Ines & Eyal Weizman:
Your project for Mashrabiya House in Beit Safafa is considered to be a landmark piece of architecture – a building that was influential, not only physically, but also as a form of pedagogy as it used an arsenal of architectural strategies. A lot has been written and said about this building, but perhaps we could connect it to the beginning of our conversation. Because your office is located in Beit Safafa and because this office is so involved in devising strategies of resistance, it is on the one hand, the place where people from different parts of Jerusalem and Palestine (as well as architects from different parts of the world) are coming to discuss and debate the issues of politics and architecture. On the other hand, it has shown different ways of living and different ways of building in the areas. How did that happen?
As a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional elements of Arab vernacular architecture, the building carries with it a lot of criticism. At the same time it has new, innovative solutions for transforming the political, social and cultural landscape of a village on the brink of urbanisation. The contemporary interpretation of the Arab stone mashrabiya [a latticed window screen that traditionally formed a threshold between private and public spaces] is one of them. Here, the wooden screen is re-imagined in the form of a large-scale stone envelope that surrounds the building. The use of stone in this façade form is quite unusual. Since the European colonisation of our region, stone had lost a lot of its value, purpose and organic nature to become a mere cladding that covers building facades, which politically symbolises a linkage to the locale.
Additionally, the current occupation policy of the municipality imposes a strategy of demographical control over the construction percentage in Arab neighbourhoods (by limiting the number of units per lot, for example). The ultimate purpose of this strategy is to block the growth and prosperity of the Arab community within the city so that its percentage does not surpass 30 per cent of the total population.
These limitations prompted us to separate the façade from the building while maintaining a 1–2 metre gap between the stone mashrabiya skin and the practical housing block. This separation gave the building its outer appearance of stone (in accordance with the Jerusalem stone rules determined by the British) while also allowing a dynamic development and growth of the interior based on functional and spiritual needs.
Beyond the formal references to Arab vernacular traditions, the building developed and tested concepts that could help inform an agenda of sustainability while maintaining historical cultural continuity. In this way, the mashrabiya is not only a traditional threshold between public and private space but also provides an element of climate control. The stone mass of the outer envelope acts as a climatic buffer by helping to absorb heat during the day and release heat during the cool Jerusalem nights, thus protecting the building against solar radiation as well as winter rain and winds. The gaps between the stones ensure a constant flow of fresh air. A further element of passive cooling is the 1–2m gap between the outer and inner envelope, which ensures the constant circulation of fresh air around the building. The fact that it remains open towards the top of the building generates a suction effect similar to a chimney: hot air travels upwards, and fresh air is sucked into the gap from below.
Beit Safafa, like most villages in the Jerusalem area, is facing social and cultural challenges that are typical for the transformation from a tightly knit village community into a suburban centre. In this context the building provides an original solution by uniting a traditional form with modern urban apartment living. As the building combines living and working spaces, our architecture office functions as a platform for local Arab and non-Arab architects to practice architecture in its most local and complex context, thus reflecting the Palestinian culture and connecting to global streams.
Interview with Senan Abdelqader by Ines and Eyal Weizman, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence