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Engagement, education and hope: the Palestinian Museum by Heneghan Peng

The Palestinian Museum aims to tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from a Palestinian Perspective, while striving to create a new narrative of engagement, education and hope

All architecture is political, particularly the Palestinian Museum. It is no coincidence that the new Palestinian Museum at Birzeit, near Ramallah in the centre of the West Bank, opened its doors in mid-May, when Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba. The term, ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, is used to refer to the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in 1948 when the State of Israel was created. Today, nearly five million people, mostly descendants of the original group, are registered as Palestinian refugees with the United Nations.

‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres’ began Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, his propagandistic history of European Romanisation. Nearly 2,000 years may have changed the narrative, but Caesar’s description of Gaul split into three parts applies equally to the Occupied Palestinian Territories today – perhaps even more tragically, as the Palestinians, unlike the ancient Gauls, are a single people.

‘The museum aims to tell the Palestinian story from a Palestinian perspective, one that might create a new narrative of engagement, education and hope’

The occupied West Bank is divided into pockets of land classified into three zones: Areas A, B and C. The Palestinian Authority enjoys full control of exclusively urban areas, in Area A – which constitutes just 3 per cent of the Palestinian Territories – and joint control of 25 per cent of Area B, which is effectively an archipelago of Palestinian towns and villages.

Area C, holding most of the West Bank’s uninhabited land, is under complete Israeli authority. While Area C is a part of Palestine, there can be no Palestinian building there without a permit from the Israeli Civil Administration – and that’s difficult to get. Nor can Area C be planted by its Palestinian owners. Increasingly, hilltops in Area C are covered with illegal, planned Israeli settlements on lands that are connected to Israel by secure roads many of which sever historic routes linking local communities.

Siteplan jpg

Siteplan jpg

Location plan

The idea of having a museum for a state that is not officially recognised – a flagship project of the Welfare Association/Taawon, a Palestinian NGO based in London and Ramallah respectively – emerged around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Nakba. It aims to tell the Palestinian story from a Palestinian perspective, one that might create a new narrative of engagement, education and hope. Its logo is a speech bubble waiting to be filled, to provide ‘a safe place for unsafe ideas’, as the museum puts it.

Jack Persekian, the former director of the museum, told The Art Newspaper last year: ‘The Palestinian Museum is a political symbol only in so far as it celebrates the accomplishments of the Palestinian people in arts and culture. It is political in the sense that it provides spaces and opportunities for Palestinians to shape their own historical narrative and to engage with it.’

The first museum ever built under military occupation, with an aim to connect Palestinians with each other, wherever they might be, is more political than that. The original intention was to build the museum in Jerusalem – that proved impossible because of the restrictions placed by Israel on Palestinians building inside the city and because many West Bank Palestinians are not permitted to access Jerusalem. So, when Birzeit University, the first institution of higher education to be established in Palestine, in 1976, offered the museum a four-hectare hillside plot adjacent to the campus in Area B, it provided a locus to strengthen the museum’s research programmes.

Lower ground floor plan

Lower ground floor plan

Lower ground floor plan

Heneghan Peng Architects is renowned for its expertise in working on UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre in Northern Ireland and the Mittelrheinbrücke in Germany. There the architectural challenge is to intervene without extinguishing the intangible qualities of a place. Here in Birzeit it is almost the reverse: to make an intervention that might render the site symbolic and give supporting form to aspects of a culture on the verge of disappearing.

‘The first museum ever built under military occupation, with an aim to connect Palestinians with each other, wherever they might be, is more political than that’

Birzeit is a mountainous area, 850m above sea level and only 45km from the sea, as the crow flies. Summers are typically dry, winters mild and rainy. The only way to farm the land is by terracing it, so that became the starting point.

‘We straightened out the contours a little, geometricising them to form a miniature museum garden that captures the essence of the historical Palestinian landscape,’ says Shih-Fu Peng, co-founder of Heneghan Peng.

