[1] In 2015 I was invited to participate in a retrospective exhibition on abstraction and politics from 1915 to 2015, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The title of the exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square, referred to the work of Kazimir Malevich. I withdrew from the exhibition before it opened, upon becoming aware of the exhibition’s funding by the Israeli Embassy in London.

[2] Written by Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, to her mother after she learned of her death sentence. An Iranian court charged Jabbari with the murder of a former employee of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, despite her insistence that she had acted in self-defense after he attempted to rape her.

[3] Mies van der Rohe, from a speech given to architecture students, Armour Institute, Chicago, 1938.
Dear Malevich,

I have long thought of our missed encounter,1 and of writing you.

The more I think about it, the more I realise what I am writing about is not the encounter. It is a feeling. I am writing about unrequited love.

The phrase, ‘The world did not love us, mother’ began echoing in my head as I realised this. Do you remember? Reyhaneh and her last message to her mother?2 I am very sorry to appropriate her words and their meaning – I fully understand their catastrophic context – but how crushing it is to recognise the loneliness in that love and that declaration, through language alone.

The fragility of the lover who has not been loved and will not be loved.

I have attempted to analyse the substance of this weight: here is a love letter after all, written with the full knowledge that I love a person, an idea, a project even, that will never love me in return.

I understood this fact when I realised the subtle violence that reveals itself in the loftiness of abstraction, in the negation and erasure implied by such loftiness. In these lines and forms and aesthetics I know intimately, and master fully.

The violence that hides in the white on white.

In her Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Etel Adnan describes the colour white as the colour of terror: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, and the white on white in your painting.

Even you recognised terror – or your proximity to it – when you realised that you were leaving the world you knew.i Was it a prophecy of destruction? The white on white.

This square, perfect and complete, in its homage to geometry, erases what came before it. It asks for no dweller or resident; it comes after destruction asking for another destruction. There is nothing to expect after its passage.

Just like your white square destroyed the black square that preceded it.ii

Exactly like Jaffa.

Even as the stones of Jaffa were being dismantled, Tel Aviv’s white ‘Bauhausian’ walls were being built.iii

Bauhaus...the avant-garde movement that long seemed isolated from the colonial system and its architecture. It had detached itself from modernity and the partitions it wrought, and associated itself with migration and displacement,iv ignoring the underlying erasures: a perfect square that abolishes what came before it,v and asks for no dweller or resident, or rather, asks for a specific dweller. Parallel line, so close and yet so distant.

After he emigrated to the United States of America, to Chicago more specifically, Mies van der Rohe spoke to his students – in a published address3 – about the honesty of (construction) materials and its their connection to architectural function and accumulated know-how.

I very much trust these words and abide by them. I trust the perfection of the marble square and its geometric lines. But what does material honesty mean in the context of ruin? I don’t really know.

He says,                                              

‘Nothing can express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of St. Augustine: “Beauty is the splendour of Truth.”’

- Saba

[i] ‘When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, “everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert.”’ From Suprematism, the second of the two essays which together comprise The Non-Objective World, Malevich's major treatise published in Germany in 1927.

[ii] Malevich’s reduction of the pictorial elements in his compositions increased steadily, culminating in his White on White series, 1917-1918.

[iii] The narrative of Tel Aviv as the ‘White City’ creates an unbreakable rhetorical link between Bauhaus and Tel Aviv, in particular, and the State of Israel in general. In July 2003, UNESCO’s World Heritage commission recommended inscribing the ‘White City’ of Tel Aviv into the organisation’s list of World Heritage Sites. In his book White City, Black City, Sharon Rotbard uses this moment of official recognition as an entry point to deconstruct and interrogate this narrative: ‘As an architectural narrative this White City legend started to spread only when it received its official ‘scientific’ and historical stamp of approval in the summer of 1984, with the exhibition entitled White City and curated by the architectural historian Michael Levin at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art… But the White City exhibition was much more than your average architectural exposition; it was the first concreted attempt to construct a history – the history – of Israeli architecture. Within this historiography, the White City of Tel Aviv and its composition were established as an inaugural point zero – the moment when Israeli architecture began.'

The ‘White City’ architectural narrative claims the migration of Bauhaus as a school of thought, through a few Bauhaus students, that was later translated into a few buildings erected from nothingness, from the dunes of the desert.  On another level, it ignores other predominant architectural influences, such as Le Corbusier and the use of pilotis—piers or columns raising architectural volumes above the ground.

Having acted as the region’s cosmopolitan centre up until 1948, Jaffa contains quite a considerable range of international and modern styles of architecture, which were not included in the story of the White City (Rotbard, 2014). The White City narrative is nothing more than a spatial manifesto that singles out Tel Aviv within the region, as another tool to legitimise its political existence.

[iv] The history of Bauhaus is a story of migration and exile.
1919—1924, the Bauhaus school was established in Weimer. The school battled national and local hostilities till finally was forced to close (Hans Wingler, 1962)
1925—1932, Dessau, the school closed after the Nazi party becomes the strongest in the Municipal elections in 1931. One of its major election pledges had been the cancellation of grants to the Bauhaus and the demolition of its buildings (Bauhaus Archiv).
1933, Berlin, the school continues as a private institution, but with no chance to re-establish itself amid the rise of the Nazi power, the school was forced to close. The Bauhaus masters themselves dispersed; Walter Gropius to Harvard, Mies van der Rohe to the Armour Institute in Chicago.

[v] Aryeh Sharon (b. 1900, Poland) was one of four architects who went to Palestine after graduating from the Bauhaus school, becoming one of the most popular and influential architects within Zionist circles in the British Mandate period, from the 1930s onwards. In his book, Bauhaus and the Kibbutz (1976), Sharon not only reappropriates the ‘interrupted’ school of thought but inscribes it into the Zionist state. Sharon’s book links the claimed ‘utopia’ of the militant structure of the Zionist community directly to another assumed utopia – the Bauhaus. He gradually moves from the philosophy of the communal of the kibbutz, to the Gesamtkultur of Bauhaus (the avant-garde concept of ‘total culture’, in German) as if the latter was the manifestation of the former; a proposition never questioned by the school of Bauhaus in the years to follow.

The Bauhaus, and the international style, in general, emerged from the trauma and the ruins of WWI – it is evident in the desire for the tabula rasa, or blank page, defended and constructed by modern architecture.

This desire unfolds constant violence whether in creating the tabula rasa, assuming it, or inventing it. 

We can trace this violence in the history of modern architecture – whether in colonised contexts or not – but it becomes especially visible in the rhetoric that surrounds cities that ‘emerge from dunes,' from nothingness – in this particular case, the establishment of the State of Israel. This violence extends to the re-creation of these moments in writing history, even in ‘who’ can reclaim an idea; the one defect of the Bauhaus is that it can only be reclaimed by the coloniser.