Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope

14 July, 2021
Gaza's El-Nasr neighborhood (photo Abdallah ElHajj, Getty Images)

Gaza­’s El-Nasr neigh­bor­hood (pho­to Abdal­lah ElHa­jj, Get­ty Images)

Open Gaza: Archi­tec­tures of Hope
Michael Sorkin & Deen Sharp, editors
Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo Press/Terreform
ISBN 9781649030733


Hadani Ditmars

open gaza architectures of hope cover lg 96x1200.jpg

I remem­ber my first trip to Gaza, as a young 26-year-old reporter for a post-Oslo Accord joint Israeli-Pales­tin­ian month­ly mag­a­zine pub­lished by Hana Sig­no­ra called, opti­misti­cal­ly, The New Mid­dle East. It was 1994, and Gaza had tech­ni­cal­ly just been lib­er­at­ed from years of occu­pa­tion. I encoun­tered a piece of Pales­tine that felt a bit like an Egypt­ian sea­side town arrest­ed in the mid-cen­tu­ry. It was low-tech and nat­u­ral­ly green, a place where men road bicy­cles through town and chil­dren played at the beach. I inter­viewed gangs of kids who worked at the city dump, recy­cling met­als and plas­tics to sell via Pales­tin­ian mid­dle­men to Israeli fac­to­ries, and vis­it­ed an ancient Greek Ortho­dox church with a woman from an old Gazan Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly. I pic­nicked with fam­i­lies amid cit­rus groves, inhal­ing the aro­ma of orange blos­soms, and expe­ri­enced incred­i­ble hospitality.

This was before Israel encour­aged Hamas as a foil to Fatah, even before Arafat’s tri­umphant, if brief return in a heli­copter, before he holed up in the ruins of his Mukataʿa fortress near Ramal­lah … and before Rabin was assas­si­nat­ed by a reli­gious set­tler extrem­ist.  Some­how, in that moment, Gaza felt like a new­ly reawak­ened Sleep­ing Beau­ty, a place where move­ment was free, and the future was wide and open and full of promise. 

Now, some 27 years lat­er, as Gaza strug­gles to recov­er from yet anoth­er round of Israeli bomb­ings, the sit­u­a­tion looks bleak. But a recent tome pub­lished by Ter­reform and AUC press  called Open Gaza: Archi­tec­tures of Hope, offers an alter­nate vision, and one that some­how recalls that feel­ing I first had about the place in 1994. The Gaza of this hand­some book is one that tran­scends the excess­es of occu­pa­tion via imag­i­na­tion and inno­va­tion, resilience, and ulti­mate­ly courage. 

Open Gaza is a book that dares to sub­vert the tired old nar­ra­tives of despair and gives agency to Gaza­’s 1.8 mil­lion inhab­i­tants via the mag­ic of archi­tec­tur­al inter­ven­tion. And yet, while edit­ed by architects/academics and activists Deen Sharp and the late, great Michael Sorkin, the book does not ignore the bru­tal real­i­ties of occu­pa­tion, but rather, in sug­gest­ing solu­tions both in spite of it and for a hoped-for post-occu­pa­tion future, under­lines them. As they write in their intro­duc­tion, “It was the fatal delu­sion of mod­ernist archi­tec­ture and plan­ning that their spa­tial prac­tices by them­selves trans­form the social and polit­i­cal realms. We are under no such illu­sions. Nor do we have the slight­est doubt that sub­stan­tive change can only occur if Israel’s boot is lift­ed from Gazan throats and Pales­tin­ian nation­al aspi­ra­tions are realized.” 

As per the dynam­ic cov­er pho­to depict­ing a young boy doing a park­our inspired back flip on the Mediter­ranean shore, Open Gaza dances over and around the con­straints of occu­pa­tion, using them as mate­ri­als for decon­struct­ing the pol­i­tics of space.

