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Architecture in Ramallah

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.08.2007:

By Architect Usama Sakakini

If any of us remember the city of Ramallah in the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the dramatic transformation that it has gone through in terms of growth and construction. Ramallah was well-known for its good weather in summer, which gave it the privilege of becoming known as “Palestine’s Summer Resort.” Even people from the Gulf used to visit often before the 1967 War. The harmony in the city and the beauty of its landscape were evident as we used to drive or walk towards the Al-Tireh area and see the olive groves along the way. I even remember the social gatherings on weekends at the Grand Hotel (Odeh). These and other memories will always transport us back to the magical and wonderful history of Ramallah.

The architecture that was prevalent during the fifties, sixties, and seventies was primarily two- and three-storey buildings, although some taller structures could be found in the city itself, along the main street. During that period, a few civil engineers – not architects – were engaged in designing buildings, which resulted in similarly styled buildings with little diversity. One of the most prominent engineers at the time was Razouk Khoury. Although architects were not very common in Ramallah, there were a few exceptions, such as Mr. Diran Voskeritchian from Amman and Hani Arafat from Nablus. Interesting buildings from that time include the Ohanessian house (by Diran) on Radio Street, the Raja Salti house by Hani Arafat (nazlet il-bareed), and the Lutheran church, which was designed by a German architect, Wolfgang Hack.

When I returned to Palestine from the United States in the early 1980s, after completing my bachelor’s degree in architecture, there were two architects who were very busy in Ramallah – Mohammad Hijazi and Mammon Nahas, who had become partners during the mid-seventies. At the end of the seventies, Mr. Nahas left the country and Mr. Hijazi kept the practice going. By the mid-1980s, a new generation of young architects began to return to Ramallah and were breathing new life into architectural design. Every architect attempted to translate his own education into a new building in the city. Thus began a new era of architectural creativity in Ramallah.

Exciting as this new stage was, the first Intifada, which began in 1987, brought to a halt the innovative works that had been initiated.

After the Oslo Accords in the early nineties, and specifically in 1994, after the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, things started moving again. Suddenly, there was a construction boom after a long period of architectural hibernation. Although many architects were waiting for work, the majority of them did not have the experience needed to initiate their own projects. The presence of the Palestinian Authority and the abundance of donor funds provided encouragement to build as much as possible in as short a time as possible in order to assert the presence of a Palestinian government.

As a result of this reality, the desire to affirm Palestinian identity through grandiose construction projects took precedence over the creation of aesthetically pleasing forms of architecture. Seemingly overnight, zoning laws were changed in order to allow numerous buildings of varying size and shape to spring up but, unfortunately, none of them were built in a style that respects our city and urban fabric. The result has obviously been catastrophic. In addition, the lack of proper infrastructure has caused many of the roads to serve as free, open parking areas. To understand better the impact of such a catastrophe on the city, one only needs to go and stand near the Cultural Palace and look east or take a drive along the road to Al-Tireh.

Residential areas make up the majority of these projects and clearly constitute one of the biggest disasters that Ramallah will ever suffer from. These projects are being driven by financial gain rather than aesthetic value and have caused more damage to the city than any other type of project. If there were, perhaps, a balance between financial gain and aesthetic gain, the situation could possibly be improved. It is crucial to address this issue since Ramallah is rapidly becoming the most important city in the West Bank. Due to the closures imposed on other population centres, many Palestinians have chosen to move to Ramallah in order to take advantage of the wealth of services there that are vital to ordinary life.

The most significant question that faces us at present is, How can we ensure the aesthetic quality of our buildings?

In order to have a better understanding of how to work on this issue, we should first have a better understanding of the main factors that can promote better architecture. These factors can be summarized as follows.

• Geography: The geography of Ramallah can be categorized as one that is diverse and beautiful. This creates many design challenges to both the architect and the landowner. If more effort is put into the design, the result can be much improved.

• Zoning Regulations: The zoning codes are the catalyst to ensure control over the interaction between the buildings and the land on which they are constructed.

• Clients: Client values – financial, educational, and cultural – are a primary consideration in ensuring architectural integrity.

• Architects: Given the pivotal role of architects in the creation of aesthetically sound buildings, it is important that building projects be led by well-educated and experienced architects.

• Use of Materials: Palestine is privileged to have stone – the best and most durable material in the world – at its disposal. Attention should be given to the experience and creativity of previous generations in their use of this precious natural resource.

• Skilled Labour: Skilled labour is the cornerstone of any good building regardless of the aesthetic quality we seek.

• Culture: Our culture boasts a multitude of historically and architecturally significant buildings, many of which are neglected icons today. We should focus our efforts to restore these valuable remnants of our tradition.

• Laws: Appropriate laws that can be easily enforced must be formulated in order to guarantee that clients propose and implement reasonable building projects.

Two basic principles should guide any plans for future growth and development: First, land is a gift that must be preserved and protected; and second, by its nature, land is an irreplaceable resource that can be enhanced or destroyed depending on how we choose to use it.

Usama Sakakini is an architect from Jerusalem. After receiving a B.A. in architecture from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1983, he returned to open his practice in Ramallah with his brother and father. He works in Ramallah as well as in other Palestinian areas and in Jordan and Oman.


This Week in Palestine

September 2007

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