As a ubiquitous symbol of wartorn regions, the blue helmets of UN Peacekeepers are a somewhat unlikely inspiration for a pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Yet, according to architect, researcher and curator of the 2016 Dutch pavilion Malkit Shoshan, the UN Peacekeeping camps have become cities unto themselves and are potential sites of collaborative urban development. uncube correspondent Cristina Ampatzidou spoke to Shoshan about landscapes of conflict, urban militarisation and the colour blue.
Congratulations on being appointed the curator of the Dutch pavilion for the 2016 Venice Biennale. Your proposal is focusing on the legacy of the UN peacekeeping missions. Why do you think we need to pay more attention to such missions?
UN peacekeeping missions have gradually moved into the city and occupied a great deal of space inside inhabited areas, which basically turned them into an urban project. Historically, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, UN operations stopped working as observers along disputed borderlines and started operating from inside cities, to manage internal conflict and facilitate the change of regime in ex-soviet countries. During the last decade, the majority of new missions were distributed in about 180 cities in the Sahel (the geographic region between the Sahara Desert to the North and Sudanian Savannah to the South).
These UN bases are operating as self-sufficient islands: designed as machines with their own water, electricity, engineering capacity and so on but they are not in any way interacting with their surroundings. By integrating these bases with the city, they can become catalysts for local development. There are 30 million people living next to UN bases in the Sahel alone, often without any access to water or electricity. Observing and intervening in this landscape, using architecture and urban planning, has the potential to elevate the livelihood of so many people.
The UN itself talks about an employing an “integrated approach” but you argue that design is missing. What would be the role of design within the framework of the existing missions?
Thinking in a comprehensive way about the surroundings is a very interesting development for the UN missions but it falls short when it comes to implementation. Defence is still the priority, so the physical footprint of these bases does not reflect this integrated approach, which should also encompass development and diplomacy. Design can mitigate between the scopes of defence, development and diplomacy and bring them together through space. For instance, spaces shared between the foreign forces and the local community could be created. These spaces would be particularly important in the Sahel, where much needed resources and tools could be shared to allow the local population to start developing their own cities.
The Dutch pavilion will focus on the case study of the Camp Castor in Mali under the title “Blue”. What does blue stand for?
Blue is a speculative space of encounter between the blue helmets and the blue men. Blue is of course the colour of the UN but also of the people of the Sahara. The local tribes of the Sahel use indigo to dye their clothes and it is perceived as having spiritual qualities. They are also called the “blue men” of the Sahara. This integration of blue as an aesthetic concept represents the different narratives, foreign and local, that coexist in this space.
You have explored various landscapes of conflict throughout your work. Do you see any major changes in the ways we relate to our surroundings brought about by the evolution of military technologies?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and later on with 9/11‚ many of the security apparatuses that were used during wartime moved into the city, leading to an increased militarization of our civic space. In war zones, soldiers, war machines and peacekeepers all share the same space with the inhabitants. Here in the West, we are exposed to constant surveillance and that profoundly changes the way we live and relate to one another. We still don’t know how far reaching the consequences can be, but I think we are already starting to feel some of the stresses that come with these transitions.
How can architects respond to such changes, to prevent the loss of privacy, for example, given the increasing militarisation of our cities?
Our first instinctive reaction to this constant surveillance is to imprison ourselves. This is particularly evident in cities attacked by drones, where public spaces stand empty and people isolate themselves in fear of association with potential targets. It’s very difficult to find a way to counter this systematic penetration of our private space and to our freedoms, but I think we should strive towards the preservation and creation of spaces that allow freedom, where one can speak one’s mind without being watched.
Do you think that a platform like the Venice Biennale can create awareness about such possible applications of architecture and design?
As a focus point for architectural discourse it’s a good place to engage other professionals in conversations about topics with a sense of urgency. By now many of us believe that iconic architecture is relevant only for a very small section in society but there are many other urgenct issues that need to be addressed. Mass migration instigated by conflicts or climate change, for instance. So I think it’s imperative to change the dominant architectural discourse and Aravena’s appointment as curator of the Venice Biennale is definitely a step in the right direction. Our first priority, as professionals and as human beings, should be to create spaces that are livable for everybody.
- Interview by Cristina Ampatzidou
Malkit Shoshan is the founder of think tank FAST (The Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory) and the curator of the Dutch pavilion at the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. Her work explores the relationship between architecture, politics, and human rights. She is the author of the award-winning book Atlas of Conflict, Israel-Palestine (pub. 010 publishers, 2010).