“Gaza needs a sea­port, an air­port, a robust source of ener­gy, and a vibrant and diver­si­fied econ­o­my on its own ter­ri­to­ry. For this to hap­pen, the Israeli siege on Gaza must end. Gazans—and all Palestinians—must be giv­en con­trol over the social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic resources that frame their own lives.”
— Michael Sorkin & Deen Sharp

Here one finds cities of crys­tal, as imag­ined by Craig Konyk in a chap­ter where he pro­pos­es a rebuild­ing strat­e­gy for Gaza City, in which “glass is the mate­r­i­al of choice that allows the destruc­tion to remain vis­i­ble.” By rein­vent­ing pub­lic sites destroyed by Israeli airstrikes as trans­par­ent struc­tures — rang­ing from a top­pled minaret to an office tow­er cocooned in glass — his futur­is­tic ren­der­ings reveal both the strength and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of bro­ken land­scapes and speak to what he hopes will be a “more open and pro­gres­sive future.”

There is a pow­er­ful chap­ter on the tun­nels of Gaza, so key to smug­gling in the neces­si­ties of life as well as con­struc­tion mate­ri­als. It’s writ­ten as a com­pelling and often fright­en­ing under­ground trav­el­ogue by a writer under a pseu­do­nym — under­scor­ing the omnipresent dan­ger of both inhab­it­ing and doc­u­ment­ing Gaza. Anoth­er, in this age of cli­mate change emer­gency, pro­pos­es a pro­tec­tive solar dome, as imag­ined by Chris Mack­ey and Rafi Segal, while chap­ters on “Re-Ecol­o­giz­ing Gaza” (by Fadi Shaaya and Visu­al­iz­ing Pales­tine) and “Social Hydrol­o­gy: a Design Resis­tance” (by Denise Hoff­man Brandt) offer green foils to the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion imposed by occu­pa­tion. “Nat­ur­al Gaza,” a chap­ter by Romi Khosla, sug­gests build­ing a memo­r­i­al to the Nak­ba that can also engen­der peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, while Hel­ga Taw­il-Souri writes of her idea to cre­ate an alter­nate kind of IPN — not an Inter­net Phone Num­ber but an Inter­net Pigeon Net­work that eas­i­ly sub­verts exist­ing Israeli technology.

Architect Salem Al Qudwa, born in 1976 to a Palestinian family in Benghazi, Libya, returned to Gaza at the age of 21 to study architectural engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. from the Oxford School of Architecture at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He has managed projects ranging from primary healthcare clinics and schools to the rehabilitation of shelters for poor families living in marginalized and rural areas in the Gaza Strip. His artistic skills have also contributed towards the Renovation of Rafah Cross Border Terminal between Egypt and Gaza.

Archi­tect Salem Al Qud­wa, born in 1976 to a Pales­tin­ian fam­i­ly in Beng­hazi, Libya, returned to Gaza at the age of 21 to study archi­tec­tur­al engi­neer­ing at the Islam­ic Uni­ver­si­ty of Gaza. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. from the Oxford School of Archi­tec­ture at Oxford Brookes Uni­ver­si­ty in the UK. He has man­aged projects rang­ing from pri­ma­ry health­care clin­ics and schools to the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of shel­ters for poor fam­i­lies liv­ing in mar­gin­al­ized and rur­al areas in the Gaza Strip. His artis­tic skills have also con­tributed towards the Ren­o­va­tion of Rafah Cross Bor­der Ter­mi­nal between Egypt and Gaza.

A chap­ter by Alber­to Foyo and Postopia called “Redraw­ing Gaza,” presents a project that sub­verts the Sykes/Picot “line in the sand” that sealed the fate of so many mod­ern Mid­dle East­ern nations by decol­o­niz­ing it as a mashara­biya-inspired “fab­ric of archi­tec­ture and agri­cul­ture, knit­ting these togeth­er to form a fer­tile fab­ric, one that can defi­ant­ly posi­tion itself as a recon­cep­tu­alised utopia.” Their draw­ings weave togeth­er urban and rur­al land­scapes, embrac­ing them with the tra­di­tion­al screen like pat­tern­ing of the mashara­biya as an archi­tec­tur­al, tex­tile like heal­ing art — a balm designed for “Gaza­’s burned skin.”

