Since the first appearance of Palestinian refugee camps after the Nakba in 1948, the architecture of the camp was conceived as a temporary solution. The first pictures of refugee camps showed small villages made of tents, ordered according to grids used for military encampments. As the years passed, and no political solution was found for the plight of the displaced Palestinians, tents were substituted with shelters in an attempt to respond to the growing needs of the camp population without undermining the temporary condition of the camp, and therefore undermining the right to return. However, with a growing population, the condition in the camps worsened. The terrible situations in which Palestinian refugees where forced to live was used by the Palestinian political leadership to pressure Israel and the international community in terms of the urgency of the refugees’ right to return. The precariousness and temporariness of the camp structure was not simply a technical problem, but also the material-symbolic embodiment of the principle that its inhabitants be allowed to return as soon as possible to their place of origin. The refugee community opposes vehemently any attempt made by the governments of Israel to resettle them in other areas. The camp becomes a magnetic force in which political powers try to exercise their influence. Every single banal act, from building a roof to opening a new street is read as a political statement on the right of return. Nothing in the camp can be considered without political implication.
In this context in June 2011, UNRWA Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Program directed by Sandi Hilal, decided to intervene in the conception and realization of a girl’s school in Shu’fat refugee camp. For the first time a site specific and ad hoc design, and not a pre-conceived fix architectural scheme, was produced.
The political context that surrounds the project is extremely deteriorated. Shu’fat camp is in between walls, trapped in a legal void, neither inside nor outside Jerusalem borders. The inhabitants of Shu’fat are threatened to be deprived of their Jerusalem residency documents and therefore expelled from the city.
Is architectural intervention at all possible in such a distorted and unstable political environment? And how could intervention be at all possible without normalizing the exceptional and transitory condition of the camp? How could architecture exist in the here and now of the camp, yet remain in constant tension with a place of origin? The project of the school attempts to produce a space of existence between two polarized positions: on the one hand, that of refusing to intervene in any way because of a compromising political context; and on the other, that of maintaining the status quo instead of transforming the political reality. A team of architects comprised of myself and my colleagues Sandi Hilal and Livia Minoja and the engineer department of UNRWA imagined the “school in exile” as an occasion to elaborate a fragment of a different approach to education and society – a school to be experienced by the students, not as a site of repression and discipline, but as a site of liberation and responsibility.
The generative form of the school is a circular space, a space around which people can gather to tell or listen to a story. Architecturally, the hexagon constitutes the single classroom, a space in which each participant is equally invited to speak.
Recognizing that the camp is a spatial expression of a particular relation to another place – the place of origin – the project, instead of dismissing this relation, inhabits this tension and contradiction. We created a double for each classroom, an outside open space, a piece of land to cultivate material and cultural dimensions of the place of origin.
The twin classrooms form a spatial tension between an inside and outside, the camp and the home village, life in exile and the desire of return. The twin-classroom form is the invisible DNA of the school, able through its simple articulation to create clusters, clearly defined spaces. The spaces delineated by these clusters serve to develop a sense of ownership in opposition to an alienating, open space. Classroom juxtaposition and varied topographical elevations produce clusters. This configuration aims to define domestic spaces for a more intimate dwelling. The two entrances, with their generous open spaces, are available to public use for camp cultural and recreational activities after school and during holidays.
We believe the Shu’fat school embodies an “architecture in exile”: it is an attempt to inhabit and express the constant tension between the here and now and the possibility for a different future. The architecture of the school does not communicate temporariness through an impermanent material construction. These materials are too often instrumentalized for a “politically correct” architecture that relegates refugees to living in shantytowns. Rather, this architecture in exile attempts through its spatial and programmatic configuration to actively engage the new “urban environment” created by over sixty-four years of forced exile. Perhaps this is a fragment of a city yet to come.
Text by Alessandro Petti
Architectural Design by Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, Livia Minoja for the UNRWA Camp Improvement Program.