Agency

Sandi Hilal in conversation with Rana Abu Ghannam | Beit Sahour | 2018

Rana Abu Ghannam How did the design process for your housing project in Gaza begin?

Sandi Hilal When we first arrived in Gaza, we met with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing and their architects who were going to approve the final design. During our meeting, the architects suggested that Al Nada neighborhood should be rebuilt as it was, with seven-story towers. We argued that this was impractical, since at that time, Gaza only had three hours of electricity per day, so the elevators wouldn’t work most of the time. We also argued that there was a way to build three-story housing units that could accommodate the same number of people in the same surface area. However, the Ministry kept arguing in all ways imaginable that the seven-floor plan was the only affordable option. But in Gaza, the type of building and the type of environment you live in is also a sign of your social status.

ra So it was also a class issue?

sh Yes, they wanted to maintain the same class status of the neighborhood. But we knew that anything more than three or four floors would be unserviceable, so we would not compromise on that. Finally, after long negotiations and many tough con- versations, we were able to convince the Ministry of the viability of our shorter buildings, which would have a common courtyard to be used for community events. When I went to the Al Nada community with this proposal, I was expecting another negotiation session. But surprisingly, as soon as I showed them the plans, there was a moment of silence in the room. Once they realized we were able to give them three-story buildings, they were overjoyed. It was a victory.

ra You offered them more than they imagined they would get.

sh Yes. When I asked them if they wanted to see the plans and discuss any changes they would like, they replied: “if you managed to get us a three-story building, we can trust you with everything else.” In this moment, we all realized that instead of having a designer, what they had was a good lawyer who understood architecture. I don’t think that we acted as architects in the process of participation. We were effectively appointed as spatial lawyers. This was the game we were playing and because we understood architecture, we were able to negotiate and get the community what they never would have even imagined asking for.

ra What was the motivation behind painting one of the ruined buildings red? And what was the public’s reaction?

sh This happened at a point in time when our Italian collaborators wanted to announce that they were doing a project in Gaza. But instead of doing a banner as requested, we decided to paint a section of the destroyed structures. People’s reactions were very diverse, and rumors started to spread. Some people associated it with danger and imminent demolition. Others thought that the color acted as a reference point for a satellite that would use the structure as a coordinate marker. People were thinking of the paint in a technical matter. But with time, the structure became more of a land- mark, to the point that a Gazan rapper filmed a video in front of it. Two years have passed, and still only the red is there; nothing else has changed. People are still waiting for building materials to be brought and for the area to be reconstructed. The red has become the symbol of a place waiting for something to happen.

ra I agree, the red structure has not only become a landmark of destruction, but also the symbol of the possibility of reconstruction.

sh Exactly! For me, destruction and construction are not opposite things. It’s not black and white. They happen at the same time in Gaza. We were very much aware of this while designing the project—that we were rebuilding a community, while at the same time destroying the social ties that were there. It was a serious dilemma, how to rebuild in a destroyed place. On many occasions I asked myself how we could recon- struct in order to avoid more destruction. I still remember how painful it was when I attempted to discuss the design with the community and all they wanted to know was if there was a way that they could sign a contract with the Israelis so that their new houses wouldn’t be destroyed in the next war. In that sense, as an architect, I was powerless. I had to tell them that there is no contract that can be signed with the Israelis. This made them afraid to dream. They didn’t want to dream of a home and then have it demolished in six months. So, as an architect, I started wondering what I was doing there if I couldn’t help get the contract they were looking for…

ra Why even dare?
sh Yes, why even dare to be there.

ra This really intensifies the question of the role of the architect and the problem of ethics in architectural practice.

sh I still remember when we responded to their questions, their request for protection, by proposing the idea of building bunkers under the houses. The Ministry told us that this would jeopardize them even more, since they would be the first thing to be bombed if an attack were to happen. And keep in mind, any design proposed for Gaza must be shared with the Israelis in order for the building material to be approved. So, it seems like there is no architectural answer to how we could protect the people. Not to mention the anxiety of the design process and thinking that what you are building might eventually be destroyed and fall on their heads!

