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Decolonizing Architecture


The morning after.

The first moment of access to the colonies and to the military bases is a possible moment of transgression whose consequences are unpredictable. Although in the Gaza Strip it was the Israelis who demolished most of the buildings, those buildings left intact were mostly destroyed by the Palestinians. The morning after the military left Palestinians destroyed the space and carried out as many remnants of building materials they could use and carry. This destruction is a spontaneous architectural moment of re-appropriation, and as such we believe that it should not be prevented or controlled. It is only after the indeterminate result of this moment of first encounter, and within the possible rubble of its physical results, that architectural construction may begin. This moment of first access questions the conception of architecture and urban planning. The acceptable precondition for planning is a situation of spatial and political certainty – a clear site demarcation, a schedule, a client and a budget. The erratic nature of Israeli control and the unpredictable military and political developments on the ground renders Palestine an environment of high uncertainty and indeterminacy. Planning in such conditions could not appeal to any tested professional methods.


From Les damnés de la terre, Frantz Fanon (1961):

Violent act: 
National liberation, national reawakening, the restoration of nationhood to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event. At whatever level we study it […] decolonization is quite simply the substitution of one ’species’ of mankind by another. The substitution is unconditional, absolute, total and seamless. […]

Tabula rasa
: To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s city, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.

Eyal Weizman:
 You cannot think of transformation of space without a moment of transgression, of revolution. This moment is necessary in our process of decolonization. You cannot think of this moment without some destruction of the buildings. This was very clear in the military camp. The first moment of access is as well the first moment of transgression. This decolonizing moment is something that we cannot and should not control. The worst thing on our part would be to say to people, ‘Ok, you have access but now we are going to control it.’ There needs be this moment of spontaneity. This recalls the evacuation of Gaza. The only thing that was not destroyed by Israel was the synagogues. The Israeli court decided they must be left. When the Palestinians came into the settlements these synagogues were destroyed. This project has a kind of inbuilt paradox: we are designing on an indeterminate plane. We do not know what happens after the access, destruction? Perhaps… We are at the point of indeterminacy, because we cannot attempt to control this moment. The Palestinians need to enter the settlement and do whatever they want.

We call this transgression because it is the moment between the transfer of one set of laws to another set of laws. It is the most architectural moment, it is the most spontaneous moment in anyone’s relation to architecture. In Gaza, James Wolfenson took half a million dollars of his own money and collected some more to buy the greenhouses from the settlements to give to the Palestinians. When the Palestinians had access to the settlements, they destroyed them. Although they were bought for them and they could have used them, there was nothing else to destroy. This is not a moment of rationality, of planning for the future. It is a spontaneous outbreak. Some people I spoke with in Gaza described it as a kind of exorcism.

This revolutionary moment is a crucial moment and any project that deals with the settlements will have to address this point. In some ways I have been trying to avoid it. I was hoping that maybe the new Palestinian Authority will be ready for this moment and that people will not have to be violent and this transgression will not be necessary.

 Historically, there is seldom change from one system to another without an act which is somehow violent. It need not be physically or spectacularly violent, but there is a kind of break.

It is an unpredictable moment of excess, of interference. The site we imagine now is not the site that we will get. If we were working like ARIJ, in a very institutional manner, we would be missing the crucial moment of transition. The last thing we should do is to intervene or define this unpredictability. But we do not know, the act of destruction could be done by the Israelis, could be done by the Palestinians, it could be done by both sequentially or simultaneously.

Sandi Hilal:
 Exactly what we were discussing at the military camp. Looking at the destruction of the buildings we thought at first that the Israelis destroyed it, but then we thought it could have been done by the Palestinians. It was a kind of confusion, because both of them could have done it.

Alessandro Petti: 
It will be a chaotic moment; there is a tension in the society that could be violent or unpredictable. At the same time, the action also could be categorized as re-appropriation or constructive. I imagine there will be some destructive actions, based on frustration, but there will also be some practices where you can already see the re-appropriation of the space. The idea that now you can have new life here. Gaza needs to be investigated in these terms. The act of destruction is also the moment that they very practically stole things, not for ideology or frustration, but to reuse.

