Jun 5, 2010

Notes on N.O.: Using a Pragmatic Standard to Evaluate Political Design

I started out looking for examples of architecture and design that had had real political effects in the world. Political and social claims should be judged by a strict pragmatic standard: did the work have demonstrable consequences that supported its rhetoric. This was meant as a critique of a previous generation of architecture and architectural criticism that took representational and symbolic formal gestures to be politically significant. I wanted to be as literal as possible about what I meant by politics. Ideally these would be works or projects that could be proven to not only have a social impact (local demonstration projects, for instance) but to effect political systems and governance.

In September 2000, for an article that would appear in the November issue of Metropolis, I wrote about the use of a graphic image of the fist by the Otpor movement in the former Yugoslavia as a symbol of resistance against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It was a small forgettable news story for a small trade magazine reported from my desk in New York, but it turned out to be hugely consequential as an example. The fist graphic was being spray-painted in graffiti around the country, printed on T-shirts, carried on protest flags, used as banners at rock concerts. Kids were getting arrested and interrogated by the police for wearing the T-shirts, and before long their brothers in the police and army started refusing to arrest them. Protesters occupied the Parliament building on October 5 and the government fell. The New York Times later reported that the graphics campaign had been partly funded by U.S. civil society groups and the CIA, but no matter, they had managed to finally drain popular support from the dying remnants of Socialist party.

In 2002, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was frustrated by the hyper-ideological confusion of terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda with Palestinian suicide bombings. One was grounded in a real political struggle over human rights and territorial issues, while the other was grounded in religious fundamentalist ideology. A fantastically vivid journal by Chris Hedges in Harpers in October 2001 and a devastatingly graphic report in the New York Times on the bombing of a nightclub in Tel Aviv in June 2002 got me thinking about how to report on the architecture and planning of the settlement process. That July, I decided to go to Jerusalem to travel around the Palestinian territories and meet with Israeli and Palestinian architects and peace and human rights activists who were doing research and organizing demonstrations about the physical, material, and territorial context of the Israeli colonial occupation. 

One of the people I met with was Eyal Weizman, who was working on his Ph.D. thesis (later published by Verso) on the use of civilian and military architecture and planning to occupy and control territory within the West Bank. I had found his amazing analysis of the vertical segmentation of space within the West Bank while doing some initial online research. Weizman had partnered with the Israeli human rights group B'tselem to obtain maps and planning documents, and created the most extensively detailed map of the West Bank that had ever been produced. Yehezkel Lein of B'tselem was already being consulted by the State Department to discuss its implications for the two-state solution and the shattered peace process--it was the era of a "roadmap to peace" with no coordinates. With his partner Rafi Seigel, Weizman had also been commissioned by the Israel Association of United Architects to produce A Civilian Occupation, an exhibition for the Berlin World Congress of Architecture later that month. By the time I got back to New York and was filing my story for the September issue of Metropolis, the IAUA canceled the Berlin exhibition on the grounds of it being "too political," and it became a big story in the New York Times. My front-of-book news story was bumped to the February 2003 issue and became my first feature for Metropolis. One advertiser later screamed at the sales reps and one of the editors about it, and the February 2003 issue was forever tagged in the magazine stacks with a post-it note that read, "DO NOT SEND TO ADVERTISERS."

Although this work still has not produced any positive political results, the way that it illuminated Israel's relationship to the Palestinian territories has been hugely consequential in terms of making new information publicly available and framing the issue in less abstract and ideological ways. Ouroussoff wrote about Weizman's work relatively early in his tenor at the New York Times, which made me sympathetic to him, though I later questioned whether there wasn't in fact, apart from Weizman's brilliant analysis of territory and planning issues, an ideological dimension to the use of suicide bombings as a tactic of resistance (apart from the disgusting brutality and immorality of killing innocent civilians) that couldn't be ignored. It seems undeniable that some combination of the separation wall, Israeli military action, and a political decision by Hamas and Islamic Jihad were responsible for the decline in successful terrorist attacks. - STEPHEN ZACKS

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