A Kibbutz Grows in Venice

During a recent visits to friends on the kibbutz - some urban dwellers of my generation still have friends living on a kibbutz - we walked as usual through the grounds and for the thousandth time expressed our enthusiasm for the heavenly landscape that has no equal anywhere, a landscape which continues to thrill us despite knowing things were never as pastoral as they appear. Our hosts, however, were worried. The landscape appears to be the same, they said, but its life span is limited and it's living on borrowed time. In a new world where everything has been privatized and ascribed, it's doubtful whether it will continue to exist.

In our imagination, we could already see the expanses of gardens being turned into private parking lots with fences and gates, parking spots next to homes, the large lawn outside the dining hall - already neglected - turning yellow, bourgeois villas built on the empty plots. We were broken-hearted.

On the verge of becoming history, and celebrating the centenary of the founding of the kibbutz movement next year, the kibbutz will take on one more national collective mission, perhaps its last, when it represents Israel at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. The Exhibition "Kibbutz - Architecture without Precedent," which will open in August 2010 in the Biennale's Israeli pavilion, will for the first time exhibit the most Israeli and Zionist architectural and social creation at the most important international architectural arena. It is considerably late in doing so, perhaps even critically late.

The exhibit will be curated by Dr. Galia Bar-Or and architect Yuval Yaski. It will show the kibbutz's past, present and future "as a work that to a large extent reflects basic questions in Israel society and culture," says Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) whose ministry is responsible, together with the Foreign Ministry, for Israeli exhibitions at the Biennale.

It is impossible not to see the irony here. Almost 30 years after the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, spoke about the millionaires on the kibbutzim with their swimming pools - a speech which marks the beginning of the end of the historic kibbutz movement and its delegitimation in the eyes of the public - another Likud-led government is giving its patronage, blessings and budget (some NIS 600,000) to an exhibition in tribute of the kibbutz. This is certainly another turnaround. However, the Likud government need not lose any sleep. Exhibitions in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale have never embarrassed any government and not one appears to have left a profound message. They've studiously avoided touching on the core issue of Israeli architecture: the politics of the Israeli environment. "We do not deal with the politics of the environment or the conflict over the land in the exhibition," Yaski says. "That is not the only thing we can show and expose to the world."

"We are not interested in criticism at the exhibition for criticism's sake," Bar-Or says. "What we are interested in demonstrating is how architecture has responded to a social idea and was not merely an expression of the architect's ego. The kibbutz is a good example, starting with its comprehensive planning and including the specific buildings that were set up there. We believe that, in light of the global economic crisis, there will be openness in the world to social ideas as expressed in the kibbutz architecture. Even today's version of the kibbutz, with the idea of a security network unequaled anywhere else, can still be a source of inspiration."

Living with privatization

Bar-Or, a scholar of culture and art, was born on Kibbutz Ein Harod where she lives to this day. She is the curator of the Museum of Art Ein Harod, which she has turned into one of the most important art museums in the country. The collection is housed in a building planned by architect Samuel Bickels, a unique and esteemed architectural work. The exhibition will emphasize Bickels' extensive work in the planning of kibbutzim.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Yaski, the son of architect Avraham Yaski, who lives in Tel Aviv but has family roots on the kibbutz. He is an independent architect who works in the KST firm and teaches in the architecture department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

The exhibition Bar-Or and Yaski are curating along with architects Dan Hasson and Adi Biran has not been completely formulated yet, but "it will not be a nostalgic 'we came here' exhibition nor a requiem to the kibbutz," Yaski says. Six years ago, when he became interested in the kibbutz in the framework of his instruction at Bezalel, "The kibbutz was already a body that had been beaten to death," he says. "But its death is not a total death. My work with the students involved deciding what to do further, so that there would not merely be crying over what had been and was lost, nor nostalgic clinging to the remains and [preserving every stone]."

The kibbutz has a long history but it itself has not yet become "history," say Bar-Or and Yaski. Its uniqueness in comparison to other Utopias is not merely due to the fact that it was realized, but "that the realization lasted over time," Yaski says. And as its centennial approaches, it is still developing and changing as it did over all those years. The kibbutz is a modernist idea whose substance consists of constant change, says Yaski. "And I believe that the kibbutzim will find ways to live with privatization, and along with that to hold on to the principles of cooperation which will find expression in the open spaces as well," he says.

UNESCO kibbutzim

Yaski espouses an approach to kibbutz planning which flows with the new conditions created, instead of going against them - to preserve "the intelligence of the kibbutz's open spaces," but not to stick to the preservation of buildings for which there is no longer any use simply because they were "the first silo" or "the mythological laundry." This is an approach which undoubtedly endangers the physical memories that still exist. But no matter what the approach, the Biennale is a suitable stage to call for a declaration of the kibbutz as a UNESCO world heritage site - and the sooner the better.

Yaski is convinced that it will be possible to preserve the DNA of the kibbutz's open spaces in the future, too, through planning that understands how to keep a continuous open space without boundaries, that avoids breaking up the kibbutz into plots that look like an American suburb, that finds a way to assign belongings without divisions, that creates spacial conditions for integration between veteran members of the kibbutz and new residents who've built homes on the vacant lands - thus providing a lifeline for the kibbutzim, whose future is threatened. Yaski says there are kibbutzim today that do not allow one to enter the new construction sites through the kibbutz grounds, but ask new residents to use bypass roads on the other side of the fence. "But there are also kibbutzim which after many years are now absorbing new members," he adds.

Bar-Or, whose kibbutz is still traditional (one of 85 that have remained cooperative), has felt the painful changes from up close; but she protests against what she calls the misrepresentation of the kibbutz as seen by the public and portrayed by the media. "There is a change. What can we do? My kibbutz is growing old, the young generation does not want to remain on the original kibbutz and anyone who [looks at the demographics] knows we can't go on like this," she says. "That is why we have to make a change, but we must not only focus on the tragedy. There are kibbutzim which already no longer follow the model of total privatization but rather one of mutual assistance. Perhaps over time they will forget their big eyes; the pendulum is swinging and perhaps it will stand still at a more feasible model."

Bar-Or sees the exhibition as an opportunity to show, in an international forum, "what we have and what still exists. Now is the time to present it, to raise awareness, to look back so as to understand the possibilities for the future. I think the Biennale for architecture is not the stage where one should only present dramas or new things that are happening, or criticize them. From our point of view, to show only the history, as a closed chapter, is anachronistic. That is why the exhibition will present the kibbutz as a unique creation that still exists, even if it is undergoing a period in its history in which the most significant changes have been made. Many people in the world don't know what a kibbutz is, and the 100th year of its founding is the right time to tell them."

The Venice Biennale is the largest event of its kind in the world, packed with exhibitions. The competition for every drop of attention is immense. Most of the previous architectural exhibitions in the Israeli pavilion have not attracted special attention, except perhaps for "Life Saver; Typology of Commemoration in Israel" from the 2006 exhibition, which made a few waves when the British organization Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine accused it of ignoring Palestinian victims.

Obviously that was not the kind of attention Israel was seeking. Who knows what will happen with the exhibition that contains "no drama" about the wonders of the kibbutz and its current indecision, at a time when Israel is being asked to pay for its grave deeds in the region, and for which architecture is one of the executive arms.

The exhibition will run from August 29, 2010 until November 21, 2010.