ra Have you kept in touch with the community? What kind of relationship do you have with them now, after the plans have all been submitted and you’re all waiting for the Israelis to approve them?

sh When we were there, we created a Facebook group with the community, so now I feel their frustration over the delays. They are constantly asking me if I know anything or not, despite the fact that our role as designers is over. But I’m as frustrated as they are! Being part of this group and being part of that community, it’s something that I take with me emotionally wherever I go. When we started the project, I knew it would be a heavy and difficult task, but I never imagined the emotional complications that would come it.

ra I would imagine that it is not just difficult dealing with the emotional implications and the community, but the mechanisms, the systems, and the regulations com- ing from Israel and the Ministry are even more frustrating. I see the architect as a Daedalus-like figure: a cunning master who can navigate between the many regulations and constraints.

sh From the moment of our first meeting with the Ministry, we understood that the battle would be with them, not the people. This was illuminating, since “participation” then wasn’t necessarily going to be with the community, but rather with the system, in breaking down certain walls in order for the community to have better living conditions. Usually, in these types of situations, you are told to go to the community and find out what they want, but in this case the community was in a powerless position and all they wanted was a roof over their heads. Everyone knew that the community had no voice. So instead of going there as an architect who wanted to give a voice to the community, which in the end wouldn’t change anything in the system, what we felt was that the real participation, or the real battle, was to figure out how to navigate conflicts.

ra You mentioned that you saw your role as an architect in Gaza as being more of a spatial lawyer than just a designer. Could you reflect on that term and what the role of the spatial lawyer entails?

sh I don’t perceive participation as a moment of consensus, but rather as a process of negotiating conflict. That is where the spatial lawyer comes in. We usually speak of the community as one entity, but it’s not, and spatial lawyers find themselves between opposing needs and wants within the same community. For example, in Fawwar there was a group of women who wanted to have a plaza to themselves, but a group of men were against it. I found myself having to choose a side and support their needs. While some people would argue that a vote is an adequate way to establish the needs of the community, this tends to give voice to the powerful and exclude the marginalized. But once you are in the community, you start to realize that there are marginalized voices which need someone to defend them. I often took the side of those marginalized communities and tried to find a way to implement their needs without creating conflict.

In fact, I found myself working to negate conflict. What we are taught in universities is that the architect should maintain distance, but a spatial lawyer can’t. What I try to do is to take the position of the marginalized and defend their needs from a position of power; to give power to those who don’t have any. Accepting your position as a spatial lawyer means picking sides, choosing your battles, and defending your point of view no matter what, using all the means at your disposal within the law, finding whatever crack in the system you can. You look at the space and its assets and you try to shift things, to change the status quo.

ra I recently saw the work of an artist who used photomontage to criticize the rapid transformation and the badly planned housing expansions in Gaza.1 His work dis- cussed the problem of the haphazard donations and forms of assistance that come into Gaza without any planning or respect for future generations and their needs. What can the role of the architect be there?

sh After recently receiving another plea from the community group on Facebook to begin the project, I thought for a second that maybe if we had simply designed the towers that the Ministry originally wanted, they would have been built by now.

ra I doubt that. The mechanisms would have still been an obstacle.

sh Well, when you take this role of the spatial lawyer, you fight for something, and you see that the community is happy about it, yet it’s never completed, you begin to ask yourself if you did the right thing. It probably wouldn’t have been any different, but you still feel responsible. The waiting seems endless.

ra But this reflects the condition of Palestine, right? The idea that we are always looking forward but never arriving. There is anticipation, caution, and anxiety all at the same time. I appreciate the project as it stands even now though, because of the red paint; it is a statement about the Palestinian condition. I would like to connect this to the idea of permanent temporariness. How do you see the architect’s role in creating something that is impermanent?

sh This question is not only about Palestinians. We had this exhibition in Abu Dhabi where it was clear that this condition of permanent temporariness not only applies to Palestinians; almost all of the students and staff we met at NYU Abu Dhabi are living it as well. Even the families who came to Abu Dhabi to settle with their children; if the father was to lose his job, he would have to leave the country. They all identified with this issue in their own thought process of whether they should build a house or even buy a sofa. It’s amazing to what extent this condition is part of life in the Gulf, but also the rest of the world. It’s really becoming a prevalent contemporary condition. So, in that sense, I believe it is time for architects to think beyond what we are doing as making great architecture, such as churches and mosques that will last forever, but rather to understand what permanent temporariness entails and what we as architects

can provide in such a situation. We cannot wait for clients to come and knock on our doors. Not to mention that in a place like Palestine, most can’t afford to have an architect. It’s time for us architects to break out of our offices, so that architecture can become something that is not just for the elite. We need to break down certain walls and reach people who cannot reach us, but who nevertheless need our professional experience, perhaps even more than anyone else.

ra I would like to reflect with you on the issue of the Gazan ruin as a piece of evidence of violence and how this may reflect the way in which the city is rebuilt. Ruins have recently become pieces of evidence used in courts of law to prove humanitarian violations, and are expected to be presented objectively and dispassionately. For example, after the attacks in 2009, the Ministry of Public Works documented the destruction of Gaza through photographs and forms. The forms attached to the photographs of each destroyed house had different boxes which could be ticked to describe the way it was destroyed and the amount of damage inflicted. This system is unemotional and doesn’t describe the human condition, but it does describe objective realities, which work very well in courts of law. The problem is, however, that once the same methods are transferred onto the mode of reconstruction, then reconstruction becomes a systematic project, designed more for the regime of the court than the people. This frequently happens in Gaza, where building structures are merely proof of reconstruction, proof that the funds coming from foreign aid are being used. If reconstruction becomes a process of building for the sake of evidence, then it will fail. In my opinion, the only way to reconsider how reconstruction should be done is by, first of all, reconsidering what evidence is, and by, secondly, acknowledging that there is a human element in the process. Maybe this can happen by becoming a spatial lawyer, someone who uses law on the ground, within the community, instead of in the courtroom!

sh I absolutely agree. To design on an evidentiary basis is to accept the fact that you are only designing for victims. I would argue that this is how relief architecture came into the picture in the first place, where the question is how to build the quickest tent, the best one-room shelter, and so on. As if this is only a response to victimhood! But we cannot accept this as the only way to operate in such a condition. There is war, and there is an urgency to respond immediately, but is there not also a way to recognize that victims have agency? It is exactly because they lived through war that those people have the agency to become strong members of society and live their lives. No one can live as a victim forever. In that sense, our projects try to understand how we can make space for agency rather than respond to victimhood.

ra And I would argue that architecture is what allows the victim to become an agent. When a building is designed for just sleeping and eating, instead of interaction and activity, it inhibits people from being active members of society.

sh From being human!

ra Yes! This is a big problem since humans have now become evidence as well, as victims. They have become numbers, data, information, rather than human beings. If you look at the news, the stories are often about the number of people injured and killed rather than the personal stories of singular events. What can architects do to challenge this? Have other architects attempted to reconsider the question of reconstruction Gaza?

sh Since we simultaneously work in more than one discipline, we often need to give words to what we are doing. And a big part of decolonization is to rename certain things, to understand where we stand in terms of certain concepts. I would argue that we, as architects, come together in places like Gaza because we believe that it is possible to do something differently, to effect change. We might not have a name for it, but we intuit that it is the right thing to do. We were attracted to this idea of what it means to reconstruct and deconstruct and how we can engage with these questions as architects. There are probably other architects and realities. I’m convinced that many things happening that have no name. But I hope that our experience can begin to open up that discussion and begin to give names to these things. The project in Gaza doesn’t only begin when the people move in: it began the moment the destruction began. The whole project is the red paint, the fact that is not built yet, waiting to get cement in, the frustration of the people, our frustration.

