An interview with Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal
‘Decolonizing Architecture’ is set up as a collaboration between Eyal Weizman, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, in Bethlehem, produced by the Haudenschild Foundation. The project attempts to use architecture as an “arena of speculation” about possible futures of Palestine.
Rather than undo the power of Israel’s architecture of occupation, the project seeks to turn it on its head, reorient and thus liberate its potential, thereby dealing with the political problem of the re-use of the architecture of exclusion, violence, and control. The transformation of the suburban single-family house of Israel’s colonial architecture may thus suggest a possible repertoire of actions for the urbanization of suburbia at large.
After presenting their critically acclaimed Stateless Nation-project in the context of the Architectural Biennale di Venezia in 2003, Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal’s new project ‘Decolonizing Architecture’ is selected as a contribution to the upcoming Architectural Biennale di Venezia, Sept 14 – Nov 23 2008.
While in Bethlehem last March, movingcities interviewed Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal on the ‘Decolonizing Architecture’-project, the state of the city in Palestine, the rhetoric of the process (which is feeding nothing), architecture biennials, art, occupation, the wall and their motives to do this research and design. Utopia or Dystopia? Art or Architecture?
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Where does the name Stateless Nation comes from and how does this relates to your current project Decolonizing Architecture?
Sandi Hilal: Stateless Nation is a project that was initiated through the invitation we got from Francesco Bonami to be part of the Venice Biennial in 2003. The idea was to represent the idea of a Palestinian pavilion. So the first question we asked ourselves was how to present stateless people, or people that have no state, in a place where everybody is represented by their own state. From there we questioned, and even problematized, this notion of representation. In Venice Biennial everything is based on the notion of the nation state. So we started thinking about the traces of the statelessness of the Palestinian people. The document that Palestinians people carry with them are the main sign showing their diaspora.
You have Lebanese documents for Palestinian refugees, travel documents, Syrian or Egyptian travel documents for Palestinian refugees. Note that these are travel documents, not a passports as the word nationality is not mentioned on the passport. The Stateless Nation project was as such in contradiction with the way how one is normally presented in the context of the Venice Biennial. So we made passports and spread them all over the Biennial site. Afterwards it had many other evolution and installations and became a certain kind of history for us after the start of Decolonizing Architecture. The project had a rather analytical nature which looks at the situation, represents and tries to understand it. With Decolonizing Architecture we enter the phase, a natural evolution, after this analysis and try understand how can we go further.
When I was two and half years ago in Ramallah you had the Roadmap [no longer online at birzeit.edu] exhibition in the Birzeit University. This project measured the shifting notions of time and space that were instigated by border controls, passport control,… But it seems to me that the essence of a passport in this territory is to move bodies, not necessarily a registration of the belonging to the territory itself as you analysed in the Stateless Nation project. Can I call you a Palestinian citizen?
SH: No, I am stateless. Absolutely.
How do the borders affect the perception of space here?
SH: In today’s reality here you have a clear idea of where the border of your presence is. It is so clear, you almost do not question it any more. A baby of 2 is able to tell you where the borders of the city are. As such it is already perceived as a presence. This was different when we did the Roadmap and Stateless Nation project, as there was still a mechanism of resistance, even if it is not resisting the borders. Today these borders are walls, a series of checkpoints, border stations. The earlier days there was a daily resistance and during all these previous years they managed to make them official and institutionalize these borders till the point that we perceive that these borders are already like this, just like that. It is the new superimposed reality.
How does this condition has challenged your notion of what a city is, what architecture does to people, what space is?
Alessandro Petti: There was a moment when in books and media, the main focus was on the rhetoric of global cities, on flows, on the dimension of the city as non-permanent element. Even architecture aspired to transform and reinvent itself according to the idea of movement. Till today this notion is clashing with my everyday life and experience. From then on I questioned the relation between all this theoretical discourse and my personal experience, especially with Sandi, when you have a good passport, you perceive the space in different ways. But the majority of the people here perceive the city and the state borders really strongly.
The reality is that only an elite of people, an elite of people conceptualizing and holding this discourse in a deadlock, describes the city and contemporary space as free and fluid space, all this rhetoric of borderless. After 911 everybody woke up and these systems collapsed. After that moment, some scholars and architects argued that this representation is partially wrong, I am not saying it is totally wrong, because it is true that financial districts and some off-shore island are really connected to each other. At the same time the majority of people are living a life based on local space, very traditional, within four walls, windows and doors, which has nothing to do with blob architecture nor virtual reality.
The idea that the body and the state nationality are disappearing was counterbalanced by the discovery that it is not like that. From there on we really started to research the contemporary understanding of everyday life, mine included. What does it mean to cross the border with Sandi when I can go to certain gates and she can not. My everyday life is completely different from some literature. I started the PhD in Venice and after my first year I moved back here. There was an interesting reaction on the first draft for my book, with the edit of one sentence, which describes this move. I wrote I come back in Palestine, and the editor wanted to correct into I went to Palestine. My presence here has changed totally my discourse, theory on cities.
