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Decolonisation bodies: cracking the facades of heritage
A conversation with DAAR on their project "Ente di Decolonizzazione", Golden Lion for the best participant at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023.

Ente di Decolonizzazione – Borgo Rizza, is the new project by DAAR—Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal—which explores the possibility of critical reuse and subversion of fascist colonial architecture through an art installation. Starting from the decomposition and recomposition of the facade of the Entity of Colonisation of the Sicilian Latifundiium (1940) in Borgo Rizza (Siracusa), the installation is composed of several modules-sittings that are the platform of an open discursive space where the public is invited to reconsider critically the social, political and economic effect of fascist and colonial heritage and at the same time is invited to image collectively new common uses. In this interview, we talk about their perception of fascist, colonial and modernist ghosts, how to turn an entity of colonisation into an entity of decolonisation and how heritage can be re-oriented towards alternative purposes.

This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.

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KOOZ Ente di Decolonizzazione – Borgo Rizza challenges the prevailing narratives and perceptions of fascist colonial architecture. What prompted the project and ultimately line of enquiry of DAAR?

ALESSANDRO PETTI Despite the fall of formal fascism and the conclusion of both colonialism and modernity as they are historically perceived, we still grapple with the legacy of these distinct ideologies. These ideologies persist in shaping our understanding of urban spaces, our interactions with others, and particularly, within the realm of architecture, our approach to heritage. This is prominently evident in the context of Italy, where remnants of the nation’s fascist and colonial heritage pervade the urban environment. In contrast to other countries, these forms of heritage have been assimilated and normalised. In Italy, entering a post office and encountering one of Mussolini's racist speeches or having a map of the Italian empire that encompasses Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, and Somalia hanging above your head is commonplace. The normalisation of this toxic environment is underpinned by historical factors. These factors are primarily linked to Italy's “loss” of its colonies during World War II and the subsequent absence of a thorough decolonisation process, as well as the regrettably interrupted course of defascistisation.

"In Italy, entering a post office and encountering one of Mussolini's racist speeches or having a map of the Italian empire that encompasses Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, and Somalia hanging above your head is commonplace."

- Alessandro Petti, co-founder of DAAR

The extensive material presence of colonial-fascist heritage across Italy renders the nation a loaded place for engaging in conversations concerning the reuse of fascist-colonial architecture and for discussing the imperative of recontextualising aesthetic dimensions within their social and political framework. For decades following World War II, Western historians have detached the aesthetic aspects from the very ideologies that produced these architectural creations, as if the aesthetic facet is exempt from being an ideological construction in itself. What is presently considered "beautiful" or "ugly" is a product of local cultural and ideological constructs, not a universal and transcendental judgement divorced from historical and cultural processes. This setting and these inquiries have prompted us to embark on a project in a specific Sicilian site with a particular history. This history is interconnected not only with an era when the nation was engaging in external colonisation, but also with a period in which Italy employed modernist architecture to colonise its southern regions—what Antonio Gramsci called internal colonisation. We are interested in understanding how the process of colonisation was utilised in the southern parts of Italy and how political factions crafted narratives casting southern Italians as lazy, backwards, and more recently, with the addition of tragic irony, how this narrative has been extended to include migrants, often in a more hostile and deadly context.

"The extensive material presence of colonial-fascist heritage across Italy renders the nation a loaded place for engaging in conversations concerning the reuse of fascist-colonial architecture."

- Alessandro Petti, co-founder of DAAR

For us, understanding that this discourse is very much rooted in that specific fascist colonial history is incredibly important. Not only ideologically, but also in relation to architecture, we felt the urgency to ask: who has the right to reuse colonial-fascist architecture? This is especially important at this time considering that Italian cities are inhabited by the same migrant populations that come from the very places that were colonised and suffered from it. One could thus argue that these very people and their descendent have the right to have a say on how these buildings should be reused and descendent of former colonisers should stop normalising their toxic urban environment and start questioning how colonial-fascist heritage is still, not only part of their urban and rural environments but also of their imaginations, fears, and prejudice.

"who has the right to reuse colonial-fascist architecture?"

- Alessandro Petti, co-founder of DAAR

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KOOZ In what ways does the activation of Ente di Decolonizzazione – Borgo Rizza in different venues like Naples, Berlin, Brussels, and Albissola Marina contribute to the larger conversation about decolonisation and demodernisation, and how does it foster new alliances and learning from diverse sites of colonial and modernist heritage? What role can the medium of an installation play in promoting critical reuse and subversion of such heritage?

SANDI HILAL At DAAR, our approach consistently originates from a specific site. Following visits to various towns built by the entity of colonisation of Sicilian latifundium, we intentionally chose to work within the context of Borgo Rizza1 in the municipality of Carlentini, Syracuse. This choice was motivated by the municipality's willingness to be challenged and to critically think about its heritage. Borgo Rizza stood among the newly established rural centres developed during the 1940s under the fascist regime, with the objective of colonising the Sicilian countryside, driven by the perception of the region as requiring modernisation. The inhabitants of these areas were perceived as non-modern and lazy. We were interested in collaborating with the local municipality and community to transform the very building of the entity of colonisation into an entity of decolonisation. The intervention was conceived as a collective endeavour that attracted and connected numerous individuals who recognised the urgent necessity of interrogating fascist, modernist, and colonialist heritage.

"We were interested in collaborating with the local municipality and community to transform the very building of the entity of colonisation into an entity of decolonisation."

