“Move, run and grab as many hilltops as you can,” urged Israel’s then foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, in a medieval battle cry to settlers in 1998. “What we take now will stay ours, what we don’t grab will go to them.”
The settlement of P’sagot, to the north of Jerusalem, is the result of one such land grab, a characteristic dormitory colony of single-family houses repeated across small suburban plots, and the case study for the Manual of Decolonization.
The book is the result of a residency that Italian architecture group Salottobuono conducted in Bethlehem in 2008 as part of the wider “Decolonizing Architecture” project, run by Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti and Eyal Weizman, which aims to foster an “arena of speculation” around the future of such settlements. Mobilising architecture as a tactical tool, their work demonstrates how small-scale physical interventions could be used to open up broader political discussions on if and how the fabric of Israeli occupation could be appropriated for other uses.
Employing the taxonomic framework of the aggressors, the book redeploys the 1984 “Building and Development in the Mountain Regions” guide published by Israel’s ministry of construction and housing as a way to dismantle what the original created. The premise is that if the geography of occupation is to be liberated, its potential must be turned against itself.
Structured around eight thematic tactics, from “Unhoming” to “Recombining”, the manual is a visual call to arms, an index of incisions, demolitions and tactical additions to the invasive structures of colonisation in order to demonstrate an alternative future. These are not solutions, but “fragments of possibility” that could be applied across the limited typologies of the settlers’ arsenal – a bottom-up strategy that begins with the detail.
Following a couple of brief, and rather disjointed, introductory texts, the strategy begins with the notion of “Deparcelling”, slicing up the suburban planning logic of P’sagot by overlaying a plan of Palestinian land ownership from 1954. It is interesting to draw attention to this legal palimpsest of ownerships and common land, but the point is overly laboured by being followed by 70 pages of diagrams showing how each suburban home is dissected, à la Gordon Matta-Clark, listing the resultant ratios of built volume per plot, with each fragment carefully exploded and indexed, as if to imply the rigour of a scientific process at work.
Nice one-liner ideas follow, such as “Ungrounding” and an “urbanism of the first 10 centimetres”, which argues that the ground’s surface embodies the overarching political ideology at work. Removing barriers, fences and all the demarcations of ownership will create a unified, collectivised ground. Diagrams show the ground being covered with debris and trees planted to uproot paving.
“Recombining” explains the process by which temporary trailer homes are used as a colonisation strategy, expanding in concentric parasitic rings as the inner core becomes consolidated, and how they could instead be stacked up between houses to densify the suburban grain. “Unhoming” charts various ways to chop up and stitch houses together, in a process of architectural cut and shut, to form new community buildings. In each case, they are good ideas, but presented with such little supportive text (scant captions, often lost in translation) as to lose their power – ideas diluted in a sea of pretty diagrams.
Ultimately, those familiar with Eyal Weizman’s work will be disappointed by what a missed opportunity this manual represents: it is a beautiful art object, handsomely crafted and lovingly illustrated, but rewards little more than a passing glance, reading more like a hastily compiled catalogue than a thoughtful book worthy of the urgent subject at hand.
Manual of Decolonization, by Salottobuono, A&M Bookstore, €25
Manual of Decolonization