Transformation of Palestinian landscape focus of Designing Civic Encounter project

A black and white image of an unfinished building with a red line superimposed on it

The Lawless Line,” Decolonizing Architecture, 2011.

Amina Bech

Urban space, landscapes and experiences are at the center of a new multidisciplinary project focused on Palestine, in which artists, architects, environmentalists, academics and activists have come together to discuss the transformation of space in both Palestinian and other regional Arab cities.

Designing Civic Encounter, an online publication, features essays, photographs and video documentations dealing with issues of urban life — including the effects of occupation, colonialism and commercialism on public spaces and the public experience.

The project started in July 2011 with a symposium, a workshop with Guatemalan-born architect Teddy Cruz and a bus tour of Ramallah highlighting the disparities and contrasts between even various parts of the same West Bank city. Lectures and presentations from this three-day event have been combined with original contributions to form the online publication.

The analysis of space is the main focus of the Designing Civic Encounter project, from the overcrowdedness of urban centers throughout the West Bank, to the empty space left after a home has been demolished in Gaza, from the white space on a billboard, to the fragmentation of formerly connected spaces as a result of Israel’s wall in the West Bank.

“From the beginning it was about looking around the space and trying to connect,” Shuruq Harb, co-curator of Designing Civic Encouter, told The Electronic Intifada. “So the urban tour was a really important component of the project, because it was about creating an experience in the actual space where the discussion is happening, these spaces that are familiar, but also unfamiliar.”

The Designing Civic Encounter project is an offshoot of ArtTerritories, an “independent platform for artists, thinkers, researchers and curators to reflect on their art practice and engage in critical exchange on matters of art and visual culture in the Middle East and the Arab World.”

Settlements “deliberately disconnected” from heritage

The project highlights the effects of the occupation on the development of Palestine’s landscapes and spaces, which are so often subtly absorbed into daily life and remain unnoticed. Refugee camps, home demolitions, settlements, military structures, the wall and its impacts on communities are all visual displays of Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and have a profound impact on the way in which space is shaped.

For instance, the Israeli settlement building enterprise has had a particular effect on the landscapes of Palestine. Settlements, with their red roofs and linear design, are not only deliberately disconnected from the land’s heritage and traditional homebuilding styles, but they are also beginning to have an effect on the way Palestinians design and build housing complexes in the West Bank.

“The new architecture is disturbingly close to the colonial,” said Yazid Anani, assistant professor in architecture at Birzeit University, in his contribution to the Designing Civic Encouter project entitled “The Mirror” (see text and video of Anani’s presentation on the Designing Civic Encounter website).

“Our housing projects used such public and common architectural elements. Now it’s like containers standing next to each other where you squeeze people in. Architecture becomes a form of containment, reproducing the colonial strategies,” Anani added.

A new diplomatic housing complex on the outskirts of Ramallah, currently under development, bears an uncanny resemblance to Israeli settlements. Similarly, the proposed multi-million dollar housing complex of Rawabi, north of Ramallah, has been described by some as a “Palestinian settlement”: a town built from scratch rather than organically, involving thousands of housing units in a linear arrangement.

“It’s a city modelled after a housing complex, like a settlement, so it’s a really weird concept,” said Harb. “It clearly represents neoliberal policies … in a way it’s like a privatized city.”

Internalizing the occupation

While architectural analysis tends to focus on the West Bank, Harb made it clear that it is important to look at the area as a whole in order to understand the space, including the Gaza Strip, the spaces of Palestinians within Israel, and the broader region of the Middle East.

“The way I read the landscape, the things I see happening here, all of these are different manifestations of the same symptom,” said Harb. “So they just take on different forms. I think more and more the occupation has become something that we have internalized, and we can no longer really separate from ourselves, so it becomes difficult to resist it.”

Other contributions to the project include exhibits focusing on home demolitions in Gaza, and the unjust building policies facing Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and lectures about regional cities such as Amman in Jordan and Beirut in Lebanon.

Further afield, the city of Dubai is termed the “city from zero” in a presentation for Designing Civic Encounter by Shumon Basar. This presentation proves an interesting insight into the way in which contemporary urban spaces are developed and feel simultaneously familiar and strange, warm and cold; an analysis surprisingly relevant to cities such as Ramallah and Rawabi (“Shumon Basar,” 15 November 2011).

Invisible lines

Another of the main themes of the Designing Civic Encounter project relates to another impact of Israeli occupation: the effects of the Oslo accords and the so-called “peace process” on the urban landscapes of Palestine. Since the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s and the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C, the use of space has become determined by invisible lines.

Therefore, urban centers in Area A — nominally under Palestinian Authority control — such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus have become inwardly focused, developing rapidly but are unable to expand outwards, while construction has been immobilized in Area C (the sixty percent of the West Bank under total Israeli military control). The division of the space means that the three areas have been fragmented from one another.

“Oslo has introduced uneven developments,” says the Designing Civic Encounter website “with areas designated A, under PA administration, being the primary site of urbanization and investment while areas designated C, still under Israeli military administration, remain in limbo, suffering from depopulation and isolation, ultimately interrupting the natural expansion of Palestinian built-up areas” (“Urban tour,” 21 July 2011).