EW: The destruction of the settlements appears in houses in Gaza. You can see pieces of the red tiles, doorframes, and window frames all reused in Gaza houses.

 This is re-appropriation, not destruction. When there was this moment in Gaza, the majority of people were transgressing this barrier, in a very positive way. At the same time there were people shooting in the air and yelling, and it almost devastated this moment of transgression, which alone was quite strong. When you do something new, you have people only interested in devastation. Because some people have access to weapons, means they could also force a kind of repression again on people.

 Think about why people would destroy their own greenhouses, greenhouses that were bought for them. Because they don’t accept the order that has been put on them, they don’t accept the World Bank or their deal. Even in this completely chaotic moment there is a real power and meaning to this.

How do you then activate a kind of positive practice in this moment?

For me the destruction of the settlements could be a positive start, especially if you think of it as the first stage in the transformation of the built environment. This is the break; a radically different moment.

This undoes the traditional terms of planning and architecture. Architecture needs some ground of determinacy: site, timeframe, and budget. Here we operate with maximum indeterminacy. How do you put design energy into such indeterminacy? This is the reason that our design seeks to intervene in the field of cultural sensibility which is a public, cultural and political category. It is seeking to explore the possibility of transformation. Whenever it happens, there will be a theoretical thinking that has developed and that allows us to approach the situation in certain ways. Against the field of indeterminacy our approach is to define the field of the possible, to imagine what is possible.

Paradoxically, one of the perceived strengths of this project is that it plans ahead. As Palestinians we are always reacting and in this project we are planning.

What could be our strategy? What can we plan? Because if we have too many ideas in this determinacy, then we cannot plan. Where we will enter in the project? What are the basic structures that will allow us to present some evidence. How will this integrity be used?

I’ve seen many places, modernist and very rational. Planned for two families and kids and it was used in a very different way. Planning does not always determine how the space will be used. In the settlements we would be using very determinate structures and turning them into more flexible spaces.

Again, I think it is important to see architecture as an arena of speculation. From the moment we start working with NGOs on the ground, with certain examples. Would this determine the moment of the break? We can’t expect that because of the NGOs and the people on the ground, the revolutionary moment will not happen. But it might influence it or raise questions. Does architecture as speculation determine historical moments? Is the project aiming to intervene on this moment, directly or indirectly?

There are 700,000 buildings that Israel has put in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We don’t have stop at the Occupied Territories; there are a number of community settlements inside Israel that justifiably should be decolonized. But the numbers of typologies of the buildings are very limited, so the intervention on specific details – doors, windows – allows to do political work on a different scale. It is like affecting politics on the level of atoms.


Eyal Weizman: 
To inhabit a subject, or have research embodied in yourself is to be part of the particular constellation of forces in the area of your research. Research is thus written from within. You have various entry points into describing a particular reality. One’s practice is producing the information that you are writing on. Research is not prior to practice. You are living it, part of it; the subject is embodied in you. The body is very important in this, where you are, where you have chosen to position yourself.

Alessandro Petti: 
A platform where people are involved and have their own space. It is a form of inhabitation inside the project. Without this it would be difficult for me to live here. I am not passive; I feel that I can do something. I can work on two levels, my personal life and what I can research and theorize.

Sandi Hilal: 
Inhabiting the research is a kind of resistance. I participated in the First Intifada and my thinking about resistance was in that direction. Now my resistance is different, it makes no sense to stay here without resistance. By inhabiting the project this way, it is a cultural resistance.


A crucial issue in this project is land ownership. The buildings of the colony of P’sagot, much like in many such other colonies, are built upon land that either belonged to Palestinian families, i.e. private lands, or on public land that was used by Palestinians for recreation purposes or for the development of their public needs, i.e. public lands. There are various types of ‘private’ and ‘public’ lands but we would not expand on this issue at present. It depends on the disactivation of the Israeli land regime and the reinstatement of lands to their owners.

