The regeneration of the historic centre of Beit Iksa reflects a process of work, thinking and making that has been taking place while working with Riwaq, a local NGO in Palestine. Through out our work we engage in conceptual discussions on the overall scale of the map by using different mediums like drawings and images to hint at spatial possibilities -- ones which can offer a critical view and leave a space for the reader to imagine and question.
The village of Beit Iksa is currently our main site of investigation where we are reflecting upon the process in ways that range from the initiation of design concepts to their realization on site. With the critical location of Beit Iksa on the outskirts of Jerusalem, only 1,600 inhabitants are left there to fight for their existence against the Israeli project of marginalization. The village is encircled by new Israeli settlements and two major pieces of infrastructure which cut off its Palestinian residents from their nearby agricultural lands. One is the notorious ‘Separation Wall’ and the other is the proposed railway station. As in many other West Bank villages, the complex map on the ground, along with the scarcity of water and other essential resources, plus heavy surface pollution, has left this agrarian society marginalized and with a level of unemployment that exceeds 75% of adult males. Yet what might be treated today as an unimportant, ‘invisible’ village has been a witness in the past to significant historic events, each of which has shaped its character and added to its built fabric. The most notable event was Napoleon Bonaparte’s visit to Beit Iksa right at the end of the 18th century, which duly gave the village its name, but also important historically was the strong ties between this village and the Ottoman Empire by it having been one of the 24 so-called ‘throne villages’ used to govern the region.[i]
The above qualities have put Beit Iksa onto the list of the ‘50 Villages’ project, as a priority case, with an ambitious revitalization scheme underway. In addition to a strategy to stitch the village into the surrounding network of West Bank towns, a series of design interventions are currently taking place on site in Beit Iksa, many of them on a smaller scale.
A key aim throughout this design work is on capturing informal agencies. We hope to celebrate the informal and everyday while we are bringing life back to the historic centres. In order to do so, we place great emphasis on ‘shifting scale’ whereby the details of the everyday buildings, with their simple ideas and observations, can be celebrated and thus empowered.
Our hope is thus to make a qualitative addition to the regional scale. This is done by empowering communities through offering them means to improve their environment and living conditions, so as to respond to the urgent issues they face daily. Consequently, acts such as the testing out of innovative building materials, exploring affordable methods to collect and filter surface water, working with local communities to explore low-cost passive forms of heating and cooling, and such like, are also becoming vital ingredients in our projects within the historic West Bank centres. Therefore, the speculative design approach comes into line with the practical ‘live’ projects as exampled of responsive design.
[i] In his attempt to capture Jerusalem, at some point around 1799, it is believed that Napoleon Bonaparte took refuge in Beit Iksa in order to seek additional clothing for his army. Ever since, the village has held the name as the ‘House of Clothing’, which in Arabic is Beit Iksa.