This issue features a microinterview with Eyal Weizman, conducted by Alex Carp. Weizman is the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Together with Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, he’s one of the founding members of Decolonizing Architecture, an architectural studio/residency based in Bethlehem that uses architecture as a tool for expression and political activism within the conflicts of Israel and Palestine. His next book, Least of All Possible Evils, will be published by Verso in the fall. The bulk of his design work focuses on how architecture might address political problems; much of his writing focuses on how, in settings varying from war zones to occupations and familiar city centers, it has failed to do so. The Believer had a chance to speak with him during the Creative Time Summit at Cooper Union, where he presented some of his recent work.
THE BELIEVER: I read an interview you did with a security consultant, someone who designs security apparatuses for federal buildings to protect against terror attacks. It seems like in American cities the architectural evidence of a country engaged in a war on terror is very hidden. It’s not obvious until you go out and read about it and then start to look for it. Is the hiddenness of it a relatively recent development?
EYAL WEIZMAN: People tell you that architecture is built to protect you against the elements. Primarily architecture is built to protect you from other people. More interesting for me is the way in which power operates through an ability to both control and interrupt. So, for instance, the wall—I’m not so much interested in the wall as a fortification, as a blast rampart, or this type of thing, but the way in which it is an apparatus that controls the flow of all sorts of things through it—the flow of people, the flow of infrastructure, the flow of goods, the flow of money, the flow of disease.
I think too much has been made out of the territorial issue of the wall in the West Bank. What’s interesting is to see how the wall operates. Look at Gaza, bounded by a perimeter fence that is its master. How many calories should enter into Gaza? Israeli soldiers sit and calculate this, which has been documented by NGOs. Two thousand one hundred calories per adult male, one thousand seven hundred calories per adult woman, then children according to gender and age, and that’s what’s flowing. Or electricity. How many megawatts should be allowed in? How much water should enter? That’s what the wall does—it’s a membrane that regulates and controls people by modulating flows, rather than being simply, in the medieval sense of the word, a fortification.
BLVR: You’re one of the few architects who talks about the ability to transform space not only by building and rebuilding, but by destruction as well—what you’ve called “design by destruction.” This seems to exist mostly as a military practice, but I wanted to ask you how widespread it is, and what you hope to get out of focusing on it in your work.
EW: When I study space, I don’t see it as solid. I see space as elastic, almost liquid, under constant transformation. Walls are built and rebuilt, their paths ever fluctuating. Settlements are put there and they’re removed. Checkpoints are constantly changing their modulation of what’s allowed to cross and when they close down. The power of space is not in its rigid stability but rather in its constant transformations.
When you see space as an elastic medium—and I don’t mean anything benign in that elasticity; it’s an incredibly deadly, and kind of controlling, elasticity—you start understanding that construction and destruction are continuous with each other, complementary actions rearranging matter across the terrain. I don’t want to see them as separate kinds of orders. Both are the shaping of space. Force and power are translated into form—this is how I understand the power of architecture. For me it’s very interesting to see the way in which politics is, in fact, space in motion or matter in transformation.
BLVR: Marc Garlasco was a Pentagon analyst in charge of designing attacks on Iraqi political leaders. After the invasion of Baghdad, he leaves and joins Human Rights Watch, and he’s assigned to write a report on the destruction of Iraq—on the ruins that he is partially responsible for. In these two roles, as a military planner and as a humanitarian analyst, he’s being asked to make two very different readings of more or less the same place.
EW: There is a category in international humanitarian law called proportionality. It’s a calculation that assumes an economy of violence. Within that economy, the military and the NGOs tend to engage in bargaining. They say, no, that needs to be cheaper. And some people say, no, that needs to be more expensive, right? But they operate within the same market, so to speak. Too many civilians are being killed; too few civilians are being killed. To establish that, you need to undertake calculations. When you need to establish a threshold number of civilian casualties—Garlasco was asked to limit these to twenty-nine per bombing mission—this more or less abstract economy is transferred into an engineering problem: How much of the building should be destroyed? What is the minimum bomb to do that? If there was no threshold, he’d just choose a big-enough bomb to destroy the whole building. Instead, he needed to destroy two stories above, or part of a story—it is a craft, to design the destruction: the design of ruins.
When Garlasco works for the military, he works according to the same principles as the human-rights organizations. Proportionality provides an arena of economic speculation and “ethical”/legal calculation that make human-rights organizations and militaries no longer rivals, right? They can be understood as productive critics of each other.
BLVR: It seems that certain militaries plan their destruction very delicately, almost.
EW: Well, I think the first revolution was that of precision weapons—developed throughout the late ’80s and coming into operation in the early ’90s in Kuwait, Iraq, and later in Kosovo. But they led to another capacity, that of the precise estimation of the amount of damage. This provides the means to calculate the economies of violence, the ability to design the precise effect of a bomb.
BLVR: It didn’t exist before the smart weapons were developed?
EW: Well, proportionality as a principle did exist in many legal systems.The illusion of our time is that violence and its chaos can be brought under the discipline of an economy of calculations. There was a software employed until the early ’00s called Bugsplat, which tried to calculate the casualties from each bomb if you throw it from this angle, from that angle, if it’s quarter-ton or full-ton, if it is with a delay fuse or some other kind of fuse, etc. Soldiers and planners can start playing with the angles and with this and that until they get the number that they need. The ethical economy of violence found its means in this kind of engineering.
BLVR: You were talking about the economy of the humanitarian organizations and the military—the market they’re all involved in. It seems to beg the need to think in terms of other models. What might an alternative look like?
EW: The problem with this economy is how to practice and avoid it. If you’re a humanitarian, you deal with measuring aid by tons and calories, but if the army says, “We are willing to let in twenty-one hundred calories per adult,” do you say, “I think we need to pass in twenty-three hundred” or do you say, “I think counting calories in relation to people is wrong,” and not participate in this? Humanitarians must learn to understand withdrawal as a possibility.
BLVR: There’s a power imbalance, often, between the humanitarian organizations and the militaries.
EW: The question is, how do you practice in this imbalance while thinking out another solution? Any political practice is a practice in contradictions from within the very compromised reality, within the existing force field, which you know can be manipulated. Sometimes you can simply not do it and sometimes there are forms of practice that manage to diffuse the close dilemmas of the lesser evil.
BLVR: Besides teaching and writing, Decolonizing Architecture has shown in art exhibitions, and you’ve worked on film as well. Has working with people from entirely different areas and displaying your work with them changed the way you see your general project?
EW: We have moved from critical writing and analysis to a form of critical practice that seeks to intervene through architecture as an arena of speculation. The challenge is how to deal with the paradoxes and complicities that practice presents. We’re hugely indebted to the filmmakers, artists, and architects we work with: they give us new means of imagination and intervention. These different ways of seeing and analyzing—political activism, theory, art, universities, NGOs, etc.—you have to be in all those worlds at once. If you’re in one place alone, you are totally and always in their hands. The way that you see is the means to transform.