Israel Pulse

Israeli architects dissect flashpoint structures in Venice

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Article Summary
The curators say that their goal in creating this year’s Israeli architectural exhibit for the Venice Biennale was to offer up an honest and evocative model of five flashpoint Middle Eastern sites.

The Israeli Pavilion at the Venice Biennale's International Architecture Exhibition looks different this year.

Rather than focus on Israeli giants of architecture like Moshe Safdie or Ron Arad or present structural examinations of Israeli scientific achievements — the theme of both the 2016 and the 2017 exhibitions — this year’s pavilion takes a long, unwavering look at five major holy sites.

In Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation” explores “the Status Quo, which functions as an informal and fragile system of coexistence within shared holy places.”

The five contested sites being explored at the pavilion, which opens to the public May 26, are the Mughrabi Ascent (the only point of access for non-Muslims to the most contested holy site in the Middle East, the Temple Mount), Rachel’s Tomb (the West Bank gravesite that is hallowed by Jews but disputed by Palestinians), the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall Plaza, a regular flashpoint for protests not between Jews and Arabs, but between religious and secular Israelis.

“Usually these subjects are treated only in a geopolitical, historical or religious context, and no one ever refers to them in the architectural context,” Tania Coen-Uzzielli, one of the pavilion’s four curators, told Al-Monitor. “What we are trying to do here is to understand these places through the lens of architecture — how the space is giving a response to conflict and how the space is making a dialogue, how it is negotiated and what the relationship is between the architecture of the holy place itself, the landscape and the influence that is working between those two things.”

To bring these mega-sites to the pint-sized pavilion in the City of Bridges, the pavilion’s four curators — Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Oren Sagiv and Coen-Uzzielli — assigned each site a theme based on the ethos of the structure and the practice by which it functions as a physical site of separation and status quo in the modern Holy Land.

For the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world's most important pilgrimage sites for Christians, the theme is “choreography.” For centuries, the church has been marred by infighting between competing Christian denominations all angling for control over the hallowed site. The solution, which today has evolved from a temporary stopgap into a perpetual status quo, is a demarcation of time and space. Six different Christian communities visit the church at designated times, their weekly designated visitation hours creating a merry-go-round of prayer and ceremony in this parceled holy site.

At the pavilion, this dance of visitation is presented through a film projected on the wall in front of a model of the building.

For the Western Wall plaza, the theme is “project.” This space, an ancient limestone wall that is the only remaining piece of the Second Temple and to Jews marks the holiest site in the world, has been the subject of dozens of proposals over the decades for how to divvy up the site between religious and secular Jews, and also between Israelis and the Palestinians, who claim the site as a piece of their own hallowed Haram al-Sharif. This struggle is encapsulated in 10 of the most interesting plans, selected and displayed in 3D models. In front of the models, the curators have placed a live stream of the actual Western Wall plaza, highlighting the dichotomy between real and imagined, past and present, concept versus reality.

“We looked for the hinge, or handle, that we could capture each of these places by,” Sagiv told Al-Monitor. “We needed to show these different projects by virtue of these different phenomena to help the visitor understand that architecture is not a force majeur, it’s really driven by different forces and different motivations.”

The choice to explore structures that represent one of the world’s most explosive conflicts was not easy, the curators admitted. But they said they were eager for the challenge.

Finkelman pointed out that their job as architects is to think with ideas, not emotion. “Our emotions are not relevant,” she said. “We look at it, as architects, as a platform.”

The team of architects — all four of them secular Jewish Israelis — also admit that while they strive for objectivity, it’s impossible to create art that is purely objective. But their goal with this year’s pavilion was to offer up an honest and evocative model of five flashpoint Middle Eastern sites, one that encourages visitors to consider the roles that time, space and physical structure play in the separation of two peoples and the delicate balances in a land that houses an intractable conflict.

“What is objective for us is not objective for others,” Finkelman said, “but we tried very much to look [at these structures] as they are. To look at the changes the place went through and not to analyze the stories behind them or the reasons for it. It’s just the facts. This is what it is.”

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Found in: Cultural heritage

Debra Kamin is an award-winning international journalist with a focus on travel, culture, entertainment and the Middle East. She has reported from Israel, Palestine, Qatar, Turkey, Rwanda, Japan, Korea, Georgia and beyond. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, TIME Magazine, The Atlantic and Variety. On Twitter: @debra_kamin

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