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Summer Travels 2011…(18) – Final Crit…

Its a mixed bag as we walk back from the bus stop after the final crit…I have the tang of tear gas in my eyes as it wafts on the breeze from an incident just outside the Old City, and the usual euphoric weariness that accompanies the passing of hours post-crit…

But it seemed to go OK. We gave a good account of ourselves, mostly through Marcelo, with whom I’ve been working this past week. From an urban planners point of view on ‘urban management’, we presented an analysis of existing land legal structure (i.e. ownership), and ‘urban tools’ for development, which included methods such as ‘saleable development rights’ for empowering individual landowners to negotiate with developers and the municipality. For me, its been an interesting exercise in meta-design – we didnt actually design anything beyond a road layout – and one that I hope will inform the way any masterplan is carried out on the ground. Ive always believed that designers dont pay enough attention to the way these things actually affect the built reality of places, and so despite the frustration, I’m glad we took the time to try to communicate some of it.

However, our ‘presentation’ was pushed to the periphery of proceedings this evening, scheduled for the final half hour before sundown – and therefore, before the breaking of today’s Ramadan fast. Considering the fact that the majority of our jury was muslim, and that designers don’t know how to keep to time, it was no surprise that we began late, and that we were cut off by the canon from the old city signalling time to eat…our audience evaporated as the traditional feast was brought out, and despite some attempts to resume later, we suffered from a greatly diminished attendance.

Tucking in to the Ramadan feast...

The ‘cool group’ – having this evening acquired the moniker “new romantics” – faced tough criticism from the predominantly planning-savvy jury, and their work seemed to be misunderstood. I thought it had some real value myself – and my problem with these people has always been the exclusivity of their operations within the wider design team rather than anything based on their design methodology. The videos will certainly make some interesting watching when I upload them…

Romatics crit...

The ‘hardcore urbanists’ faced similar problems of communication, with a number of local architects and planners on the jury expressing their opinion that whilst the project was an ‘interesting research’, it simply “will not work here in this context”. “This is not the netherlands”, said one jury member.

'Hardcore Urbanists' crit...

The general feeling – although I put a lot of it down to politeness – was that IPCC are pleased with the output of the study, its diversity of focus particularly, but disappointed that we couldn’t bring it together under one body of work. I’ve said this all along, and so it is with some satisfaction that I hear my thoughts echoed – although ultimately with frustration and disappointment. They seem to expect us to work at this this week…but my sentiment – as I suspect is shared by the majority here – is that IPCC have another thing coming.

Marcelo presenting our work on urban management strategy. We pinned up outside 'for a change of scene'...

..and continued after the Ramadan feast, in the dark, to a greatly reduced audience...

Just off out, either to a bar in West Jerusalem, or for some beers on my rooftop, and then tomorrow to Masada and the Dead Sea…looking forward to it very very much!

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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.

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