Malkit Shoshan in New York City. (Photo: Cole Wilson/Surface)

Malkit Shoshan on the Architecture of Diplomacy

The Israeli-born Brooklynite designed the Dutch Pavilion as a means towards resolution in places where conflict is rampant.

The Israeli-born Brooklynite designed the Dutch Pavilion as a means towards resolution in places where conflict is rampant.

Malkit Shoshan had some explaining to do.

An Israeli architect, author, and scholar from Haifa who currently lives in Brooklyn doesn’t seem like the obvious pick to curate the Dutch Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. But talk to Shoshan, 40, for a couple of minutes, and it becomes clear why she was asked.

First, she will tell you that she married a Dutchman and lived for some time with him in the Netherlands, which isn’t much of an answer.

Then she will tell you about the think tank FAST—Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory—which she founded in Amsterdam over a decade ago. This answer works.

“When I finished school I didn’t want to just go on to design apartment buildings and private homes,” Shoshan says. “I wanted to find a way to research and address problems by completely understanding their context.”

And so FAST was born as an alternative architectural practice that studies the relationships between architecture and realities on the ground in conflict areas such as Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. The foundation closely examines how built environments are largely dictated by the consternation of battling ideologies. Growing up in one of the most disputed territories on the planet is largely responsible for Shoshan’s decision to explore architecture through the lens of an NGO.

Shoshan often and jokes about finally making her escape from Israel—she tried before—after she met and married her husband, Matthijs Bouw, who is an urban planner with One Architecture. He moved the family to New York last August to design solutions for shoring up the city’s waterfronts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Her first escape attempt came after high school. When most of her Israeli friends were taking a gap year, gallivanting through Asia and South America, Shoshan moved to Venice, learned Italian, and enrolled at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia. The city motivated her, she recalls. For Shoshan, architecture back home was influenced by skewed ideology and political agendas that become grounded in the country’s landscape. Her time in Venice brought her closer to understanding how to read about and understand history, a skill that’s assisted her with all her FAST projects.

After the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, the Venice Biennale was a perennial pilgrimage in Shoshan’s life. In 2002, she contributed to the Israeli Pavilion by producing a magazine with Foundation of 40, an NGO in Israel that recognizes Palestinian villages. The magazine was a series of illustrations explaining the politics of space in Israel, and became the prototype for Atlas of Conflict, a book that she published in 2010 about her 10 years researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of that decade she spent trying to understand the broader context of conflict.

Curating the entire Dutch Pavilion for this year’s Architecture Biennale, which opened in May and is up through Nov. 27, was a similarly involved process. The brief of head curator Alejandro Aravena called on countries to address the growing problem of providing more people with basic living needs and accommodations in increasingly difficult circumstances. For Shoshan, this framework seemed almost intuitive.

Malkit Shoshan in New York City. (Photo: Cole Wilson/Surface)
Shoshan’s “Blue: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions” at the Dutch Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: Courtesy of Malkit Shoshan)

The name of Shoshan’s Dutch Pavilion is “Blue,” a reference to the recognizable helmets worn by United Nations Peacekeepers. The focus is a case study of Gao, Mali, where the Dutch have contributed to bolstering stability since 2014. “The gravity of the topic at hand is apparent almost immediately,” says Diane Davis, a professor of regional planning and urbanism at Harvard. “Far from a purely aesthetic exercise, Shoshan uses design thinking and visual ingenuity to reveal the geography of armed conflict in a highly contested part of the world.”

The pavilion touches on a history of Dutch architecture, but also closely examines how it could improve the lives of millions of people in Mali by means of discussions with military engineers, architects, economists, and activists.

“It was a lot of work, but nothing that I am not used to.” Shoshan says. “My job, as I see it, is about understanding conflict regions and asking hard questions. Growing up in a conflict zone myself, I’ve always wanted to understand more about the history of Israel, for example, because everything that I had been told and taught was not necessarily what happened. It’s a lot to take in. Especially when it’s your country.”

Shoshan is certainly a rare breed. She’s an architect who, rather than cashing in on multimillion dollar luxury apartment projects, chooses instead to lift people up in places that face seemingly unsurmountable challenges. She admits to being powerless over many of the problems that plague cities and villages in conflict zones, but still acknowledges that architecture can solve some of those problems, and in itself can be very powerful.

“My hope is that one day I can do more,” she says. “And bring solutions to places that need them instead of just building a pavilion in a garden for the elite.”

If Shoshan can realize her hopes, she can mark it down as her third escape.

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