[Khaled Malas is a Syrian architect who curated a series of events on the production of the landscape in Syria from before the First World War until today, entitled “excavating the sky” (12-14 August, 2014), at the 14th Venice International Architecture Biennale (7 June to 23 November 2014). In this interview, he talks with Mona Harb about his trajectory, the project’s threads, processes and goals, building wells as resistance, the support of colleagues and friends, next stages and future plans, and the role of architecture in the face of war, power and conflict.]
Mona Harb (MH): Khaled Malas, you are a Syrian architect who conceived and organized a research project on Syria entitled excavating the sky at the 2014 Venice International Architecture Biennale. Can you tell us more about how the invitation to the Biennale happened, and about the trajectory that got you there?
Khaled Malas (KM): Earlier this year, I received an email from the OMA/AMO architecture and urbanism office inquiring whether I would be interested in representing Syria at the Biennale in some form. I excitedly said yes. At that moment it was still unclear whether this could be a formal Syrian pavilion. As I was keen on addressing the war directly, and wanted to avoid the associated Syrian bureaucracies, it was decided that a weekly “pop-up” pavilion as part of the Monditalia section—namely a research project on Syria—would be most reasonable within the given time and the then non-existent budget.
I was still a practicing architect at the Basel office of Herzog & de Meuron, but was already seriously considering a return to the academy. At that point I was buried under multiple unfinished design assignments during the day and unfinished PhD applications in the evening. I felt a project at the Biennale would be an excellent segue between the two worlds I was trying to move between. I was not yet confident how it could be financed nor when I would have the time to do the project properly, but I was lucky to have the encouragement and support of many friends and colleagues. Soon after, my university applications proved to be successful, and I managed to resolve the technical and logistic difficulties associated with such an endeavor so I was glad I had taken the opportunity.
As for myself: I am an architect from Damascus, a graduate of the American University of Beirut then Cornell University. This fall, I began a PhD in Art/Architecture History at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
MH: It is both an amazing opportunity and a serious responsibility to conceive this event, in the context of the ongoing Syrian war. Were you on your own or was there a team involved? What is excavating the sky about?
KM: excavating the sky is primarily about the landscapes and architectures of Syria, and the role of heavy mechanical flight in their production. It is also about claiming a space for architects/architecture to engage critically with the ongoing conflicts in/on Syria, whether in writing and/or in built forms. excavating the sky attempts to do both: write and build.
This year, the Biennale theme for national pavilions was “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014.” In excavating the sky, four stories from this past century are told: the story of the first two airplanes to penetrate Syrian skies in 1914, the ruthless 1928 French bombing of Damascus, the Syrian Cosmonaut from 1987, and the story of a barrel bomb that fell into a latrine in January 2014. I understand all these stories as violent attempts of the state to impose a power onto the landscape from the sky above. As a citizen I want to engage with these narratives of trauma that are essential in the production of territories, including those of the nation-state. As an architect, I propose a designed resistance to these attempts through the production of a single building: a well bored into the Syrian ground. This well is providing potable water for a community of 15,000 people. Since the Biennale, a second well has been dug, and is serving a comparable-size community. Both wells are in undisclosed locations in southern Syria. The well is the so-called “displaced pavilion.”
In the earlier pre-concept/proposal phases of the project, I was on my own, although heavily reliant on anyone who was willing to listen to me speak about the project.The project`s “success” is mostly due to the patience, support and confidence of my friends and colleagues whether in Europe, the Arab World or elsewhere. However, very soon after the project was conceived, I was introduced to Zaidoun al-Zoubi and the brave people at the Higher Council for Civil Defense. It was only through their extraordinary efforts, inspired and inspiring in every way, that I was able to produce a project of this quality. If nothing else, this project is a humble salute to those brave men and women in Syria who are able to maintain a semblance of everyday life for themselves and their communities in the face of death striking at them from multiple directions, including from above.
Finally, this project would have been impossible without the most creative, critical, and talented of design collaborators: Jana Traboulsi (illustrator and designer), Alfred Tarazi (artist), and Salim al-Kadi (architect). All residual shortcomings in the project are my responsibility, as I assure you these three comrades pointed them out to me on multiple occasions, including around a cluttered dinner table after the last day of the exhibition.
MH: How and why did you conceive the event’s thread? How did you undertake the research for your four stories?
KM: The thread of heavy mechanical flight is a product of my trying to locate a singular experience that was modern in its very essence. In this project, I identified that experience as one of being observed and/or bombed from the air. Rather hopefully, excavating the sky describes the resistances to these violences that fall from above.
Another way to answer this question is through the project`s title itself: “excavating” implies the very immediate practice of this committed architecture I am proposing—namely that of sustained archival research (whether online, in libraries or in private collections), and the explicit construction method of well-building. “The sky”—that which is representative of gods, airmen and their flying machines—is the space seemingly beyond our reach from which this power falls. By “excavating” such histories, we materialize histories of resistances to this sky that may prove relevant to our own experiences today, in addition to producing a physical monument in the form of the “displaced pavilion.”
MH: excavating the sky culminates with an actual physical intervention in a small Syrian village, a “displaced pavilion” as you call it, which is the water well. First, tell us how were you actually able to make that happen, logistically? Can you also tell us why you chose to have an actual physical intervention?
