2016 Architecture Biennial | Dutch Pavilion: Blue

2016 Architecture Biennial

Dutch Pavilion: Blue

20. July 2016 | Words and Video: Bettina Schürkamp, Photography: Iwan Baan
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

UN peacekeeping missions in Africa as an urban phenomenon: architect and curatrix Malkit Shoshan researched the hermetically guarded “Camp Castor” in Mali and in her “Blue” exhibition shows how UN bases can become networked “sharing spaces”.

This year’s Dutch Pavilion is in a radiantly ethereal blue that settles like a veil of confidence over photos, maps and models from 170 UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. In contrast to the architectural concepts predominant in many of the other Pavilions, here the public enters a spacious panorama of international diplomacy. LED dots of light on the rear wall indicate UN locations on maps that twinkle like a star-lit sky in the azure-blue semi-darkness. The meditative sounds of Nigerian musician Abdallah ag Oumbadougou, founding father of a rock and traditional music crossover dubbed “Tuareg blues”, give visitors an intimation of life on the edge of the Sahara. Artificial palms and an area of sand in the middle of the Pavilion round off this recreation of an African desert oasis. It takes a while to realise that the “Blue” exhibition is actually a richly detailed research project on the urban construction of UN camps for the MINUSMA international peacekeeping mission. It was also shown in January 2016 at UN headquarters in New York.

Dutch Pavilion in the Giardini is enshrouded with blue camouflage netting

Visible from afar: the Dutch Pavilion in the Giardini is enshrouded with blue camouflage netting.

The adoption in 2013 of UN Resolution 2100 led to the establishment of a Multidimensional Integrated United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in which the Netherlands and Germany are also participating. Over 90 per cent of the approx. 11,200 UN soldiers involved have been delegated by African nations. Many of the 650 German reconnaissance forces are billeted in the Dutch “Camp Castor” at Gao. They provide drones and scout cars for monitoring the sparsely settled but nevertheless dangerous north of Mali. In the course of her research project, which was supported by the Dutch Defence and Foreign Ministries and by Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, curatrix Malkit Shoshan consulted the UN archives in New York and in March 2016 visited “Camp Castor” in Gao as a “design adviser”. The city of Gao has a population of 85,000 and, with its small airport, acts as a hub for trans-Saharan trade in the Gao region. As well as “Camp Castor”, the United Nations have also set up a “Super Camp” and a Chinese camp in the area around Gao, the three camps together being roughly a third of the size of the actual urban area.

Film sequences in the “Blue” exhibition reveal two completely different cultures meeting on the edge of the Sahara, those of the “blue race” – the Tuareg being known for their indigo-coloured clothing – and the “blue berets”. The camps for the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission were set up with military aspects in mind on account of the hazardous situation in Mali and have so far been planned by military engineers. Beyond the camp’s confines, soldiers face the constant threat of improvised booby-traps and mines – more than 70 members of the UN forces have so far died in this way. Daily threat analyses and potential enemy attacks are reflected in the way “Camp Castor”, measuring 500 by 600 meters, was designed when it was stamped out of the levelled desert sand within a few months. Industrially prefabricated construction elements unloaded from ocean-going containers and the freight holds of large transport aircraft mutated into an urban-planning entity that is scarcely suited to the local surroundings. With their high-output wells, power generators and hospitals of a standard that far exceeds the service the regional population enjoys, the impenetrable camps are akin to self-supporting islands.

Curatrix and architect Malkit Shoshan has negotiated these unreal places into the centre of an urban-planning debate, researching their historical backgrounds with support from UN institutions. Diagrams and photos on the floor and walls of the Pavilion illustrate how fundamentally the phenomenon of war has altered in the 21st century. Whereas national border conflicts had been the prevailing form of dispute up to the end of the Cold War, these days multinational coalitions and criminal networks carry the fighting to the heart of urban Africa. Having intensively addressed herself to the camps’ structures and social contexts, Shoshan adopted three methodological approaches for her study. She first conducted systematic research in order to shed light on the spatial challenges involved. A practical mode of procedure, secondly, improves the quality life of the local population. These two aspects are augmented by critical analysis of the underlying cultural conditions as a means of gauging transformation in a society steeped in tradition and of supporting intercultural exchange.

The conclusions the curatrix drew from her cooperative venture led to her proposing a four-step plan for transforming UN camps into “sharing spaces”. Interaction between UN forces and a given local population could be intensified even before a given UN camp were set up. The UN organisations would need to demonstrate a willingness to be helpful from the very outset through the transfer of knowledge and by providing practical support for people’s lives in a great many domains. Malkit Shoshan recommends locating service units such as hospitals, restaurants, generators and wells as close to the outer perimeter of camps as possible right from the planning phase so they can also be used by the local population. The camp’s perimeter areas would then evolve into an interface conducive to close interaction with the public. It would be in the interests of securing long-term peace if service installations were left in place once a mission had been concluded and ceded to the municipality. During a UN camp’s lifetime, UN forces and the municipality could draw mutual benefit from an attractive zone of encounter containing shops, cultural institutions and self-help educational establishments. The curatrix sets out a phased intermeshing of local and international urban-development structures in her four-tier model that also factors in the environmental impact of any UN deployment. Once a UN mission has been concluded, the UN camp ought to be handed over to the local population in such a manner that it dovetails seamlessly with their own urban structures.

Wholly bathed in blue light: the Dutch Pavilion

Wholly bathed in blue light: the Dutch Pavilion.

Rundown of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa

Rundown of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, which are currently protecting the peace process at UN camps in 170 municipalities. (Illustration: Blue – Malkit Shoshan)

Malkit Shoshan’s research project was the subject of fervent diplomatic interest even before being presented at Venice. Being able to present and exhibit her project at UN headquarters in New York on 26 January 2016 was a particular highlight. The Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders had invited the curatrix to attend a meeting of the UN with him. At the opening of the “Blue” exhibition in Venice, General Tom Middendorp, Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch armed forces, voiced his appreciation of the research project’s findings from the point of view of the UN’s troops. Given the volatile situation in Mali, he went on, a strong military presence is currently crucial if MINUSMA is to succeed. In future, however, military engineers, anthropologists, economists, architects and the local population could support the construction of UN facilities as partners in a networked approach ― also known as the “3D Comprehensive Approach”. Malkit Shoshan augments the 3D factors “defence, diplomacy and development” with a 4th “D”, denoting design, in her concept. In the context of her “UN sharing spaces” architecture is envisaged as the catalyst for a 4D mode of procedure that sustainably enhances the life of the population through the agency of design.

(Running time: 10 minutes)