A jump start for Palestinian architecture
'I can use familiar, Western architectural tools in a contemporary museum of art in Europe or the United States, because a museum is a Western invention,' says architect Senan Abdelqader.
"I can use familiar, Western architectural tools in a contemporary museum of art in Europe or the United States, because a museum is a Western invention," says architect Senan Abdelqader. "But when they ask me to plan an Arab museum of art, I want to know where the request is coming from. First, I ask what process Palestinian society needs to undergo to realize a museum like that."
The connection between Arab culture and an art museum "is not something to be taken for granted, particularly in Palestinian society," explains Abdelqader. "Because of colonial control, its continuous evolutionary development was interrupted, and mutation occurred. It evolved in a forced, arbitrary fashion and lost its independence, self-confidence and identity - particularly after the establishment of the state and our assimilation into Israeli culture."
Abdelqader is designing the Museum of Art in Umm al-Fahm. He was chosen after negotiations with British architect Zaha Hadid broke down. This will be the first Arab-Israeli museum of contemporary art and Abdelqader's first major public project. The museum undoubtedly represents a breakthrough in Abdelqader's career, as well as an achievement for the city and the entire Arab-Israeli community.
Abdelqader, 44, is relatively young for a local architect, and the list of buildings he has designed is somewhat abbreviated. It includes a residential building in Beit Safafa, which houses his home and office, homes in Neve Shalom, Even Yehuda and Taibeh, and the community center in Beit Safafa. But he is no longer anonymous.
His liberated style, as he calls it, "is a nostalgic hybrid that expresses the inspiring paradox between connection to the land and a feeling of global mobility."
He has the aplomb to believe he was not chosen, after negotiations with Hadid failed, "by accident or default." He continues, "I am happy and believe it is a sober, mature choice - it represents a stage of calm. As Said Abu Shakra [the visionary behind the museum] says, 'Why didn't we think of it sooner?'"
Umm al-Fahm residents hoped a museum by Hadid would boost the city's local image and make it an international architectural attraction. They hoped for the phenomenon known as the "Bilbao Effect": the Spanish city's revolutionary image shift following the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry.
What do you propose?
"I have no desire to design another 'pretty' building or to erect a monument. I am interested in creating a catalyst, even an infrastructure, for change. For me, an Arab museum in Israel is first and foremost a means to initiate urban life in an Arab city that lacks urbanity. After the state was created, this became a society with no public space. It exists in a forced state of perpetual defensiveness and withdrawal into primarily private and family-oriented space."
The museum is supposed to be an extension of the Umm al-Fahm Gallery, a platform for Jewish-Palestinian collaboration founded and directed by Abu Shakra. Abdelqader considers the expansion "a step that represents Palestinian society's aspirations for established public life, for urbanity, in the Western sense of the word, in which it can develop a modern, urban culture."
Iconic, not monumental
The museum plan will be introduced next Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Museum in a presentation entitled, "The Museum as a Catalyst for Urbanization." Construction costs, on land provided by the Umm al-Fahm Municipality, will total an estimated $20 million.
Abu Shakra considers the event - and its location at the Tel Aviv Museum - to be a cultural explosion "that no Arab embarked upon before me," which will put the museum on the artistic agenda.
"This is a face-to-face meeting with the Israeli art world, with Tel Aviv at its center, and a declaration of relations with that world, while maintaining its own independent identity," Abu Shakra says. Admittedly, no auditorium in the Arab sector is large enough to stage an event of this type.
In the plaza outside the auditorium, a four-by-four-meter installation will show a model of the museum, the plan and examples of Abdelqader's previous work, set against a photograph of Umm al-Fahm. In addition, a book will be published including articles on the state of urban architecture in Arab-Israeli space, its dead end after the creation of the state and Abdelqader's work as a possible alternative.
The museum plan has not been finalized, and several options will be presented at the event. The concept of a "bridge building" drifting above the earth is present in all of them. Abdelqader describes it as "an iconic but not monumental construction, a building that belongs to the place but not in a sentimental way, a building that makes a powerful Palestinian statement." He considers the installation an invitation to discussion.
What will they deliberate?
"Practical and conceptual questions: the character of the museum, the content and the proportions. I consider planning to be a process. At this stage, I am still considering options - an ethnic cultural museum, an art museum, the relative extent of either element. And the area - now, it is 10,000 meters, but we must think about whether we really want such a large area. The method I propose is totally different than Hadid's. In her buildings, the process is closed from the beginning and she just translates it into architecture."
What does your approach contribute to planning?
"I proposed research before even thinking about the building, to permit historical deliberation regarding the development of the city. Zaha Hadid requires a city with established infrastructure, an economic base, and professional and intellectual capability that we lack. I believe the building I am planning will open a dialogue between cultures and inspire local capability."
What do you mean by "capability"?
"Buildings and cities are made of capability. Writing is a capability, making a presentation is capability, and erecting this construction in the way it is intended is capability. You need a bridge engineer for that. This is the urbanization I am referring to. Architecture is also a matter of capability. It's a thought process, organization, teamwork, technology and dialogue with our audience. That's what I call architecture. The building is just a memory of the process."
