Architecture, Design, Action: Malkit Shoshan on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Malkit Shoshan, Lecturer in Architecture, with text

Malkit Shoshan, Lecturer in Architecture

As an architect in a multidisciplinary, research-based practice that works to uncover systemic inequity in the built environment and its regulatory bodies, can you begin by discussing your relationship with architecture and how architects can fight against oppression?

First and foremost, we need to ask questions rather than propose solutions. Architecture wants to provide answers to every problem, but it could be more productive to cut off this impulse. As architects, we’re trained to draw lines, build walls, and extract—whether it’s information or material resources. Instead of drawing lines, let’s think about what’s underneath them and what they are crossing.

Israel, where I was born and studied, operates on explicit politics of exclusion. Every architecture project can be considered an act of segregation, every masterplan brief I opened was a tool kit of implementing racism in the built environment. Every structure has a role in the historical and present dispossession of Palestinian communities, taking away land and cutting off access to resources. I can only really speak from my own experience of growing up amid this systemic segregation, but perpetuating it through my work was never something I would agree to, so starting when I was a student, I decided to change the way I engaged with architecture.

My architecture designs turned into research and experimentation with mapping, representation, and activism, which I later edited and published in Atlas of the Conflict: Israel-Palestine and Village: One Land Two Systems and Platform Paradise. These books critically examined Israel’s architectural and spatial strategy. It’s a country that has two doctrines: design for Israelis and design for Palestinians. The easiest way to describe it is that the former works on construction and the latter works on deconstruction. But both are intertwined—the destruction of Palestinian cities fortifies and enables the construction of additional Israeli settlements, and so on.

Both with my practice and with FAST, we aim to make visible how complicit architecture and design is in perpetuating segregation by uncovering these processes of colonization and dispossession. We look for opportunities to challenge institutions and empower the marginalized and the public imagination. We all have a duty to confront, criticize, and scrutinize the ways architecture is weaponized as a tool of inequality and exclusion and used to maintain hegemonic powers.

In your work with FAST you often talk about dismantling systems of power and segregation as a multi-scalar issue. Can you elaborate on that process?

One of FAST’s ongoing projects focuses on the impact United Nations peace missions have on cities, communities, and the environment. My interest in the architecture of the UN is institutional and topological. The UN is an important institution of global international cooperation, but it’s incredibly segregated and perpetuates the exclusive power of nation-states. Its peace operations generate the largest material and environmental footprint among all UN agencies, and they occur in areas with long legacies of violence, colonization, extraction, and systemic marginalization. All decisions regarding peace operations are led by the UN Security Council and are subject to the veto power of five nation-states: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US.

It’s interesting to go into the belly of the beast to figure out how power works. When we started working with the individuals at the helm of such organizations, we realized that many of them have come from the field of activism and are motivated by good values. But we quickly discovered that these huge institutions and their personnel are so immersed in bureaucratic and administrative processes that they suffer from a systemic lack of imagination; they fundamentally cannot envision a different world. So how do you work with these UN staff members and empower them with tools to advocate for change in a superstructure so resistant to it? By using conceptual design—and never specific design, because ultimately you want them to think, and consequently change work culture, rather than follow yet another procedure—you can open up all kinds of nodes in the system and dissolve them.

Although it feels almost impossible to change the UN, we trying to penetrate this bureaucratic and overpowering monolith. For instance, peace missions are gigantic—a UN camp is often bigger than the city or village situated alongside it. We kept asking UN agencies, What happens with all of this material footprint throughout and at the end of each mission? What is the material legacy? These questions led to a conversation about the policy of “liquidation of assets” at the end of every mission. We wondered what kind of behavior or institutional habits the word “liquidation” enables? What accountability does it lack?

During field research, I began by visiting sites where the UN liquidates materials and documenting what I found there. I brought this documentation to UN representatives and constituents at the Secretariat in New York; the photos—which normally aren’t permitted to be taken—gave them an immediate understanding of the need to enact policy changes. The change was in the micro: modifying the wording from “liquidation” to “repurposing” changes the doctrine. Liquidation erases and abandons; repurposing requires accountability, takes responsibility for actions, and develops and nurtures future relationships.

Designers must become fluent in a language of multiple strategies if they want to change built-in institutional oversights. They must create space by penetrating walls and liberate resources by identifying opportunities for change. They must be attuned to very small things and understand how the micro affects the macro.

Why is mapping (and data visualization in general) a particularly important tool in the realm of design as activism? What distinguishes it from critical writing?

I started mapping to understand the systems and mechanisms behind the production and construction of space in Israel. Often when you write an essay about an event, you get a response like: “This is an isolated incident; it was an accident; shootings happen; walls and settlements get built.” It seems incidental when spoken by politicians or public representatives, but once you give data a scale, and lay it out upon territory and along various periods, then you can begin to understand and reveal the systems that operate behind its production. These maps expose the relationship between ethnicity and land ownership, access to resources, typology of settlements, demography, archaeology, and memorial at various scales—from the household to the nation.

When it comes to challenging inequity, exclusion, and human rights abuse in the architecture and design disciplines, why is a cross-disciplinary, multi-scalar approach so important?