ra I agree, I see the project as more than just the structure. It starts with the destruction of the city and continues till today. All of the different conditions, the moments of the project, become a way to reconsider space, architecture, and the role of an architect. Can you tell me about the idea of including public plazas in the design?

sh One of the major differences I noticed between Gaza and the West Bank was the use of public space. In the fifteen years that we have been working in the West Bank, we have struggled with the idea of public space in occupied areas. But in Gaza, we could see that public spaces were where a sense of community flourished. Plazas were an important aspect of our design. We went around to interview people in public spaces in Gaza. In one interview, I was asking a group of women if they usually stay in their houses or go out, and one replied that since they only have electricity for three hours a day in Gaza, both men and women leave the house and spend most of their time in the public sphere, on the beach, in the parks, between buildings, and so on.

I was concerned about this idea of creating a plaza in the courtyard, but the community wanted this as a place to have weddings, funerals, and meetings. But the question about public space is always: who manages it? In places where there is a function- ing government, it is clear who is responsible. But who will manage public spaces in Gaza? From my experience in Fawwar, I learned that if you don’t have a threshold that registers entering, then people won’t manage it. What are the necessary architectural elements for such a public space?

ra Let’s return to the fact that the red structure is still standing, while the reconstruction has yet to begin. For this project you had to deal with the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). The GRM is a temporary agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government brokered by the UN to allow for the entry of building materials that are considered as “dual-use”—materials which have an inherent civil use but could also be used for military purposes. On the GRM’s website your project is “fully confirmed,” which is the level just before the project becomes active and the material acquisition begins. The first phase, Lot 2, was confirmed on February 13, 2018, about three years after it was originally submitted. The other two lots were confirmed on April 1 and 2. To find this information, we needed the inter- net, electricity, and a computer. I wonder how much of this information is actually shared with the community in Gaza…

sh The GRM feels almost inhuman; it has no scale. Working with all the corporations active in Gaza, it feels like you are dealing with a machine. In order for anyone to fit into this system, they must have the means, the architects, and the power to submit such proposals. It’s usually only huge projects, which are funded by large organizations, that can go through the GRM. One of the most frustrating things I encountered in Gaza was that people would receive funds to rebuild their houses, but not enough to hire an architect to design their one-bedroom shelter; to create a “Bill of Quantities,” calculate the amount of materials needed, and then apply through the GRM to get the materials through the border. Without that support, what people end up doing is not dealing with this system at all and going to the black market; they buy cement and iron at prices six times higher than the real cost. So the funds that were given to families, which was supposed to be enough to build a three-bedroom apartment, barely end up being enough for a one-bedroom apartment.

ra The larger issue is who validates such systems. When the UN brokered the system, its purpose was to speed up the importation of construction materials into Gaza while satisfying the security concerns of the Israeli state. But what the GRM really did was legitimize Israeli control. Some of the materials for your project were not approved. The mechanism is not necessarily one of support, but more a system of control.

sh I feel completely alienated by all this. You have to consult the website in order to understand the status of the project and which materials can get in. It’s become a real bureaucratic cover to ensure that Gaza does not get the building materials it needs.

ra It is such a shame. One can only hope that the project and process can highlight this bureaucracy.

sh It feels like architecture is completely absent in Gaza, while at the same time it’s a major actor in everything that’s happening there. It’s all about politics and policies for getting construction materials. I think the only thing we can do is try to find cracks within the system. I wonder if there are other ways to deal with this, or if one should even reject the system outright.

