Palestinian architect Nadia Habash discusses working with Peter Zumthor and persevering under a 29-year travel ban
“The most important and difficult competition that I have ever won was the archaeological park at Hisham’s Palace,” said Nadia Habash, co-owner and director of Habash Consulting Engineers and adjunct lecturer at Birzeit University. “It was launched by UNESCO in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and the jury was led by Peter Zumthor.”
The project, which was awarded to Habash’s office, called for a masterplan of one of Palestine’s most significant sites — the archaeological park of Hisham’s Palace in Jericho, and included the protective sheltering of the mosaic floors of the Grand Bath Hall, as well as other sensitive areas. During the three-part judging process, Zumthor led the participants around the site, questioning their thinking, allowing them to defend their proposals and engaging in discussions.
“It was a great opportunity to work with him,” Habash said. “I liked his way of thinking — he’s a genius. Later on, when we worked together to deliver the project, I realised we think alike in many ways. And the same thing happened when I met Rifat Chadirji and Rasem Badran, who both judged my graduation project. They really read between the lines and realised my intentions. They didn’t only judge what was on the paper. There was a connection between us, and I think that connection deals with the way we approach context.”
A purveyor of critical regionalism, a term originally coined in 1981 to counter the placelessness and lack of identity of international style, as well as whimsical individualism and the ornamentation of Postmodern architecture, Habash is committed to preserving context and the use of architecture as a political, cultural and social tool.
In a paper she recently published, ‘Architecture as Resistance’, which explores the use of architecture in Palestine as a form of opposition against the Israeli occupation, she wrote, “As architects, we have a social responsibility towards our community as we should be serving them rather than serving capitalist interests. I believe that architecture serves as a catalyst for social processes, at least in the limited context of local communities, and as expressed in the early twentieth century by Hannes Meyer, director of the Bauhaus School of Architecture, who stressed that as designers, we are servants to the community. Our task is a service to the people.”
Propagating her beliefs has not come without consequence. Having suffered a 29-year ban on traveling outside of Palestine by the Israeli government for being an “influence on public opinion”, which has spanned most of her career and was only just lifted in July 2017, Habash has proved to be a local hero of sorts. While she was stripped of regional and international opportunities, she persevered in propelling the field of architecture forward in Palestine.
Between 1986 and 1987, she helped establish the architecture department at Birzeit University, where she continues to teach today. While the university previously only had an engineering department, where architecture-related courses were taught, Habash and her colleagues organised a new curriculum that would, and continues to, bridge architectural philosophies with realistic practice.
“Teaching and my relationship with my students are very important to me,” she said. “And till today, my students tell me that I not only teach them the alphabet of architecture, but also how architecture is a tool for resistance and resilience to achieve sustainable development.”
In addition to co-establishing the architecture department at Birzeit University, Habash also helped launch the Union of Arab Architects, became the first women to head a regional branch of the Engineers Association, which spans Jordan and Palestine, and served as city councilor in Ramallah.
Her time with the Ramallah Municipality occurred between 2013 and 2017, and she led the committee of cultural heritage with the mission to protect the city from rapid development and international franchising.
“The urban expansion of Ramallah has been fast and vicious,” she said. “The city is very appealing for developers because it has always been known as a tourist destination within the region. They started affecting the scenery of the town with their international franchises and branding, and for me, this is horrifying. It is not authentic at all.
“The city was beginning to lose its character. While it’s not possible to stop them — they are big international companies, after all — we led the conversation on the importance of preserving our cultural heritage, which is a treasure for us. It is our essence. We need to protect it and base our development around it.”
Habash’s political engagement has always been managed in parallel with the work that comes in through her architecture office. Her extensive number of projects across Palestine include the rehabilitation of Arraba Palaces and the Old Road, the rehabilitation and addition to St. Nicolas Elderly Bait Jala, the rehabilitation of Mar Afram Children’s Library, the revitalisation of Bethlehem Old Market, Al-Istiqlal Park and the water reservoirs at Deir Istya and Kufur Abboush.
“The challenge of the water reservoirs was that they are located on the highest point of the village, in the middle of the historic centre, and I didn’t want to harm the traditional architecture there,” said Habash. “I designed new buildings to serve new functions, but with the vernacular architectural style so that they harmonise with the surrounding environment. And this is how I deal with all of my projects — I study the context very well and I specify what elements of architecture are used in the specific village.”
At the moment, Habash, who has been shortlisted for a Tamayouz Excellence Award for Women in Architecture and Construction, is nearing the completion of another rehabilitation project — the Vernacular Heritage Pilot Enhancement Project in As-Samou’, located in the southernmost part of the West Bank, just south of Hebron.
Intending to rescue the built heritage of As-Samou’ and revive its weaving-based economy, the project consists of a number of interventions that will enhance the local vernacular architecture, such as the consolidation of 12 traditional ahwash located in the historic centre, and the rehabilitation of a hosh that will create a Cultural and Youth Centre. The rehabilitation of the hosh supports the training and capacity building of young craftsmen in the town and surrounding areas.
“We have renovated many places in Palestine,” she said, “and there are many other institutions here who do similar work. But this project was particularly special for us — the people in the area are very happy and due to their training, they are distinguished from other craftsmen. We gave them this chance, and that feeling is very special.”