Design Manifestos: Malkit Shoshan of Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory

Malkit Shoshan (Photograph courtesy of FAST)

Malkit Shoshan is an architect, researcher, and writer, and founder and director of the Amsterdam-based architectural think-tank FAST, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory. Her work explores and highlights the relations between architecture, politics, and human rights. Shoshan is the author of the award-winning book Atlas of the Conflict, Israel-Palestine and, of Village, One Land Two Systems and Platform Paradise with Maurizio Bortolotti. She studied architecture and urban planning at the IUAV (Architecture University, Venice) and at Technion (Haifa, Israel). She is a Ph.D. candidate in the architecture faculty at TU Delft. Her research is titled Warfare and Welfare, forms of Legacy, where she studies how to use comprehensive design strategies to improve the livelihood of people and communities that live in conflict areas. She is currently developing the project Drones and Honeycombs, a research on the architecture and landscape of war and international relations, as a research fellow at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Malkit’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
I didn’t know what architecture was when I began my studies; it took me some time to discover what it was. At first, I looked at it as a form of art (maybe I still do). But at a certain moment during my studies, I began to resist the formalistic processes behind the production of architecture. It seems too simplistic, let alone detached from reality.

We produce space for people. The human component of architecture was always highly fascinating to me. It drove me to pursue this profession because of the possibilities it withholds and the urgencies it can address.

I perceive architecture as a spatial form that consolidates human relations. It is where different elements and mechanisms in society meet and turn into a physical space.

“Drones and Honeycombs” (Rendering courtesy of FAST)

On discovering her voice as an architectural designer
One of the most influential texts that I can easily identify with is In Reflections on the Politics of Space by Henri Lefebvre. He said that the method for approaching spatial problems cannot consist of one formal method, logical or logistical. It can only be a dialectical method that analyzes the contradictions of space in society and social practice. You cannot separate space from politics, power, economy, ideology and other forms of social practice.

This multiplicity of relations that operate in the background of architectural production are fascinating dimensions of architecture, at least for me. I like looking at architecture as if I were an anthropologist — looking at the forces that forms a space, a place, a building — the social, political, cultural or economic dimensions of it. Navigating not only between space but also between disciplines, looking at the different elements that allow for a more comprehensive view.

As for influences, I have mentioned Lefebvre. I would add to it a long list of researchers and thinkers; people who teach us to think beyond the obvious, to ask questions, to form opinions. Or show us that regardless the complexity of the systems around us, with perseverance and conviction one can make a change. Just a quick name dropping, Saskia Sassen, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Rebecca Gomperts.

As for my personal influences, I was brought up in Israel in a segregated, very paradoxical space and society. When you inhabit it, you are part of it. I managed to step out of it to a place that is a bit more critical, thanks to architecture.

As an architect, you are trained to navigate between scales and ideas. You learn to give forms to abstract ideas. You learn to produce architectural plans, to read briefs of projects and masterplans.

In a conflict area, these briefs are painfully fascinating in their transparency. I remember that there was a time in my fifth year of architecture study that I spent a massive amount of time reading briefs of masterplans. These briefs made very explicit the links between politics and space and between construction and destruction. For example, I remember a brief of one masterplan that led to the production of seven new localities. The construction process of this new cities started with an unprecedented wave of demolition orders. The construction process began after a destruction phase. The motivation of that brief was to change the ethnic demographic balance of one of the country’s region.

Confronted with this reality, I wondered if it is possible to penetrate this decision making systems as an independent architect; and to what extend I could contribute to the improvement of people livelihood. Not only of those in power but of those who have no voice. I guess that the moment I found my voice.

The Golden Heart pavilion (Photography by Matthijs Bouw courtesy of FAST)

On starting FAST
I initiated FAST: The Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory because I wanted to pursue a project. At first I regarded it as a format that one may deploy to produce work. I started working on the One Land Two Systems project, which is a project that is fully described in the book Village.

The project addressed the reality of the Unrecognized Villages in Israel. These villages were not mentioned on the official maps of the country, and, therefore, had no official address. This was a method used by the State to deprive more than 100,000 people of civic rights.

If a person has no address in a modern state, he or she cannot have access to services like water, electricity, sewage, gas, etc. These people are forced to live off the grid and the formal system of governance.

To follow and produce this project, I had to fundraise. At that time, it seemed logical to register FAST as a foundation. I had just graduated and didn’t have any professional record. The foundation allowed me to overcome this obstacle.

I invited a small group of people that I respected personally and professionally to form a board and to support FAST and the first project: One Land Two Systems. Once they agreed, the Foundation was in place, and I could continue with the projects. The first project was successful. It helped raise awareness, not only to the situation of the unrecognized villages but also to the possibilities of architecture. It had wide international visibility. I then could continue with another project. I used FAST as a format or a platform that when the project needed it.

On the Drones and Honeycombs project
‘Drones and Honeycombs’ is a research and a continuation of the investigation of what the mechanisms are that shape the space around us. How is the space around us being formed? Who makes the decisions? And how do these affect our lives, our cities, and our homes?

With Drones and Honeycombs, I focused on the globally expanding security apparatus. How is mass servileness changing our living space? What is the impact of the deployment of warfare doctrines, like counterinsurgency on our cities?

