Alessandro Petti, Director of Decolonizing Architecture
Abridged transcript of interview, recorded via Skype on Friday 27th November 2009
Alessandro Petti (AP)
Ahmad Barclay (AB)
AB: I’m looking at the topic of ‘spatial resistance’, and the different modes that people are using to combat the Israeli mechanisms of ‘spatial domination’ in Israel and the OPTs. In that context, I guess the work of Decolonizing Architecture (DA) might be placed as ‘critical speculation’; using design to ask questions, and to provoke other people ask questions about the situation now, and potential future situations. Could you expand on the intentions behind your work? Perhaps on the projects for the reuse of settlements, and also maybe if there are examples of how this work has affected the wider debate.
AP: I think, first of all, we started the project with a desire to move from a more analytical and conceptual way of understanding the architecture of the occupation to a more proactive and propositive approach to the situation. We wanted to understand, even, how we can stretch the concept of architecture beyond the limits of thinking only of physical buildings. Expanding this notion, using the idea of architecture as what we call an ‘arena of speculation’, so it’s like a playground where different ideas could take place. Especially for the first case, P’sagot [settlement], at the beginning there was the idea of developing an alternative masterplan that would be designed by the three of us. But we realised that what was more interesting was not the question of what kind of solutions we can propose; what was more interesting was to mobilise architecture, to stretch the concept of architecture, transforming it from solid solutions to a playground where different ideas could take place [concurrently]. For us, it was trying to understand the possibility of an “agency”.
When we presented the projects at the beginning, many people were smiling, and this smile we couldn’t understand to begin with. But then we realised that this was the moment where they realised the possibility of imagining different futures. So, instead of our own architecture closing this possibility, we actually wanted to operate differently, and to invite people to say that this was one possible approach, and that there are also different ways. This why we talk about “fragments of possibilities” (or “fragments of ideas”), not to look for solutions, but to allow people to think that the political reality here could be changed, using architecture as an instrument of change. We think that there is another important aspect, in not looking at a real situation, but also in terms of the possibility of imagination. Here, unfortunately, people are limited by the reality, but sometimes there is also a kind of self-limitation in terms of what can be imagined, and what is allowed to be imagined.
I’d like to mention one thing. Just recently, since you were here, we learnt that finally the Palestinian Authority (PA) is making plans for settlements, and this is very good news. I wouldn’t say necessarily that they were inspired by our work, but in a way this is one of the consequences that we hoped that our project would have; producing something that mobilise energy that would become a more institutional way of dealing with the issues. Also, recently Salam Fayyad (PA Prime Minister in the West Bank) suggested that they are now preparing a plan for Area C; and I think that this is another very important move that, in a way, breaks completely the taboo of not planning in these areas simply because the political situation does not allow it. I cannot really evaluate whether DA influenced the motivations in such decisions, but I would certainly say that there are some connections. But this was just one of the possibilities, because for us it was important that people in general would look at settlements and imagine the transformation, that they don’t necessarily have to think of them as facts on the ground, and this is exactly the space to which I think the project has contributed; this idea of reopening possibilities through the use of architecture.
AB: When you said that the PA are starting to plan settlements; did you mean the reuse of Israeli settlements, or the planning of new Palestinian communities?
AP: I think there are two moves. The PA is really trying to consider the [Israeli] settlements for the use of Palestinians, and also organically integrating them inside the Palestinian urban fabric. As you know, when we spoke with the municipality of El-Bireh [for the P’sagot project], it was an approach that was not even imagined. There was no prohibition for this approach, but in this situation there is a kind of self-censorship. But now that the political situation is slightly different; because the PA is in a kind of dead-end in negotiations, paradoxically the situation is now reopened, because they have to move forward in certain directions. In this sense they say (to the Israelis) that you will never agree to stop settlements; you have never allowed us to create a state, so we have our own new programme for statehood [Fayyad’s two-year plan for state building]. I don’t say that this is the best project, but I think what it changes is the approach to dealing with these issues; dealing with Area C and settlements without waiting for the political negotiations, which are endless.
