Critic’s notebook: ‘Decolonizing Architecture’ at REDCAT gallery
I had a review of “Decolonizing Architecture” pretty much ready to go. Then events in Egypt intervened.
I don’t mean that watching protesters in Cairo kept me from finishing a piece on the exhibition, which features the work of an architectural research studio based in the Palestinian city of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, and runs through Sunday at the REDCAT Gallery downtown.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Decolonizing Architecture”: A review of the exhibition “Decolonizing Architecture” in the Feb. 2 Calendar section implied that Israel continues to occupy the Gaza Strip. In fact, Israeli forces pulled out of the area in 2005. —
OK, I sort of do mean that: The Egypt images have been riveting for anybody interested in the relationship between political tensions and the spaces of the contemporary city. But mostly what I’m getting at is that it seems impossible to avoid reevaluating the show in light of the growing protests, which began in Tunisia before spreading to Egypt and, as of Tuesday, to Jordan.
In that context the exhibition somehow seems both more and less relevant, more and less pressing, than it did when it first opened. Compared with the typical museum show on architecture, this one is sharply political and eager for genuine engagement with the real world, beyond the isolated silos of theoretical architecture. Its focus — how to think about the future of the architecture and infrastructure of Israel’s occupied territories — seems especially timely now that the entire region has been thrown into acute political uncertainty.
Seen in the shadow of a televised, honest-to-goodness revolution, on the other hand, the show can’t help but seem mostly speculative — and a little tame, despite its occasional bouts of revolutionary rhetoric — by comparison.
Overseen by REDCAT gallery director Clara Kim and featuring work by the architects Eyal Weizman, Sandi Hillal and Alessandro Petti (and their students and colleagues), “Decolonizing Architecture” is driven by a simple but provocative question: If and when Israel decides, or is compelled, to leave the occupied territories in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, what should returning Palestinians do with the buildings, roads and bridges the army and the settlers leave behind? Should they destroy them as a painful symbol of occupation, simply reuse them or figure out ways to reconfigure or transform them?
In Cairo, of course, there has been a clear urban and architectural dimension to the protests, as massive crowds — sometimes tentatively, sometimes in a rush — move to claim spaces once controlled by the police or the army, and then are faced with the question of how to treat those spaces in the short term and, theoretically, for the long term as well. Indeed, the clearest link between Egypt and the exhibition is best expressed this way: Once you’ve won the city back, what do you do with it?
This is at once a practical, tactical and broadly political question, of course, and in the show the emphasis throughout is on a certain philosophical preparedness. As we in Southern California periodically force ourselves to prepare for earthquakes, so the show seeks to get Palestinians prepared, mentally and strategically, for the possibility of reoccupying land in the West Bank and Gaza.
Some of that land has been transformed in dramatic fashion while in Israeli hands. The government has extended infrastructural support to the settlements in the form of roads, electricity, water and security. The settlements themselves, surprisingly enough, are often filled with a kind of storybook suburban architecture: single-family houses with pitched, red-tiled roofs.
In “How to Inhabit Your Enemy’s House,” the most compelling of the three themed rooms that make up the REDCAT show, the architects explore a range of ways to reimagine those houses. One large model shows them dramatically opened up and linked together, their pitched roofs made flat and usable: suburban detachment turned into a collective urbanism.
In “Return to Nature,” the architects propose allowing an old military fortress abandoned by the Israeli army, and periodically occupied by new groups of settlers, to be closed to people and instead operate as a bird sanctuary whose concrete shell will deteriorate over time.
The show’s final room, “The Red Castle and the Lawless Line,” takes a boundary between Palestinian and Israeli sections of the West Bank, drawn on maps during the Oslo peace talks, and tries to trace its literal path on the ground. On the Oslo maps a narrow strip less than a millimeter wide, the line becomes in the real world a strip more than 15 feet across.
The show tells us that this territory, theoretically both neutral and empty, actually runs “across fields, olive and fruit orchards, roads, gardens, kindergartens, fences, terraces, homes, public buildings, a football stadium, a mosque and finally a recently constructed large castle.” The architects propose treating it as a new kind of unregulated area in this most regulated of architectural contexts, “a thin but powerful space for potential political transformations.”
One of the striking elements of the Egyptian uprising has been the degree to which many of the young protest leaders have operated without obvious ties to existing opposition leaders and their predictable rhetoric and fixed positions. And it’s in this context that “Decolonizing Architecture” seems most inflexible: The title of the show alone, with its focus on “colonization,” is a throwback, and some of the wall text and other materials that accompany the show tip into opaque academic jargon.
Still, with its clear focus on engagement — the architects write that their research “does not start from a utopian image but rather what already exists” — the exhibition is part of a new wave of projects and museum shows that are helping to redefine what political architecture means and can be. For much of the 1990s and 2000s the profession’s political wing was hijacked by a group of theorists whose goal seemed to be to make their work as inaccessible and detached from the real lives of cities as possible. But in the last few years a new rising generation of architects has been making clear that the most productive political architecture keeps its theoretical ambitions high while also seeking to be genuinely active and engaged on the ground.
The exhibition also signals a departure: It will be the final architecture show at REDCAT organized by Kim, who has announced that she’ll be leaving Los Angeles for a curatorial position at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. For REDCAT, Kim developed a number of modestly sized exhibitions, including one two years ago on Tokyo architects Atelier Bow-Wow, that nonetheless packed a significant punch.
“Decolonizing Architecture” is happily more of the same, a rather spare-looking show that manages not only to succeed on its own immediate terms but to tap into larger debates in the architecture world and in the political sphere. As swan songs go, it’s a pretty impressive one.
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