There is a growing international and Palestinian campaign for the organizers of the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice to cancel the exhibition in the Israeli pavilion. The Israeli exhibition is entitled “Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel.”
Fifty countries are participating in the Biennale, which runs from September 10 to November 19 and is one of the most important events on the international architectural calendar. Egypt is the only Arab country taking part in the Biennale, the title of which is “Cities, architecture and society”.
The exhibits in the Israeli pavilion comprise plans, models and full architectural details of 15 memorials built between 1947 and 2006, some commemorating dead soldiers or intelligence officers, others the Holocaust. The Israeli Defense Ministry is at the top of the list of the organizations that gave “generous support” for the exhibition.
The international pressure group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) has sent a petition to the organizers of the Biennale saying it is “dismayed and concerned” that the Biennale agreed to host the Israeli contribution.
APJP requests the Biennale Committee to consider withdrawing the Israeli entry as being “provocative and counterproductive to the aims of the Biennale, and particularly distasteful in the context of the aftermath of an ugly and unnecessary war in neighboring Lebanon, and a continuing one-side war in Gaza.”
At the same time four Palestinian organizations have sent a joint letter to the organizers asking for the Israeli exhibition to be cancelled. The Palestinian organizations are the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI); the Palestinian Engineers Association – Jerusalem Center; the Society of Palestinian Architects; and RIWAQ – the Centre for Architectural Conservation.
The four Palestinian organizations say: “It is inconceivable how the Venice Biennale, an international celebration of art and architecture, of civilization and the progress of humanity, can provide a venue for such a blatant justification for and commemoration of genocide, war and bloodshed.”
APJP says Israeli pavilion, funded by the Israeli government, “totally excludes the Palestinians who are the target and real victims of the seemingly unending series of wars being memorialised, and awards Israeli the sole position of victim and victor.”
It notes “there are no memorials in Israel to the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of displacement and dispossession where the intention of transfer and exclusion led to the destruction and elimination of 580 Palestinian villages, towns and cities.”
The 21 signatories of the APJP petition include Palestinian, Israeli and British/Jewish architects and also the eminent British architect Ted Cullinan, and the distinguished architectural critic and writer Charles Jencks.
Their APJP petition quotes Dan Daor who writes in the exhibition catalogue that the message of memorial structures is that “there are no heroes – all there is, is the eternity of Israel, all of the country is the front, and all of us are victims.”
The letter from the four Palestinian organizations says the Israeli exhibition should be cancelled because it is supported by a state that continues against all international laws and UN resolutions to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, to deny the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and to wage a daily war against the Palestinian children, men and women their homes and livelihoods.
The letter says that the Israeli state is still engaged in a war with Lebanon, “that has resulted in the killing of over 1,000 Lebanese, the destruction of infrastructure, roads, buildings, bridges, electricity power plants, and thousands of homes, and the denial of the right of education of thousands of Lebanese children who cannot attend a new school year because their schools have been destroyed.”
The Palestinian organizations note that the exhibition contains models of memorials commemorating both the victims of the Holocaust, and those killed in Israel’s wars since 1948. “The history of the Holocaust and its Jewish victims is thus confused with that of Israel’s colonial history and the death of soldiers killed while invading, occupying and annexing Arab lands.”
Both the APJP petition, and the letter from the four Palestinian organizations, strongly condemn the role of Israeli architects. The Palestinian organizations say: “Israeli architects, engineers and planners are fully engaged in the planning and implementation of a system of oppression and control that began with the appropriation and confiscation of lands since 1948, and continues today in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the form of illegal settlements building, bypass roads and the construction of the Apartheid Wall.”
The APJP says that the “eminent Israeli architects” represented in the exhibition “are being used as tools of Israeli propaganda, and consequently would be deemed to be complicit in the agenda of excluding the Palestinian narrative.”
The APJP petition and the letter from the Palestinian organizations both quote the statement by the curator of the exhibition, Tula Amir, in her introduction to the exhibition. Amir writes: “The justification of Israel’s wars legitimates the loss of life in the past and its possible loss in the future; the continuation of unconditional cooperation between the country’s military and defense establishment and its individual citizens; and an unequivocal understanding that this struggle is the only means for Israel’s survival.”
The Palestinian organizations say that while this paragraph can be read as a critique of this type of architecture, “the fact that it is being displayed at this level little over a month after Israel has just gone through another of its cycles of destruction is a celebration of it. The attempt to dissect it and analyse it in an abstract manner from an architectural point of view is not convincing.”
They add that “nowhere in the quotations from the curator is the exhibition presented as a way to examine Israel’s past or to try to learn from all its bloody history. The entire exhibition accentuates Israel as “a victim state constantly under attack and in danger.”
While the title of the Biennale is “Cities, architecture and society,” the theme is Cities of the Future, with the aim, the organizers say, of “presenting a manifesto for the cities of the 21st century.
The Biennale has several sections. In the 300-metre long “Corderie dell’Arsenale” space, there are videos, photography, film and thee dimensional graphics presenting the urban experiences of 16 world cities in four continents, including Cairo, Istanbul, Barcelona, Caracas, Los Angeles and Mumbai.
In addition, each of the 50 participating countries has its own pavilion. The content of the Israeli pavilion is in marked contrast to the pavilions of other countries, which look forward to cities of the future.
To take just a few examples of how other countries exhibitions are approaching the theme of the exhibition, the exhibition in the US pavilion is entitled “After the Flood; Building on Higher Ground”, the UK exhibition explores the issues facing Britain’s regional cities, the exhibition, the republic of Slovenia’s pavilion has the title “Formula New Ljubljana”, and the Romanian exhibition is dubbed “Remix! Urban drama for nine cubes and many players.”
Al Hayat September 7 2006