Very stimulating few days at seminars on a programme for the restoration of old buildings in 50 villages in Palestine, hosted at Bir Zeit by a wonderful team of people led by Suad Amiri and the organisation Riwaq which organised it as part of a biennale. This picture is a link to my photos.. The foreign visitors were all asked to comment on the project and my comments were as follows:
introductory comment by Michael Edwards
I am very proud to come here from my city in particular and from my university in particular:
My city is London, one of the most cosmopolitan in the world, where nearly 200 languages are spoken by the children in our schools and people born in other nations of the world now make up a third of the population.
My university, UCL, University College London, was the first one founded in England after Oxford and Cambridge – which you could only go to if you were a member of the official state Christian church. It was founded as a secular institution and remains proudly secular in the modern world.
So far I am just listening and learning, but I come to this with 3 issues in my mind.
There are 3 great threats to the modern world:
1. Our desecration of the environment – everything from global warming which may terminate human life to the erosion of built heritage and landscapes;
2. Our dissolution of complex, layered, identities by paranoid, over-simplified, notions of identity based on trivial features of ethnicity or religion;
3. Our tendency to subordinate to the imperatives of capital accumulation every aspect of human life. This not only plays its part in erasing landscapes and townscapes but also seems to be able to trigger collapse of the fragile cooperations which make up the world economy.
In relation to these 3 issues Riwaq seems to me to be doing a brilliant and inspirational job.
1. On the environment, not just recycling the stones and timbers of the inherited built environment but recovering the memory of how to build for hot climates without squandering resources in cooling buildings which are designed to be too hot.
2. In terms of identity I draw your attention to Riwaq’s statement of aims which stresses that it aims to “…tell us the story of a rich, varied, complex identity of Palestine; they also negate the “purity” of the politically charged one-layer identity.
3. In terms of the economy what you seem to be doing is capturing and releasing human energy and creativity, not for profit or for rent or for land speculation but for the direct production of use values – for socially-useful buildings, streets, markets and squares. All of this forms part of the reproduction of threatened skills among construction workers, architects and everyone else involved in the built environment and help to rebuild our depressed economy.
Until today I had only met Suad Amiri once, back in 198?4 at a meeting of the Bartlett International Summer School at the Ecole d’Architecture in Geneva where she made a stirring speech about the development needs of Palestine… and it is wonderful to see how the work has developed over the intervening 25 years despite unbelievable oppressions and barriers.
Coming to the very practical level I can only offer tentative comments on your work and congratulate you on what you are doing.
1. Long term issue of land
My main comment is on the issue of retaining a public or collective or communal share in the control and the value which the work creates (or at least if it does not directly create the value, it concentrates it here). Failure to do this means that – all over the world – we have creative activity in urban development and regeneration created by voluntary energy, state spending, municipal activity, NGOs and every conceivable kind of resource, but where the benefits ultimately get appropriated by private owners. Private owners can be just households who find that their house or apartment rises hugely in price and they can sell it and take the cash. Or it can be developers or financiers involved in the projects. But whoever they are, if they are the ones who end owning all the property and free to rent or sell it, then they are taking away all the benefit created by the project which grows and grows as the project matures, This leaves the collectivity without a flow of resources to re-cycle in future schemes or to manage and maintain the public spaces, take care of water re-cycling schemes and so on. There are many many ways of sharing this growth in values through equity sharing, through short or long leases with periodic rent reviews, or leases or covenants which include rent controls or limitations on how spaces can be used. This is a sphere where I hope we could help.
2. Acquisition costs
The worst thing of all, in a way, is when your enormous efforts begin to increase the values of plots so that next time you come to acquire a plot you have to pay a higher price for it because of your own efforts! This is something which many countries have tried to control through laws which either fix the public acquisition price at the moment of designation of the project, or limit the growth to some index of general inflation, or exclude from the valuation that element which is attributable to the regenerations scheme (though this last tends to make a lot of work for lawyers and valuers).
3. Immediate action: is there scope for rapidly bringing a lot of empty or unused space into temporary uses. This might enable uses for sites where legal ownership disputes or missing ownerships prevent physical development but would not prevent temporary structures, musical events, temporary cafes, green space, Such spaces can animate the centre and also – sometimes – grow into enduring activity.
4 Research and planning of service provisions
finally locations for businesses – suggest a variety of research approaches – spatial analysis and surveys of needs and history…
a. clash between modernity and conservation not so serious in village centre because they are only less than 1% of the building stock so you only need a minority to enjoy this particular life style!
b. develop new kinds of modernity so it can be seen as ultra-modern to live in old-style buildings without AC and so on.
relations of old centre with the rest of the town
flexibility of management
landscape and planting
established activities in relation to new services
brining students back into the centre
Polycentricism in Palestine space (maps: OCHA – UN)
speaker x: country has become polycentric, esp since the effective closure of Jerusalem, with all villages within 20 minutes of a regional centre, and these regional centres strengthening a lot, and we should build on this, not try to build an autarchy in every village, not try to do a hospital in every village…. On the other hand more village self-sufficiency in some sectors / spheres would help resist the changes of partitioning of space, reduce the need for travel and add to village liveliness.
Good discussion on the polycentricity issue and how to develop / handle it given the volatile unpredictable character of the occupation, checkpoints etc. The partitioning of the space keeps changing. Beware: Ramallah is the place which threatens to become the over-dominant mega-city of the country,
Richard McCormack: overload of info. Think-net needs to change and focus on particular themes. One is how to develop new kinds of modernity based on the thermal performance etc of the old, and he wants to draw some ideas about this.
Michael Edwards, Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning,
University College London.