ra It’s a question that any architect who deals with the system has to ask themselves. It’s important to note that the GRM applies to all projects in Gaza—from small repairs and one-bedroom shelters to large housing projects and schools. They have created four different streams: shelter repair, residential, finishing, and project. It’s also interesting to see who the funders for such projects are; money mostly comes from humanitarian relief organizations, because as you mentioned, those are the ones who can afford to hire architects and engineers and apply through the GRM, which for a typ- ical resident would be very difficult and time-consuming. The mechanism that was designed to shorten the process to a couple of days has instead complicated the pro- cess taking weeks, months, even years for a project to be approved.2 One big issue is that Gazans and the Hamas government weren’t involved in the process of establish- ing the mechanism. In fact, they only found out about it a year after its conception.3 They weren’t even given the option to resist, to participate.

sh You dream and think together with people, and then you realize that you are as powerless as everyone else.

ra And in a way, it feels like the whole thing is a charade. They make you feel like you are there to help. You become fully invested, you go and do interviews and you fight for their rights, you become a spatial lawyer, but in the end it’s all part of a much larger, sterile, unemotional system. And you never know, the project might have to be amended because some materials weren’t approved.

sh I would love to know which materials weren’t approved in our case.


ra They say that the website is there to clarify things, but it doesn’t tell you which

materials they are talking about, or explain why they were not approved.

sh Sometimes it’s the most irrational explanation. When we were in Gaza, they were already telling us that we can’t use this, we can’t use that, because they knew that some materials would be rejected for security reasons. The GRM was always there, but we tried as hard as we could to ignore it, because if we had accepted those as our guidelines, we would have given up from the start. We would have gone with copy- and-paste designs.

ra But I doubt that copy-and-paste designs would have been any better. You would have been forced to deal with these tedious mechanisms of approval anyway.

sh The question from the beginning was whether to embark on the project and get involved or not. For me, there is no other option but to be active, to be positive.

ra The project was a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to dream.

sh The community loved participating since it allowed them to vent their frustrations. It opened the possibility to change; a possibility to not accept the de facto situation. In that sense, I think that architecture has this potential of dreaming and thinking of other realities and being able to bypass the impossible. When I went to Gaza, I tried to push some of the young architects from the Ministry to come with me and meet the community. But the Ministry was not happy with this. Maybe they were worried about the emotions of their architects, because they wanted them to still be able to deal with such inhumane mechanisms. The moment you arrive there and you meet the people, it becomes much more difficult to go back to your desk and deal with such systematic mechanisms and processes. In places like Gaza, where there is war, the world has already decided that the people living there are not human. But you have to see the human side of it.

ra The world is much more comfortable with data than with emotions. The informa- tion presented objectively through this GRM website speaks much more to some people. And I believe that the Palestinian Authority thinks this website is a method of resistance, because it shows the control over materials and projects. But it alienates architecture from the people it’s designed for.

sh This is an issue in many relief projects that work based on data. They look at the number of households, the number of refugees, the number of shelters that need to be built, the number of people that need to be fed, etc; no matter who you are, where you come from, and why you are where you are. This overproduction of data about people is systematically confirming their victimhood. It seems like data is there to help defend the victims of international regimes, but I have a feeling that the more we work in this way, the more we will come to accept the fact that victims can only be victims, that they are not really human. If we let ourselves be governed, be directed by data, all we are doing is perpetuating victimhood instead of finding ways to shift the dynamic between who the victim is and where the power is coming from. Architecture can bestow value on marginalized communities that have been pushed aside and kept out of sight. If there is any need for architecture, it is this.

1. Mohammad Abusal, A Metro in Gaza (The A. M. Qattan Foundation, 2014).

2. Shlomi Eldar, “Why Young Gazans Need Cement to Get Married,” Al-Monitor (December 3, 2015), www.web.archive.org/

web/20151205014206 www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ originals/2015/12/israel-gaza- cement-housing-shortage- youngsters-tunnels.html.

3. Sultan Barakat and Firas Masri, “Still in ruins: Reviving the stalled

reconstruction of Gaza,” Brookings Doha Centre (August 22, 2017), https://www.brookings.edu/ research/reviving-the-stalled- reconstruction-of-gaza/