Summer Travels 2011…(10) – Omar Yousef, The Studio and How I Came To Plan With Grids

One conclusion from this workshop / studio would be that working well in a flat / non-hierarchical team is a very challenging skill to develop, and it would seem that the students here have coped better – possibly because it is not all that dissimilar to academic studios, all-be0it without the guidance of a tutor or unit-master.

So this week we have been priviledge to have the attention of Omar Yousef, the ‘studio-master’ weve been lacking – for various reasons, prior commitments and a lack of effective organisation at IPCC being perhaps an oversimplification. We first met Omar on Sunday, at the ‘Designing Civic Encounter’ conference in Ramallah, where we learned that he was originally to have had a much more involved role with us at the Jerusalem Urban Resilience Design Studio. After hearing of both our diverse interests and dischordant operation, he agreed to come in the following day to look at our work.

Yousef has quite a reputation here, and has proved himself to be a wonderful facilitator of discussion amongst our diverse group. If there is any skill to emulate, I would choose his ability to value and challenge in equal measure, allowing us to see connections and voice opinions that politeness and design ‘religion’ might otherwise not allow.

After a second day of activities in and around Ramallah (see Ramallah and City Building), Yousef agreed to return to the studio on Wednesday, giving us time to run an intense, informal ‘charette’ to get as many of our ideas out for discussion before he had to leave the country on Thursday.

Different groups broke out to work on specific ideas, whilst the two main groups continued with the ‘sense-making’ and ‘gridded’ approaches. Omar promises to turn up at 3pm to lead the crit. Below is my own twitter-like account of my day:

9am: Get the text to pick up water on my way to the office…

10am: Got to the office…

I’m working with Rob, landscape architecture masters student from Toronto, to work towards an environmentally-led first iteration of a plan for the crit later….looking forward to flexing my design muscles for the first time I this studio…

11:13 Started working; good progress in terms of making our values drawn an explicit, but soom ran into problems of working in this space…people want to know what your doing, want to take issue with it as soon as you’ve put pen to paper…so we changed rooms. And then were kicked out by the ‘cool’ group who wanted a meeting behind closed doors. Our methodology is to try and collect all the ideas, obervations made across the studio as the basis for own design work…

11:51 more people drifting in later and wanting to know what were doing…It seems that if you look like you know what you’re doing, people move towards you; whilst this is essentially a compliment, if it is unstructured it can lead to ‘treacle-isation’….a serious drop in productivity.

13:46 As 3pm approached, we have to start to make decisions about what to pin up; and what drawings to finish. We’ve not actually positioned anything on the site yet, and my stomach is rumbling! However, I have diagrammed some concepts; such as a temporary urbanist move against the Separation Barrier, and our ‘tree-like’ grid concept for claiming territory using the road layout.

14:24 I guess a key observation about management of people is that sometimes they just need to be left to do what they want to do, even if that is not necessarily the most efficient method to meet the deadline….

14:47 13 minutes to go and the pizza arrives….doubt we’ll get that extra sketch up.

15:47 Omar turns up for our 3pm deadline…

16:07 “are we ready…?”

17:54 ‘Cool group’ done….I’ll write about this later, as I made some notes….

19:22 Daniela and Marcelo just presented…a really good framework for our wider study and output of the studio. Hoping to work with them from now on, as they are working with really interesting issue of urbanising informality, and again, will write up more from my notes…

20:47 We finish….a good discussion, some good conclusions and a clearer idea of a final project outcomes. It remains to be seen if we can pull everything together without Omar hear to marshall us as a studio….I’m off home.

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In the discussion alluded to, some key observations / realisations and conclusions were drawn, as we worked long into the evening. I’ve since turned in the following morning as participated in a discusison about how best to move forward.

So I’m working on ‘grids’.

I don’t want to be, but Ive decided that maybe I can put my own interests and beliefs about appropriate development’ aside and work professionally towards a common goal, in the name of producing a project, in the time we have left.

I guess it boils down to the question of what is appropriate for us – as a team of international professionals and students, here for a short, finite period of time – to leave as a product. Whereas I am convinced that development of this kind should actually be pursued by a more sustained engagement over a long period of time (perhaps decades), building capacity in key local stakeholders (NGOs, civil society organisations, landowners, the local authority, etc.) to communicate and work together to achieve development of their own neighbourhood (like Teddy Cruz’s ‘architect as inter-locator’ concept – see here) we simply do not have that option here, beyond ‘recommending it’ in our opinion as specialists. Those stakeholders are definitely there – as demonstrated by the ‘sense-making’ of the ‘cool group’ – but they should be engaged responsibly.

So whilst the ‘cool group’ maintain that their engagement has at the very least started some conversations, and built awareness amongst stakeholders of other stakeholders’ motives, resources, aspirations and capacities – through the power of stories and narrative – I remain doubtful of whether the ‘Plan’ they leave can ever be (or is even meant to be) executed on the ground.

So perhaps our involvement with this studio is more about building capacity. A capacity to think, and conceive of things not previously considered, be that formal arrangements and typologies, frameworks for situating work legally and socially, or methodologies for engagement and co-design of development. Weapons in the arsenal of Palestinian advocacy organisations such as the IPCC.

So why a grid? And how does a grid – or the proposal of a grid, whether as purely a ‘project’ or as final built form – facilitate ‘urban resilience’ in a new Palestinian neighbourhood?

One argument for the grid is that the ‘gridded city’ is not a typology seen in Palestinian urbanism. Development here tends to be categorised by one of two things; either by informal, incremental development, often illegal, that by virtue of its address of the most pressing needs often results in poorly designed spaces, particular public spaces, on the scale of a neighbourhood or city; or by top-down super-development, as seen at both Rawabi (please see Ramallah and City building) and Israeli settlement-building, where the developers are not trusted – either because they often utilise the controversial mechanisms of ‘reparcelisation’ and ‘compensation’ that take land away from traditional family ownership, or in the case of the latter simply confiscate land for an occupying power.

The argument is that neither of the predominant models of development in Palestinian urbanism produce vital and enjoyable neighbourhoods, with well-designed public-realm, good quality and affordable housing, and a politically resilient and economically prosperous civil society. Proposing the ‘grid’, which proposes ‘connectivity’ in opposition to the easy control of the serpentine settlement-type developments, and designed formality is opposition to ad-hoc self-construction, is therefore simply about giving the IPCC another way to think about urbanism on the hilly terrain that categorises the area.

So this is what I am working on now. Building this ‘tool’ into the evolving armoury of the IPCC, which will include work done by other factions of the studio that I personally find more interesting, and believable.

After writing this, I’m off to arrange a group activity, a trip to Palestine’s second ever competitive football match on home soil, at the Faisal Al Husseini International Stadium in Al Ram. The game – against Thailand – is the second leg of a qualifying campaign for the London 2012 Olympic Games, in which the home side are 1-0 down on aggregate….it promises to be fantastic experience, and I’ll write at some point over the weekend.


1 Comment

Filed under Real World, Summer 2011, Thoughts

One response to “Summer Travels 2011…(10) – Omar Yousef, The Studio and How I Came To Plan With Grids

  1. Pingback: Summer Travels 2011…(11) – My New Flat and The Football | Sam's Sketchbook

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