For sure the contemporary city is build on the idea of the networks, on the notion of flux but also we see how this links to the fortification of the state, all these roads, highways, roads and networks have to be protected. So you have a special access to that. In my understand what is emerging is at odds with the rhetoric of the modern city, which is rational, accessible. And this is why this place is interesting as it is an extreme case of a more global condition, that it seems now, especially after 911 with this rhetoric of security, all the cities to transforming according to this paradigm.
The work you are doing inscribes itself in a political framework. It seems to me you are putting yourself in the center of a political and territorial debate and then you communicate that within the architectural community. As you get reactions to that, what are to you the main misconceptions people have of your work?
AP: Personally I do not take to much into consideration a possible public, or how they will react. Firstly I do something because I believe this makes sense for me. Exhibitions and developing projects are a way to inhabit the place where we live. When finishing my PhD and publishing the book, it was both a celebration and a moment of deep crisis. This dealt with the question how to stay here, as it seemed there was no more need, the possible absence of a very strong relation with the place. We started the Decolonizing Architecture project as a way to inhabit the place, to have an active position, instead of being passive. Part of our audience is an art audience and they say this is not art, than an architecture audience and than they say this not architecture, than an academic audience and they say this is not academically correct. As such you find yourself always surrounded by tensions and problems. But at the other hand I like more the art world because it allows something that in another field you would not be allowed to do.
SH: Even if it is difficult within the political sphere, because as you are saying, it might appear like a project with a political implication, it is still difficult and complicated to involve political people. A lot of people ask us if we want to involve politics in the project and actually we think that in a way it is not the time, we must elaborate our best scenario’s and even if you want to put it as a ground utopia, which is a utopia based on something really on the ground, we think it is up to the politicians to approach us and benefit from this project.
AP: Fanon once stated about politics that the politician positions itself in the present and the intellectual in the history. We are not obsessed by the actual political discussion but by putting our own way of doing in the historical moment.
What role does real-estate development plays in the direction this territory is taking?
SH: As said this project is just as an utopia. People feel that this a utopia that might happen. Especially with all our interviews, the first reaction is the kind of smile, and one of maybe I can think about the settlements in front of my house and what really what I would love to do and how this might be transformed. But this is still far away from the minds of people, even the politicians and real estate, that is why we call it a grounded utopia, it might happen. That is why we do not touch to much the arena of economical speculation.
AP: The real estate has contaminated the state itself. Like the Israeli State, it operates as a real Estate, they decide to build settlements, they ask to private to put money, and basically they are the investors. The same goes for Dubai, Dubai has the same strange post-modern structures, there is the state and than you discover that real estate are just arms of the state. There is no distinction, not something that separates it from the state, it is completely connected, it are the same guys. If the state decides to build settlements or if the state decides to build off-shore, somebody will implement this. These are the same power and structures, it embodies the real state, if you want.
Sandi, during the past days you talked about this momentum you are feeling amongst Palestinian architects and attempts to connect with each other and work together. What does this analysis comes from and how do you with the Decolonizing Architecture project contribute to this?
SH: We are a group of architects, urban planners, urban sociologists, all Palestinian or in a way or another, like Alessandro, have passed the last years in Palestine. So in a way we are totally involved in the Palestinian perspective of this situation. Currently you have this huge problem how to deal with architecture as architecture here is very clearly a political tool and an urban planning tool. That coincides with the fact that in the past years there was a large Israeli discourse about settlements, about architecture and politics. Some of them described in a brilliant way how Israel uses architecture to colonize the territory. What we see now is the attempt within the Palestinian society to have their own discourse about the issue. Even if it is in this case, like our partner Eyal Weizman, one is part of it. This is where I feel a very strong moment here on the ground among different types of Palestinians that have a West bank idea, that have a Jerusalem identity card, Palestinians that have an Israeli passport… In a way we all have different legal status but still feel we need a common discourse, an awareness of how we could be active in front of such colonial conditions. So what is our role as architect? How can we be active? And not passive or reactionary to such a heavy colonial occupation.
A type of network organizing itself in order to be active.
SH: You can put it that way.
Is Decolonizing Architecture a prototype and how does it become a study on the ground itself?
SH: What is very important in this project is to understand that this is a platform. For me resultants are less important. When we talk about the architecture, the result is the main issue. In this case it is not the result, it is the process and the platform. It is incredible to see the attraction from different parts to this project. Similar projects are instigated within the Westbank and as such attract each other. Of course there are other ways of thinking and doing, but still there is a kind of platform and awareness within the Palestinian society, ngo’s and intellectuals about an important issue that must be tested.
Your space here in Bethlehem is a space for gathering and connecting different global and local moving mind. People like us come in and go out on a frequent basis. How do you practically foresee to connect those people?
