Last week a panel of six international architects and curators gathered under the aegis of Tate Modern and The Delfina Foundation to discuss new ways in which the architecture of domination can be reused by those it once dominated. Stemming from the new residency exchange between The Delfina, the London-based organization that aims to promote artistic exchange between the UK and the Middle East and North Africa, and the Bethlehem-based architecture studio Decolonizing Architecture, the panel was chaired with deadpan humor by the writer and curator Shumon Basar, who compared the structure of the evening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Wings’ “Jet,” saying, “the whole is comprised with a series of dissimilar episodes which slowly build up to an awe-inspiring finale.” The purpose of the panel, it soon transpired, was to present the theory informing the practice’s projects, and (as academic events go) publicize their call for residencies in Bethlehem.
UNROOFING AT p’SAGOT, 2007. COURTESY DECOLONIZING ARCHITECTURE
Research architect Alessandro Petti gave a heavily theoretical introduction to Decolonizing Architecture, which was founded in 2007. Reading from his notes, he explained how the three founders (with Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman, also on the panel) used the Palestinian conflict as their principal case study. In order to propose a recycling of architecture built by a colonizing power, they revisited the term decolonization as, in Agamben’s words and Petti’s citation, “profanation” whose aim is “to reutilize the potential of destruction for new uses and new forms of life.” Petti and co. proposed interventions into the settlement Psagot and evacuated military base Oush-Garb to transform them into new hypothetical villages or towns for Palestinians. Their theory became most comprehensible with their ‘ungrounding’ technique: demonstrated by models of Psagot, the central idea is to unearth the first ten centimeters of the ground to completely upset the suburban layout, working from the idea that “the first ten centimeters of the urban ground surface embody most of its ideology.”
In keeping with Basar’s musical analogy, Goldsmith’s Professor of Sociology AbdouMaliqu Simone gave what might be best described as a poetic performance. Speaking of an “urban south” in Africa, he denounced the increasingly “experimental speculation” in chokingly dense African cities with weak regulatory frameworks, where “it is uncertain whether residents are citizens or shareholders.”
Curator and writer Rasha Salti emphasized the necessity of politically engaged contemporary art today while lamenting what she calls the increasingly elitist and codified language of art historians, urging for a “democratic church of contemporary art.” Looking at the significance of Palestinian artists, film-makers and poets—such as Elia Suleiman and Mahmoud Darwish—as bearing witness to the conflict and transmitting “its injustice through their art to the world,” she argues how such artists are crucial because “they allow us to imagine the impossible.”
With only 15 minutes to go and virtually no time left for the announced release of the Q&A session, the panel discussion itself finally started. Simone offered the polemic that a colonized city is “50% an oxymoron” because in any attempt to control a city “you make visible another potential city.” Weizman and Hilal emphasized the practice’s agency as a social trigger which reverts the traditional relationship of “the colonizer planning and colonized reacting.” Hilal pressed how the crux “is allowing Palestinians to feel the right to image an alternative settlement,” while raising the dilemma of leaving behind a refugee camp that they’ve called home for 60 years.