The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, with Mughrabi Ascent bridge in foreground (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Nati Shohat/Flash90
Shaky walls'Even in these ancient holy places, things are so temporary'

In Venice, Israel exhibits 1,600 years of architects’ fixes for religious rifts

Through November, the Biennale’s Israel Pavilion highlights seemingly permanent struggles at religious sites and their transient stopgap solutions

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Main image by Nati Shohat/Flash90

Twenty days a year, a hotly-contested holy site in Hebron, known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, resembles New York’s Madison Square Garden as it is turned from the Knicks’ basketball court to the New York Rangers’ ice hockey rink.

While the reason for the changeover is anything but fun and games, the choreography is still strikingly similar, as workers add or remove simple items such as plastic chairs and rugs to create a synagogue or a mosque.

Ten days a year the place belongs exclusively to Jews; the other 10 to Muslims. However, the remainder of the year, the site is uneasily shared between the two religions. A bulletproof wall, introduced by tragic necessity after Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshipers during prayers in 1994, hermetically seals off the two halves of the shrine from one another.

A new exhibition created especially for the Venice Biennale of Architecture’s Israel Pavilion examines the delicate balance struck between the religions laying claim to the Cave of the Patriarchs and four other ostensibly permanent holy sites in Israel and the West Bank.

“In Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation” illustrates that if we look at these contested religious sites from a combined spatial and temporal perspective, then what we think of as permanent in the Holy Land may be anything but.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, May 23, 2018, a view of the Israel pavilion, at the Biennale International Architecture exhibition, in Venice, Italy. (AP/Antonio Calanni)

The exhibition is named after the Status Quo mechanism employed since the mid-19th century to maintain peace between the contesting parties as they go about their daily routines. It was first introduced by the Ottomans in the mid-19th century, and was advanced under British and Jordanian rule. Status Quo is still in use today by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Even in these ancient holy places, things are so temporary. By working on this project, I now understand in a deep sense how everything is so impermanent here,” said Deborah Pinto Fdeda, a member of the curatorial team behind “In Statu Quo,” who spoke with The Times of Israel in her Tel Aviv studio shortly before flying to Venice for the exhibition’s installation.

Israel Pavilion team (from left): Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda, Oren Sagiv, Tania Coen Uzzielli. (Daniel Sheriff)

The Israel Pavilion team is rounded out by architects Ifat Finkelman and Oren Sagiv, as well as Tania Coen Uzzielli, head of curatorial affairs and curator at the Israel Museum.

The team’s “In Statu Quo” proposal was selected in a competitive process by a joint committee representing Israel’s Culture Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

According to Finkelman, the research and work involved in preparing the exhibition and related presentations and materials (including a book) were both intense and extensive. None of the team’s members had previously studied the Status Quo mechanism, nor had they participated in earlier biennales.

“This topic is not our expertise, but it is very relevant for this kind of platform and international venue. It’s about architecture in a broader sense, which is very much the discourse in the field these days,” Finkelman said.

The exhibition, taking up all three floors of the Israel Pavilion, gives each of the five holy sites its own place and treatment in order to highlight the various strategies by which the Status Quo has been employed.

On the first floor, the changeover that takes place at the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is secured by the IDF, is shown in the section entitled, “Scenography: Object Politics.”

“This is an example of how objects make a place,” Finkelman said.

Visitors can see the transformation in action through a projection of Nira Pereg’s 2012 film, “Abraham Abraham Sarah Sarah.”

Scene from Nira Pereg’s film ‘Abraham Abraham Sarah Sarah’ (Courtesy of Nira Pereg)

A model compromise

In “Choreography: Protocols in Space and Time,” the complex spatial and temporal divisions in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre are represented by a refurbished, color-coded antique model of the church where Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian denominations share space in their daily routines.

The model was made by German architect, archaeologist and Protestant missionary Conrad Schick in 1862 for the Ottoman pasha. Three copies were originally produced, but only the one being exhibited has survived. It is on loan from Christ Church in the Old City.

An accompanying half-hour video shows the rituals and protocols that take place in the various sections of the church, highlighting not only the division of space, but also of time.

Latin mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, October 2, 2017. (Ori Orhof)

The Western Wall Plaza is the subject of “Project: From Modus Vivendi to Modus Operandi.” Here, visitors learn about how shortly after Israel gained control of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, it razed the 800-year-old Muslim Mughrabi Quarter adjacent to the Western Wall to enable huge crowds of Jews to access the only remnant of the Second Temple complex. That was back in 1967. Yet to this day, no proposal for the redesign of this now-tabula rasa has been implemented.

In the pavilion, there are 10 three-dimensional printed models created by the curatorial team based on proposals for the Western Wall plaza — many of them by architectural giants such as Louis Kahn, Isamu Noguchi, Moshe Safdie and Superstudio.

Each model speaks in its own way to the two major conflicts over the plaza. There is the question of whether the plaza is a national space or a Jewish space. A second question is contingent upon the first — if it is a Jewish space, then which among the different streams of Judaism should have hegemony (or not)?

One just needs to glance at the latest headlines in Israeli and Jewish American newspapers to know that these conflicts are far from resolved.

Models of proposals for redesign of the Western Wall plaza. ‘In Statu Quo’ exhibition at Israel Pavilion, May 2018. (Courtesy)

The use of walls in religious conflict

An animated film in the “Landscape: The Land as Palimpsest” section demonstrates how Rachel’s Tomb, revered as the burial place of the biblical matriarch, has fallen victim to the ongoing changes to the political and security facts on the ground.

Located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem and to the west of what had been the main road linking the city to Jerusalem, Rachel’s Tomb had been open to all for centuries. Many people around the world were familiar with the iconic landmark from photos in books, and on posters, postcards, and stamps.

Today, the tomb is essentially a fortified Jewish-only compound surrounded by the eight-meter-high separation wall that cuts it off from the densely populated Palestinian urban fabric surrounding it.

On the way to Rachel’s Tomb. (Gili Merin)

And “Monument: Permanent Temporariness” shows the Mughrabi ascent leading from the Western Wall plaza up to the only gate through which non-Muslims can enter the Temple Mount. This is a prime example of how the Status Quo mechanism can leave things in limbo by allowing neither a reversion to what was, nor progress toward something new.

The Mughrabi ascent was originally an earthen pathway left over from the demolition of the Mughrabi Quarter in 1967. After the pathway collapsed in 2005, a wooden footbridge was built in its stead. It was meant to be a temporary solution, but because of conflicts over architecture and control of infrastructure among the Jordanian-funded Islamic Waqf, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, plans for a more eye-pleasing fix have been put on ice indefinitely.

Demolition of Mughrabi Quarter adjacent to Western Wall, June 1967. (Courtesy David Rubinger/Yedioth Ahronoth)

House of cards

“Delving into all of this made me understand how complex all these matters are,” said Pinto Fdeda as she showed this reporter a clip from the animated film about the ascent made for the exhibition by “Waltz With Bashir” artist David Polonsky.

“You can’t simplify these things. There is no bottom line,” Finkelman said.

Both architects said they were excited about having come up with a new way to frame these holy places, by using historical spatial facts.

Plan of the Holy Sepulchre and surroundings by Conrad S. Schick, C. Mommert and K. Baedeker, 1898. (Courtesy of Israel Architecture Archive)

“Our aim was to make a statement about these places without passing judgements. We want to show things as they are. But we know that as soon as you frame something, it’s not neutral,” Finkelman said.

“In Statu Quo” has made a significant impact on how Pinto Fdeda and Finkelman see themselves as architects practicing in the modern state of Israel situated in the ancient Holy Land.

“These places say something about the larger picture of what is going on here,” Pinto Fdeda said.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, May 23, 2018, architect Deborah Pinto Fdeda looks part of the installation at the Israeli pavilion, at the Biennale International Architecture exhibition, in Venice, Italy (AP/Antonio Calanni)

“It shows the responsibility of architects in their planning here. The status quo seems to always change when there’s a disruption, and the solutions will be creative and temporary,” Finkelman said.

“In Statu Quo” runs until November 25, 2018, at the Israel Pavilion at the Giardini venue of the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

read more: