Tag Archives: reflections

Summer Travels 2011…(21) – Tel Aviv. Just waiting.

So I’m in Tel Aviv. And I’ve been walking. And writing. In the wake of the attacks near Eilat, things have escalated. Israel bombed the Palestinian-controlled Gaza, from which it believes the attacks originated, within hours of the shootings on the bus near the Egyptian border. There have been further incidents, including the shooting of Egyptian border police by Israeli forces, and rocket attacks of the city of Be’er Sheva, where I was headed just a few days ago.

Tel Aviv still exists in its bubble, but with its own tensions. Protestors camp out on Rothschild Boulevard, despite some calls that civil protest should abate in the wake of the terror attacks in the south in order that the country may pull together. However, the homeless and debt-ridden persist. As one tour-guide put it, “they’re looking for peace now, they’re so tired…after all the free performances, late into the night, from celebrities looking to support them, they just want to sleep!”. Its a different world here from that which exists, also on the glistening shores of the Mediterranean, just a few tens of kilometers further south.

So here’s a photograph of what I wrote when I walked, and a video…the tension is getting to me, and becoming harder to escape.

On a cheerier note, this film is about to come out, and shows in glorious aerial detail many of the places I have visited…

I’m off to try and lift my mood. Checked into a private room for tonight, at some expense…I cant go on without sleep. Especially with the anticipation of Ben Gurion airport’s notoriously stringent security checks tomorrow before I fly out. In a nod to the archi-tourist inside me, I hope to head for a Mario Botta designed synagogue at the Tel Aviv University campus tomorrow, hopefully to be reminded that beautiful places and spaces can lift the soul…

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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…(16) – The Knesset and avoiding work again…

First of all, I think this blog is in danger of becoming a vent for me and my enduring frustration with this workshop I’m on, so I’m going to try my hardest to limit any negative outbursts. Save for this – if this was a job, I’d have quit, and I don’t know why I am still here. Something about reputation maybe, something about not being used to being a ‘quitter’…but at the end of the day, I just want to be on my way…

So to make my days bearable, as I mentioned previously, I’ve been trying to do something interesting every day. Yesterday, this was a trip over to West Jerusalem for the early tour at the Knesset – the Israeli parliament. It was interesting to learn from my guide Hanna (phelgm the ‘H’ and you’ll get the pronunciation right…) that Israel doesn’t actually have a constitution…interesting, given the state’s often-toted claim to ‘legality’. Rather, all its laws are tied back to the Declaration of Independence in 1948, and the things written in it. The ongoing 63-year old debate about a constitution is basically held back by the argument of whether Israel should be a religious state (i.e. Jewish), or a secular state. Having been here a while now, its difficult to see this arguement ever being resolved. Teh attention is often on Palestine and the barriers facing it in becoming a legitimate state – but with no constitution, even my limited knowledge of international law makes me question legality here also…

Take a look at the following video, especially the subtitles, and you’ll get an idea of the severely pro-israeli spiel levelled at me on the tour…things like “Israel, Masada shall never fall again” (Bill Clinton), and “Children of Israel, America is, always, by your side” (George W Bush). Most worryingly, from a face I do not recognise, “There will never be a Palestinian state”…

In other news, on my walk to work today I saw a LOT of police and soldiers…its Friday, the muslim ‘day off’ and teh policemen we asked said that there’s usually trouble on this day during Ramadan. Police and soldiers sit on corners and sidewalks where you wouldn’t normally find them…

This is coupled with a number of jews walking around with their private armed body guards – just like I saw in Hebron, but until now not seen here in Jerusalem…

I tried to walk to the wall today also…you can see it in this video…as I’ve been looking at it for the last few days. I was stopped a good way from the top of a nearby hill (which had a park on top for which I was headed), and when I asked if I could go to the park, I was given the simple answer “you cant”. Asking for a reason, I was again simply told “you cant”.

Anyway, looks like I might be able to get a lift back to the old city, so I’d better go. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day….

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Summer Travels 2011 (15) – Ramadan begins…

Following the roar of the canon, a deathly silence falls over the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem as the fast is broken on the second day of Ramadan. The usually bustling area of Damascus Gate is for the most part empty, whilst those that are here have mouths full from picnic feasts in the streets and on shop counters. If you hang around long enough, you’ll be invited to join them in their grateful celebration. After an hour or so, children take to the streets and firecrackers echo around the buildings of the Old City; the furore of daily life returns and will last until the Ramadan canon roars again at 4am, this time to signal the beginning of the next day’s fast. Many Muslims here simply translate their day to night in order to cope with Jerusalem’s oppressive heat and the religious duty not to partake of food or water during daylight hours.

The Palestinian Sanduqa family is by tradition responsible for firing the Ramadan cannon from the cemetery on Salah-Al-Din Street since the tradition began during Ottoman rule in the early 20th century. Recently, an Israeli mayor of Jerusalem allowed the recommencement of the firing, some say in an attempt to assuage the political heat resulting from the continuation of Municipality-ordered demolition of Palestinian homes in areas such as Silwan, near to the Old City, and Sheikh Jarrah. Personally, the explosion at 4am this morning to signal the beginning of the first day’s fast had me reaching for my mobile and its speed-dial to the British Consulate, such was my proximity to the canons home here in East Jerusalem…

Jerusalem's Ramadan Canon...

Another dull day at the office…I’m just waiting for the end on Sunday. But I did post a parcel home with some bottle of Taybeh and some Somak spices in…

The 'office' at the end of the road - a difficult journey to work in a difficult place with difficult people...(please consider this a generalization based on my exhausted patience...there are some pretty cool people too)

In the meantime, for those of you wondering about the history of Jerusalem as a contested city, liberal Israeli organisation B’Tselem has a useful page here.

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Summer Travels 2011…(13) – When Plans Don’t Work, Jericho and Jerusalem

So this weekend has been a bit of a mishmash…I’d originally intended to travel to Sebastiya, near Nablus, and then on to Jenin and back to Ramallah for a party at the Taybeh Brewery (West Bank Christian Palestinians…)…but none of that happened due to various divergencies of planning, so I took the opportunity to chill at the new flat, and make some excursions closer to home.

Saturday saw me venture to the Museum On The Seam here in Jerusalem. Straddeling the Green Line (border between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 war), the bombed out former Arab villa now serves as a major Israeli contemporary art institution, exhibiting work that deals with reality of the socio-political situation here in this part of the Middle East. My personal opinion was that there was a lot of wank, but also some interesting pieces, particularly those that looked beyond the immediate situation and related to the wider world as well as to the particulars or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Museum on the Seam - blast damage from its role as a border crossing between Israel and Jordan

Some of the work in the Museum of the Seam

After taking some time to relax, and think about where I want to travel after this workshop is over, I headed to Jericho with Marcelo. This 10,000 year old city is proported to be the worlds oldest continually inhabited city, although the ‘ruins’ leave a lot to be desired – the city has been sacked and rebuilt so many times that very little remains of the original fabric. None the less, it still made an interesting change from Jersualem, not least because of the heat! Jericho was about ten degrees hotter that Jerusalem, sitting at about 44centigrade today. It was also incredibly dry – at one point I thought the hot desert wind blowing in as we waited for our Service Taxi back to Jerusalem was causing a skin to form on my eyeballs….

We approached Jericho via Al’Eizariya, home to an Al-Quds (Arabic for ‘The Holy’, the name given to Jerusalem by Palestinians) University campus and site of recent contentious house demolitions by Israel. Al’Eizariya is also holds a strange legal status, being one of the suburbs of Jerusalem as an Occupied City. The Israeli Occupation has confiscated large amounts of land, for both a settlement and for the construction of bizarrely planned route of the Separation Barrier, which has created an enclave around the suburb, to which Israel controls routes in and out despite it being technically in the West Bank and under Palestinian Authority control. The activism of the university students manifests itself on any vertical surface available, whilst homes look cautiously over the Wall into the West Bank, fearful of demolition teams issuing from the city behind…

It doesn’t cost much to get to Jericho…about £4, but you certainly get your money’s worth if to equate it to altitude traveled…Jericho, near the Dead Sea, is one of the lowest points on Earth. Indeed we passed a layby on the highway claiming to be exactly equitable to to neighbouring Mediterranean, less than 100 miles away.

After the underwhelming Old City ruins at Tal-Es-Sultan, we headed to the Monastery of the Quarantil, on the Mount Of Temptation – built to mark the spot where Jesus is said to have fasted for 40days and 40nights before resisting temptation by the Devil. The stunning cable car ride was only topped by the Monastery itself, perched on the cliff face 200 or 300m up.

Monstery of the Quarantil

View over Jericho from the Monastery of the Quarantil

After sheltering from the heat – which had become almost unbearable by this time – we headed back into town and gorged ourselves on barbequed meats, pitta and hummus in a friendly Jericho restaurant before finding ourselves a Service Taxi back to Jerusalem. It was at this point- with the scorching desert breeze cooking my eyeballs – that I was reminded of the sporadic way public transport works in this country. Service’s don’t leave until they are full and we were waiting what seemed like an age, attempting conversation on broken english and pidgin arabic, before we were finally allowed to set off…

Stuffing my face in Jericho...

Back, and after a refreshing shower, I felt like exploring Jerusalem on foot as the sun set. I’ve been reading Amos Oz’s ‘In The Land Of Israel’, which I bought from a Palestinian book shop in Bethlehem. Its opening paragraph reads like this:

In the Geulah quarter of Jerusalem, on Rabbi Meier Street, imprinted on one of tehmetal sewer covers is the English inscription “City of Westminster” – a reminder of the British Mandate in Palestine, The grocery store that was here forty years ago is still here. A new man sits there and studies Scriptures. It is after the High Holy Days: in Geulah, in Achvah, in Kerem Avraham, and in Mekor Baruch, the tatters of the flimsy booths built for the Feat of Tabernacles are still visible in the yards. Thei rgreenery has faded and turned grey. There is a chill in the air. From porch to proch, teh entire width of the alleyways, stretch laundry lines with white and coloured clothes: these are the eternal morning blossoms of teh neighbourhood in which I grew up. The Kings of Israel Street, which was once Heulah Street, throbs with pious Jews in black garb, bearded, bespectacled, chattering in Yiddish, tumultuous, in a hurry, scented with the heavy aroma of Eastern Eurpoean Ashkenazi cooking. An ultraorthodox woman, young, very pretty, pushes a twon-baby carriage full of plastic net shopping bags with bread, vegetables, canned goods, fish wrapped in newspaper, bottles of wine, cooking oil, soft drinks. Her hair is modestly covered but her fingers are richly adorned with rings. She stops to chat with another woman in one of teh courtyards in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew and English…a Brooklyn accent in a figure from Lodz or Krakow

Oz was writing in 1993, and whilst I was disappointed to find Rabbi Meier Street now devoid of a sewer-related connection to my own heritage, I found the rest of the neighborhood pretty much as Oz described – a leafy, friendly-sounding (and gridded, I have to say, with regard to recent events on the Studio) neighbourhood, echoing with the sounds of families nearing the end of Shabbat (its Saturday today, and this highly Jewish are is pretty much shut down as families celebrate and spend time with each other): young couples walk dogs or push prams, whilst older parents use the use the cool of the evening to exercise their offspring after a day of family torture. Adolescent young men and pretty girls take to the streets, heading for the post-Shabbat get-together at freinds’ houses or down-town bars. Occasionally, a Yeshiva school can be seen, copies of the Torah strewn before the more studious. Until now, I have not felt empathy like this for a people, using the chance they have been granted to live the life they want to lead, free from oppression and persecution that has haunted the Jews for thousands of years. I’d like to know, however, how aware these happy families are, in their safe, green neighbourhood, of the things we have seen on the other side of the city and Separation Barrier. The video below is of my wanderings…

(VIDEO…coming soon)

With my wanderings complete, I sit weary at my laptop, hoping to get all this down before it escapes my memory, and looking towards the closing weeks of the studio with something resembling apathy…with any luck, something exciting will happen.

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Summer Travels 2011…(12) – Sensemaking

I made the following two videos a while ago, but have only just managed to upload them since moving into my new flat. They should go some way towards making sense of the situation I’ve found myself in in Jerusalem.

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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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