Tracing the land ownership in and around the settlement has lead to a challenging and unexpected part of the project – finding those families and individuals which own land on which part of the settlement is now located. Our investigation, still in process, traced some of the Palestinian landowners in the US, Australia, Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and of course in Palestine closer at hand. Their private and family histories are the intertwined histories of Palestine and of its displaced communities, forced out by the occupation and by economic and professional opportunities overseas. Our project thus seeks to re-discover the history of the land silenced by the massive development of the colony, allowing the fragments of land to ‘tell their story.’ In this section of the project – the fate of the settlement to be decolonized – stands as the narrative devise for a multiplicity of private histories.

We engaged as well in interviews with the Jewish residents of the settlement, many of whom arrived from the US to settle the occupied territories.

In this growing archive of filmed interviews/testimonies, Jabal Tawil / P’sagot will be presented as the gravitational centre of various orbits, near and far, of displaced communities, individuals; migrations and family connections. The filmed archive of these interviews would create thus a microcosm of the conflict between Jews and Arabs and the intermeshed and reciprocal extra-territoriality of their diasporas that both fed the conflict and that was created by it.


The project is organized around a series of weekly meetings with representative of various organizations and individuals. Each Saturday, we host a meeting of representatives of various organizations and individuals regarding this issue. Amongst these guests are stake holders in this transformations – members of a variety of NGOs, private organizations, public institutions, refugee associations, culture and art institutions, private landowners, architects, planners, writers, journalists, academics etc. The idea is to set up an ‘architectural playground’ of negotiations, an arena of speculation, in which different actors could simulated and evaluated a set of scenarios for possible transformation. These meetings are video-recorded.


Sandi Hilal:
 Stateless and NGO, for me are two terms that are connected. The Palestinians are under a kind of stateless regime. Before the First Intifada (1987-1993) we were totally dependent on Israel. Our civil society was not strong, we were even considered by the others in the Palestinian scene to be the sleeping people in the West Bank. And then suddenly the First Intifada came and we started acting collectively for justice. This was the beginning of building a very strong civil society in Palestine. It is still a crucial period in our lives. I studied for three years in informal schools because the schools were closed. So the Palestinian society organized themselves and created these schools, illegal informal schools, in their garages. This permitted us to go to school, even under curfew. We managed to plant and share gardens in any empty lands around our homes. Here we began to form a strong civil society. Then the Palestinian Authority came in and there was a clash between leaders. How was the Palestinian Authority supposed to take control over people that had governed themselves for many years during the First Intifada? The only way to continue and strengthen this kind of civil society and allow for the Palestinian Authority was through the NGO structure. This is why the West Bank is called the NGO Society. NGOs cover many parts of the Palestinian society that the Authority cannot cover. They work parallel to each other.

The leaders in the West Bank found themselves more suitable to be the directors of NGOs than to be politicians in the Authority. That is why you have Mustafa Barghouthi leading a health network. You will find all the Popular Front leaders in a position of leading NGOs.

I don’t want to criticize the Palestinian Authority because they don’t even have the possibility to act as a government. They are not a state and they find themselves in a situation where they have to govern without the instruments of a nation or state. The NGOs are leading the social society in all sectors; they are doing the work on the ground. If we want to work on a scenario where the people are active in Decolonizing Architecture, the NGOs are the best entrance to the Palestinian people.


We believe that any act of decolonization must include interventions in the field of vision. The settlements are organized as optical devices on suburban scale. Their pattern of streets as concentric rings around the hilltop, the placement of each house, the space between the houses and the organization of windows and rooms follow design principles that seek to maximize the power of vision with both ideological and strategic aims in mind.
The pastoral view out of home windows reinforces a sense of national belonging when it reads traces of Palestinian daily lives – olive groves, stone terraces, livestock – as signifiers of an ancient holy landscape. The view is also strategic in overseeing tactical roadways and surveying the Palestinian cities and refugee camps. The visual affect of the settlements on Palestinians is in generating a constant sense of being seen. From Palestinian cities one can hardly avoid seeing a settlement, and one is most often seen by one.