- Sandi Hilal, co-founder of DAAR

Beyond the specific site of Borgo Rizza, our interest lay in comprehending how these discussions could be extended to other locations, allowing the site's lingering fascist ghost to meet other ghosts. We believe that fascism constructed a façade that continues to delineate who is deemed Italian and who is not. With each interaction, we aim to continue cracking its facade. This façade still exists today and we are interested in using art to create cracks in this solidified discourse and enable access to all. We perceive the realm of art as one of the few arenas still conducive to civil disobedience. This process of cracking the façade, carrying it across diverse places where it encounters other ghosts, has created varied scenarios. Beyond their site specificity, these activities have demonstrated how insights in one context can be transposed to others, sparking diverse dialogues that collectively enhance the critical historical reading at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, as Alessandro previously alluded to.

"We believe that fascism constructed a façade that continues to delineate who is deemed Italian and who is not."

- Sandi Hilal, co-founder of DAAR

KOOZ Considering the re-emergence of fascist ideologies in Europe, what are the urgent questions that arise when contemplating the fascist-colonial and modernist heritage? How can built and unbuilt heritage be re-oriented towards alternative purposes?

AP Up to now, the critical discussion about the entanglement between fascist architecture and modernity has been completely abandoned by scholars and researchers who prefer not to invest in the difficult task of leaving the space to neo-fascist celebrations. The rise of new fascist movements is rapidly transforming these monuments, structures and towns into battlegrounds of cultural war, amplifying the imperative need for a critical opposing narrative. This is what we are modestly trying to achieve through a specific site where we can effectively measure our interventions via the local community. Beyond Borgo Rizza, other sites of intervention and exploration contribute to expanding the discourse and question how other communities are contending with this legacy, as well as how we can reimagine alternative uses for this architecture.

"The rise of new fascist movements is rapidly transforming these monuments, structures and towns into battlegrounds of cultural war."

- Alessandro Petti, co-founder of DAAR

KOOZ How do the colonial and modern projects of exploitation, segregation, and dispossession shape the world's identities and create a singular modernist/colonial epistemology? What are the consequences of suppressing alternative approaches and world views in the name of modernity?

SH I was raised in Palestine and then studied architecture in Italy. In colonised sites such as Palestine, it's a common practice to send children abroad to learn modern architecture, intending to apply this knowledge upon returning home to “modernise” and “civilise” our country. Yet, despite immersing myself in modern knowledge and culture during my studies, practising architecture in Palestine, particularly in Gaza—where collective thought transcends state boundaries—I realised the modernisation approach by the Islamic government of Hamas was not only unnecessary but detrimental. While modernism isn't our heritage, it still pervades everywhere.

"the modernisation approach by the Islamic government of Hamas was not only unnecessary but detrimental. While modernism isn't our heritage, it still pervades everywhere."

- Sandi Hilal, co-founder of DAAR

Beyond Palestine, I began questioning this same scenario in Europe, particularly the concept of inclusion tied to modern life that doesn't accommodate other frameworks. I don't seek inclusion in one frame; I'd rather crack it and create multiple frames. The more frames the better. Our goal is to crack the singular narrative for Gaza, letting its people value their pre-state way of life. One frame shouldn't erase the value of others. We must realise that each of us has unique values, even if they don't align with modern ideals. This is how I perceive decolonisation in Europe, as questioning modernity. Otherwise, we'll return to the same question: Is modernist architecture the sole value in places like Gaza? My effort is to understand, as an Italian now resident in Sweden, that living in one place involves embracing values beyond a single modern frame.

"This is how I perceive decolonisation in Europe, as questioning modernity."

- Sandi Hilal, co-founder of DAAR

Ente di Decolonizzazione – Borgo Rizza at the Mostra d´Oltremare in Napoli, May 2022. Credits: DAAR.

KOOZ In light of the nomination of Asmara as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, who should have the authority to preserve, reuse, and re-narrate fascist colonial and modernist architecture? How can we critically examine the dark side of architectural modernism and imagine forms of demodernisation that challenge its homogenising, authoritarian, and segregational dimensions?

AP Our interest in Asmara's UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination stems from the need to comprehend what has motivated today´s Eritrean government to nominate as its own heritage the colonial fascist architecture constructed during the Italian invasion. We sought to understand if the nomination was perhaps a neo-colonial nostalgia move aimed at attracting European tourism with a preserved colonial city, or if it is a form of reappropriation that twisted UNESCO's Eurocentric values. The answer isn't simple as it encompasses both aspects.

"architecture serves as a platform for ideology and collective identities."

- Alessandro Petti, co-founder of DAAR

The nomination process itself provides an interesting arena for political struggle, revealing how architecture serves as a platform for ideology and collective identities. Nominations aren't isolated, aesthetic gestures; they carry weight. Asmara, in this regard, becomes a fascinating case study. We're grappling with these heritage questions, particularly within the UNESCO context which encapsulates modernist contradictions: professing universalism while giving only to nation states and their nationalistic agenda the right to nominate a World Heritage Site.

These are the entanglements and questions that both former colonised and former coloniser are still both grappling with and which are at the base of our own practice and recent project Ente di Decolonizzazione.

Bio

The artistic research practice of DAAR – Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti – is situated between architecture, art, pedagogy and politics. Over the last two decades, they have developed a series of research-projects that are both theoretically ambitious and practically engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. In their artistic research practice, art exhibitions are both sites of display and sites of action that spill over into other contexts: built architectural structures, the shaping of critical learning environments, interventions that challenge dominant collective narratives, the production of new political imaginations, the formation of civic spaces and the re-definition of concepts.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

Notes
1 We strike out the name to take a distance from the normalisation of fascist names that are still today used to indicate towns and villages built during the regime.

Published
28 Aug 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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