Q&A: Malkit Shoshan, Curator of the 2016 Venice Biennale’s Dutch Pavilion

Malkit Shoshan discusses her exhibit on the architecture of UN bases around the world.

This article was originally published on ArchDaily.

Can architects have a truly active role in pressing social problems? Malkit Shoshan, the curator of the Dutch Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, thinks so. Her career is evidence of this: advocating for the incorporation of a fourth ‘D’ in the criteria of the UN (Defence, Diplomacy and Development) in its peacekeeping missions around the world, Shoshan has sat at the same table as military engineers and policy makers to analyze the urban impact peacekeepers have left around the world.

For the Dutch Pavilion, Shoshan has focused on the case of the joint mission of the Netherlands and the UN in Gao (Mali). In 2012, Gao was declared capital of the Independent State of Azawad, a nation not recognized by the international authorities, following Mali’s Tuareg rebellion. “Although [these peacekeeping missions] occupy large plots of land in hundreds of different cities around the world, it is rarely discussed or addressed by our profession,” says Soshan in the following interview.

We spoke with the curator of the Dutch pavilion after her recent visit to Mali to discuss the principles of the Netherlands in the next Venice Biennale; the impact of military drones in public spaces; and why, according to Shoshan, there is a close relationship between architecture, public policy and ideology. “[With design,] we can make resources available to communities that are exhausted by militarized conflicts, long periods of drought, famine and disease,” she says.

Nico Valencia: What will we see in the Dutch Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale? What will the message be?

Malkit Shoshan: The Dutch Pavilion will examine the emerging landscape of UN peacekeeping missions – its challenges and opportunities. We will present both research and a design intervention which addresses policy on a global level.

After the end of the Cold War and increasingly after the “War on Terror,” the war moved to the city, together with the entire security apparatus including the peacekeepers and all their infrastructure. The city therefore became a shared ground for the instruments of war and peace.

Our focus on UN peacekeeping missions had to do with the scope of the scale of these missions. Confronted with a new context of war, the UN have adopted a three dimensional approach to indicate a collaborative process between Defence, Diplomacy, and Development. This new approach is difficult to implement as the different agencies work in parallel to one another, each portraying a 20th century mind set, and the spaces produced by these new types of missions give tribute to defense only – producing islands that are fenced off from the local. In this conversation, I proposed adding a fourth ‘D’: design. For me, comprehensive design thinking can mitigate between different scales, scopes and agencies.

Although this landscape occupies large plots of land in hundreds of different cities around the world, it is rarely discussed or addressed by our profession (architects). Our claim is that since UN missions moved to operate within cities, the spaces they produce should be considered as urban projects rather than a self-sustained islands. The resources and knowledge that they contain should be shared with the local population – especially in regions that are devastated by war, climate change, famine, and disease.

The built environment is the very embodiment of complexity, and highlights the urgencies that we need to address as both a society and as professionals. There are about 170 cities in the Sahel, a place exhausted by catastrophes and in desperate need for resources. Within these cities there are UN compounds with international and global capacity. If invested well, these resources can be shared and the local population can be empowered. But how to do that in one of the most cynical environments? A friend who used to work in the Sahel for many years described it very well saying, this place is “a graveyard of good intentions.” That was the context for the project of the Dutch Pavilion. The intersection between the UN, the Dutch approach, and the local context.

In past years, I have initiated conversations with different professionals, economists, policy makers, military engineers, anthropologists, and economists. Together we have tried to develop alternative models that can help opening up the UN compound. We have challenged the notion of the temporary by prescribing an explicit time frame for change from the beginning of a mission to post mission. In each phase the international community can attribute something back to the city.

This conversation is highly relevant to the current state of global policy. The structures of the 20th century are open for change and modification. Dutch policy makers and military engineers are known for their pro-active approach. They are now working in Mali, and they offered to develop to use Camp Castor—the Dutch/UN base in Gao—as a case study for the new approach.

Architecture and the design of the built environment needs to address these complex conditions. It is part of our life. We are not living in an hermetic environment where we can say that war is in one side and peace is on another. These systems are increasingly interrelated and we need to bring back values of civility to the conversation. We can help mitigating between need and resource by design.

For example, a hospital that is constructed for use by the UN troops can be shared with the locals. A waste treatment plant or a sewage system can be shared. It will reduce disease and hunger it can elevate the lives of millions. We can help rethinking the “island-mindset” typologies. We can challenge the system to open them up and modify them by examples.

The exhibition itself is a surprise. We are trying to foreground different perspectives and mindsets.

The contributors to the exhibition are from different backgrounds: journalists, diplomats, military engineers, economists, novelists etc. I am very excited about BLUE.

NV: We as architects tend to overstate the weight we have in resolving key issues in our society. In the current condition of increasing inequity, financial crisis, migration crisis, urban armed conflicts, can we contribute something to the discourse?

MS: I think we can. We are trained to read and understand the built environment grid, materiality, culture, programs and with our designs we need to deal with complexity, scale, clients, budgets, urgencies of all sorts, zoning and environmental laws, physics and engineerings as well as visions and big ideas.

