Critical Proximity

Through a series of entangled instances of history and architecture in Palestine, the book edited by Petti, Hilal and Weizman asks the question: “what is decolonization today?”

Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman, Architecture after Revolution , Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2013, pp. 206, € 25.
Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) is a unique model of interventionary practice established by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman operating from and within Beit Sahour, Palestine. Architecture After Revolution presents a collection of stories that make a robust and compelling case for architecture to be conceived of as a situated instrument of political practice.

The book is arranged into five chapters, though as each one is in fact many, it would be unjust to reflect on them as individual projects but rather as the articulation of a singular project. Through a series of entangled instances of history and architecture, the immanent significance of political terms within present-day Palestine are teased out. By polemically employing the concept of ‘colonization’ as a framework the present is made decipherable as the ground for political action while formulating what is at stake when we consider notions of justice in such charged environments.

Cover of the book
The work begins by situating itself within the recent evacuation of Israel from Palestinian zones and speculates on its continuation. By asking the question “what is decolonization today?” (p.18) the authors develop a politics of subversion by considering architecture as a temporal assemblage that cannot simply be forgotten nor reused, but instead demands to be critically reckoned with. Buildings are treated as “optics from which to investigate and probe the political, legal, and social force fields” (p.35) with the ultimate goal of “[provoking] politics to reveal itself and act upon it” (p.25). The projects investigate the built environment as a vessel, one that constitutes a historical time by bringing the past into the present, and as such, the material for constructing a just future.
Central to the project is a methodological reflection on its own ambitions. If decolonization is the intention, it is first and foremost imperative to ensure that intervening does not repeat the colonial gestures that instantiated the political situation being addressed in the first place. Taking influence from the concept of “profanation” in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, their work seeks to “liberate the common from the control of authoritarian regimes, neo-colonialism and consumer societies” (p.183) and architecturally formulate “a set of new propositions and re-activations of common uses” (p.184).
Although subtle, the practice’s Marxist tone shows itself at moments, such as in the explicit identification of the refugee as the political subject of decolonization. Drawing from its contemporary political definition, the refugee has an inherent “moral and historical claim” (p.44) for the right of return[1], posited as decolonialization’s foundational act. Yet the work begins from the problematic recognition of the fact that the subject and place of returns has been irrevocably altered since the original event of exile. The practice is therefore constituted as an “arena of speculation” for the discovery of what is at stake when we speak of the right to return. Towards these ends, architecture is not only indispensible for “opening the imagination” by inviting speculative participation into the future of the built environment, but also the privileged medium for actualizing returns.
The situation of return between the refugee camp of Dheisheh and the destroyed village of Miska is taken as a prototypical case study in which the subject returning and the locations returning to and from can be easily identified. A careful investigation of the camp’s urban milieu that has accrued over the past 65 years as well as the physical remnants of Miska result in a doubled notion of identity. This demands the mirroring of any intervention in both sites and results in the inverted transplantation of one site onto the other in a way that unhinges the potential of the present for what could be to come.
As the narrative advances, the projects set out to explore more complicated examples of refugeeness, such as in the case of a building complex in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. In this instance there is no population returning to a place, but instead an architecture that claims to render the past in the present. While not making an architectural proposal for the museum that currently stands on its site, the authors build a case through the minute reconstruction of photographic evidence that proves disingenuity in what the building claims itself to be. The architectural narration of a false history of one monolithic structure instead of three densely interwoven buildings effectively impedes the urban conditions of return by mystifying the place being returned to, and subsequently forsaking the potential of a convivial city.
The remaining chapters seek to repurpose colonial remnants, in which a housing subdivision, a military base and a parliament are taken as examples. What is most striking about these interventions is their demonstration that “colonial architecture doesn’t necessarily reproduce the functions for which it was designed” (p.21). Despite the built environment’s implication in political regimes and the weight it may carry as “real existing colonialism”, architectural form retains a powerful degree of neutral propensity that cannot be subsumed. The exemplary work of DAAR proves the value of architectural speculation in its capacity to create an opening towards a tangible future from the dirty and “less-than-ideal” grounds of the present.
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Notes :
1. “The term right of return refers to a principle of international law, codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, giving any person the right to return to, and re-enter, his or her country of origin.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_return

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