With Drones and Honeycombs I looked at these questions from 3 different perspectives:

1. The war machine — the drone;

2. Architecture/physical structure — the compound;

3. The global organization of war, the legislative dimension and global trends — Missions

This project consists of different platforms as well. One part is dedicated to produce new research and new policies; and another part is more curatorial. It consists of a series of public events that bring networks of professionals together in order to position some of the questions mentioned above on the professional agenda and to engage others to address the topic.

In the past year, the part of intervention on policy level evolved very quickly. It is the first time that I am confronted with an incredible institutional desire to change the system and its polices. The project addresses the impact of UN peacekeeping missions on the local environment. It is titled ‘Design for Legacy.’

The main motivation behind this initiative is to use design and architecture thinking in order to reduce the waste that is produced by the peacekeepers. And to turn the peacekeeping compound into a catalyst for local development. This project has an incredible potential, as these compounds are situated in hundreds of cities and in the poorest areas of the world.

At this moment I am developing a pilot together with the Dutch ministries of Foreign Affairs, Development and Defense in Mali. It is very exciting.

Atlas of the conflict, Israel — Palestine (Photography by Malkit Shoshan courtesy of FAST)

On the Atlas of the Conflict, Israel-Palestine Project
Atlas of the Conflict is a project of visualization of the emergence of Israel and the disappearance of Palestine. It took me ten years to conduct the research and to translate it into a visual language. I stated it already as a student in Israel. I spent my design studio hours on designing maps instead of designing buildings. The Atlas consist of more than 500 maps that document the evolution of the Israeli and Palestinian landscape in the past hundred years.

The project began as a personal fascination, I wanted to learn the history of my country. A history that is not told. The results were quite striking and highly complementary to any other information about the conflict and at a certain point I have decided to make this work public.

On the Zoo, or the letter Z, just after Zionism Project
Zoo was an exhibition, that initially aimed at showing the Atlas of the Conflict, but it resulted in a new project that depart from the last page of the Atlas’s lexicon.

The letter Z on the last page of the lexicon consisted of two entries: Zionism that described the ideology that called for the creation of a national homeland for the Jewish people; and Zoo that described the story of a small zoo in the Gaza strip. Out of despair, the children of the owner of the zoo who were fed up seeing the cages of their zoo empty, and decided to paint two donkeys as zebras. After drawing stripes on the donkeys they caged them and displayed them as zebras.

Zoo resulted with an exhibition about classification gone wrong. The juxtapose of animals and nations classifications with the Gaza strip unfolded multiple paradoxes that accompanied the exhibition. The Maastricht gallery was turned into a small domestic zoo with donkeys, rats and pigeons; with live maps and a dune of sand; a cage and a house. Here once again the research turned into a design and into the production of a new type of space.

“Zoo, or the letter Z, just after Zionism” (Photography by Johannes Schwartz courtesy of FAST)

On principles she strives to adhere to across projects
I don’t have many principles, rather motivations. My main motivation as an architect is to use my professional knowledge and capacity to improve people living environment. The topics that I am focusing on have a sense of urgency and impact. My capacities both as an individual and as an architect are very limited, so many times I have to choose where to invest energy and on which projects I focus.

On her design toolkit
I have to say that I never looked carefully at these tools. But I recognize that many of these tools enable us to communicate our work. I use Adobe a lot. It is a crucial software for me. I used to work in the past with 3D modeling; Autocad and Maya were complementary, with the one I use to make straight forms and with the other one curved. I designed the golden heart pavilion, two deformed domes that are merging with one another and creating a new shape. Maya was very useful in producing this strange curve.

In that sense I don’t think I am a typical architect. I don’t often use 3D softwares. In the back of my mind I have the feeling that once you know how to use one or two of them, others become intuitively accessible by inherent knowledge.

One Land Two Systems (Image courtesy of FAST)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Our world is facing major crises, from climate change to political unrest. There is an urgent need for us as society — not only as architects — to address these global urgencies. As architects and designers, we should think about our cities and their capacities to absorb change and flux of people. The issue of housing is a crucial topic. We need to reinvent our vocabulary. What is a city? Who owns it? What parts of a city need to be fixed and what should be temporary? How can these absorb and give place to differences and accommodate various groups of inhabitants, or of users? Saying that I am thinking about the refugee crisis.

I recently participated in a seminar in Istanbul that brought together global development and human rights organizations together with local activist and grassroots organizations from the Middle East. There I met refugees and researchers from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The physical, humanitarian and cultural devastation of the region will reshuffle power structure world wide. It is not a local crisis.

It made me think that we should forget the word refugee. Every person should have the right to a proper house and prosperity. An identity should not play any role in citizenship. We have to work together to create a sustainable and cohesive space that addresses needs and crises. I believe architecture and urban design can play a fundamental role in experimenting with possible transitions and in producing alternatives.

On her aspirations for the future
Besides what I’ve mentioned above, I would like to continue working the way I do now. I want to continue to explore and ask questions. I would like to see ‘Design for Legacy’ realized. I hope that together with the Dutch ministries, we will be able to change global policy and make resources available to cities and to communities that desperately need them.

This post was previously published on on 11/30/15.