Since 1980, the famous Venice Biennale of Art has alternated with a Biennale of Architecture, which has become the leading event in its field. The Architecture Biennale of 2014 was directed by Rem Koolhaas, the famous Dutch architect best known for his sensational 1978 book, Delirious New York, which claimed NYC to be “the Rosetta Stone for understanding modern culture.” For the 14th Biennial Koolhaas chose the theme “Absorbing Modernity, 2014-1914.”

Koolhaas directed participating architects to “choose the moment when the process of modernization was at its most acute.” For the Syrian pavilion he chose a young architect, Khaled Malas, who recently presented an overview of his Venetian project in New York. It was Jean-Louis Cohen, renowned expert on Le Corbusier and modern architecture, who brought Khaled Malas to the attention of a New York audience.

Malas saw the project as an opportunity to explore the potential of architecture to transform space. He proposed the metamorphosis of a landscape into a site of resistance, a radical activity that was part of the Syrian national struggle. Central to his project is the experience by Syrian civilians of continual bombing, the endless “falling from the sky.” He named his project “excavating the sky,” for he took from the sky the activity that destroyed human beings and reversed it to take from the land the water that sustained it. He changed a landscape from a target to a resource.

Malas’s “excavating the sky” was initially a four-day event in the Venice Biennale focusing on Syria and the production of its contemporary landscape from 1914 up until today. He organized his project around four historical episodes that he divided according to the elements: air, fire, earth and water. All have been conditioned by the sky. In the early days of this century, pilots attempted to show the Ottoman Empire’s imperial power; two flights of 1914 remain memorialized by obelisks marking crash sites. The French Mandate crushed rebellion by bombing a medieval neighborhood in Damascus in 1925, reducing the center to a ruin, now known as “The Blaze.”

Today, Syrian civilians stare at the sky to see when to run when bombs fall. Helicopters fly over Syria and push out the “barrel bombs,” oil barrels filled with shrapnel or chemicals, casually pushed out the door by the leg of the pilot without looking. Any random spot where it falls will serve; all civilians are fit to be killed. These barrel bombs have been condemned in the UN and by Human Rights organizations, but no reprisals have taken place against the government of Assad for these assaults. Civilians below hope for missiles to bring down the planes but none have been acquired. Part of the documentary evidence of the Syrian exhibit are photographs of civilians staring at the sky, of bombs in the air, of diagrams of aircraft, as well as period photos of the early pilots and Syrian fighters in traditional dress, diagrams of planes, and news photos of the first Syrian cosmonaut, Muhammad Faris, who flew with the Russians in 1987 (and who defected when he learned his government bombed civilians). All these moving photographs are in the small, elegantly printed catalog for the exhibit. Some Syrian art and artifacts enhance the poetic style of the catalog, as they had in Venice.

Malas’s stated purpose was to refer visitors in Venice to an undisclosed location in Syria, where a well has been dug. Activists, along with the architect, made this happen in their neighborhood. Film at the pavilion shows children scooping up water from the primitive well as it gushes out. More than water is found here. Malas feels that “a well thrust into the ground is the mark of our permanent belonging . . . those who will always inhabit this land stare at the sky in defiance, their feet firmly planted into the ground beneath them.”

In the catalog, the well thrust into the ground is represented by a black shaft. In such graphic terms the action of the civilians is explicit: the well is the reversal of the lines of falling bombs from above. Here artists and activists have challenged destruction; they have excavated the sky and returned power to the earth.

Virginia Smith, graphic designer and historian, is the author of two books on graphic design history, The Funny Little Man, and Forms in Modernism. A graduate of the Yale School of Art, and the founder of the graphic magazine Artograph, she is the author of many art and photography reviews  on fascinating subjects such as Thomas Struth, Sebastião Salgado, and Paul Graham. She teaches History of Graphic Design at SVA after years as a Professor of Art at CUNY.