BY Bradley Horn in Frieze | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation

Eyal Weizman (Verso, London and New York, 2007)

BY Bradley Horn in Frieze | 01 NOV 07

In the introduction to this polemically charged new book Palestine emerges as ‘hologramatized’ by countless attempts to ‘multiply a single territorial reality [into] two insular national geographies that occupy the same space’. Eyal Weizman (architect and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London) exposes the civilian, military and political interests that have come to bear on the design of everything from the monumental separation wall to the one-way mirrors used at border checkpoints. The ‘hollowing-out’ occurs both at the geo-political level, with projects such as the Clinton administration’s ‘Arkansas Big Mac’ of 1993 (in which a horizontal layer of ‘neutral’ UN air space would have been injected between the Palestinian and Israeli entrances to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif), and locally, with the Palestinian resistance excavating six to 12 metres of tunnel daily in response to Israel’s high-tech occupation of the air. At the intersection of these tactical scales are the Jewish settlements, which Weizman sees as deliberately ambiguous instruments of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), stealthily deployed as strategic ‘outpost seeds’ of quasi-military occupation. One such seed (a mobile phone mast built for ‘security reasons’ on a mound allegedly covering the biblical town of Migron) sprouted 42 families in five years. Hollow Land argues that Israel uses the self-propagating nature of these settlements, along with the archaeology and infrastructure that trigger their formation, as a means to legitimize territorial expansion.

The book’s subtitle, Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, encompasses both the actual buildings that sustain the occupation and the organizational principles that ‘outline the ways in which it is conceived, understood, organized, and operated’. Weizman shows how Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space helped the IDF explain to soldiers the concept of ‘inverse geometry’, the military manoeuvre of dynamiting pathways through an enemy’s domestic interiors to avoid the hazards of streets and other exposed urban areas. Taken out of their ethical/political contexts, the projects of Gordon Matta-Clark, Guy Debord, Georges Bataille and Bernard Tschumi have also come in handy as instruments of military propaganda. According to Shimon Naveh, ex-director of the Operational Theory Research Institute (an IDF think-tank): ‘We share more with architects; we combine theory and practice. We can read, but we know as well how to build and destroy, and sometimes kill.’ This frighteningly opportunistic and manipulative use of critical theory is as worrisome to Weizman as the havoc it wreaks. Even the most altruistic effort to improve conditions on the ground doesn’t escape the danger lurking at the intersection of ideas and actions. ‘Poorly considered direct intervention, however well intentioned, may become complicit with the very aims of power itself.’ (A cautionary note to those designing ‘like they give a damn’.) Architects operating through humanitarian organizations who directly intervene to improve the lives of Palestinians may inadvertently aid the controlling power to ‘divert resources elsewhere’ or, worse, may ‘make the occupation more tolerable and efficient, [and] thus may even help, by some accounts, to extend it’. For Weizman an attractive alternative is Médecins sans Frontières, an ‘independent humanitarian medical aid agency’ whose practices go beyond professional responsibilities and involve a mandate to bear ‘witness to the truth of injustice’ and to insist on ‘political responsibility’. This double role of medical expert and witness erects a temporary bridge between action and the ethical and theoretical agendas that motivate it. After all, the problem isn’t architectural, it’s political, and no amount of building, good or bad, can solve it. By revealing in great detail the way that space is used as an instrument of dispossession, however, Weizman’s rigorous (if one-sided) account makes it possible momentarily to conceive of that same built environment as a tool of liberation.