Re-Imagining Palestinian Modern Architectural Heritage

The preservation of 20th century architectural heritage, which is a nascent field generally and in the MENA region in particular, is wrought with challenges. The modern buildings we try to preserve face various issues: technological obsolescence, a general lack of recognition, stigmatization linked to its connection to the modern movement, an absence of funds dedicated to rehabilitation, scarce specialized local expertise, limited or inexistent archives and scholarship, unstable political regimes, urban development pressures and at times, informal occupation and active destruction. 

Despite these difficulties, a group of architects, experts and scholars from the MENA region has embarked on researching, rehabilitating, adapting and reimagining modern heritage, with the hope to document and conserve the collective memory and genius loci.

Having suffered tremendous, and often irreversible, loss and deterioration of its cultural heritage, historical landscape and built environment, Palestine is one of the countries whose modern heritage is the most at risk today. Indeed, Palestine’s built heritage has suffered succession of occupations that fractured its land, waves of destruction of its towns and villages, expropriation, and confiscation exacerbated by settler colonialism. Inadequate legislation and urban sprawl pressures have further eroded what remained.

This trans-disciplinary applied research seminar, co-taught by historian Jens Hanssen and architect Aziza Chaouni. First, it will briefly introduce the socio-political modern history of Palestine and the transformation of its architectural and agrarian heritage, which is disappearing at an alarming rate. Seminal contemporary urban, architectural, landscape, and art projects aiming to restore, reuse and reimagine Palestinian heritage will be presented virtually or in person by their authors and discussed in class. 

Second, the seminar will present exemplary case studies of 20th century architectural heritage in the Middle East, focusing on the cultural-historical and socio-political context of their genesis, evolution and the strategies employed to study and safeguard them. Case studies will include: the Niemeyer Guest House at the Rashid Karami International Fair (Lebanon), the Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Complex (Morocco), the research work of the NGO MAMMA Group (Morocco) and Cairo Observer (Egypt), the Wonder Cabinet of Bethlehem by Local Industries (Palestine) and Sakiya (Palestine).

Finally, the seminar will focus on a case study in Jericho, Palestine: al-Mashrou‘, the agrarian utopia “project” developed by the visionary Musa Alami at mid-century. Daniels students will be asked to investigate, document and reimagine this modern-historic site through texts and drawings in tandem with students from Bir Zeit University, and the award-winning NGO Riwaq, Palestine.

The results of the seminar will be utilized by Riwaq to raise awareness around the significance and potentials of al-Mashrou‘, as well as to initiate an action plan for its future.  

The seminar is supported by the Initiative of Palestine Studies at the University of Toronto, which was co-founded by Professor Jens Hanssen in January 2021.