Red-tiled roofs, pretty stone facades, and towns shaped like a slice of pie: this is what occupation is made of. These seemingly innocuous ‘aesthetic’ choices are weapons of war, as architecture is a central component in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
This is true not only of its more obvious forms, such as the looming grey concrete of the ‘separation barrier’ (bigger than the Berlin Wall, of which this year is the 25th anniversary of its fall), or of the segregated roads and humiliating checkpoints, but also of the ostensibly banal and everyday.
‘The Architecture of Violence’, by London-based producer-director Ana Naomi de Sousa, is the third film in the Al Jazeera English Rebel Architecture series (on which she is also second producer). This six-part documentary features architects who use their craft “as a form of activism and resistance to tackle the world's urban, environmental and social crises.”
This particular film focuses on the work of Eyal Weizman, architect, professor of visual cultures and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of the highly recommended Hollow Land.
Weizman leads us through the three-dimensional manipulations that restrict, separate, fragment, create and destroy (in) occupied Palestine. We see that architecture is a means of communication, and examine the ‘spatial syntax’ used by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza.
The meaning encoded in architectural detail is essential to the occupation: the red tiles are a mandatory marker for Israeli settlements, so they can easily be identified from the air. The stone facades are visual trickery, to aid in the ‘expansion’ of Jerusalem to include settlements like Gilo. The slice-of-pie, rather than the more common concentric, layouts for settlements are wedges driven between and into Palestinian communities, creating more ‘facts on the ground’ to ensure that territorial contiguity is an impossibility.
Architecture is the “fastest form of slow violence,” one which creates a differential in speed of movement through space – accelerating it for Israelis, and slowing it down for Palestinians. In addition, occupied Palestine is effectively a vast experimental laboratory for modern urban warfare techniques, where bulldozers are the new tanks, and where concepts like walls/passages, inside/outside, and public/private are redefined.
Since most modern warfare is urban, the vast majority of people who are killed in wars now die inside buildings, often killed by the building itself as it collapses on them. Because of the civilian, ‘coded’ nature of architecture, it is easy to forget about the role of architects in not only perpetuating but also creating the occupation. But they should be made subject to international laws just as warmongers of other types are.
Since 2011, Weizman has directed the European Research Council funded project Forensic Architecture, in an attempt to do just this. The project is building a body of knowledge to situate architecture in international humanitarian law, and gathers evidence to help prove its conscious use in effecting material damage. They have presented their forensic investigations in various legal and political forums.
De Sousa does an excellent job of capturing the static form of architecture on film, and bringing to life the spatial aspects of occupation. In fact the translation to the dynamic form makes it easier to visualise how evidence is gathered in forensic architecture, for example, since three-dimensional forms can be better represented than in two-dimensional drawings.
With its clear narrative, evocative cinematography and music, the film succeeds in “de-naturalising processes that seem natural,” to drive home just how violent a craft architecture can be – especially in Palestine.
Watch The Architecture of Violence on Al Jazeera English, Monday September 1, 2014 at 22:30 GMT (23:30 BST).