“Decolonizing Architecture” at REDCAT

Proposal to convert former Israeli military buildings into bird conservatory / “Decolonizing Architecture”

There is a place where lines on maps are no longer ink marks, but physical entities.   Where the roofs of houses morph from pitched to flat, and form community space.  And where concrete military buildings transform into bird sanctuaries.

The place was the gallery at REDCAT, a theater space attached to Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown.  There, the “Decolonizing Architecture” exhibit, which ran Dec. to Feb., offered three ideas for reimagining architecture and public space in an Israeli settlement, should the territory be won over by Palestinians.

The architects and researchers, Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizmana, aimed to address issues of space, politics, identity, and pragmatism.  In a review of the exhibit for the LA Times, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne summed up their guiding questions: “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?”

The results, as encountered in three themed-rooms that presented video, 3D models and diagrams, were unexpected, simple, and convincing.

The first room, called, “How to Inhabit the House of Your Enemy?” featured an architectural model of an Israeli settlement that borders the city of Ramallah in Palestine.  Oversized booklets filled with detailed explanations and drawings presented the redesign concept: not to eliminate or reuse, but reorient.   The design proposed to reconfigure the A-frame red roofs of the homes – a symbol of Israeli settlement – into a flat roof space that could simultaneously offer communal space.  I found it curious that white gloves sat next to each booklet, as if the pages were too white and pristine to be dirtied by a museumgoer’s fingers.  The gloves – coupled with the almost completely unadorned white walls – emphasized the exhibit’s feeling of simplicity and austerity.

Meanwhile, in one corner of the room, a TV monitor played a video of a Jewish woman talking about life at the settlement.  The woman is personable and friendly – and adamant that the settlement remain.  In the background of the film, which ones listen to with headphones, kids ride tricycles, a cat scampers by and Israeli flags ripple in the wind.

Another film plays in this room too, not on a TV monitor, but projected straight onto the wall.   Unfortunately, the sound was just loud enough to hear but too quiet for me to decipher words.  Another shortcoming was that its 3D effect (glasses were provided) didn’t quite work.   It seemed to be showing various housing developments, but I didn’t have the patience to watch the whole loop.  An explanatory card would have helped.

I found the second room, “Red Castle and Lawless” the most powerful, in both physical appearance and personal appeal.

A blood red “line” – a wall about 10 feet long, ranging from thigh-high at one end to shoulder-high at the other – dominated the space.  It represented neither Israel nor Palestine, but the border line dividing the two countries.  Accompanying documents showed a map of the region signed following the Oslo peace talks on May 4, 1994 by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel, the United States and Egypt.   The maps effectively linked a conceptual idea to history and reality.

This room, like the first, also projected a film onto one wall.  Similarly, the sound was audible but indecipherable, and no written explanation was available.  I viewed a man in a suit and tie flipping through papers in an office, but didn’t understand the film’s purpose.

More engaging were the black and white photographs whose images were divided by a thick red line – the border.  In one photograph, a woman stands next to the line, and I could gauge the physical space encompassed by the line – enough for it to constitute its own identity.

The final room, “Return to Nature,” featured photographs.  One wall showed the current site – Israeli military buildings built of concrete, surrounded by dirt and debris.  Another wall displayed digitally altered photographs that show the possibilities – leaving the structures to naturally decline, and, instead of rebuilding on the site, letting the area become a wildlife habitat.  These photographs, like others in the exhibit, were tacked straight onto the wall, continuing the theme of simplicity.

As in the first room, a 3D model of the site gave a sense of scale, and helped me to imagine the actual site and how the project might be carried out.  The room also included highly detailed diagrams and explanations of the design proposal.

What I found most intriguing was a wall riddled with large holes in perfect circle shapes, allowing you to see through to REDCAT’s lobby.  The wall perfectly matched the wall of one the concrete structures visible in a photograph – similarly dotted with holes. Was this intentional?  To create a feeling of being at the site, and standing inside an Israeli military building?   When I left the gallery, there was no one around to ask, and no other REDCAT patrons to chat with.  (It was Super Bowl Sunday, after all.)  So I walked out and into Bunker Hill alone with my thoughts, seeing the buildings around me with new eyes and a heightened sense of their political purpose.

Proposal to convert former Israeli military buildings into bird conservatory / “Decolonizing Architecture”


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