Revisiting Open Gaza, an anthology about the region’s past, present, and future, edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp

Architectures of Hope

Revisiting Open Gaza, an anthology about the region’s past, present, and future, edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp

A home in Gaza designed by Salem Al Qudwa (Courtesy American University in Cairo Press/Terreform)

Remarkable.” This is how Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, described Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, an anthology co-edited by the late Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp. Published in 2020, after Sorkin died due to COVID-19, Open Gaza invited 25 architects and writers from Palestine, Israel, India, the U.S., the U.K., and other countries to imagine a future where the region’s inhabitants live together in propinquity.

The vision of peaceful coexistence outlined in Open Gaza contrasts with the region’s lived reality. To revisit the ways in which architects can contribute to the improvement of lives, AN interviewed Open Gaza’s co-editor Deen Sharp and contributors Salem Al Qudwa, Yara Sharif, and Malkit Shoshan about their work. AN’s interview with Sharp and Al Qudwa took place on October 20, and the interviews with Shoshan and Sharif happened in the following weeks.

Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp (Courtesy American University in Cairo Press/Terreform)

Geographer Deen Sharp, PhD CUNY, is currently based in Nairobi. Previously, Sharp was a visiting fellow in Human Geography & Environment at the London School of Economics. He was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, and the co-director of Terreform, Center for Advanced Urban Research.

Salem Al Qudwa, PhD Oxford, is an award-winning Palestinian architect and the 2021–⁠22 Fellow in Conflict and Peace at Harvard Divinity School.

Here, Sharp and Al Qudwa discuss their contributions to Open Gaza and the difficulties of reconstruction.

AN: Let’s start in the present and then discuss your contributions to Open Gaza. Can you address the tension between U.S. support for Israel and the calls for a ceasefire?

Deen Sharp: The calls for ceasefire are being done in a context of absolute desperation. Stop the bombs, stop the onslaught. Of course these things should happen. Then there’s the question of what happens next, and the broader horizon of actually addressing the root issues. 

Just before coming into this interview, FT reported that the Israelis have a three-stage plan which is basically to depopulate the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula which I think will be a non-starter the Egyptians would never accept. The other solution from the Israelis is to siege Gaza and pretend that two million people are not there. That isn’t possible for all sorts of reasons, aside from the ethical and moral aspects.

To go back to the root causes of politics, land, and property, there is no way for Palestinians and Israelis to avoid each other’s existence. And I have no easy proposals or solutions to this conundrum. But I can certainly say that the construction of ever bigger walls or mutual annihilation and destruction must be absolutely rejected. Self-determination of Palestinians, and ending the occupation and blockade, is the first step to a new politics of closeness that needs to be achieved. This is the message that is front and center in our edited volume Open Gaza, co-produced with Palestinians, Israelis, and those from elsewhere. 

AN: Salem, between 2007 and 2011, you helped build 160 homes for families in Gaza, which became the subject of your contribution to the book. Can you tell us about your work? 

Salem Al Qudwa: Let me first express how hard it is to talk about this issue from my point of view as an architect from Gaza, who has worked in Gaza, but has been away for a couple of years now. Every two or three years, we see the same cycle of destruction and reconstruction, 2008/2009, 2012, 2014, and then in 2021 and now 2023. I’m sorry to say that this is the same cycle.

When there are attacks, we have many NGOs coming with good intentions with so-called “experimental design solutions” such as mud shelters, caravans, sandbag and wooden shelters. These are good things, but reconstruction is more complicated than that because the blockade prevents Gazans from accessing a lot of materials.

In 2006, I joined one of the international NGOs working on the ground in Gaza with local communities. During that period, cement was labeled by Israel as a weapon under the blockade, so we didn’t have easy access to it for construction. When I was working with the NGO, most of the construction materials we used were smuggled through tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. 

I started out this process of reconstruction by simply trying to be a good listener. My thinking is deeply inspired by how Hassan Fathy and other Egyptian architects built for the poor. Working alongside social workers and site engineers, we managed to build, reconstruct and rehabilitate more than 160 homes for people throughout Gaza.

