The conservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings has over the years been seen, generally, as a passive act for the prevention of cultural change. However, in the case of Palestine, conservation and renovation of the historical fabric is regarded as not at all conventional. It offers instead a dynamic process of resistance and creativity that is being practised by a mixed group of young graduates and experienced practitioners from the fields of architecture and urban planning, operating under the umbrella of Riwaq. As a leading body for architectural conservation, Riwaq is a pioneering NGO in Palestine. It was set up in 1991 to protect the historic fabric and the Palestinian identity of towns and villages in the West Bank from deliberate destruction.
Nasser Golzari Architects (NGA) in London have been working closely with Riwaq on the regeneration of the histric centre of Birzeit, a key university town just to the north of Ramallah, which has been chosen as a pilot project to explore the concept of redevelopment within the ambitious wider plan to protect 50 historic centres across Palestine. NGA's contribution to the Birzeit project act as a way to offer academic, professional and technical support for exploring the potential of the cultural context in Palestine, including asking what the concept of 'heritage conservation' could mean in this location. The Birzeit project is also being seen as another means to create matrixes and networks that are able to operate whenever needed to overcome Israeli strategies of occupation.
Proposed Scenario to Regenerate Birzeit's Historic Centre
Choosing Birzeit as the test case was very much based on its pivotal location with in the West Bank, and its relationship with the surrounding cities and villages. These factors make it a good representative of conditions in more rural areas. Even though Birzeit is a relatively small town with a population of only about 5000 people, the effect of the strong edge development built recently around the town, and the competition from larger urban centres like the nearby city of Ramallah, not to mention the location of Israeli Army checkpoints, has resulted in the marginalization and decline of its historic centre, with a shifting of the focus of built development towards Birzeit's edges. Being located – as are most other West Bank rural areas, mainly in what is classified as ‘Area B’ land, combined with complex issues of ownership within Birzeit's historic district, has caused further decline. Together, it has pushed the old historic centre even more towards the margin of civic priorities. This has made the shift between dream and reality, theory and practice, a very intricate balance in Birzeit.
The net outcome in Birzeit has been complete chaos created by the deliberate destruction of its historic buildings and the rampant unplanned extensions added onto what has been left. This forces Riwaq to re-think the ‘balance’ and ‘compromise’ between aesthetic, cultural and social values, in an attempt to ensure that they don’t push out what are left of the local inhabitants of the old historic centre.
Re-reading the map: between the scale of 1:1 and the scale of 1:10000
The dialectic process between dream and realization has offered (and sometimes enforced) different readings of the map in Birzeit, not least in the conversation about accepting ‘spontaneity’ and constant change if it can contribute to sustaining the area. Various concrete extensions have thus been transformed from being seen as a dull concrete boxes that damage the visual environment, and thus need to be demolished, to being regarded as a sign and source of livelihood which can bring in new values and activities to the historic centre of Birzeit, whether this is as an informal meeting place for coffee, a tree-house for children to play in, a mechanic’s garage, a bike repair shop, or even just a corner for gossiping. Given all these uncertainties, the empowerment of local citizens becomes a main priority. But empowering who and for what reason? In order to be related to the community and to those who actually use the site, any architectural interventions need to respond to and celebrate the day-to-day habits of the local people who after all contribute most to the identity of Birzeit's historic centre. It’s a tough challenge to push for cultural continuity and change at the same time.
Making the Ordinary Special
Riwaq’s work so far in Birzeit has thus introduced a new angle, whereby individuals and leftover spaces that were once marginalized are suddenly seen as key generators of dynamics that need to be celebrated and encouraged. Many of these leftover spaces have now been identified by NGA and located on the map. They might not seem to have great meaning on their own, yet they have been conceived as essential ingredients to the context because of the way they create urban and social bridges between the old historic centre and its surrounding context. To start with, there is the famous tree-house at the eastern entrance of the village that has hosted over the years the activities of local children in the morning and their parents in the evenings. There is also the informal public meeting space at the edge of the main road, the rooftop terrace of the bakery shop which was transformed into a living room, the neighbour with his ‘iconic’ chair sitting in the street, and many other informal spaces that changed tremendously the meaning and spatial value of Birzeit’s historic centre.
As part of the process of uncovering new ways of reading the place, the technique of social mapping was used to record all of these moments and to plot social activities and emotional responses and interactions on site.
