Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, 1968
In the last years architectural conservation has become a field of knowledge and a practice able to reframe our understanding of esthetics, cultural heritage, and history.
For some, architectural conservation was understood mainly as a discipline that froze time, space and culture, reducing buildings to lifeless objects to contemplate. Today it is an operative field that includes material and immaterial cultures, preservation of social and identity structures, a contested space where national identities are constructed and demolished.
We started to preserve and protect structures built centuries ago. Later on we discovered that even modernism that claimed to be ahistorical needed to be preserved as part of an historical narration of the city, and we ended up considering rough industrial zones as national heritage. Camps became sites of heated discussions on what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten.
If we look at refugee camps with the lens of architectural preservation, how might our understanding of camps change?
Refugee camps are considered temporary spaces to be quickly dismantled. But how then do we understand Palestinian refugee camps that are now almost 70 years old? Can we consider them cultural sites to be preserved?
For many it might be even disturbing to be forced to look at refugee camps from this perspective, but this is the reality in front of our eyes that we cannot negate. So one of the urgent questions becomes, do Palestinian refugee camps have history? And how could this history be mobilized for the right of return instead of perceived as a threat? And at the same time how does the concept of architectural heritage change when applied to refugee camps?
During the next year we would like to tackle these questions together with the architects and staff at the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation based in Ramallah, Palestine. The course will be conducted as an “Urban Heritage Research Studio” that will start in November 2015 and end in May 2016 in occasion of the Riwaq Biennale Exhibition.
The seminars will take place the following dates: 11, September 2015 – 03, November 2015 – 17, November 2015 – 15, December 2015 – 19, January 2016 – 16, February 2016 – 15, March 2016 – 19, April 2016.
The text that follows marks the beginning of my interest in exploring the relations between architectural conservation and refugee camps. The text was written deliberately as a spoken text in occasion of the inauguration of the Concrete Tent in Dheisheh Refugee Camp the 26th of June 2015. The text has a form that aims to combine rigorous theoretical questions and practical political implications for Palestinian refugees attending the event.
The Concrete Tent
When we think about refugee camps, one of the most common images that comes to our mind is an aggregation of tents. However, after more than sixty years since their establishment, Palestinian refugee camps today are constituted by a completely different materiality. Tents were first reinforced and readapted with vertical walls, later substituted with shelters, and subsequently new houses made of concrete have been built, making camps dense and solid urban spaces.
There is therefore a gap between the image that we have in our mind when we think and talk about refugee camps and the actual materiality of camps today. This challenges us to find meaning in a reality that is in front of our eyes, but we can hardly understand. Camps are no longer made of fragile structures. Yet at the same time they are not cities either. Cities have a series of public institutions that organize, manage and control the lives of inhabitants. In the camp today, despite that UNRWA’s role as a purely humanitarian agency has been challenged by the refugee community, it does not govern the camp. The camp, as we know, has developed its own form of social and political life. We lack the right vocabulary to describe this new condition as the prolonged exceptionality of its condition has produced different social, spatial and political structures.
The Feniq, the institution that is hosting us today is a clear example of this contemporary condition. Built by the camp community at the highest point of a hill previously occupied by a military base, the Al-Feniq Cultural Center today contains a women’s gym, a guesthouse, a common kitchen, a wedding hall, and the Edward Said Library. It definitively does not look like a tent.
Now, if we want to start understanding what is a camp today, we have to look at its history. And here things start to get complicated.
Let us assume that camps have a history, and that this more than sixty years of existence could be personified to correspond to the life expectancy of a person. A sixty-seven year old person would not be denied their history; they would not be denied all the experiences and events that brought them to that point. How are we to reconcile this condition with the fact that the camp is always understood and described as a temporary situation of the present with no past, as something that has been established in order to be quickly dismantled and destroyed?
For some to inhabit a refugee camp means to inhabit ruins. It means living everyday in the space produced from the beginning of the Nakba. Camps are built on the destruction that has started in 1948, and for this reason they are “historical sites” that are constantly destroyed and rebuilt. Refugee camps are also a reconstruction of the demolished villages, re-assemblage of people and social relations. Camps are the embodiment of the Palestinian struggle to exist. Yet it seems that we consider their importance only when they are demolished. Only when they cease to exist.
For instance, when Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon was destroyed during the battle between the Lebanese army and the Islamic militias, Palestinian refugees promptly demanded its reconstruction. And they did so not by asking for tents, but by demanding the exact reconstruction of their concrete houses that were built through several years of sacrifice. The same happened after the 2002 invasion of Jenin refugee camp. Here the significance of the camp and the rebuilding of its exact structures only began to surface once it was lost through military violence.
Further, how do we make sense of the demands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to “Return to Nahr el-Bared camp”? Or, in the case of Syria, what do Palestinian refugees mean when demanding the “Return to Yarmouk camp”? What does it mean to demand to return to a space never intended for permanence and without a history?
In December 2013, after two years of investigation, Campus in Camps’ participants found a plot of land in Dheisheh refugee camp called the “three shelters.” The three shelters site consisted of three original 1950s UNRWA-built structures (three rooms, one communal toilet and a water reservoir) that were still standing. The plot, no longer in use and closed behind a gate, narrates the camp’s foundation and its history. But how can a space that is supposed to be dismantled and disappear actually even have a history?
At this point we understood that claiming that the camp has a history, and a history that needs to be preserved for its cultural, political and social values, was the best way to try to answer to the question of ‘what is a refugee camp today’.
