Location: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Date: 2019
Programme: Installation
Client: Ministry of Culture, Saudi Art Council
Status: Completed
Area: 500 m²
Budget: 10 000 €
Team: Traumnovelle (architects)

The Palace of cultures (2019) is an installation of stone elements occupying the entirety of the vacant Rubat Al-Khunji in Al-Balad. The stone objects, made from the leftover stone sourced from the demolished areas in al-Balad, are laid in every room and corridor upon a thick layer of sand. Their mysterious and shapes and sizes, as well as their weighty silence, evoke both far gone civilizations, perhaps even rituals, while simultaneously opening possibilities for new imagined users.

The palace of cultures is a fictional palace built a long time ago by a group of people who wanted to escape and extremist libertarian system and the apocalyptic ecological disaster born out of it. Viewers experience this through a letter written by a woman named Lina and addressed to her daughter Bardi, whom she had abandoned after the ecological disaster and susequent war in order create this experimental shelter from the harsh world beyond it. In the letter, Lina invites Bardi after a 30-year absence to the palace of cultures, describing the place as being an unwavering structure that allows an exchange of culture, as is the nature of the city of Jeddah, a port city that has been a place of exchange for hundreds of years. The names Lina and Bardi are homage by Traumnovelle to Italo-Brazilian modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi. Expressing the dualism in nature and technology, the palace of cultures plays on a belief system that articulates both phenomena, lending both equal importance. Taking into consideration the simultaneous dualism of the private and public nature of Rubat Al-Khunji, viewers are bound to think about the liminal nature of the space and of the ideas brought forth by the tactile and powerful installation created by Traumnovelle.

Dear Bardi,

It has now been thirty years since I looked upon your face. I hope you are well and your father too. Not a single day passes when the red of the sky doesn’t remind me that of your eyes. I can only imagine how tall you must be, and what a wonderful man you must have become. I hope the post still functions in ex-Eurasia and that you will receive this message. No words can make up for thirty years, but I think it is now time to give you my reasons for leaving. In doing so, my dearest wish is that you will accept to join me.

Thirty-three years ago, when you were three and we were living in Brussels, Eurasia met the most challenging political and ecological crisis in history. Experts had been heralding it for 45 years, but no measures had been taken. Europe had been annexed to the Eurasian bloc decades ago yet it was still shaken by violent revolts led by extremist libertarians wanting to rule over its ruins. On July 14th that year, an official announcement was made informing us that the last oil wells were dry, coal reserves were depleted, and that no fossil fuels remained. We celebrated your fourth birthday under cover from bombing and, three months later, the sky turned red and the ocean levels, contrary to predictions, sunk considerably. Crisis and conflicts grew across the world, as well as migrations, wars and famine. The system we thought eternal collapsed within a few weeks, leaving behind unusable structures and cities in flames. That same year, researcher Najat Fang discovered the equation for nuclear fusion, granting free and unlimited energy to all. Under three months, everything was rebuilt—everything except the planet. This energy allowed us nonetheless to create the spaces necessary to our survival, although the world in which you probably still live became nothing more than a sanitized bubble. Within a moment, humankind swept from apocalypse to pinnacle. Everything was put back together: the old power structures, social hierarchies and relations to the world. All of the ingredients for collapse, although nobody wants to believe it.

Your father and your aunt Vinay—please give them my love—as well as some other trusted people from around the world with varied competences, decided it was time to give a new scope to our project Renaissance. Your uncle, your father and myself had been working on the project since before your birth with the aim of experimenting new ways of being in the world politically, socially and economically with the tools of social sciences and architecture, and any other field that affects our relationship to our environment. It is founded on the simple idea that a constructed utopia can only exist within dialectics and the acceptance of conflict, danger, and of beings and non-beings as belonging to the same social organisation. I was designated by the group to lead our first social experiment. We named it the Palace of Cultures.

The Palace of Cultures is an experiment hidden from the eyes of the world, which is why your father has never told you of it. It is a post-catastrophe laboratory, because the catastrophe which has already taken place must serve as a testimony and a motor for future generations. We made the decision of setting it up in the old city of Jeddah, close to the sacred sites, in one of the territories which was most affected by the worldwide petroleum crisis. The Palace settled in an derelict mansion. It was abandoned, like the rest of the city, to conquer the less climatically challenging spaces of a new town. Jeddah is a port city, and has been a place of exchanges for hundreds of years. Here, cultures and languages cross paths.

The Palace is open to all. Some stay a few hours, others several years. We have lived here for thirty years. The walls have not changed but here we live. The climate is sometimes harsh, but such is the price to pay to live outside of the bubble. We have named it Palace because it is an architectural symbol representing a new power, and because it is a place of ceremonies. Every day, at a different hour, ceremonies celebrating fundamental acts take place. It is a Memento Mori, an occupied still-life. The Palace of Cultures symbolises this rebirth, when crisis are accepted as motors of change, ruins symbolise eternity and are the birthplaces of new rituals through improvised ceremonies. Through art, architecture and design, we search for symbols of a new humanity.

Bardi, it is now time, if you wish, for you to be our guest.

With love,