Plotting these activities on the map of historic Birzeit has certainly created new potentials and identified new dynamic spots to assist the design. The bike-repair shop created by Amir and his brother Amjad is just one of the supposedly dull concrete boxes which suddenly seen special. It is no longer an ugly room that has to be removed; it is their dream place, it is a key spot in bringing the local children together, and if consciously relocated and reproduced it could bring even more children towards the old centre. The girls’ route, the linked rooftops, the gossipy neighbour, and many other moments are now seen as a potential networks that can be spread all over the historic centre.
The two main routes and their urban pockets
The multiple layers used to form the general strategy for Birzeit were initially viewed at the large scale of 1:10000 to connect the historic centre with the complex urban context around. Two main new linking routes were proposed as a result; these two routes are thus seen as the backbone stretching across the historic centre and connecting it with the rest of the town and the surrounding villages. They were chosen based on their geographical and historical nature, and also based on the principles of social mapping, which indicated some ‘given lines’ on the map. These two main routes have been named provisionally as the ‘Commercial Route’ (given that one contains the main commercial activities in the historic centre) and the ’Caravanserai Route’ or Church Route’ (which contains one of the most unique and oldest buildings inside the historic centre, dating back to the 15th century).
These two new routes contain a number of key activities that currently generate life in the historic centre, such as the bakery, the internet café, the mechanic garage, the hairdresser, the church, the Rozana Association, and various other residential and public spaces.
Programs on the urban scale are proposed through activities and design interventions to take place along these two identified routes. They have been located in what NGA refers to as ‘urban pockets’, whereby each has its own proposed function and program of intervention. The design focus has been primarily on the public spaces and public properties in historic Birzeit as a practical way to get around the otherwise difficult issues of private ownership.
To start the rehabilitation process with a pattern of small changes, Riwaq has now named and identified all of the main walkways, urban pockets, entrances, and key houses in Birzeit's historic centre using narratives that were collected on site to associate the place with history and to attach the local identity with meaning. This initiative has attracted the attention of the local population and got them involved in naming and collecting narratives for their neighbourhoods. ‘Hosh Kokab’, or the lemon tree courtyard – as some choose to call it -- for example, is specifically associated with the owner of that place; it is based on a lady named Kokab who became famous for for her part in a love story which caused a major conflict between two important local families around 50 years ago.
‘Carve your name on your tile’
Shifting then between the larger urban scale and the smaller and more intimate scale of 1:1, physical interventions along the 'Commercial Route’ began by tiling the street to provide easier access and better public infrastructure, on the one hand, as well as to start identifying the key areas in the new scheme and attract some activities there. ‘Carve your name on your tile’ is an idea proposed by architectural students at Birzeit University to help to link the local population with the project. Given that Birzeit is famous for its quarried stone, this proposal aims to ask locals to contribute by placing their own stone tiles in front of their houses. This initiative is currently still under discussion; meanwhile, Riwaq has already started the street tiling and is providing lighting along the main routes and few selected public locations to help to connect people together.
One of the big challenges in working with historic buildings is to assure that any design interventions respond to the changing needs of the community and provide the necessary services required in the 21st century, without of course compromising the aesthetic and cultural values of buildings. This implies a closer attention to many design issues that did not exist previously.
As a way to change the stereotyped image of historic buildings in Palestine as a ‘dirty place’ or as a ‘place for the poor’, Riwaq has been working on renovating historic buildings to highlight their potential to respond to contemporary needs and uses. This has always been a challenge in Riwaq’s work as their previous role/experience was not comprehensive enough to resolve key issues to do with buildings, services and environmental qualities. Consequently, Riwaq has decided to use the Birzeit experiment as a test for further research and exploration.
The work in progress for Birzeit also aims to create a model house or prototype dwelling so that local people can physically experience what can be done through design alterations to old buildings, largely in terms of improving simple environmental performance while maintaining the character and aesthetic value of the old buildings. Responsive environmental technologies and design interventions are closely related to thermal comfort and issues of energy. Additionally, the design team of NGA/Riwaq, with the help and support of the ‘Think Net’ group, will be looking into recycling methods that will raise consciousness and pave the way for a more sustainable form of architecture that pays more careful attention to cultural habits and daily practices. Moreover, the energy-conscious design aims are also a conscious reaction to current Israeli government strategies which seek to drain the Palestinian landscape and its resources. The intention is to find alternative ways for Palestinian citizens to have to depend less on buying expensive water and electricity supplies from Israel.