Because the organization of homes is directed towards the surrounding view, the main door into each settlement home is approached from the inner areas of the settlement. Entering the home one moves into the living areas and the main window which opens onto the landscape. But what happens if the people that should now be arriving at these houses are those formerly ‘composing the view?’ What if the new user would now approach the house from the view? Our response is a small-scale intervention. We propose to change the direction of the front door to face, not the inner areas of the settlement but the Palestinian cities. Changing the direction from which one enters the house, also alters the spatial syntax of its interior. This small-scale intervention is ‘cinematic’ in the sense that it is an intervention in the framing of the conditions of vision and in directing ways of seeing. It reorganizes the field of the visible, a perspective folded onto itself.

Eyal Weizman:
 The urban, suburban, layout of the settlement as an optical device designed for vision. This organizes the architecture of the house and of the colony. But as well, as we saw today in the military base, the architecture of the military. Quite simply it is designed to oversee things. The act of de-colonization is an intervention in the field of vision. If we see the colony structure as an optical device on an urban scale, the idea of vision must be subverted – turned on its head. For example, what is the settlement looking on? They are looking on the Palestinian towns and villages. Obviously for control and supervision. But now this same vision could be charged with another contents. The idea of de-colonization as an intervention in the field of vision, is not only about physical occupation. How do you own something through vision? How do you participate in the landscape through vision?

The settlers vision is ambivalent in relation to the landscape. There is a kind of contradiction when they speak about visibility. With their open kind of vision, everything is visible but cannot be accessed. This interplay is rather curious, because on the one hand, there is an admiration on the part of the settlers of the authenticity of the Palestinians. As well as the desire to displace them. There is a kind of contradiction in their field of vision. I think about decolonization as not only change of use, but as intervention in the field of vision.

Sandi Hilal:
 When Eyal was speaking I was thinking about this road we call Wadi Nar Road, which means Road of the Fire. They call it this because it is a very difficult way that we have to go around the hills and the desert. At other times when we were able to go through Jerusalem to Ramallah, to go to Tel Aviv, we weren’t using that part of the desert. It wasn’t accessible; you went only to walk there. It was not part of our surroundings, our imagination. All these roads closed with Oslo at the beginning of the 90s and we could not go to or through Jerusalem. So they opened this bypass road through the desert. The first time I drove on this road I had mixed feeling. On the one hand I was angry for having to travel on this road because of colonial decision, but at the same time, it is one of the most beautiful roads I had ever seen, and the desert has entered my geography again. The road goes through the hills. It brings us back to what is seen as the ‘authentic’ Palestinian landscape. And if I had to suggest the most ‘typical’ landscape of Palestine, I might have suggested this road.

 When we were today at the military base or yesterday at the top of the colony. You can see Palestine from these places, and I think this de-colonization of these sites would open new ways of seeing Palestine. What does it mean to take a vision of control and turn it into a vision of another nature, which is part of your own landscape? If there is something in the settlement that we need to know how to use, it is that possibility to see, to see from there. By using topography in a different way we reopen the landscape.

Decolonizing Architecture

DAAR is an art and architecture collective and a residency programme based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. DAAR’s work combines discourse, spatial intervention, education, collective learning, public meetings and legal challenges. DAAR’s practice is centred on one of the most difficult dilemmas of political practice: how to act both propositionally and critically within an environment in which the political force field is so dramatically distorted. It proposes the subversion, reuse, profanation and recycling of the existing infrastructure of a colonial occupation. DAAR projects have been shown showed in various biennales and museums, among them Venice Biennale, the Bozar in Brussels, NGBK in Berlin, the Istanbul Biennial, the Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, Home Works in Beirut, Architekturforum Tirol in Innsbruk, the Tate in London, the Oslo Triennial, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and many other places. DAAR’s members have taught lectured and published internationally. In 2010 DAAR was awarded the Price Claus Prize for Architecture, received Art initiative Grant, and shortlisted for the Chrnikov Prize.

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