What appeared to us as a historical heritage in need of preservation was not just the architecture of the three shelters, it was also the immaterial culture and the meaning of a communal life that people experienced when living in these structures. In fact, we can argue that the entire camp embodies a unique form of a communal form of life against the humanitarian ideology that reduces refugee to numbers and statistics.
After surveying the project site, and in discussion with the local inhabitants, a collaborative design process about the possible preservation and transformation of the plot unfolded among the Campus in Camps’ participants. Considering the value of the architectural structures that are anchored to the collective memory of the residents, a non-intrusive approach was selected for the preservation of the site as well as for bringing new uses to the space and, by extension, to the whole camp.
The project was materialized as a sort of black frame surrounding the historical structures, a fifteen centimeter-thick reinforced concrete platform, seemingly suspended but resting on a compact base course. This was meant to leave the existing shelters as well as the communal toilet, water reservoir and the olive trees intact as a sign of respect for the past in this new beginning. The platform had a surface area of one hundred twenty square meters and the capacity to host activities with more than one hundred people. The black platform was like a theater stage, ready to host community gatherings, music performances and collective rituals.
The participants of Campus in Camps spent several months in dialogue with the neighbor and the owners of this site. Together they not only discussed the aim of this project but, with their consent, they began hosting activities such as a concert and screenings. It was crucial for the participants to involve the neighbor in the project. From there an agreement was signed between the popular committee and the owners.
Construction plans began with the excavation for the foundation of the project. After ten days, one member of the large family prevented the laborers from working on the site. The family, the popular committee, and leaders of the camp spent several weeks trying to find a solution. However, this family member stated that despite the initial agreement to guarantee the collective use of the land for the two coming years, he had now decided to sell it realizing that new attention was brought on this abandoned land. In a single night all the shelters were demolished.
Needless to say, this was an extremely frustrating moment for members of the refugee community, who witnessed the destruction of this historical site and a great disappointment for the youth of Campus in Camps, who lost the opportunity to see the materialization of their new discourse around what constitutes a camp today. That said, this incident also created a collective awareness on the importance of preserving the camp and its history.
It brought a new understanding of the camp, no longer as a place without history, but rather as a place full of stories that can be narrated through its urban fabric. These stories have been repressed for fear of normalization.
This moment pushed us to start thinking about how the notion of preservation in a refugee camp is key in order to give meaning and historical importance to a life in exile. And conversely thinking the concept of preservation and cultural heritage aloud questions ways in which systems of values are decided and represented.
Claiming that life in exile is historically meaningful is a way to understand refugeehood not only as a passive production of an absolute form of state violence, but also as a way to recognize refugees as subjects of history, as makers of history and not simply victims of it. Claiming the camp as a heritage site is a way to avoid the trap of being stuck either in the commemoration of the past or in a projection into an abstract messianic future that is constantly postponed and presented as salvation. This perspective offers instead the possibility for the camp to be an historical political subject of the present, and to see the achievements of the present not as an impediment to the right of return, but on the contrary, as a step toward it. Claiming history in the camp is a way to start recognizing the camp’s present condition, and actually articulate the right of return.
Architecture is able to register various transformations that make the camp a heritage site. And in camps every single architectural transformation is a political statement. Therefore architecture registers political changes.
When refugees forced by the first rigid winters in the early fifties decided to replace the tent with concrete walls, they were forced to confront the necessity to protect their family from the adverse conditions and provide more decent living conditions. They were forced to accept the risk of making life in exile more stable and permanent.
To force people to live in miserable conditions does not bring them closer to return. To negate their right to a life in dignity today is just another form of violence imposed on the most vulnerable segments of Palestinian refugees. Here we need to seriously consider why is it that the right of return should negate the existence of the camp or call for its destruction. In other words, how can we articulate the right of return from the point of view of the condition of the camp?
Today we are inaugurating the Concrete Tent as a gathering space for communal learning. It will host cultural activities, a working area and an open space for social meetings. The urgency and idea of such a space has emerged in discussion with the participants of Campus in Camps who saw in this occasion also a possibility to materialize, to give architectural form to narrations and representations of camps and refugees beyond the idea of poverty, marginalization and victimization.
We are aware of the danger of monumentalization and over symbolism, but we decided to take the risk in order to make architecture that engages with social and political problems that concern the refugee community that we work with. Too often architecture in our context is seen simply as an economic asset with no social and political value. Too often architecture has been humiliated in void formalism, to look green or sustainable or efficient, apolitical answers to political problems. Too often within the humanitarian industry, architecture has been reduced to answering to the so call “needs of the community”. Rarely architecture has been used for its power to give form to social and political problems and to challenge dominant narrations and assumptions.
The project tries to inhabit the paradox of how to preserve the very idea of the tent as symbolic and historical value. Because of the degradability of the material of the tents, these structures simply do not exist any more. And so, the re-creation of a tent made of concrete today is an attempt to preserve the cultural and symbolic importance of this archetype for the narration of the Nakba, but at the same time engage the present political condition of exile.
The Concrete Tent deals with the paradox of a permanent temporality. It solidifies a mobile tent into a concrete house. The result is a hybrid between a tent and a concrete house, temporality and permanency, soft and hard, movement and stillness. Importantly, the Concrete Tent does not offer a solution. Rather, it embraces the contradiction of an architectural form that emerged from a life in exile.