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Decolonizing Architecture - Scenarios for the Transformation of Israeli Settlements
Regine Debatty, 22 Dec 08

While in Brussels a few days ago, I made a beeline for the Bozar to see an exhibition with a very promising title: Decolonizing Architecture.

The show was way better and more subtle than I could have imagined from a superficial reading of its description.

Military Camp of Oush Grab © Francesco Mattuzzi

Decolonizing Architecture, a research undertaken by architects Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti and architect and theorist Eyal Weizman, throws architecture into the arms of burning social and political issues and uses the discipline to explore possible scenarios that could emerge from a partial-or complete -evacuation of Israeli colonies and military bases.

Recognizing that Israeli colonies and military bases are amongst the most excruciating instruments of domination, the project assumes that a viable approach to the issue of their appropriation is to be found not only in the professional language of architecture and planning but rather in inaugurating an "arena of speculation" that incorporates varied cultural and political perspectives through the participation of a multiplicity of individuals and organizations. How could the architecture of Israel domination be reused, recycled or re-inhabited by Palestinians?

Palestinians and Internationals painting 'Oush Grab Plaza' on an abandoned settlement

The two most common approaches adopted when dealing with evacuated colonial architecture are either destruction or re-use.

Destruction is often regarded as a mean to achieve 'liberation' from an architecture that acts as an instrument of domination and control. Making tabula rasa is never as simple as it seems, destruction generates desolation and environmental damage that may last for decades. As the project reminds us, when Israel evacuated the Gaza settlements in 2005, 3,000 homes were destroyed. One of the outcomes of the destruction was a million and a half tons of toxic rubble that poisoned the ground and water aquifers.

Image UNEP - United Nations Environment Programme

Re-use is the strategy adopted by many post-colonial governments. They would simply recycle the infrastructures for their own needs of administration, establishing a sense of continuity rather than of rupture and change: colonial villas are inhabited by new financial elites and palaces by political ones, while the evacuated military and police installations of colonial armies, as well as their prisons, are reused by the governments that replaced them.

Bingo at Oush Grab Plaza, an abandonned IDF military base

Is there any strategy left? Yes, there is subversion which speculates on the use of colonial architecture for purposes other than those they were designed to perform. The key principle is to reorient the destructive potential of the occupation's built spaces to other aims.

Given the scale of Israeli construction in Palestine, and the need for housing, all three approaches may need to be adopted simultaneously. Some areas of settlements will be destroyed, some reused and others subverted. The Decolonizing Architecture project does not aim to present a single, unified architectural solution, but rather "fragments of possibility".

Subversion N.23. Israeli's watch tower in Bethlehem in to a birdwatching tower used by the Palestinian

The exhibition exemplifies the architects proposals and thoughts in two case studies: the settlement of P'sagot, a hill near Ramallah that dominates the Palestinian area and the abandoned military camp of Oush Grab, near Bethleem. While the first project is an imagined set of scenarios, the second is a real battleground between Palestinians who want to turn it into a public park and Israeli settlers who try to claim it, heavily armed and escorted by the Israeli army.

You can get more details either in the PDF of the exhibition booklet or on the website of the project.

Decolonizing Architecture is running at the Bozar in Brussels until January 4, 2008.

This piece originally appeared on Regine Debatty's blog, We Make Money, Not Art.

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Many thanks for this article, with the current bombings of Gaza in the past few days, during Chanukah and the festive season in the UK, it is with some relief to learn about an exhibition that creatively engages art, politics and architecture to mobilize archictecture as “ a tactical tool within the unfolding struggle of Palestine”.

A ray of hope glimmers when it is considered that this exhibition in touring the world, giving people all over to learn about the struggle of Palestine and creative strategies to use architecture for Palestinians to reclaim spaces and buildings for more peaceful and constructive purposes.

From the decolonisation architecture website I learnt that the archictects"recognise that Israeli colonies and military bases are amongst the most excruciating instruments of domination". I agree that they are an excruciating instrument of domination, I would also encourage readers to be aware of the other instruments of domination. Namely: airstrikes in Gaza and impressive global PR campaigns to remove their culpability.

In reference to recent events and the broader context, including current battle for international support. The power of this exhibition to find support for the Palestinian struggle, though crucial, may seem small in terms of the influence on world opinion relative to the organization of the Israeli government.

Following the bombing of Gaza a few days ago killing at least 280 Palestinians including innocent civilians, the foreign ministery of the Israeli government has been calling up, governments around the world to paint Hamas as to blame for the current bombing of Gaza and the ensuing death and destructruction.
Whilst this use of art and archicture and participation, offers great hope, healing and justice, it is clear that much more must be done to convince governments and the UN to oppose Isrealis disproportionate attacks on Gaza. For people of the West and people of influence what is the level of responsibility to attend to the stories that are being told about Israel and Palestine and draw attention to the use of artistic liscence of Israel’s PR campaigns. For as much as Israel-Palestine conflict is located in one geographical area, it is a global issue, that is the confluence of many international political and economic, and historic forces.

Whilst it is indeed effective to change the use of built spaces away from destruction on the grass roots level, at the international level strong pressure on the Israeli government is required to stop the escalation and continuing violence towards the Palestinians in the name of peace. Peace can't be achieved through air strikes killing and wounding hundreds on any day, let alone during religious holidays.

Whilst I am a fan of this article, exhibition and this creative project I'm left with a tough question of how can both projects like this and the articles written about them have greater impact in the context of wars and the unregulated aggression of states bombing and killing fellow human beings? How can one bear witness and serve? How to bear witness and be correct about the guilty and the innocent?

Posted by: Mia Eisenstadt on 28 Dec 08

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