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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

INTERVIEW: WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE / We Make Money Not Art (2011)

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“Weaponized Architecture,” interview We Make Money Not Art (September 2011)

Régine Debatty: It is difficult to remain indifferent and cold when reading the reality described in the first part of the book -in which you establish the power of architecture as a political weapon. Do you think it is possible to write about the situation endured by Palestinians and remain neutral and impartial? 

I was interested in the way you describe the Western vision of the Palestinian situation because you’ve experienced it from a European as well as a US point of view. Whereas i’ve only observed it as a European living and working in Europe and i was under the impression that in Europe we are fairly more sympathetic (although irritatingly impotent) to the Palestinian cause. Reading the post you wrote after having seen a debate on French TV made me realize I might be very wrong in assuming this European ‘solidarity’. What’s your view on this? Are we so blind in Europe?

Léopold Lambert: The first question about neutrality and impartiality reveals indeed the way people think in Europe. In the difference of American policies in this matter which clearly support Israel, Europe tries to be more neutral in their decisions. However, this neutrality is the real trap. Neutrality is what maintains the status quo since 1967 by considering that both nations, Israelis and Palestinians are equally belligerent and should become more reasonable. I don’t think that a lot of people who went there with an open minded approach share this vision of things. The facts are that, at the exception of considering that (Jewish) divine law is the prevailing form of territorial justice, there is an objective and daily transgression of the international law by the State of Israel. Whether you consider this region of the world as one country hosting both people, or if you consider that there should be two states for two different populations, the legal problem reaches the same conclusion. In the former case, we can evoke a civil situation comparable to the South African one during the Apartheid (1948-1994), and in the latter case, we can observe, with the presence of about 500 000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a violation of the article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) which stipulates that the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

This illegality throws the bases of the indignation that indeed prevents and should prevent a lot of people to remain neutral. In order to enter in resistance to act against what appears as clearly antagonist to our personal –or collective- ethics, we have to “choose a side”. It does not necessarily mean that people of this “side” need to agree on every topic that are involved here –and there are a lot- but that this group of people are in solidarity to resist against what their ethics interprets as oppressive.

This is the difference between justice and resistance. Justice has to tend indeed towards impartiality and neutrality. Resistance begins with the absence of justice and engages into the concerned antagonism as a pure necessity. In other words, resistance appears to the one who is caught in this process as the only thing to do in accordance to his (her) personal system of interpretation of the world.

The Jewish people, citizens of Israel know very well this process as they have been persecuted in the worst way the human kind has ever been. However, when they constituted a State and an army –let us not forget that the three years long military service is compulsory for every male and female citizen of Israel- they became the dominant body that pathologically abuse of its power over another. What Gilles Deleuze calls the becoming (devenir) revolutionary is therefore allowed to them only if they also enter in resistance against this dominant power along with the Palestinian people and the rest of us.

Régine Debatty: The second part of the book describes a Disobedient work of architecture for two Palestinian populations. The proposal is extremely ingenious with its set of tents that camouflages the underneath dwellings and construction site. Could you describe it to us briefly?

Léopold Lambert: I will begin by describing what this particular architecture is disobeying. The 1993 Oslo Accords signed secretly by the Palestine Liberation Organization –which was pretty much transformed into the current Palestinian Authority- with Israel, organized the West Bank in three areas. Area A –and Area B to some extents- that includes the biggest Palestinian cities –except Hebron- allows the Palestinian Authority a relative territorial autonomy while Area C, on the contrary is entirely under the Israeli Army control which does not allow any form of Palestinian construction. Area A and Area B constitute islands of territory on which the Palestinians have a relative autonomy. This territory is indeed made of islands indeed as Area C occupies 63% of the West Bank and surrounds the two former areas, thus constituting what can be called metaphorically the Palestinian Archipelago.

The concrete consequences that result from this territorial repartition is that Palestinians of the West Bank cannot build and live on most of the territory that has been attributed to them by the 1949 Armistice Agreements. In addition of that, it is often difficult for them to circulate between those islands as their movement is filtered by various apparatuses of control that the Israeli State has been developing.