‘It seemed obvious that the museum should be placed on the top of the hill. Not just for visibility, but symbolically, like the Israeli settlements that crown nearby hilltops. But there was another, more important, reason: the slope faces west and, through a gap in the hills, you can see the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean on a sunny day. We took that borrowed view across Israel, to connect with the sea that Palestinians can’t reach and remind them they are a Mediterranean people, not a desert people, as the Israeli narrative would have it.’

The 3,500m2 museum has a simple, shallow, bifurcated, double-wedge plan, which extends to occupy the ridgeline. Administration is located on the north side, with a gallery and education suite on two levels to the south, opening onto an amphitheatre cut into the site, and parking concealed behind the building. ‘It’s simply a roof over the ridgeline’, says Peng. Two giant triangular openings in the face of this modest cultural citadel are offered as a challenge to the walls of exclusion that feature in the surrounding landscape. Spiky solar fins and a buffer zone in front of the black-box gallery reduce the risk of late-afternoon overheating.

Groundfloor jpg

Groundfloor jpg

Ground floor plan

Local opinion has criticised the museum’s location, arguing that it would be better for visitors if it were in Ramallah, which is increasingly becoming the de facto capital of Palestine. The architect disagrees. The new location comes with problems, however, as only West Bank Palestinians and foreign tourists may visit. Entry visits will not be issued to Palestinians living in Gaza, Israel or abroad. That is why the museum has been conceived as a hub that will generate exhibitions to be shared with the Palestinian diaspora online and in satellite venues in other countries. Its spaces and operations will necessarily be virtual, as much as physical. ‘The important thing is not the building, but telling and shaping the Palestinian story,’ says Peng.

It was hugely discouraging then that, following a curatorial crisis that appears to be self-inflicted, the museum opened without an exhibition and will not stage its first show until the end of the year. Persekian had been working for several years on Never Part, featuring artworks responding to simple household objects – house keys, photographs and other small mementos – carried into exile at a moment’s notice in 1948 and preserved in Palestinian homes around the world. Following a disagreement between Persekian and the museum board late last year, they parted company and the inaugural exhibition was cancelled. Omar al-Qattan, museum chair, has recently told the New York Times that the show was not up to scratch. Persekian’s replacement, Mahmoud Hawari, was appointed a week before the museum opened with the job of building a collection, but some fear centralising Palestinian cultural objects will put them at greater risk. 

A shaky start, but the architecture doesn’t disappoint, and the land itself offers a rich narrative, as Palestine is historically significant as one of the birthplaces of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution. The story of these influences is represented in the museum gardens. The architects worked with Jordanian landscape architect Lara Zureikat, an expert in water-conservation.

‘The museum opened without an exhibition and will not stage its first show until the end of the year’

‘There are some beautiful old villages around Birzeit that inspired the design,’ Zureikat says. ‘Palestinian villages set within the hillsides had a long history of shaping the landscape into terraces. Typically, one would see dry stone walls – known as sanasel in Arabic – along many of the hillside contours forming these terraces. The form of the museum landscape is based on the terraced landscape and so is the plant palette.’

Visitors arrive at the bottom of the hill and first see the building through the terraced gardens, but the preferred sequence is to go through the building onto the café terrace, then zigzag your way down the hill. Planting around the amphitheatre is inspired by Palestinian domestic gardens. Citrus trees, myrtle and jasmine vines evoke early 20th-century Palestinian home gardens.

The upper terraces contain typical Mediterranean aromatic garden plants, such as lavender, rosemary, lavender cotton, rockrose, saltbush and lantana. There are also themed areas – namely a medicinal garden and an area with wild trees that are ancestors to productive trees, such as wild pistachio, carob, wild pear and wild almond. Two of the terraces are also planted with native oak trees, olive trees, aromatic plants and native bulbs.