Searching, tension, paradox
The discussion with Abdelqader focuses on professional, cultural, social and civic issues. Unspoken politics naturally drift in the background: his definition of his identity as a "Palestinian-Arab citizen of Israel," his family history and his analysis of the urban-architectural state of affairs and what caused it.
He is a native of Taibeh, and the son of "a very established bourgeois family," in his words. His father moved to Jaffa in the early 1940s, but fled in 1948. After a number of moves, he returned to Taibeh. Abdelqader understood at an early age the significance of the urban center in his personal development as well as the fact that "as a Palestinian-Israeli in the current Israeli situation, I could not realize my urban identity in Israel." Europe was his only escape option. He first planned to study film, later civil engineering and then architecture.
What dictated your personal search?
"I was interested in film since high school, but I discovered I could not work on behalf of my society in film. When I was in Germany, after traveling through various countries, I decided to study engineering. While studying engineering in Hamburg, I learned about the connection between architecture and engineering as a link between culture, society and technology."
He is a graduate of the architecture faculty at the University of Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany. He says he was an outstanding student. As a young architect in Germany, he experienced palpable success and embarked on a promising path of prizes, work offers and partnership in a distinguished firm. But after 15 years, he returned to Israel.
Why did you return?
"From age 18, I lived in Europe and I felt I was a part of European society. There I actually gained a better understanding of the urban crisis in Palestinian-Israeli society, by becoming familiar with the Arab elite exiled in Germany. I returned because I saw the national significance of the architecture industry here, in the search, tension, paradox and option of releasing our society from its rural, sub-urban state to a state of urban modernity."
What sort of architectural activity is now taking place in Arab communities?
"Local Arab architecture was arbitrarily interrupted. I am talking about the entire Arab space. I don't cry over it or criticize. But I think we must once again elevate architecture to a technological, creative endeavor, rather than abandon it to contractors and engineers. I want to return it to the architects, to promote progress in Arab society and understanding of the city as a collective that plays a public, national role."
What are your chances of leading that sort of process?
"The best chance for change is in large, public projects. But we do not have access to such projects. Lacking our own public space, Arab community leaders are forced to employ Jewish planners in public construction. Local council leaders want to build quickly and complete projects rather than dwell on architecture. In Umm al-Fahm, the situation is different because they are searching for capable Arab architects."
And in the Jewish sector?
"Not really. During all my years of work here, I received one or two opportunities. And I am a relatively well-known architect. We have many obstacles. Arabs here are considered construction workers rather than architects."
From Herzliya Pituah to Beit Safafa
Shortly after he returned to Israel, Abdelqader and his Jewish partner, Claudio Lustinghaus, opened a firm in Herzliya Pituah. Abdelqader and his family rented a home there. "I believed it was the way to break into Jewish awareness. But it helped me only in the academic world, which is a sheltered environment to some extent, rather than in professional practice. The most I accomplished was introducing my Jewish partner to work in the Arab sector."
He taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and now directs a studio at the Tel Aviv University School of Architecture. "I teach the students what I learned in Europe, to show respect, to meet demands and to learn the profession before coming to me about 'fringe benefits' or other slogans," he says.
How did you feel while living in Herzliya?
"At first I felt there was such an option for Arabs, to live in a Jewish environment. But after a while I understood that Jewish society has not matured enough for an Arab presence."
And the opposite?
"For now, Arab society has nothing to offer Jews, because it is a society from which everything was taken. So the subject is not even on the agenda. I was the only [Arab] architect partnered with a Jew, and also the only [Arab] architect who teaches Jews at university."
Abdelqader now lives with his wife Rose and their four children in Beit Safafa, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The home, which he planned, is a symbol of his ideology: an urban building that retains something of the rural, family style - contemporary architecture that relies on tradition.
It is impossible to miss his home, even from a distance. Its distinct, architectural presence stands out among the eclectic construction in Beit Safafa. Rigid, box-like lines contrast with an airy, perforated, stone tile surface. The surprising interpretation of traditional Muslim mashrabia screening employs modern technology in a simple, accessible way that offers a climatic and optical solution that enhances the construction.
What would Israeli space look like if Arabs were the majority?
"It's not an Arab-Jewish issue, but a Palestinian-Zionist issue. Zionism rejected the model of urban settlement, and for Palestinians, the city was the peak of their aspirations. My father moved from Taibeh to Jaffa to be in an urban center. It was a natural journey for a man of his stature. The Zionists dismantled Arab cities and expelled the middle class, and rather than continuing the existing cities - Acre, Haifa, Jaffa - they littered the entire space with construction and megalomaniacal projects. The perception of space in Israel is aggressive, and therefore it is treated with a lack of respect by Arabs and Jews alike. But I am optimistic. I returned here not only because of my connection to my 'Arabness' but somehow to help this wounded space."