SH: This space is a process in operation. It was our idea from the beginning as we were here all the time and we, as Alessandro says, embody the state and can freely work in it. A lot of people whom we work with want to come to Palestine because it is a focal point in their study, in the development of their intellectual knowledge. And they do not want to come like tourists. They come here to be active, so we offer a kind of place. We do not need to make any publicity about this because we are approached by different people that know about the residency by word of mouth. This project began as an architectural project between us and Eyal Weizman in London. Soon after we discovered that it is absolutely not this what the project is about, it is more a project capable of absorbing all kind of capacities, from the Palestinian society and from abroad. As much as we can we involve locals. With Eyal we thought to make a call for residency and then we discovered this does not makes no sense at all, as we can’t absorb more people than we already have in a informal way. This shows you how much this project is able to attract energies from all over.
AP: For example the photographer Armin Linke was interested in the project. We started to record with him this 3D-video inside the settlements. He will come back in April to finish and edit the work with us. This is one of the examples how each relation can develop something, with him it was more developing the visual part of the project. With locals, with engineers we are trying to develop the project in relation with infrastructure, how to re-use the water, expansion, how to change the degree of flexibility of the house. These days we are working with the Wildlife Association, and with them we are trying to explore the idea of naturalization of the settlements. Each time it is a different way of working because it depends on the integrity of the relation in itself, the idea that you can continue to work using all the technologies that are possible and necessary, but also to find other moments.
The last time Senan Abdelqader and Eyal Weizman discussed the project in China. While they were part of the ORDOS100-project they discussed for three days the project. That is what we discover as in the beginning this wasn’t planned, it wasn’t the idea, we had the idea we are active and we can do a kind of project. After that we found out that, first this was boring, second it was important to connect this with the sphere of the local things, which can be sometimes very frustrating. Sometimes you feel everything is without hope and too complicated and then you have suddenly this energy from outside. Like with your presence here bringing in other ideas about the city, about the Chinese city. So the question is how these two things can be combined. We try to be both super-local, precise and general, to see the dynamics, both practical and theoretical.
Could you explain us the essence of Decolonizing Architecture. What is the starting point and the objective?
SH: The platform, and all our relation with local and international actors, is the purpose of decolonization, because decolonizing begins from the moment you have the ability to decolonize something. Palestinians are not planning because planning something means that you have the future in your hands. Palestinians still think they have no rights to plan their future because the occupier is already taking care of planning their future. This project gives the possibility of a platform where the local community and the Palestinian can plan their own future. For us this is a very important step of decolonizing, beginning to decolonize our mind and to think that we have the right to plan. We discover that there are ways to do it much better than to think about result, an exhibition, or whatever we are believing and discovering. The process itself and all what is happening around, the arena of speculation is much more interesting than what the results might be.
AP: I must disagree.
SH: (laughs) He is the architect… But I would like to understand why AP disagrees.
AP: Especially in the art world this rhetoric of the process is feeding nothing. It is based on the idea that I can lie in the bed, do nothing, cook, email, meet people, do that, do this,… To me it is important to have also productive style, if you do not have the object, you can’t do anything. The process is an interesting work on the surface but seldom becomes a superficial engagement. I do want to produce something also a form. You have to let the form speak, have something where I don’t need to say a word and you can understand, this is partially the idea.
In the text we read about Decolonizing Architecture there was the notion of the diaspora and your plan to interview the settlers and people all over the world with a claim on this territory. Did you find them already?
SH: This is an important aspect of the project, which we call investigation aspect. When we arrived at this place, the first question you must ask is if you want to work on the landownership. This is a very hot topic. And we can absolutely not think about anything if you not verify the whole issue of the landownership. In a way they exist before 1967, to whom was this land, when we arrive to the municipality in Ramallah people were all the time saying this plan belongs to the Kuwaiti people. So we asked who are these Kuwaiti-people and why is this belonging to them? At the end we arrived to the conclusion, thanks to some people that have documents, that this land was not actually for Kuwaitis, but was bought by the municipality of Jerusalem at that time, before the occupation. This land was intended for a plan for a resort for Kuwaiti people that use to come to Ramallah. But in the end the land was registered for the municipality. I think that some Kuwaiti even bought some land from the municipality but still from an Islamic point of view, this land is for the municipality of Jerusalem, and so in way there are no ways to understand who are the Kuwaiti people. They were more an excuse to reclaim but what we think it would be interesting to take this more serious. We are thinking to interview them and understand the fact that they are already educated in the US and ask them what are their aspirations with this land.
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Links: Decolonizing Architecture | Call for Architects, Designers, Artists; Stateless Nation: The Haudenschild Foundation; Armin Linke; Senan Abdelqader
Snapshots by movingcities in Palestine: Bethlehem, Beit Sahour , Bethlehem Wall.
(back to movingcities interviews page)