[Between 12-14 August 2014 at the 14th Venice International Architecture Biennale, architects, filmmakers, and activists from Syria and the Arab World, gathered for a series of events focused on Syria and the production of its landscape from before the First World War until today. Using the multidisciplinary and live context of Monditalia—curated by the Biennale’s director Rem Koolhaas and architect Ippolito Pestellini—Syrian architect Khaled Malas organized the project “Excavating the Sky.” Jadaliyya features below Malas’ project description as well as selected images from the Biennale’s booklet entitled Excavating the Sky.]
This project seeks to explore the extraordinary metamorphoses, simultaneously marvelous and terrifying, of a landscape into the stake and the site of emergent national struggles. It exhumes disregarded memories and moments falling from the sky to propose alternative narratives of trauma and the subsequent production of territories from within. By positioning heavy mechanical flight as an exemplary modern experience of space and space-making, during times of peace and war, it seeks to relocate the transcendental rapture and violence associated with the skies down into the earth, illuminating the omnipresence of hope amidst the debris of modern experience. Fully committed to the marvelous potential of architecture, we attempt a transmutation in the form of a single radical space- making intervention: a Well in Syria. In collaboration with local activists and civic agencies, this Well will be built in an area outside of regime control since 2011 and since partially governed by local councils and popular assemblies. The well will provide potable water for a population of over fifteen thousand individuals. This Well temporarily replaces an existing regime-controlled infrastructure destroyed by the War.
At the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture, directed by Rem Koolhaas, the primary author, an architect, has been invited to design and present a temporary “Syrian Pavilion” in the Corderie dell’Arsenale. In collaboration with activists, I propose an architectural subversion: channeling Venice-related funds/publicity to the building of a “displaced pavilion” in Syria (the Well), representations of which will be exhibited in Venice. As the Biennale is the premier architectural event of the world, visited by scholars, professionals, and students, this is a unique opportunity for direct dissemination of radical space-making practices. Furthermore, the exhibition in Venice will be the setting for multiple events (film screenings and workshops) to critically examine the contemporary condition in Syria and the omnipresent yet rarely addressed role of aerial observation and bombardment in the production of modern space. The sky represents the powerful attempts to produce territory from above, whilst the Well is this power inverted and resisted, challengingly glaring upwards; capable of raising hopes from the very depth of the earth to the surfaces of inhabitation, oblivious to violent attempts to destroy it from above.
It is precisely at historical moments such as today that comprehensions of past struggles, over space and meaning, become most vital. The ongoing War posits urgent questions of responsibility: like others in the midst of such calamities, architects too find themselves in dire need to be productive and act meaningfully. A landscape in ruin, invites the architect/citizen to project herself upon it. In many parts of Syria, there is a shortage of access to water. As such, a Well may provide much needed support to communities that are suffering the devastating effects of neglect followed by war, providing not only subsistence but also acting as a place for social exchange and community production. Here, the architect’s primary role has been to locate the funds for a Well and offer basic technical assistance, in addition to producing representations of the Well to be shown in Venice.
Researching potential sites/collaborators, I was introduced to “The Public Commission for Civil Defense.” This Commission is a grassroots organization of young activists and concerned citizens who have been able, in an extraordinarily short period, to organize multiple initiatives for the improvement of lives in Syria. They are an active embodiment of a community-led alternative to the State that is bombing from above.
In the Village of Taibeh, following the March 2013 destruction of the main water source and associated infrastructure, the Commission has already taken the necessary initiative to locate an alternative source of water. Their gargantuan efforts are inspiring on multiple levels, and provide a clear route for the potential of local organization in post-Revolution Syria. Sharing a similar vision, and as their project was temporary halted, we collaborated to build a Well and connect it to the existing village network, thus saving lives and raising awareness from Taibeh to Venice through development of alternatives for radical action. This Well was completed in June 2014 and another is currently in progress.
This projection of the citizen/architect upon the scorched landscape is the explicit architectural project at hand. It stems from the belief that architecture can perform a role even in such trying circumstances and that such architecture is capable of transcending the oft-unquestioned distinctions between building and monument. The displaced pavilion and its representations are recognized not only as an object of direct intervention to be contemplated from a distance, but rather a political project written fully upon the landscape, a necessity in order for place to be produced. As such, it is not simply a question of writing a building upon the land, but an attempt to forge a new way of building in accordance with the circumstances of the context. That is the political potential of this oeuvre.
[Damascus Sky, 1925. Image courtesy of Khaled Malas.]
[Aleppo Sky, 2014. Image courtesy of Khaled Malas.]
[Well in Taibeh, 2014. Image courtesy of Khaled Malas.]
["Excavating the Sky" Banner by Salim al-Kadi, Khaled Malas, Alfred Tarazi and Jana Traboulsi.]