The book’s more futur­is­tic visions are bal­anced by built projects like the Qat­tan Cen­ter for Chil­dren, in a chap­ter writ­ten by its archi­tect, Omar Yousef. But a chap­ter called “Archi­tec­ture of the Every­day,” by Gazan archi­tect Salem Al Qud­wa, a Fel­low in Con­flict and Peace at the Har­vard Divin­i­ty School on a new green, flex­i­ble, and afford­able mod­el he has designed for self-built homes, seems the most down to earth and prag­mat­ic of the book’s many flights of fan­cy. They are designed to be con­struct­ed on sand and rub­ble and to cre­ate a “nur­tur­ing and safe envi­ron­ment for women and chil­dren, and to empow­er communities.”

The con­cept of “home” can be a fraught one in Pales­tine — with grow­ing ten­sions between the sym­bol­ic and the actu­al. Even before forced evic­tions from Sheikh Jar­rah in East Jerusalem ear­li­er this year sparked a con­flict that result­ed in an Israeli bomb­ing cam­paign on Gaza that destroyed basic infra­struc­ture, over 2,000 hous­ing units and dis­placed some 74,000 Gazans, there was an urgent need for hous­ing. Gaza has nev­er ful­ly recov­ered from the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, and unchecked ille­gal set­tle­ments in the West Bank have con­tributed to ris­ing land costs that make home own­er­ship unaf­ford­able for most families.

After the 2014 war, when 11,000 hous­ing units were destroyed and 160,000 dam­aged, Al Qud­wa says that inter­na­tion­al agen­cies built hous­ing that was inap­pro­pri­ate to local needs and cli­mate. These includ­ed tem­po­rary wood­en struc­tures that did not accom­mo­date large extend­ed fam­i­lies, iso­lat­ing peo­ple from their mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional sup­port net­works, and did­n’t pro­vide prop­er insu­la­tion for heat­ing and cool­ing. He con­tends this was because UNRWA and oth­er agen­cies employed for­eign archi­tects and did­n’t con­sult locals. Now, as the US pledges to give mil­lions of dol­lars in emer­gency recon­struc­tion aid, Al Qud­wa fears the cycle will repeat itself again.

Inspecting the the rubble of the Yazegi residential building, destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, Sunday, May 16, 2021 (AP Photo/Adel Hana).

Inspect­ing the the rub­ble of the Yaze­gi res­i­den­tial build­ing, destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, Sun­day, May 16, 2021 (AP Photo/Adel Hana).

Part of the chal­lenge, he says, beyond the Israeli block­ade in place since 2007 that lim­its avail­abil­i­ty of build­ing sup­plies, is that, “Anni­hi­la­tion in the Gaza Strip has become so fre­quent that hous­es are being built, destroyed and recon­struct­ed at the same time.” But on a hope­ful note, Al Qud­wa sees the “archi­tec­ture of the every-day” as a resource for “pos­i­tive social transformation.”

Salem Al Qudwa's protoype for Gazan homes.

Salem Al Qud­wa’s pro­toype for Gazan homes.

His pro­to­type is for 3–5 sto­ry homes made of con­crete with prop­er insu­la­tion and strong foun­da­tions, a key com­po­nent in cre­at­ing a sense of per­ma­nence in the midst of uncer­tain­ty. As opposed to the one-sto­ry wood­en homes built as tem­po­rary shel­ters after 2014, this mod­el will allow fam­i­lies to grow and will accom­mo­date Gaza­’s many wid­ows, who often have to sac­ri­fice their auton­o­my by mov­ing in with their in-laws. In terms of not being tar­get­ed by Israeli bomb­ing the pro­to­types are also safer, Al Qud­wa con­tends, than the pletho­ra of high-ris­es that sprang up post-1994, when so many Pales­tini­ans returned from the dias­po­ra (such as the 13-sto­ry Al Jawarha tow­er destroyed by the IDF on May 12th this year), and are more cost effec­tive than cur­rent models.

Pri­or to the occu­pa­tion, lime­stone was the dom­i­nant build­ing mate­r­i­al, but now it’s too expen­sive to import from the West Bank. Instead, Al Qud­wa argues that con­crete, import­ed from Israel, is the “new ver­nac­u­lar.” But rather than  the tyran­ny of reg­i­ment­ed, uni­form hous­ing blocks, his design breaks up scale and mass­ing with brick pat­tern­ing, lat­tice like screen­ing, shad­ing win­dows, and roof gar­dens. A shared ser­vice cor­ri­dor is trans­formed into a sum­mer court­yard, while an exter­nal com­mu­nal stair­case con­nects the dif­fer­ent lev­els with a mod­icum of privacy. 