What I like about the relationship between architecture and urban design is the capacity to move through scale—you can very fluidly link different levels of abstraction through an object and synthesize complexity and relations in space. A building can suddenly become a site of inquiry across multiple networks: from sourcing materials to construction regulations, to labor conditions and supply-chain flows on a global level, to a building’s specific situation in a community—it can all serve as a testimony of power relationships. No other profession is able to offer so much evidence and so many tools to understand structural inequality. But it’s also difficult because architecture is fundamentally embedded in power; it created these regimes that it perpetuates and continues to fetishize. Can we ever undo it? It’s a big question.

How can art, architecture, and design complement each other in the realm of activism?

They can be incredibly complementary. To give an example, close to Haifa (where I’m from), there are two small localities situated one mile apart. One is a thriving art commune, and the other is an unrecognized Palestinian village. The origins of these communities and the relation between them taught me a lot about art and architecture. The Palestinian community was forcibly displaced in 1948. Their village was confiscated and fenced off by the Israeli army and they were forced to build new homes at the edge of their former village. Their new homes have been routinely scrubbed off any official data records—according to Israel, it doesn’t exist. As such, the village was never granted a formal address or access to infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewage, or education.

Their original homes were appropriated by a group of avant-garde Dada artists and recent immigrants. They converted the old Palestinian village into an art commune. The artists treated the Palestinian homes as found objects, and turned them into galleries and experimental spaces to produce new cultural narratives. They overlaid the Palestinian history with their own fantasy. They appropriated the place and its memory through artistic production.

I worked for many years with the displaced Palestinian community. My involvement with this context taught me about the power of art. It’s not obligated to tell the truth, it’s not a scientific process, yet it can resonate deeply with the public perception and imagination of place, people, culture, etc.

With art, you can quickly create broad, overarching visions and bring them into the public domain. It can offer powerful tools for experimenting with activism and challenging hegemonic narratives. With art, we can imagine and create all sorts of alternative agencies that do not exist now and it can have a real presence on the ground within communities.

The projects “One Land Two Systems” and “Platform Paradise”—which resulted from my engagement with this context—devised methods similar to those used by the state of Israel and the avant-garde Dada artists to challenge false historical narratives and empower the Palestinian community.

We used art together with architecture and urban design tools. We visualized the historical spatial transformation of the region and developed an alternative masterplan with, and for, the Palestinian community. The villagers used this plan to negotiate their rights with the local planning authorities. At the same time, we launched an international art exhibition to produce temporary spaces and help the Palestinian villagers tell their stories, history, and future plans.

I think that art can nourish community-based approaches, and it can complement other processes. There is something about the freedom, ephemerality, and illusiveness of art that make it very powerful, especially in the realm of activism.

How does your pedagogy address issues of systemic inequality? What kinds of conversations happen in your classroom?

What I like about the ADPD (Art, Design, and the Public Domain) MDes area group is that it’s interdisciplinary; we have people coming from different backgrounds. Many have practiced architecture and returned to school frustrated by working in a discipline that’s fundamentally misaligned with their personal values.

In the classroom, we use open-ended experimentation. We ask ourselves, How can we use our privilege to include more perspectives, to better engage with communities, to create inclusive and just platforms that challenge the status quo and dominant powers? Instead of sticking to a strict academic process, we encourage everyone to use all the experience and knowledge we’ve gathered and apply it to our projects. It’s a process of expanding and learning together. 

Several weeks on from the publication of the Notes on Credibility document, how are you thinking about this growing conversation on structural racism at the GSD?

I’m really happy this conversation is happening at the GSD; it’s giving us a chance to look inward. Architecture is typically taught as a mentality of extraction: the power of the genius, the starchitect—these are stereotypes that have long reigned at the architecture academy everywhere. Instead of being critical, students learn how to mimic and develop a couple of tricks that will allow them to go into the industry and be plugged into a big office, or develop into a one-dimensional starchitect deluded by the idea of their own autonomy. 

But I think it’s changing now and that is really exciting. The discourse in practice should be expanded to develop this consciousness when architects are dealing with marginalized communities, or in any other context. Architects should care about and use their work to stand up against racism and fight for social, environmental, and economic justice. All these issues are embodied in the structures that we have created and the clients we work for, even down to how we specify our windows and doorknobs. It’s a complex matrix, but once we have this consciousness, we will be able to examine this world critically and make our collective stake in it. Architects are both powerless and powerful. The role which they once played in society made them powerless; they were working in the service of power. But with these tools we can reclaim power and work toward the creation of more egalitarian spaces, cities, and communities.

Specific to the GSD’s pedagogical structure, having one foot in practice and one foot in academia is a tough challenge but also an incredible advantage. It’s a constant act of translation and communication with different stakeholders simultaneously. Working with academics and bringing that work into practice and vice versa makes us much more agile and ready to deal with complexities in any environment, especially around issues of race and social justice, where there is a need to hear and engage with a multitude of voices in our approach, our practice, and our design work.

Malkit Shoshan is area head of the Art, Design, and the Public Domain MDes area group and the founder and director of the architectural think tank FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory.