Mapping the Myth

Somewhere outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana, I exited I-10 and pulled into the parking lot of a PJ’s Coffee. Long drives are usually the one time I patronize Starbucks, but Starbucks is one of several companies that I (and hopefully you) am actively boycotting. So, before leaving New Orleans that morning bound for Houston, I plotted out my stop at PJ’s.

Sipping on a festive latte, I opened the email invitation for what the Paris-based magazine The Funambulist billed as “a teach-in for all architecture students” on settler colonialism in Palestine. Nearly 8,000 people had RSVP’d for the event, more than twice the number that the American University of Cairo’s Zoom account had the capacity to host; the spillover crowd was directed to join the livestream on the Funambulist Youtube page. The magazine’s editor, Léopold Lambert, promptly appeared on the screen, apologizing to attendees in less-than-ideal time zones (6:00 p.m. in Paris is 6:00 a.m. in New Zealand is 11:00 a.m. in southwestern Louisiana). “I have 175 slides,” he said, “so brace yourself.”

One aim of Lambert’s talk was to contest the Zionist myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” The history does not begin with Hamas’s attacks on October 7, or even in 1948 when at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land. In 1967, Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, commencing a land-grab campaign that continues to this day. Zionists claimed Palestinian villages like Mei Neftoach (now Lifta) and Haifa and built on top of them to obscure their provenance. With a forensic sense of purpose, Lambert produced maps, photographs, and time lines that brought to light this architectural erasure.

There were more than a few unsettling moments, as when Lambert showed photos of settlements in the West Bank. Many look strikingly like US suburbs, but the resemblance goes deeper than a fondness for cul-de-sacs: It isn’t unlikely that single-family homes in, say, Modi’in Illit or Ariel are occupied by American-born Zionists. Then there are the checkpoints along the barricade, which have been increasingly militarized over the years (recalling the US/Mexico border), with some beginning to employ AI. In one of Lambert’s case studies, a checkpoint is equipped with robotic machine guns.

It’s notable that Lambert did not entertain any wishful designer-as-savior thinking. Rather, he was adamant about architecture’s complicity in oppression. Asked to consider the possibility of alternative orientations, he countered that “a colonizer can never walk into a building and be decolonized, but you can walk into a building and become a prisoner—it’s called a prison.” Architecture, he later added, “is settler colonialism’s best friend.”

As the Israeli state continues to perpetrate genocide against the Palestinian people, actions like my Starbucks boycott feel hopelessly small. Statements and speeches made by would-be activist academics and designers also ring hollow, disjointed as they are from the harsh realities of settler colonial violence.

Still, the presence of so many lifted my spirits. Our collective power—whether as citizens, architectural workers, or students—is greater than the sum of its parts. After the teach-in, The Funambulist published the teach-in to its YouTube channel. If you write about, think about, or design architecture, the lessons it holds are invaluable.