AB: I had a few other questions; one was on the ‘audience’ for the work of DA. When you’re working on theoretical projects, I guess it’s very important to communicate to the right people, and to shape your projects in such a way that they speak with these people. It seems that perhaps the primary forum of DA is academic and relatively Euro-centric. Have you been able to present projects in a similar way in the OPTs, or even in Israel? What is the nature of your dialogues with local universities and local government (municipalities)?
AP: Of course, imagining the audience might be an important aspect. At the same time I would say that we are too influenced by contemporary politics, that instead of engaging with communities, we would be reducing people to a static audience to absorb ideas. The people who were involved in the project were not simply treated as an audience; we are not simply putting people in boxes; saying that there is a ‘Middle Eastern’ audience and that there is a ‘Western’ audience, or that there is a ‘worker’ audience and an ‘elite’ audience.
I think that the project in itself was not necessarily working a traditional participatory approach – with the current ideology of participation that whenever you involve people it must be a good thing – I believe that people should be involved only when they can really input something into the project. There needs to be a kind of reciprocity in the process; not when you simply invite somebody to say something and then you use what they say. In our case, in fact, for two years we involved the students at Birzeit University, and they produced their own work. This year they are having a class based on the ideas of DA, but now they do not need to be linked with us. So, this idea takes a completely autonomous form; this is totally fine with us, and in fact this is where we see a possible feedback inside the community, our influence is not just through exhibition.
As you know, we never accept offers from any [government-sponsored] Israeli institutions to show the work there, firstly because we support the boycott, and secondly because Israelis were not our direct audience. On our third project, as you also know, we are working with Zochrot (an Israeli NGO), and actually in this case there are Israelis and Palestinians working together on Miska and the idea of ‘return’ [of refugees]. So, as you can see, there is a form [of adaptation], but it is played organically with the project in itself, and not played in terms of an audience, where we would work purely to create something to present. For us, we would consider that a project develops many different relations with many different communities, who are not always a part of the work, but some of the meetings really inspire what we produce, and sometimes this is a very big contribution for us in terms of intellectual ideas. Also it develops, through NGOs and universities, the possibility that the project can take different forms and different directions.
I mentioned that Birzeit have now developed a programme; I am personally developing a programme with Al-Quds University dealing with the ideas of DA. I learnt that, after our exhibition in Germany, that there was a school in Berlin using the same approach that we propose. I think things are moving, and they have developed more interesting and reciprocal relations [under their own momentum] compared with just imagining an audience and trying to fabricate a message based on this.
AB: I think perhaps the word’audience’ wasn’t necessarily the right one. Where you’re doing certain projects where their value is perceived in the potential to influence ideas, then I guess it is the idea of creating ‘forums’ that is important, and the question is of which forums you are attempting to create. Obviously, with theoretical work there is no value unless it is presented or communicated; for example through the building of networks, which I think is one of the things that you’re doing.
AP: Of course, we always try to keep a tension between what we can offer – the identity of the project is more about speculation, about theory [rather than realisation], and we know the limit of this – and the risk of becoming entrapped in the logic of real politics. That’s not our interest, and we think that this is not the place where we can really contribute. Where we can contribute is in generating ideas that are not being discussed; the idea of opening spaces for discussions on very different levels. I always say that when there will be a political situation where people can start to plan [the reuse] of settlements, and when refugees can return, I don’t think we have to be there anymore. It’s really about where you locate yourself. We think that when there will be a client, when there will be a state, and they ask architects to do this work, then we don’t have to do it.
In a way we are not interested in [being involved in] the stage of practical implementation, because then we will be busy in doing things in other places. I think this is where this project has its place; trying to use architecture to imagine a different political scenario, not accepting the situation as it is. I think historically this has happened in architecture in many different forms. When we think about how architects envisioned cities, maybe using utopian visions, not necessarily linking their ideas to the actual situation, but imagining a completely different scenario. In this sense there is a very strong tradition, and I think it’s also possible to trace the influence of these ideas on realities, and how they influenced the city itself.
AB: I suppose that leads me on to another question, almost two questions. One relates to the transition between theoretical projects and practical implementation – whether it’s a complete transformation or a single site where an opportunity opens up – and I suppose in this implementation you immediately go from a situation of infinite possibilities down to a single actuality. I wondered if you could say something about the Oush Grab project, where many ideas were speculated, and the Beit Sahour municipality chose to go down a single route, which perhaps diverged from all of these. How would you say that your involvement shifts when you are working with very specific sites where the concrete reality will, by definition, foreclose other possibilities?
The second question is to do with how your work would relate to organisations that are already involved in building, for example RIWAQ or ICAHD? [Organisations that, in various ways, are attempting to create concrete facts on the ground.] Is there a softer interface between your work and this kind of work, or would you maintain a binary distinction between theory and practice?
AP: First of all, what I would like to stress and to clarify, is our approach to the relationship between theory and practice. For us, these are not distinct. I think you gave the right example with the Oush Grab project. On Oush Grab, I don’t know where our project is theory and where it’s practice; how the practice inspires the theory. I think, in our case, practice and theory are really interlinked and influence each other. At the end you cannot really make a distinction in our design itself; whether it is a theoretical speculation, or whether it is the most reasonable thing you can realise there at the moment, which is the idea of transforming the existing (former military) buildings as part of a nature reserve. Of course, as you know, this was inspired by our visits to the place, and our association with the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWS), so the ideas are not utopian in the classical sense of imagining the perfect political solution. On the contrary, we were inspired, in this case, by how the people at Oush Grab were using the place. We learnt from [the head of PWS] about how important Oush Grab is to the migration of birds, and this is how the project emerged. In this sense, the theory and the practice are really interlinked.
I would say that, in relation to other works, say RIWAQ and ICAHD, I think that they have many things in common with us. What is not in common is that our project is really theoretical at the moment, because the political situation [is not conducive to implementation]; but, for example, if RIWAQ thinks something about the restructuring of an old city, they really have a client and a space where they can operate. In our case we don’t have this possibility when we think about P’sagot; we don’t have the possibility when we think about Miska, or even Oush Grab, because the situation is still very unstable, even though it is the site where we our project comes closest to practice.
In this way, I don’t see an absolute distinction, the real difference is that the political situation is not given, and this is why the architecture cannot be realised. However, we imagine that the political situation can change, like the example I gave of the PA planning for settlements and in Area C, and I think that this definitely moves in this direction where things become real and concrete. At the same time, I have to be honest that our practice is located inside the conflict here, and this is something that can be difficult for architects, because architects have a kind of messianic idea that they have to build.
I think we are liberated from this frustration in a way; we are liberated by the fact that our practice as architects can be very influential even if it is not built; and I think there are very good examples in history where people have produced thousands of buildings but they didn’t change anything; whereas others might just produce ideas that do inspire change. If you look at Le Corbusier, I think the ideas and the speculations were much stronger than what he managed to realise. In contemporary architecture, someone like Rem Koolhaas is much more influential because he writes and participates beyond simply building a museum here or there. For me, the buildings themselves are not really the interesting thing, even though I would never understate the importance of buildings. But at the same time, I think there is a very [dogmatic] idea – especially among professional architects – that sees architecture only through the idea of producing objects.
If you think of the profession of architecture, it’s really relatively new; it’s only one hundred years since it was established. Before, architects and artists were the same thing, and they were also writers. If you think about people like Leon Battista Alberti, and architects in the Renaissance, they never looked at themselves only as architects in the sense of producing buildings. You cannot think about people like Michelangelo or Leon Battista Alberti without their writing.In fact, all of the architects that we remember historically, for example Vitruvio, centuries ago, are always people who deal with the materiality of the architecture, but also they were writers; they were people who went beyond the limits of architecture as buildings.
AB: I suppose the way that most architects see other buildings is through publication. Taking Rem Koolhaas as an example, I’ve been to maybe only one or two of his buildings, but I’m quite aware of many others. The publication has its value in this way, even for built projects, and this is an important medium through which the ideas influence other architects.
