Modern architecture plays a crucial role in beautifying colonialism's face


Sandi Hilal.

Reza: Let’s start with your definition of public. As a Palestinian architect and civil activist you’ve struggled for years with concepts like resistance, intifada, and occupation. How is the public defined in such a context?

Sandi: I would try to answer it from maybe my first encounter of becoming suspicious of the public. I was born and raised in Palestine and studied in schools there. During the first intifada, a big part of my schools were actually organized inside the living rooms of my neighborhood. After that, I left Palestine to study in Italy. And it was precisely in Venice where our school was very much socially and politically active in terms of linking architecture with politics and social agendas.

I learned that the public is about diversity. It’s about spontaneous, unknown encounters. And it is the place from where you can see that your life can be diverse, and you can have these different meetings. And indeed, it was also a little bit that our aspirations were to design the public as a way to be actively involved in society. And we were a little bit suspicious of architects that would design the home of their extended family or their father.

Of course, being in a place like Italy where the squares and plazas were fascinating at night, I came back wondering: why don't we have the same public in Palestine, and how can we introduce it? What does that mean? And then maybe my first encounter was when we established Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR). “DAAR” means “home” in Arabic. We co-founded with Alessandra - my partner in life and work - and with Eyal Weizman.

Our first project asked: what does it mean to subvert an Israeli settlement? You know, it was illegally built in the West Bank. It is part of what should be Palestine. Palestinian laborers built it. And so, we gave ourselves the right - without anybody giving it to us - to think how these settlements would be reused and subverted once the Israeli military regime evacuates and occupies them. When we began to look closely at the settlements, we realized more and more that the first nucleus of each of these settlements was expropriated pro-Palestinians, because there were many different kinds of legal categories for collectivity in Palestine, such as the Masha and the Vaghf. So, people were having even legally different collective ways of being together. And of course, architects came, or our landscapers of the Israeli occupation did simple math and designed a line around all that was Palestinian collectivity, and they called it public, and the public was the state, and the state was Israel. And in the name of the public, they appropriate what Palestinians had in common. So, it was the moment where I began to be suspicious of what “the public” is and who is managing that public.

In that sense, the public is always at the side of people, depending on what is happening. And I realize more and more that we tend to speak about “the public” as the people. But many times, if the relation between state and people is not okay, the public moves slowly out of their hands. So that was my first suspicion.

The second one, which was a significant historical moment, was when Mubarak stepped down in Meydan Tahrir, in Egypt, after the revolution. In the Arab world, people are super tidy and clean in their driveway and their houses, but they throw garbage in the street because they don't respect the streets. They hate the streets. But the moment that Mubarak stepped down, the first act that all Egyptians began to do in the Meydan was to clean it because they felt it was back to them.

It's theirs now; they can clean it. So, it's a moment of ownership and feeling that, yes! We have a relation to that public! It's ours! So, this was a second, decisive moment of feeling towards the public.

But what is the public for the Palestinians? The moment that those running the public are the colonizer, the enemy. I mean, why would you like the space of your enemy? Which kind of humanity asks you to feel okay with space that is not managed and run by you. In that sense, I think there is a crisis with the public. People are not willing to have relations. But what is possible and how can we define public, and can the public be more than just that which is state-run? And in that sense, what does it mean to activate different kinds of publics, or different collectivities that are managed by people? Is there a way to rethink different kinds of public domains so that people have the right to what I call “self-managed care”? This is a significant issue for me.

Reza: Power may be a problematic phenomenon to observe. But it manifests itself in and through space. You try to challenge power and replace it with a non-hierarchical approach like what you did with the space design and training system for the refugee camp. How do you evaluate it after these years?

Sandi: I don't know if I would describe it that way so much as how to think and design the public. Categories such as public and private make no sense in a refugee camp. People have no legal right to their houses, even if they built them and live in them. Nobody manages it - there’s no legal or state body or municipality governing public space in the camps. Regardless, I define it as public. For me, the real challenge working in refugee camps was how to deal with space that goes beyond conventional categories. This absence of a definition for a private or a public brings another fundamental question. What does it mean to manage the public? To take care and run it? Especially when you do not have a designated body who does it. How would you design a public that is self-managed? Design can be helpful in this. And I would add one more thing: why do I insist on the care? Because I need these projects within my capacity as head of the UN's West Bank camp improvement program. I was part of this department that was set to think about the camp and its urban planning, and to give it vision. And one of the first things I encountered was that we should take care of refugees; we are care providers, relief providers, and therefore we should treat everybody equally.

So, if we have to design a school, all schools need to be equal. All clinics need to be. Working in refugee camps, you realize that camps are different, one from the other. I was working only in one area, the south of the West Bank, in four camps. These camps were different from the others in terms of political construction: conservative, less conservative, or inside the city or outside of it, or in terms of the connection with the surrounding.

I began to advocate for looking at architecture as a care provider. That everybody needs to have the same thing and bring up what people are good at and what people can do. What they accompany in by doing architecture that can translate what is happening on the ground can create a foundation for the self-management for it to be run by the people and not by the public. I think this, for me, was a significant move when I was in the refugee camp. We designed the Plaza and a school. We designed a concrete tent, a place of gathering. As a university, we designed several things. We showed each time that it depends on the community. The design accompanied a process of self-determination, self-care, self-organization, and self-directing. So, I think that it does not depart from architecture. Still, it is people-centered from where architecture is becoming sort of a companion to understand how people can be given more tools to self-manage their life and take care of themselves am giving you relief and care, and this is the clinic you have to use. This is the school you have to use. This creates a feeling of ownership and belonging, being the one managing and taking care of your own life plays a significant role in architecture for me. So, this understanding of design creates a foundation for people to show that a particular configuration can play an essential role in creating a self-managed space for communities

Reza: You believe that neoliberalism has done a lot of damage to public infrastructure, particularly in education. How much do you think decolonizing the existing education system can be a corrective or revolutionary solution to changing the status quo?