KM: As I mentioned, there are now two wells. The “displaced pavilion” seemed to me the only apt manner to act at this moment in Syria`s history, and in a context such as the Biennale. I am very committed to the discipline of architecture itself, but sadly, much architecture represented in the context of such international exhibitions is often aligned with the powers I identify as belonging to “the sky.” As such, I felt a project like this would assert a role—almost combative—within that very context. Furthermore, the critique I am proposing is that the power may be within the act of excavating itself, and that it is possible to not only conceive of architectures that are critical, but that such architecture can also be “lived,” creatively disturbing the oft-present contemporary distinctions made between buildings and monuments.
Logistically, and as I mentioned earlier, I was blessed with the bravest and most competent of collaborators: The Higher Commission for Civil Defense. I was only available via Skype, thousands of miles away, and we owe to them not only the vertical well, but also its horizontal connection to the existing village network. My role as an architect in this project was primarily to secure funding from sources beyond their usual channels, promote this work in an international context such as the Biennale, and provide basic project management-type decisions from afar. They did the bulk of the work on the ground, and they should be given full credit for it. All necessary technical experience, equipment and enthusiasms were already in “place,” it was the case—and often still is—that only the money was lacking. That and perhaps a more universal "hope" that the present moment will be overcome. Moreover, I am privileged to have received the support of a premier Arab art foundation (Barjeel), a Lebanese foundation dedicated to protecting vulnerable Syrian children (Kayany), in addition to multiple private initiatives.
MH: How was the show organized in Venice? What elements did it include?
KM: Apart from the wells, i.e the “displaced pavilion” itself, the project was represented primarily in the form of a banner, a publication and website. In the bilingual publication, following a brief project description (featured on Jadaliyya in English and Arabic), the four excavated stories of the Syrian sky are the primary material, while the well is represented as a drawing that acts as a bookmark. In the fourteen-by-three meter banner, this hierarchy is reversed, with a drawing of the well, and its possibilities, occupying the entire front of the banner. This banner was suspended in the black space dedicated to the project in the Arsenale, around which we organized multiple film screenings and a panel discussion. The panel involved a satellite image analyst, an activist and a historian, while four Syrian films were selected because I felt they held a resonance with the Biennale theme.
MH: How was the show received? How satisfied are you with the output? What are your next plans? Will the exhibit be shown in other cities?
KM: I am very proud of the project and am quite happy with the press it has received, whether in Arabic, English or Italian. I am also very happy to have had the opportunity to share it personally with many architects, students and general visitors to the Biennale during my time there. Most memorable for me in hindsight was Roy, a young Irish architecture student with no prior knowledge of Arab architectural production, who was there every day, attending every event, and who often asked the most insightful questions, and provided critical feedback and comradeship throughout. Also, many Arab visitors quickly adopted the project as their own and shared their pride and support. Other visitors were quick to draw parallels between this work, the ongoing conditions in Syria, and the latest Israeli aggression on Gaza concurrent to the exhibition. For these and many other reasons, I am quite satisfied.
My most immediate plans include the development of more advanced time management skills! I somehow intend to conduct scholarly work at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University whilst concurrently being involved in architectural projects. Today, these projects include my academic interest in early Islamic art and architecture histories, geographies and literatures of resistance, but also an attempt to deepen my relationship with the Higher Council for Civil Defense, namely through the development of other architectures of resistance, suitable for a rural context in Syria. I am also collaborating with several artist and designer friends.
Having said that, I am also in the middle of numerous conversations about showing excavating the sky in other venues, in Europe, the Americas and the Arab world, after the Biennale closes in November this year. Although I have been able to locate multiple interests in doing so, my primary concern remains funding; I have pre-conditioned that every exhibition needs to be tied to another well to be dug in Syria. It is my hope that each (international) exhibition will result in one more (local) moment. I am in contact with various independent activist groups throughout the country, and I trust that this project can generate an entire network of wells that will benefit all in the country who have suffered years of neglect, followed by war.
MH: So, can people actually contribute to excavating the sky, and help out this project by supporting digging water wells in Syria? How?
KM: Of course! In the near future there will be an online link to do so, but for now I can be contacted directly at email@example.com. Any amount, however small, will literally be put into the Syrian ground.
MH: Your work obviously goes strongly against the claim that architecture should be divorced of power and politics. Please tell us more about your position as a Syrian practicing architect, and the role that architecture can/should play in the context of war and conflict.
KM: It has been said that walking upright is what distinguishes men from beasts. Yet for most of us, this upright position, one without masters or inhibitions, remains a far-fetched dream. As tragic as they are, recent events throughout the Arab world have shown that walking upright is not only marvelously possible for people everywhere, but also has the full potential to generate new forms of creative expression and hope for those, such as myself, for whom walking upright still remains an unattainable wish.
I am not in a position to advocate one form of action over another. Perhaps any line drawn, whether on paper or in the ground, cannot be divorced from power. I believe architects are armed with the necessary disciplinary tools to critically examine and produce space. We are trained to think, and dream, through the production of lines. This is our responsibility towards ourselves, our fellow architects, and the communities to which we belong, and to whom we can contribute to, if we only took our lines more seriously.
Having said that, I still have many questions about my chosen discipline and its potential, questions I have tried to find answers for within the architectural practice itself, and now in the academy. excavating the sky is one such attempt. I have learned many many things whilst “excavating the sky,” but the project also raises multiple questions that I still do not have articulate answers for. It is my hope that articulate answers exist in the works, bodies and speech of other citizens and designers around me, and we can all develop manners for sustained upright walking.