Those apparatuses are actually the most expressive examples of my thesis which claims that architecture is inherently political and can be either conceived or instrumentalized in order to be used as a political weapon. In the book, I establish an inventory of what I have been calling colonial apparatuses that Israel has been designing and using and still uses in order to control the Palestinian daily lives. This inventory is something that I present a little bit like a reportage but really, nobody describes them better than Eyal Weizman in his book Hollow Land.

I am approaching little by little the project here, but I still need to precise who this architecture is involving. I distinguished indeed two parts of the Palestinian population that suffer particularly from the Israeli occupation and those apparatuses I just talked about. The first one is constituted by those who live thanks to agriculture whose land has been mostly confiscated or who cannot access it; and the second one is the nomadic ethnicity of the Bedouins who are very limited in their movement.

The program of this disobedient architecture, built in the Area C near the Palestinian city of Salfit and the very large Israeli settlement of Ariel, is therefore a small agricultural platform associated with a caravansary for the Bedouins. The architecture of this building recounts its combinative strategy of camouflage and reclaim of the land. It is constituted by three layers that have different levels of fragility: a set of tents on the outside that give to the building an aspect of fragile Bedouin settlement, a concrete based agricultural platform on the land and eventually an underground dwelling connected to Area A by a tunnel.

Régine Debatty: Your scenario also involves the discovery of the Qasr by the Israeli Defense Force. Why is it important to build the Qasr if it’s likely to be left in ruins eventually?

Léopold Lambert: This part of the scenario is useful for me to state that this building was not designed as a solution to the conflict. I don’t believe that architecture can be considered in any way as a vector of resolution. Only the application of the law can veritably brings something that can be called a solution to the conflict. Architecture can be used to resist but cannot really solve problems in depth. That is what I mean by stating that architecture is systematically a weapon.

Let’s go back to the project’s scenario though. The first layer of tents would indeed be very easily destroyed by the Israeli army in case of invasion. The two others layers, however, are spatially and materially built in such a way that it would actually require a very substantial amount of energy for the I.D.F. to veritably demolish them completely. The building would therefore remain in the state of a ruin, slowly invaded by the rocks, dust and plants of the land and the children of Salfit would probably find in it a stimulating playground. In 1949, after the Nakba, the very new state of Israel destroyed systematically and absolutely all the former Arab villages on its territory in a symptomatic form of erasing the Palestinian mark on the land. Having this building remaining as a ruin is therefore a resistance to this architectural eradication and constitutes in itself a certain victory by reclaiming a piece of land.

Régine Debatty: Have you identified other existing strategies of Palestinian disobedience related to architecture and urban planning?

Léopold Lambert: In terms of disobedience relative to a practice of space, the first example that comes to my mind is the Sarhats (walks) regularly accomplished by Raja Shehadeh in Ramallah’s hills within Area C. Raja is a lawyer who works particularly within the Israeli legal system to resist against the expropriations of the Palestinian land. I interviewed him for the book about this matter. He is also an author and wrote a book entitled Palestinian Walks that recounts how he practices his freedom of movement by walking in those hills. This approach is very interesting as it is de facto non-violent yet resolutely transgressive as it escapes from most apparatuses of control.

Two other examples I can think of, which are not disobedient as such but register more in the domain of architectural resistance, both in their own way. The first one is well known to any architect who got interested in this conflict in the last decade: Decolonizing Architecture initiated and operated by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman have been conducted several projects and exhibition that question the role architecture can have to participate to the creation of a Palestinian state in the hypothesis of its emergence. Among other projects, they developed strategies of re-occupation of the Israeli settlements that would have been emptied by either a justice decision or the potential (unlikely) result of negotiations.

The second example in that matter is brought by the association Riwaq that started in 1994 to elaborate a National Register of Historic Buildings. This inventory, although it may look that is focused on the past, really organizes a present resistance to the Israeli effort to destroy Palestinian buildings but also constitutes a common heritage to the Palestinian people, and therefore something to unite about.

Régine Debatty: Do you see your book as a kind of ‘weapon’ as well?

Léopold Lambert: Yes, definitely. Although it might then be not more powerful as the small hand catapults that consisted most of the weapons the Palestinians were ever able to use against the Israeli Defense Force’s tanks and bulldozers, it still constitutes a form of resistance in itself, a refusal to submission, and therefore a contribution to the construction of a collective identity.