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A step change in the evolution of the emerging Palestinian state

Rawabi amphitheatre02

A move away from the traditional use of stone as cladding, and from the villa model, in Palestine

In his book Peasant Life in the Holy Land, published in 1906, Charles Thomas Wilson describes the different kinds of stone that the Palestinian can use in construction. He writes, for example, of ‘Kakuleh, a fine white freestone which cuts readily, and yet is hard and strong, and is much used for angles, cornices, mullions etc.’ He doesn’t mention the Meleke stone, which is the kingly or royal stone, a coarse, apparently crumbling, bleached white stone from which the Western Wall was built. There are subtle gradations in Jerusalem stone, the name collectively given to the limestone quarried and used in this region. However, when the sun shines on the different grades they always glow the same warm and honeyed colour.

Jerusalem stone is used today by Israeli and Palestinian alike. Nassar Stone – one of the largest and technologically most advanced of the stone companies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – provides materials for prestige projects in the West Bank, including the President Arafat Mausoleum in Ramallah. Yet it also provides stone for projects across Israel. The great Israeli architect Ram Karmi clad his most controversial building, the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, in the company’s materials. From other quarries, Jerusalem stone is used to build settlements, legal and illegal.

Jerusalem stone is barely covered by the thin soil in the hills above the capital of both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet its ubiquity as a building material is not simply a natural act. Just as important was the planning instruction created during the British mandate of Palestine – which operated between 1920 and 1948 – by the British planner Howard Kendall, who stipulated that any new property built in Jerusalem had to be in the same stone. It was an odd act of uniformity by Kendall who also created the planning structure that divides the Occupied Palestinian Territories today. For it was Kendall who created the systems of three different zones and three different means of controlling them.

The system, as it now stands, permits the Palestinians full control of land in exclusively urban areas (so-called Area A, which constitutes just 3 per cent of the Palestinian territories) and joint control of 25 per cent of land (so-called Area B), which is effectively the Palestinian villages. However, they have no control over the remaining land in Area C at all, although they can make requests to Israeli planning authorities. In legal terms, Area C is simply a planning structure that was acknowledged in the Oslo Accord in 1993 but which was meant to have been resolved by 1999. However, it still exists. The legal status of Area C is continually contested by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Partly because quarries are prohibited, quarrying for stone has become a hugely significant act of Palestinian state-building. The new town of Rawabi, around five miles from Ramallah, is the first Palestinian-planned city in the West Bank. The brand new settlement of around 10,000 homes was built on top of a north-facing hill and culminates in an astonishing cascade of limestone that stretches halfway down the valley. Built with stone from the on-site quarry, this open-air amphitheatre – with carved stone seating for 15,000 – is set to become a cultural heart of the new Palestinian state; a massive gesture of ambition. Shadia Jaradat graduated in architectural engineering from nearby Birzeit University. Standing at the bottom of the amphitheatre, she says: ‘looking at what we’ve done here makes me see the real potential of the Palestinian state’.

Rawabi amphitheatre

Rawabi amphitheatre

Source: Thomas Coex

The construction of Rawabi’s amphitheatre

As you might imagine, the troubled state of Palestine has had very little opportunity to express its statehood through architecture. There are the very basic means that Charles Thomas Wilson discusses; the hewing of rock by masons with little opportunity for scale or symbolic function. Rawabi shows an attempt to go beyond the idea of the stone being enough to express place. Perhaps as a result of the decision to build the impressive amphitheatre, the high-rise village clinging to a rock is neo-Classical in plan. However, given the height of the blocks and their arrangement on a hilltop settlement, the influence of the Italian medieval city of San Gimignano is clear.

Indeed, given the historical precedent, encouraged by legal strictures, of the villa block as the preferred building type in the Palestine, the preference in Rawabi for eight-storey blocks containing two apartments on each floor is revolutionary. This attempt to encourage Palestinians into a more modern way of living is almost as big a step as actually getting the settlement built in the first place. Initial works were hindered by protestors from two adjacent illegal Jewish settlements. The Israeli planning authorities did not permit the building of a road across Area C land to the site. (The settlement is actually on the site of two former villages and was therefore designated Area B.) In addition, completion of the new town was hampered by a political impasse which prevented the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee from operating as intended.

This compact stone citadel is fortunate in that it has backers who can afford to be patient. Rawabi is the result of a public-private partnership between the Palestinian National Authority, Qatari Diar and a firm called Massar International, owned by the Palestinian multimillionaire Bashar al-Masri. The involvement of the latter has drawn the ire of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Committee who condemned al-Masri for his ‘normalisation’ activities and accused him of advancing ‘personal interests and profit making at the expense of Palestinian rights’; a fact Al-Masri refutes. In 2009, the developers accepted a donation of pine trees for Rawabi from the Jewish National Fund (JNF). After protests, Masri was compelled to replace these alien pines with more authentically Palestinian olive trees.

‘The average price for a property in Ramallah is around $120,000. Properties in Rawabi are still being advertised for between $65,000 and $100,000’

Yet despite the controversy, the nearly completed city marks a huge step change in the evolution of the emerging Palestinian state. (Al-Masri claims that the town is a gesture of defiance to the occupation.) It has been said that the stone-clad high-rises of Rawabi are just for upwardly mobile families, which is only partly true. The average price for a property in Ramallah is around $120,000. Properties in Rawabi are still being advertised for between $65,000 and $100,000. This experience seems to bear out one of the final reports published by the Office of the Quartet Representative Tony Blair before it was dissolved. The report suggested that developers might build smaller apartments in denser configurations, using less expensive construction methods, including not using stone as cladding.

The launch of the survey in Ramallah has been met with a mixture of disapproval and acceptance by Palestinian developers and architects. Pressure appears to be being placed on Palestinian architects and developers to create the right kind of properties, not to mention the right kind of mortgage system, before loans and grants for infrastructure are granted from abroad. Ekhlass Ratrout, an architect based in Nablus, says that while Palestinians might accept smaller homes (around 100m2 rather than 120m2), they would struggle to accept the concept of a housing ladder. ‘Palestinians buy homes to live in for forever,’ she said. ‘The reason that our cities are still standing after thousands of years, is because we build them with good materials and to last. Why would we want to change that?’