Sandi: I think decolonizing knowledge is essential, a fundamental process that should come from both places. I always say it's incredible to think that the colonizers came and colonized people, and then they expect the colonized people to make the whole decolonization process by themselves. So, I think that it is the responsibility of both. It depends where your body is at this moment. For example, when my body was in Palestine, when we were operating in Palestine, or when I was doing projects in Palestine, you are dealing with physical colonization. The decolonization is quite clearly against such a robust apartheid system in Palestine, so it has its own, and maybe it appears in different forms in other countries.

After moving to Europe, I feel that the domain of knowledge is essential for the battle of decolonization. But I am anxious and skeptical about decolonizing knowledge only by adding a few pieces of literature on minorities and women. I believe that it should be a radical transformation of what it means all the time. What is disturbing sometimes is when people feel a need for some cherries on the cake, but the ingredients of the cake remain the same. Still, it looks from the outside as if it is more a decolonial knowledge production machine, which is not. I think that certain things need to be radically changed.

But also, how do we understand education today? What does it mean? Our life experiences become crucial in the way we understand knowledge. In that sense, the people-centered approach is essential in architecture because it obliges us to question modern architecture. I sometimes feel frustrated being in Palestine - the feeling that the only proposal for civilization is modern architecture. It’s as if other cultures, like the Arab culture, the Iranian, the Chinese culture, have nothing to contribute. It is about bringing modern architecture all over the place.

And for me, among architecture faculties, if we don't question modern architecture, we are not dealing with decolonization. Because the whole idea of bringing “civilization'' to other countries very much supported colonization through modern architecture. And modern architecture plays a crucial role in beautifying colonialism's face. So, we need to begin seriously - especially in Western universities - to question modern architecture and think about modernization processes; that doesn't mean that I am against technology, not at all. It's not against the brokerage. But, for example, we have lost notions like hospitality in thinking about modern architecture with the separations it has created. How has an idea like hospitality been affected through the whole process of modernizing cities? How have the concepts of the neighborhood been influenced by modern architecture? For me, the process of decolonization - for it to make sense in faculties of architecture - needs to question and redefine concepts such as hospitality and neighborhood.

For example, the single building is something to question? There is openness for this in the faculties of architecture. Rather than simply bringing few minority bodies inside faculties of architecture and saying that we have decolonized knowledge. I'm not convinced that this is the way, but I think there are ways, but we need to be strong enough, critical enough, and reshape a foundation that has been at the base of the discipline of architecture. This is where we are decolonizing knowledge and architecture.


The Harajeh story uses the language and style of illustration combined with children's vocabulary and architectural terms to describe a complex situation simply.

Reza: In the Harajah, you are talking about people forced to leave their homes and fight for survival. Keeping the hope of returning alive requires that the condition be considered temporary. On the other hand, to deal with the cold of winter and the heat of summer, building a shelter and settling down is inevitable. How does the refugee community resolve this paradox?

Sandi: It's not solved. I don't think that it has been solved, and this is a little bit the challenge of why we wrote Permanent Temporariness. So, in that sense, how can we connect with the last question of how you would decolonize within architecture faculties? As an architect, the only thing that elicits reaction is refugee status that can only be dealt with urgently. The maximum is to give a small tent solution or to have IKEA build a house that is built in one day, without thinking of the permanent temporariness or that what Palestinian refugees have been living with for 70 years is becoming a condition in the world. Maybe it's acute in the case of the Palestinian refugee camp and the Palestinian diaspora in general, but how many of us are staying in place thinking, should I improve that room? Or maybe I better not because I might leave Los Angeles or New York the day after.

I mean, the whole thing of being transitional in specific spaces, having a longer time, but you still feel not at home. You still think that you are a temporary person, and this might get all your life. All your life might become a permanent temporary, and the temporariness is at the core of your life. So, I am not saying that it is either a good condition or an imperfect condition. I’m not embracing this condition. I'm not judging any of these. But what I am saying is a matter of fact, that it exists as a condition. And refugees showed us that they managed to work from within and against this condition. They were fighting for the right of return. Of course, they want to return home. But in the meantime, they were still building and improving their lives, improving their kids' lives, and still working within the condition of temporariness.

And the question here is how can architecture provide other answers to our temporariness? What are our ways of thinking, designs of thinking forms? This may touch on my previous comment. Temporariness also requires activating the place, right? The Haraja is activated only if people are activating it. The Masha concept discussed in Permanent Temporariness is activated only and exclusively if people activate it. And this condition of temporariness happens in a situation where we're moving towards self-managed spaces. It is not only good-rhetoric architecture, but becomes an essential matter of survival, and there is no escape because you don't have a settled state taking care of these places.

But these places are taken care of by the temporariness of people who are living there. So, we need to think about what happens today, use our tools and our spatial thinking and our spatial knowledge to give other answers, and react differently to the condition of temporariness, rather than only to deal with it as an emergency issue. So, for me, it's becoming evident that what is crucial is that I am learning a lot from these refugees and from the way that we tend to say, yeah, many things are going beyond the state. As if this is a messianic thing that will be coming while looking at Palestinian refugee camps. For 70 years, people have been living in these places carved outside of the state. They are entirely self-managing their life and building and doing certain things.

And it's incredibly crucial for architecture today to look at it and ask what we can learn from it. What does it mean to employ architecture to accompany processes and people in their long-term temporariness? How can architecture self-manage its spaces both in private and in public or at the transition of them? And what does that mean in creating and understanding their society beyond how we perceive modern cities today?