We used the available materials around us, like aggregates, cement, and sand. We translated the needs of the people into small housing units consisting of a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. For them, it was like we were building a castle; they had waited for a home for years when no one would take care of them. 

When I was completing my PhD at Oxford between 2015 and  2019, I managed to keep in touch with a few of the families we built homes for. A few reached out and told me about how they’ve been adding incremental, small additions to their homes with another room, or another small area attached. Tragically, some of these houses might be either destroyed or damaged since they were built due to the ongoing 2023 conflict. 

AN: Is it possible to begin thinking about reconstruction?

SQ: Taking into consideration the massive destruction taking place, it’s yet to be seen if Gaza will still exist in the months ahead. Some NGOs have managed to provide thousands of tents for displaced families, which is good, but they haven’t been able to provide fuel for the hospitals, which is essential. They cannot provide cement and other materials needed for reconstruction because of the blockade. So I’m afraid to say we will keep witnessing these horrific things unless the blockade is lifted.

Today, I find it very hard to think about the future with this kind of frustration. It’s hard to even start thinking about possible scenarios because I have seen with my own eyes, many times, families at the borders trying to reconnect with loved ones. Many families have seen their homes destroyed at least once or twice. I remember talking to someone years ago; they said, “If my house gets destroyed, I will return and rebuild it again using the same concrete.” This showed me how attached people are to this place. 

I think about the possibilities of how my people can restore their lives. How are they going to get reconstruction materials and who’s going to support them? Where will the funding come from after they’ve lost everything? People have invested years in building a home, and dreamt of having one with a grocery store beneath it, and they’ve seen, in less than a second, all that taken from them. In addition, they’ve lost family members. So we are not talking about just the physical fabric, as I mentioned before, but also the social fabric. Reconstruction is going to take ages. I cannot even start thinking about that because it’s really something very difficult. 

AN: Deen, would you like to expand on the laws which uphold the blockade Salem mentioned and how they affect architectural practice in Gaza?

DS: As a couple of Open Gaza contributors detail explicitly, reconstruction in Gaza is a bureaucratic maze. This bureaucracy prevents any reconstruction that fulfills people’s needs, like decent housing or basic infrastructure. There was an agreement, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, passed in 2014 following Operation Protective Edge between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the UN which created a system dictating that certain materials couldn’t be used in Gaza. Cement, for instance, as Salem mentioned, is a material that has been categorized for military use. So people have to get materials into Gaza through tunnels that were constructed. 

Housing in Gaza (Courtesy American University in Cairo Press/Terreform)

I also think it’s really important to emphasize that ideas about reconstruction in most people’s minds today are strongly related to the post–World War II era, the Marshall Plan, and the large-scale reconstruction done in the context of “post-conflict” Europe. Gaza’s reconstruction, however, is not a process attached to a post-conflict context, because this “conflict” is protracted. It’s important to think in these terms of how we understand urban processes and reconstruction more broadly, to differentiate between “post-conflict” and “protracted conflict.” These things have important implications far beyond Gaza, especially for the Arab world where you have protracted conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, to some extent Lebanon.

SQ: I also think it’s important to talk about geography. Today, many buildings in Gaza are either high-rise or mid-rise buildings because, with the wall, Gaza can’t grow outwards, so we can only build upwards, and without cement this is extremely difficult. 

As I mentioned, after every attack we have these NGOs come in with good intentions. I expect in the months ahead we will see architects have ideas about prefabricated units, modular design, and even free, 3D-printed homes to face the crisis. This is good, actually, because we need more experiments. But in terms of Gaza, we have to consider sociocultural issues. Gaza’s context is different from Sudan, which is different from Libya, which is different from Syria. So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. This is why listening to the people and being with the people is critical because I think [reconstruction] is a longer and more complicated process. 

AN: What can architects today learn from Open Gaza?

DS: I think it’s important to communicate to the global architecture community about how to productively engage in a context such as Gaza. As a geographer, I was a co-director of the NGO Terreform that was led and founded by the late Michael Sorkin, who brought his expertise as an architect to Open Gaza. Michael was deeply knowledgeable about how architecture affects communities.

