pulp #27: ramallah

published on Friday, November 2, 2017

500 years ago, on Tuesday, on a church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Moved by the spirit, the architectural commentariat took aim at a few sacred cows this week.

Sean Griffiths – founder of the former firm FAT – published in Dezeen "Now is not the time to be indulging in postmodern revivalism." Postmodernism was the movement kicked off in some ways when Robert Venturi's 1966  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture ushered in two decades of cozying up to history. Gradually laid aside and then despised, now postmodernism is back -look no further than the work at the Chicago Biennial. The revival arguably began – argues Griffiths – with a 1995 column he wrote, praising the (post-modern) Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Certainly the work of FAT was post-modern both after and before it was cool to be post-modern.

Sean Griffiths argues that he did all of that work ironically. That is, FAT emulated and praised post-modernism because they hated post-modernism. FAT was to be the Stephen Colbert of post-modernism. Except instead they started a movement - they were the Sean Hannity of post-modernism. That he claims his whole career was built around a lie, puts us at risk of mockery, should we take his conclusion seriously:

Perhaps herein lies a clue as to how to proceed, perhaps towards an architecture that embraces the tactile and strives heavily to actively resist visual signification, that tries to disappear, that abjures meaning, an architecture that makes no attempt to speak and can tell no lies, an architecture of silence that has nothing to say and is saying it.

Griffiths' conclusion - his evocation of a mute building - contrasts almost perfectly with the closing words of Nathan Robinson and Brianna Rennix in Current Affairs, in their now digitally published paean to older ways, "Why you hate contemporary architecture":

There’s an easy test for whether a building is beautiful or not. Ask yourself: if this building could speak, would it sound like the Rubaiyat or the works of Shakespeare, or would it make a noise like “Blorp”? For nearly 100 years, we have been stuck in the Age of Blorp. It is time to learn to speak again.

There is more to be said about both, but sometimes actions really do ring louder than words. Today, we have Dima Srouji: a Palestinian designer who both means what she says, acts to help restore and revive old ways, and has no fear of contemporary architecture. We talk about all of that, below.


Dima Srouji is a designer working in Ramallah, Palestine. Her project at Amman Design Week, 'Hollow Forms', has recently received accolades from across the profession.  She has also been a prolific contributor to Paprika!, most recently taking issue with an exhibit focusing on early modern architects in the British Protectorate. She has worked through architecture to make projects about Palestine and the Middle East for some time now, these you can find on her website.

I caught up with her last Sunday.

Links: Dezeen / Website

NK Dima! You met the Queen!

DS I did meet the Queen! She is originally Palestinian, and Amman Design Week is her baby – she has been quite a force in pushing this new generation forward in Jordan. So for her to come in person and meet every single designer, ask all sorts of questions, and commend us on our work is impressive for a Queen. Maybe that is her full time job, I suppose.

NK Was the focus on Palestinian designers?

DS No not at all: it was on the Arab region. I was the only Palestinian, actually.

NK The Queen is Palestinian – but isn’t half the population of Jordan Palestinian, too?

DS More than half. I think it is actually around 70%. Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars – they all fled to Jordan at the beginning of the occupation. So it is a massive majority. But many of them have never been to Palestine – they cannot get a visa. Ironic.

NK That seems representative of the seemingly intractable challenges you are up against - could you tell me about Hollow Forms?

DS Through my work with Riwaq, I have two projects I am managing: a 23 bedroom mansion in the historic center of Qalandiya called Hosh al Huqqiyya, and a historic village called Jib, northwest of Jerusalem.

In Jib, I met glassblowers who are competing with Hebron. Hebron is famous for its glass blowing tradition, but they do not experiment. When I met these guys, in the little tiny shop they run on the roof of their home, they mentioned this to me: “O, you are a designer, you work with 3d stuff – why not experiment with us?

A glassblower in Jib.

NK The project received a great deal of coverage - I believe it is the first time you have had a project, 'blow up,' as it were. Can you describe what it is like to be on the receiving end of the press's attentions?

DS I’d like to get the same coverage on one of other projects. Getting Dezeen to write about historic renovation of Qalandiya would be cool. I also have to be careful about not being the “Palestinian” female architect. I’d like to just be a good architect.

NK Let’s talk about the shapes themselves – how do you feel about Peter Cook’s Museum in Graz? Your work in Gregg Lynn’s studio, as well as with Hollow Forms, resembles it. I ask, because the Graz Museum featured recently as the poster boy in an article lambasting contemporary architecture.

Hollow Forms - bringing contemporary architecture to traditional glassblowing.

DS Graz is very similar to the forms I have been playing around with. It is also throwing an alien in the middle of this very rich context. Sometimes as an architect I feel I am against this, but as a designer, at the same time I think ‘wow, this was executed so well’ – it is humorous, and begs the question as to what you can do with form in such a rich context. Peter Cook pushes the limits of architecture in a way that many of the formalists did not do. Thinking about the peripheries of the discipline – not just Architecture, or formalism, but the industrial revolution, mass production, technology, the economy, and ideas of architecture that are not necessarily formal.

The formal questions are only the wrapper of a core concerned with much more than “what it looks like” as Peter Eisenman says.

NK So what about those renovations – Riwaq, your employer, the Arabic word itself means arcade?

DS Yes, columns joined by arches – usually adjacent to an open space – the threshold between public and private.