Then come the lower, agricultural, terraces planted with pomegranate, wheat, olive, chickpea, almond, apricot, mulberry and walnut. The traditional staple cereal and legume crops represented in the gardens are wheat and chickpea – many traditional dishes such as freekeh (the cracked wheat used in tabbouleh and kibbeh) are made from wheat, while hummus, falafel and kdaameh (sugar-coated chickpeas) are made with chickpeas. The crops are irrigated using harvested water stored in underground tanks beneath the café terrace and the ground prepared using traditional mule-drawn ploughs.

Delivering Palestine’s first green building (certified LEED Silver) came with its own unique challenges, the most obvious of which was the requirement to insulate the building envelope. There is no tradition of dry-fix stone cladding in the country, where using stone as a form of permanent facade shuttering on in-situ concrete structures is the norm. The Palestinian Museum is thought to be only the second building, after the Yasser Arafat Memorial Museum in Ramallah, with stone cladding stood off the structure. The building contractor, proprietor of a 50-year-old, family-owned business from Nablus in the West Bank, told me: ‘We have invented a new craft here. Now other builders want to take on our masons.’

‘Materials came from 28 different countries; no supplier had an agent in Palestine’

Materials came from 28 different countries; no supplier had an agent in Palestine. In addition, all materials had to be approved by the Israeli authorities before they could transit into the West Bank. The steel-and-glass curtain wall, donated by a sponsor in Dubai, was transported across Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before being turned back at the border for re-crating in Amman because the pallets were not of evaporated wood and the dimensions of the crates did not comply with Israeli requirements.

Building materials and products had to meet Israeli standards. Each of the light fittings specified had to be retested in Israel, a process that took six months. Then the authorities would not accept the original escape route signs as integrated batteries are not permitted: an alternative system was sourced from Poland, to which Israeli batteries were fitted on site. Everything was a negotiation: 25 per cent of the insulation materials were bought from Israel and mild steel was zinc-painted because hot-dip galvanising is prohibited in the West Bank.

Tim Abrahams wrote for the AR’s website in January about the ubiquitous use of Jerusalem stone – the name collectively given to the honey-coloured limestone quarried in this region and used for this scheme – remarking that the troubled state of Palestine has had very little opportunity to express its statehood through architecture. Perhaps this is the turning point.

Heneghan Peng’s project architect, Conor Sreenan, describes the museum as ‘a new neighbour in the traditional landscape of square-windowed, boxy buildings stacked all about the hillsides. It is familiarly stony and pale, but conspicuously cranked and low and uneven – a warped monolith, emerging from a skirt of sloped gardens’. Its unusual form has caused some local observers to become anxious that it is somehow not Palestinian.

As I look at this roof along the ridgeline and the narrow bands of stone marching across the café terrace, up the facades and over the roof without breaking step, some faint echo of an Arab tent – with its aerodynamic roof and narrow strips of black, animal-hair cloth, sewn together to form a flexible shelter in two parts, one for the men and one for the women – flaps in my mind.

I think of the Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) – who maintained his poems do not deliver mere images and metaphors, but landscapes – and his many beautiful evocations of tents: Here the birds’ journey ends, our journey, the journey of words/ and after us there will be a horizon for the new birds/ We are the ones who forge the sky’s copper, the sky that will carve roads/ after us and make amends with our names above the distant cloud slopes.

Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields/ and raise our tent to the final winds: blow, for the poem to live, and blow/ on the poem’s road. After us, the plants will grow and grow/ over roads only we have walked and our obstinate steps inaugurated. And we will etch on the final rocks, ‘Long live life, long live life,’/ and fall into ourselves. And after us there’ll be a horizon for the new birds.

A tent it is then, much less a citadel, staked in a fragrant garden, offering shelter and inviting an altogether different kind of occupation.

Blow, for the poem to live, and blow on the poem’s road.

The Palestinian Museum

Architect: Heneghan Peng Architects

Structural engineer: Arabtech Jardaneh/Arup

Landscape architect: Lara Zureikat

Photographs: Antonio Ottomanelli/Heneghan Peng, Abbas Momani (AFP)/Getty Images

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