimodan before, from

        The idea of architecture that accompany the «trip» or the travel, letting the user in a different world, so inside and outside the sensation of the space would be distord from the daily life ones is recurrent in every of the spaces described in this article. The entire space is organised to give the sensation of freedom, to help the drug user into his escape from the «real» world.

«Care» architecture
Today an «harm reduction» approached towards drugs is developed through «care architecture». The main concept is based on supervised injection sites, where drug users can come with their own drug and consume it in drug consumption rooms (DCR) instead of drug open scenes. It started in the Netherlands in the 70ies, and in the United States in the 80ies, remaining illicit. The first legal facility opened in Berne in 1986, under the form of a café, where people unwanted elsewhere could come and inject the drug onsite. It was an answer to the emergence of the HIV and the public health emergency.  Free needles, substitution drugs and drug consumption spaces are part of the program lauched by the state itself with local associations. Architecture there again has a role to play but the look of the DCR has little to do with the hotel Pimodan or the yurt. While visiting the one that opened in Paris some weeks ago, designed by Ilimelgo, I was shocked by "whiteness" of the wall, the clinical aspect of it. Of course you don’t expect a flower-power space but while being there you feel the space is created for «illness» and «cure» users. Many questions are raised by the creation of these spaces: what kind of place the state should play in it? How can these spaces exist considering the prohibitionist law -especially in the case of France? How can these spaces can be designed without any moral judgement? What are their exact purpose (inconvenience reduction for neighbours)? 

My own pictures, Consumption room, Paris, 2016 - by ilimelgo architectes

1 Barney Warf High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis, 2015
2 idem
Claude Farrère Fumée d’Opium, 1907
4 From an article of the Figaro, 1868
5 Hans Derks, History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600 - 1950, 2015
6 Jean Luc Steinmetz, Quatre hantises (sur les lieux de la Bohème) 1988

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