All of these are very resourceful tools. They can help us mitigate between crisis and design alternatives. Although architects are not all-powerful, we can ask questions and we can challenge the system toward paradigm shift.

BLUE was exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in January of thisa year, and I was asked to address a meeting for peacekeeping alliances and the African Union. The significance of spatial, territorial and design alternatives was clearly recognized. My conversation with the Dutch mission to the UN expanded to other constituency and to the UN itself. We have something very important to add to these conversations.

Migration is also housing, climate change and militarized conflict has to do also with spatial organization, how you store food and water. How can you create with low tech mean affordable dwellings. How can you mitigate between different structures – global and local scale through space and program. Architects should be part of these conversation and engage in this complexity. This is our responsibility as human beings, and as professionals.

NV: In your speech as a finalist of the Wheelwright Prize 2015, you explained the origin of the “Atlas of Conflict,” and said that the work made you “realize the strong relation between architecture, politics, and ideology, and the impact of war and armed conflicts on people’s livelihood.” Could you elaborate on this position?

MS: In the context of Israel, the civic space and other considerations such as ideology, politics and conflict are intertwined. 97% of the lands under Israel’s sovereignty are state lands. Land is managed and controlled very carefully. Masterplans for new cities, roads, industrialization and development many time coincide with demographic considerations.

As a student, for instance, I researched the region of Ara. It is an area dominated by Palestinian demography. It’s on the North east part of the Green Line (the border with the Occupied Territories of the West Bank). In early 70s the Israel planning authority initiated a new masterplan called the “Seven Stars.” The scope of that plan was to change the demographic balance in the region. The consequence of this decision was the issuing of thousands of demolition orders for Palestinian homes and the design of seven new Israeli localities, employment centers and a highway that links them all.

Moreover, the Atlas of Conflict portrays a comprehensive view of the evolution of the Israeli landscape, linking issues of territory and borders to settlements, demography, landscaping, archeological preservations and so on. It shows how it all interlinked and weaved into each other. It makes visible the motivations and patterns behind the design of space.

NV: As the United Nations itself talks in terms of Defence, Diplomacy, and Development, you propose adding a fourth ‘D’ for Design. What’s the idea behind that particular ambition?

MS: The integrated approach is a new way of working for the UN and for all its constituencies. The move of the war to the civic space requires to deal with an unprecedented level of complexity. It forces collaboration between disciplines and institutions. Nevertheless, these institutions are highly bureaucratic and are trained to practice in isolation. The “3D” is very difficult for them to implement.

My proposal to use design is to use the way we organize space as a tool to mitigate between the different organizations. The security apparatus give tribute to defense only and so does the footprint and the physical manifestation of the UN structures that are occupying large plots of land in hundreds of cities. If we use a fourth “D,” design, to mitigate between the scopes of Defense, Diplomacy and Development we can make resources available to communities that are exhausted by militarized conflicts, long periods of drought, famine and disease.

For instance if you change the layout of the UN base, moving a UN hospital from the center of the base to its perimeter It can be used to treat the local population. By changing this design consideration the hospital becomes part of two systems, the local and the foreign. It becomes a step in demilitarization of the compound. This type of design process can introduce civic values to UN bases.

NV: Tell us about your experience gathering engineers and policymakers from the Ministry of Defense, Development Aide and Foreign Affairs for a footprint-focused design experiment on UN Peacekeeping operations. Once you said that it was the first time that engineers and policymakers actually talked with one another?

MS: The research and design process behind the project was full of surprises to both myself and to the participants. Many times I have the feeling that my role in this process is to ask questions, highlight possibilities, but moreover bringing people and disciplines together and blurring the institutional boundaries. My capacity however is limited. As an individual you can open a number of doors, but the world of UN Peacekeeping for instance is a construct of hermetic bubbles that don’t interact with one another. The engineers don’t communicate with policy makers. There is always a hierarchy and divisions of roles that is strict.

That was very clear and visible during my recent trip to Mali, where I have conducted a field research. I talked with many agencies that seem to be foreign to one another, even if physically they share the same ground.

NV: You often link civic urban spaces with war and warfare. Two years ago, you wrote an article titled “In the Name of Peace: Another Civic, An Other Law“, based on your ongoing long term research project “Drones and Honeycombs.” Your text aimed to show the urban, social impact of the unmanned COIN doctrine in civic spaces in countries where NATO or the US are involved…

Yes. The city as I mentioned earlier become the main theater of war, and of civility. The two realities overlap one another. While the wars of the 20th centuries were between nations and mostly fought along disputed borderlines, the wars of the 21st century are fought between global coalitions of forces and insurgent networks.

The city becomes a more and more complex system. It inhabits the entire complexity of society in an unprecedented way. Our role as architects and planners should adapt to these new conditions. We need to find new ways to analyze, understand and engage with the space around us and its complexity. We need to work hard to keep introducing moments and values of civility like privacy, communal lives, equality and prosperity. These are the challenges ahead of us, both as society and as practitioners.

Thanks to Het Nieuwe Instituut and James Taylor-Foster.

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