The pro­to­type is green friend­ly, incor­po­rat­ing solar water heat­ing units, rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing sys­tems and  grey water recy­cling, so cru­cial to an area with scarce water and elec­tric­i­ty, and can be adapt­ed for dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas in Gaza City as well as buffer zones like Jabalya. 

With its flat, asphalt-based bitu­men roof, the design reads like a Bauhaus ver­sion of one of the tra­di­tion­al Gazan court­yard hous­es that have slow­ly dis­ap­peared, as the need for larg­er and more mod­ern res­i­dences has grown with the population. 

Al Qud­wa’s mod­el sub­verts pre­vail­ing trends in “emer­gency shel­ter” strate­gies for Gaza, as well as the likes of the much-tout­ed planned “Pales­tin­ian city” of Rawabi, in the West Bank. Stretch­ing across 2.4 square miles, it’s vir­tu­al­ly indis­tin­guish­able from the sub­ur­ban style hous­ing pop­u­lar in Amer­i­ca or indeed in neigh­bor­ing Israeli settlements.

His chap­ter is but one of many admirable ones in Open Gaza, but one that roots archi­tec­tur­al change in prag­mat­ic and indige­nous design.

Of all the excel­lent chap­ters, it is one called “Time­less Gaza,” by Mah­di Sab­bagh and Meghan McAl­lis­ter, that speaks most strong­ly to the book’s title. Here the authors look to Gaza­’s past as an inter­con­nect­ed trad­ing hub link­ing east and west as a foil to its cur­rent boxed in, pro­scribed lim­i­ta­tions and isolation. 

“Traces of an open, con­nect­ed, and expand­ed past can be found in the Gaza Strip and its near­by ter­ri­to­ries. Archae­o­log­i­cal rem­nants of spice trade towns between Petra and Gaza remind us of Gaza­’s cen­tral­i­ty in an ancient trad­ing net­work. Defunct British rail­way lines imply a past where the Strip was not a Strip at all, but part of a net­work of region­al cities. The Salah al-Din Road, which con­nects the Gaza Strip from north to south, is evi­dence of ancient aspi­ra­tions of pro­vid­ing con­tin­u­ous mobil­i­ty along the Mediter­ranean coast, as are the archae­o­log­i­cal rem­nants of Via Maris, the Roman trad­ing line. Late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and twen­ty first cen­tu­ry infra­struc­ture — such as the bombed air­port, a besieged sea­port, and rapid­ly built tun­nels —rep­re­sent a con­tem­po­rary Pales­tin­ian Gaza that strives to exist as a net­worked city in con­ti­nu­ity with its past.” 

I remem­ber Gaza­’s air­port, built in 1998 amid great fan­fare with an inau­gu­ra­tion attend­ed by Arafat and the Clin­tons. I flew there from Amman in 2000, to inter­view Naime Holoh, the first woman armed com­bat­ant for the PLO, arrest­ed for the first time by the Israelis for vio­lent resis­tance, and then arrest­ed for non-vio­lent resis­tance in the First Intifa­da. Now she was run­ning a cen­ter for women and chil­dren in Jabaylia where she had grown up, that offered lit­er­a­cy train­ing, child­care, and a tra­di­tion­al crafts col­lec­tive. She and her col­leagues showed me around gra­cious­ly and then fed me copi­ous amounts of chick­en and rice in a mid-rise build­ing whose top three floors were still in mid-construction.

It was the begin­ning of the Sec­ond Intifa­da, and the day I was sup­posed to leave, the Israelis closed the air­port and lat­er destroyed it com­plete­ly, leav­ing flight to the likes of the young boy on the cov­er of Open Gaza, poised some­where in mid-air, between that weight­less thrill of anti-grav­i­ty, and the real­i­ty of occupation.

I remem­ber Naime now and all my friends in Gaza, who, amidst grand plans, colo­nial maps, ancient trade routes and utopi­an dreams, are carv­ing out their own archi­tec­tures of hope, every sin­gle day.

See also Hadani Dit­mars on Gaza­’s hous­ing chal­lenges in Archi­tec­tur­al Digest.


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