One of the unintentional effects of Oslo was to create a new and alternative space within the very line separating the three areas. This phenomenon was investigated by architect Alessandro Petti in his contribution to Designing Civic Encounter, “The Red Castle and the Lawless Line: A Legal-Architectural Fable of Extraterritorial Transformation.”

“Less than a millimeter thick when drawn on the scale of 1:20,000, it measured more than 5 meters in real space,” wrote Petti. “Here, we might reiterate an old question, who owns the thickness of the line?”

This is just one of many fascinating questions posed by the contributors, both local and international. While some of the contributions seem decidedly more technical, they are nonetheless thought-provoking and accessible to the reader, even one with no prior knowledge of architecture or urban design.

Image of billboard depicts idealized family which owns several cars

Digital C-type print from the series “Desire and Disaster,” by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2011.

Hallucination of freedom

Another theme which runs through the project is the rise of commercialism in Palestine’s urban centers — partly a result of neoliberal economic policies. The increased isolation of those in Area A has, according to some of the contributors, created inwards-looking spaces focused on individual material accumulation, rather than national liberation.

“There is a reinvention of the middle class in Palestine driven by the hallucination of freedom inside the bubble called Ramallah,” wrote Yazid Anani in his aforementioned essay. “Suddenly everybody thinks that we are not under occupation.”

“We have banks, we have schools, we have work, and we can move up and have better jobs,” he continued. “The political struggle, once a collective effort originating from our roots, our networks and our rich social life has disappeared, and individuality has become the norm.”

Another installation, “The Zone,” continues this commercial theme by focusing on the discord created by billboards in public spaces, and their promotion of a globalized commercial dream at the expense of traditional heritage and symbolism.

For example, billboards appropriate symbols of national heritage and the struggle for homeland, such as the olive or the Palestinian farmer, and adapt them to represent commercial trade and investment.

“What struck us as most significant is the way in which this new regime displaced the old collective ‘dreams’ and gave birth to new political discourses and desires largely centered on consumption,” wrote artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme.

“The absurdities of this are clear when we just stop to consider that in order for us to invest in this new dream we must somehow ignore the increasingly visible violence of the colonial situation,” the authors explain.

American dream in a Palestinian package

Another discovery of the project is that while both public and domestic spaces used to include traditional features such as common meeting areas and central plazas with a focus on social interaction, recent housing developments are utilitarian blocks built to accommodate as many individuals as possible.

“We suddenly woke up after nearly a decade of the Oslo agreements to find out that architecture has become a means of transforming the urban realm into an assemblage of containers, stacking people, homes, businesses and companies on top of each other,” said Azani.

“Somehow it feels like the American dream in a Palestinian package,” said Harb. “Record numbers of people are taking on loans … I think we will have a financial crisis at some point here. I’m not an economist but I feel like it could happen, and once it happens we’re going to see so many things. It’s going to be brutal, because we will realise how sedated we have been.”

However, while this increased commercialism and investment in real estate could be seen as a form of escapism from the occupation, one of the central reasons for increased credit loans is the centrality of the concept of “home” in the Palestinian struggle, another prevalent theme in the Designing Civic Encounter project.

One artistic contribution, entitled “GH0809,” presents destroyed Gazan property as an imaginary real estate window display, highlighting the pain of upheaval after the destruction of a home.

The refugees in diaspora longing to return to their homes lost in 1948, the Palestinian and Bedouin populations struggling against home demolitions, the denial of home-building permits for Palestinian citizens of Israel, all are part of the wider context of a struggle for a Palestinian homeland, and all have an impact on the way in which land and space are perceived.

“There’s always been a struggle about home, because a home means settlement, it means a concrete association with the land,” Harb said. “When Israel was established it took huge amounts of land and it claimed that nobody was living there. So having a house, having a building … actually having a home has always been quite central in the Palestinian conflict.”

In Designing Civic Encounter, thinkers from many disciplines unite to take everyday spaces and familiar landscapes and transform them into areas for discussion and analysis. While the project focuses on architecture, the theme of “space” extends into numerous disciplines including philosophy, literature, economics and art, therefore providing excellent resource for students and researchers from across the spectrum of academic enquiry.

“Spaces need to be created, and the spaces of the encounter need to be created, and I think that’s what we feel we are doing,” said Harb, referring to both the workshop and the online publication. “We have created spaces where interactions and exchanges can happen between different disciplines, where people can think about what the next step is.”

This project refuses to take the everyday effects of the occupation for granted, while also looking beyond the occupation to the effects on development in the region as a whole. Overall, Designing Civic Encounter is a unique and fascinating collection of works providing insight into spaces often considered too ordinary for contemplation.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme as designers, rather than artists, and identified Shuruq Harb as the co-founder rather than co-curator of Designing Civic Encounter.

Emily Lawrence is a recent graduate and independent writer currently based in Bethlehem, West Bank. She can be followed on Twitter at @EmilyWarda.