Architecture is war

Architects still have difficulty publicly discussing the purpose and advantage of architecture within political processes – even if that is abundantly clear to the outside world. In the exhibition Decolonizing Architecture in Bozar (Brussels) three architectural researchers – Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti and Eyal Weizman – go a step further by proving the strategic role of architecture within an ordinary military struggle.

1 Unroofing

As everyone knows – and as is illustrated yet again by the exhibited material and interviews – the Jewish settlements in the Palestine areas form part of clever ‘civil occupation’. They become even more interesting when it turns out that their architectural design, right down to the smallest details – sightlines, footpaths, angles of roofs, colour of roofs and so on – is determined by colonial considerations and forms a strategic part of the military operation.

The remarkable thing about the Decolonizing Architecture project, however, is that it does not argue for the depoliticising of architecture, as the title could somehow suggest. The project does not claim any disciplinary autonomy (in freely determining how space is experienced or what materials are used). Nor does it argue for a humanitarian use of architecture (the provision of alternative accommodation in refugee camps), Let alone that it argues for the production of architectural gestures (a visionary plan that sublimates the conditions in the camp). On the contrary, the researchers seem to fully recognise the results of their research and they deploy architecture strategically in the battle against the colonisation of Palestine.

Decolonizing Architecture launches design proposals for reusing the settlements of the Jewish colonists after an expected withdrawal. The proposals are introduced in the programme brochure as a ‘manual for decolonisation’, which shows the well-intentioned, practical commitment: the design proposals are all exceedingly feasible scenarios that are embedded in fundamental research and are drawn up in consultation with local communities and parties involved.

At the well-attended conference held in conjunction with the exhibition, Sandi Hilal emphasised the great symbolic significance of this collective design effort for the Palestinian people. Of course, making scenarios for reusing of Israeli settlements and other military infrastructure will not immediately end Israeli occupation or lessen the pain, but the project does enable the Palestinian community for the first time ‘to demand the right to plan for itself and therefore think about its own future’, and not leave this to the occupier or the international community. As a result, Decolonizing Architecture acquires a significant projective content. Through the designs the Palestinian community is already preparing itself for the eventual evacuation of the settlements and can prevent so much useful infrastructure and floor space either being demolished (as has already happened in the Gaza Strip) or opportunistically pocketed for individual gain (as in Iraq).

2-3 Unhoming

(all images are taken from the Decolonizing web site)

Eyal Weizman placed the research project in perspective by confronting those present with the dilemma that every resistance to the Israeli occupation has to face sooner or later. For every colonial power, argued Weizman, is obliged not only to create an extensive programme of control and domination but also to work on the humanisation and pacification of the unstable situation that it creates. By doing this the colonial ruler – in this case the Israeli occupier – may not be acting according to its immediate best interests, but without (partial) pacification the resistance threatens to escalate and get out of control. To ensure that the audience didn’t miss the point, Weisman subtly referred to the Belgian history in Congo where extremely cruel colonisation went hand in hand with an extensive programme of modernisation that included a.o. the expansion of educational facilities. (Dutch readers will undoubtedly remember not only the slave trade but also some salutary aspects of the VOC era.). This logic conversely implies that defending the rights of Palestinian refugees or organising food lifts only tightens the grip of the colonists. Weizman quoted in this regard an Israeli general who argued that the humanitarian efforts of the international community didn’t in the least feel like a ‘knife in the back’ of the army but are in fact essential for maintaining the army’s power. All of this makes any intervention in a colonial conflict extremely sensitive and forces one to take conscious choices.

The most problematic contribution came from Alessandro Petti who proposed three spatial configurations of a more general urban theory from within the Israeli politics of settlement. They are: fragmentation (Palestinian land is an ‘archipelago of enclaves’ with vague borders and different sovereign powers; connection (carefully guarded motorways enable Jewish colonists to pass through borders, walls and enclaves without difficulty); and suspension (the camp as the place where the individual is deprived of his civil rights). Not only were the examples with which he documented the general validity of this logic (offshore beach resorts in Dubai, gated communities in Western metropolises, secure government zones in Baghdad and so on) extremely trivial, but his conclusion was also doubtful: all these examples show how fear and security are the decisive elements in urban thinking and acting in the 21st century and thus explicitly and eagerly hitching on to the work on capsular urbanism by moderator Lieven De Cauter. With such a conclusion Petti unconsiously undermined – no doubt with the best intentions – the political perspective that his colleagues had elaborated by suddenly defining the architecture of Israeli settlements as a psychological symptom rather than a military strategy of conquest. What’s more, Petti robbed the Palestinian situation of all its specificity: as though the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in a universal mental disorder in communication that can also be detected in the irrational feelings of danger of overly wealthy people or rulers who do not want to be disturbed in their activities.

It is precisely this exoticism of war – a particular form of Orientalism – that Hilal and Weizman avoid in their interventions by not only offering a subtle reading of the Israeli-Palestine urban landscape but also giving the Jewish colonists a dose of their own medicine by deploying architecture as the ultimate weapon of war. It was in Brussels that Elia Zenghelis once spoke the prophetic words: ‘architecture is top down or it is not architecture’. To all architects who haven’t understood it yet, this exhibition says: ‘architecture is war or it is not architecture.’ And if you have to draw a comparison, it is only fitting that architects look at themselves and reconsider the role of their shining architectural products within the social reconquest of our towns. It is probably a less exotic link with the architecture of Jewish colonists, but it is all the more real.