Riwaq is an NGO with architects, engineers, anthropologists and archeologists that reactivates historical cores of Palestinian villages – often buildings that have been abandoned for fifty years. The name is fitting, because Riwaq bridges public and private space.

We will move say a women crafts organization, or a glassblower shop into what used to be private homes, and turn them into public spaces. We are fighting a widespread preference for modern, concrete homes, and we fight that by bringing school children to them and getting them excited. Older members of the village tell the children stories, and we do art activities on site so they can image how the space was used before, and what we could use it for now, and what we could use it for in ten, twenty, thirty years.

We also have training programs, hiring locals – many who otherwise work on Israeli settlements – and teaching them traditional techniques.

NK I found it interesting reading – on Riwaq’s website – about Throne Villages, and the 24 Sheikdoms. I had no idea that was how the West Bank was organized under the Ottomans.

Politically charged historical preservation: Beit Iksa, once a Palestinian Qura Karasi, or Throne Village, and now “an open-air jail cell.”

DS We call them Qura Karasi in Arabic, Karasi meaning chair, or throne. We just celebrated the reopening of a throne village called Beit Iksa, which may be the most neglected village in the entire country, because it is surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements. It is basically now an open-air jail cell: walls on all sides, and the only way you can get in and out is through a single gate.

Which is insane, because historically this village was very important because of its strategic geographic location. Renovating such a significant village shows us reclaiming our space.

NK Fascinating. There is a funny thing going on here, though – you are working for an organization that is essentially a historic preservation organization – granted, much more politically charged – but at the same time you engage with ideas on the cutting edge of architecture, in a very intentional fashion – how do you reconcile those two missions?

DS Sometimes to save that which is traditional you have to innovate. For instance, I am working with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on contemporizing the furniture and craft clusters in Nablus. They are very well known for their craftsmanship. My grandparents went there to buy their furniture in the 50s, and still own it.

Over the years, as technology advanced, the craftsmanship was lost. Now they just use staple guns, cheaper materials, MDF – what the United Nations wants to do is help restore quality and bring in people from high-design, to make them relevant.

NK Another Dima Paradox. You have had a very cosmopolitan life. You have grown in many places, Palestine, Qatar, London, and you have been in America for a long time, you moved to Milan after graduating, and you have now returned to Palestine. Did you always know you wanted to return? Or was that a discovery?

DS No, not at all. After graduation I went to Milan, working for Cino Zucchito design a pavilion for Milan Design Week, and while I was in Milan I was very unhappy, even though I was working on exciting projects, because I felt I was around the wrong people. I was in the wrong place. I just felt I was part of a circle of people doing the same thing over and over again, without questioning it. New York felt the same. Palestine is in the middle of recreating its identity. That’s exciting. You get projects thrown at you in Palestine because there’s just so much to do and no one there to do it.

In Milan I was also faced with a lot of racism. I was constantly told to keep quiet about being an Arab and celebrate my New York identity instead. When I explained that I wasn’t a New Yorker I was faced with disappointment.

In Palestine there is an incredible sense of collaboration. There is a very strong sense of community among the architects and designers, musicians, film-makers, philosophers, novelists – we all know each other, because it is such a small community, and everybody is so supportive.

NK Are you doing anything to draw these worlds in which you have participated together?

DS I am trying - there is a symposium actually that I am organizing in March through the Yale Arab Alumni Association and Riwaq with Keller Easterling, Kishwar Rizvi, Saima Akhtarand, and Todd Reisz talking about how architecture can affect politics and the economy. I think it is the first Yale event in the history of Palestine.

NK Can you tell me about your city?

DS Ramallah has so much energy right now. There is a buzz. The Palestinian Museum just opened, there are new artist collectives being formed, a new art residency being established in Jericho. The Qattan Foundation is very supportive of young artists in Palestine. There are Oscar-nominated movies coming out from here.  I go to events once or twice a week where we sit around a table and talk about regional issues of architecture, modernism, politics. How architects can help art directors make movies, how movie-makers can help architects create short films about their work. It is like living in a big WeWork, in a big collaboration space. I did not get that sense in Milan, or in New York, or anywhere else in the world. Living under an occupation, there is so much more tightness, there is so much more support for each other, because we want this cultural renaissance to happen. Everyone is fighting their way through this occupation with creativity and art, and it is an incredible energy. Kind of like the States in the 60s.

NK The Israeli-Palestinian conflict used to be much more violent -

DS That is true

NK The Palestinian Israeli conflict was much more active in the early thousands, during the Intifadas. Is part of the Renaissance that the violence has receded, or is that still a part of everyday life?

DS It is definitely still part of everyday life. We get shot at. Last night I stayed late at the office because the project funder was supposed to come in this morning, and there were gunshots going back and forth between the settlers and the refugee camp and I thought, ‘O no, not again.’ And today I had to cross the checkpoint to get from Ramallah to Bethlehem, and there were tear gas bombs behind me, and I had to turn the AC off and close the windows, because that is the first thing you have to do when there is tear gas going off.

It is not as violent as it was during the first and second Intifadas, but we are still not treated as equals. There is a long way to go for that.

NK Do you think you are going to stay?

DS I think so. I think I will be here for a while. There is so much to do.

Definitely in the Middle East.

You know Ross, I think I preferred the ant farm.


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