by Ann Stoler
Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies, New School for Social Research
Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal are a team of two extraordinary architects who live permanently at Beit Sahour on the outskirts of Bethelem in Palestine. They have worked since 2007 to revitalize, reconstruct, take apart, and reconceive both the ruins and abandoned spaces that are the remnants of the vast spaces throughout Palestine that have been destroyed, dispossessed, cut into pieces over some sixty years since the Nakba in 1947. Their work is extraordinary because it is unique in every way: from those they call on to work with them (artists, film makers, architects, young people from the refugee camps) to the visions they conceive and the materials and histories on which they draw. Their work is an engagement with what others think as impossible: how to imagine a future made out of ruins that are openings to new possibilities? How to take an abandoned military Israeli military site and reimagine its possibilities for habitation? How to imagine living in the enemy’s house? Refusing to wait for politicians or legal systems to change the terms of the debate, Petti and Hilal are changing those terms in advance and through the new infrastructures they both imagine and make possible. What kind of public space might be envisioned and built (as they have) at the center of a refugee camp while endorsing and making more real the “right of return”? These creative, modest, and brilliant young architects open their home to those from around the world to live and think with them through art, video, architecture, anthropology and history and more. Their two principal projects, “Decolonizing Architecture” and “Campus on Camps” are living archives in formation, of what is needed to think a future even as checkpoints stop their entry, arbitrary roadblocks cut access to villages, even as those who are ready to take up month long residencies in their compound are denied access and stopped at the airport gates.
Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal have no pretention. They are mobilizing the dormant energies around them and around the world to activate acts of political creation — their efforts are not designed to tell us what’s wrong with Israeli policy but to embrace a notion of critique that allies with Foucault’s definition: not to be governed by these people, at this time, in this way. They came to speak to us at the New School on the late afternoon of November 17, 2014. The Orozco room was at full capacity with people camped outside the doors. The anthropologist, Ilana Feldman, who is studying their projects, was there to comment as were Carin Kouni who directs the Vera List Center and myself. Listen closely to their visions, attend to their practices and projects. And if you should find the opportunity, take part in this venture in any way you can! This is engagement and critique oriented to the possible, to the making possible of what is deemed not possible, and to the future tense.
This post is part of a collaboration with Public Seminar, where it was originally published.