You spoke about how many of the limits on the possibilities in the OPTs are self-imposed. They exist through political agreements and the drawing of lines on maps, and the people on the ground follow these. Going back to the idea of agency, from your experience, what do you think is the logical next step beyond theoretical projects and the small fragments of intervention that we see on the ground? Do you feel that there is a logical next step? Either that it does start to involve detailed planning, or building facts on the ground that respond to, or challenge, these constraints. Or at this point do you rely on political changes that allow a next step?
AP: First of all, there is this idea of trying to trace the region of the project, and to understand the possibilities of its evolution. This project was a result of a moment where Sandi [Hilal], Eyal [Weizman] and I met, and we were frustrated by our own intellectual production. At that moment we had had a few books published, but at the same time we were perceiving our own intellectual discourse as becoming a cage where you can only perpetuate this theorisation of the Israeli architecture of occupation, and just wait for the next horror that will be produced by Israel in order to write. We felt entrapped, because we didn’t have our own agenda, and we were forced to simply follow the unfolding situation. This is where DA was conceived; trying to establish an independent political agenda. An agenda linked to the reality, but located within a broader sense of history. Not the history of today and yesterday only, but of the decades that mark the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now, I would say that I perceive after two years a kind of temporary conclusion of the project, with a trilogy of projects that moved from a single settlement (P’sagot), to being engaged with a real case of decolonisation in Oush Grab, and then moving to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond the OPTs in Miska. I feel that there is a kind of unity in these that makes the project complete in a certain way. This is where we have a very delicate moment of really trying to understand the next step for DA. We are now in the phase of trying to experiment, through the university (Al-Quds), how the project will be used for the creation of a special department. We are, with the Delfina Foundation, trying to establish an art residency here, and they are willing to support that. We are now negotiating with the Bethlehem Museum to have a space there where some of our exhibitions could be displayed.
This is a moment where we are really trying to understand in which direction the project should evolve. As I said, it is clear after these two years that there is a kind of conclusion, but this is also a strong base for a new phase. This is in terms of the studio, but in terms of the political situation and how this project is linked to this. I think I already mentioned a few implications inside the PA, and with a few different NGOs, including Zochrot, taking our drawings and using the book (‘Book of Returns‘) in their meetings. So there are other levels where the project still operates. Of course it is very experimental in nature, and it can’t necessarily be thought of in terms of mainstream politics, but I hope that with a different political situation, some of these ideas could be retraced and applied. In a sense, we have to think of time not just in single years, but that some of the problems here can only be changed over decades; and it’s important to keep the traces of this work so that people can come back and continue with it. In this sense, we always see our work in continuity rather than as an isolated project; we try to locate our project within a historical political process where certain things can happen and could evolve.
As you know, here it is very difficult to understand in which direction the politics could evolve; and historically we are now in a phase where the PA for the first time is really in discussion, also inside, because of the statement of Abu Mazen [that he will step down as president at the next election] and the statement of Saeb Erekat (the PA chief negotiator) that they may abandon the PA and change the nature of the resistance struggle. So, in this sense, it’s very difficult to understand how the project will operate in the future, because the future is totally uncertain. In terms of architecture, the project has a very special condition, because normally you need a client, and you need a certain political condition, but we don’t have either.
The project is also pushing the limits of architecture, so it’s also revealing what architecture can do and what it maybe cannot do. This is specifically for Palestine, but I think it is also something that could be said in general about architecture. What is happening today in Dubai is another interesting example of how architecture sometimes produces a capitalistic utopian speculation, and then all of this ends and people are just looking for another place where they can think that what they are doing is real. In a way I don’t know how much of this architecture in Dubai is real anymore than what we are imagining here. It’s something that could be interesting in the future.
AB: It seems as though this introspection of the PA is perhaps an interesting opportunity in itself. I understand from speaking with ICAHD that the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department are in the process of trying to ‘reframe’ the conflict, so it will be interesting to see whether the work of DA will have an impact on this.