There aren’t many books like Open Gaza that both engage with people impacted and are cross-disciplinary. Those books didn’t just insert architectural knowledge devoid of the political, historical, economic, and ecological context; these are thickly layered contributions. And yet, all too often we see purely technical schemes—whether they be plans for the reconstruction of homes in Aleppo, or in relation to the refugee crisis within western states that often takes the form of designing shelters. We see again and again designs proposed without thick, contextual knowledge. Salem can attest to the fact that architects cannot work in this context from a sealed laboratory, a space that doesn’t actually engage with the people actually affected and is in dialogue with them. 

SQ: This time around, we need an army of social architects, social engineers, and also social workers who can work on the ground translating the needs of the people, especially those hardest hit by displacement. Displaced peoples need to have their voices shared, and architects need to learn about their needs. 

When Open Gaza came out, I remember thinking to myself that this will be a timeless piece. I remember thinking maybe 30, 40, or 50 years from now, people will hold that book and know that a group of social scientists, architects, urban planners, and geographers came together and thought about how to bring hope to the people of Gaza. Sadly, after the 2014 attacks were replaced by the 2021 attacks, and those have been replaced by the ongoing 2023 attacks, the lessons from Open Gaza are still applicable. So it can be used now and later on, which is what makes it timeless. And hopefully, this is going to be the last time we have to learn these lessons.

Malkit Shoshan is an Israeli designer, founder and director of the architectural think tank FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory, and a professor at Harvard GSD. She discusses her contribution to Open Gaza, which sheds light on her book Atlas of the Conflict which documents the erasure of Palestinian villages after 1948. She also discusses her personal experiences studying architecture in Israel.

AN: How did your book Atlas of the Conflict start?

Malkit Shoshan: The project originated during my time as a student at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) in Israel. While pursuing my studies, I came to the realization that spatial design holds political and ideological significance. I expressed my desire to delve deeper into design research, particularly focusing on understanding how architecture and urban planning played a role in the transformation of Israel and Palestine over the past century. I sought to explore what it means to construct a country or nation in such a short timeframe.

Growing up in Israel, each school year, we had to purchase the latest atlas, mapping out the country and the world. Although the atlas was a constant presence, its narrative was one-sided. The Atlas of the Conflict, on the other hand, which was published in 2010, aimed to rectify this by mapping the history of territorial transformation from multiple perspectives.

Atlas of the Conflict (Courtesy Malkit Shoshan)

One of the initial maps I created juxtaposed the destroyed Palestinian villages from 1948 with the built Israeli localities, layering them upon each other. At that moment, it became evident that a new atlas illustrating this overlap and the intricate relationships between Israel and Palestine was essential. In this sense, Atlas of the Conflict gradually evolved into an act of decolonization, not of the country, but of the atlas, as a national tool of representation.

The book comprises ten chapters that unveil this transformation across various themes, including borders and walls, land ownership, and cultural heritage sites. A dedicated chapter explores Israeli and Palestinian settlement typologies, a challenging endeavor due to the absence of some Palestinian typologies in official atlases or databases. These typologies, like unrecognized Palestinian villages absent from official maps, were undergoing erasure. Sourcing information from grassroots and human rights organizations, notably the Association of Forty and Adalah, was crucial for creating this chapter and related maps.

Other chapters delve into the topics of (shared or seized) natural resources, landscaping, demography, and cultural heritage sites. Specific case studies illustrate unique conditions of border walls throughout Israel/Palestine, such as an instance in the West Bank where a wall transformed from one line into multiple lines, resulting in enclaves and different security zones. This intricate border divides people deeply entwined with each other.

Contrary to expectations, the Atlas doesn’t commence with Israel but with the longer colonial history of the region. Preceding the first partition plan, the boundaries were more fluid, dating back to the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. European nations, attempting to maintain their sphere of influence, imposed arbitrary divisions disregarding the existing social and cultural history. The strategic location of Israel, connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, adds to its religious importance and subjects the territory to a prolonged history of violence. Recognizing this historical memory is crucial to the understanding of the conflict.

AN: The lack of public information must have made this into a massive undertaking.

MS: Certainly, it’s quite idealistic and very naive to believe that, as a student, one can tackle such complex issues. However, that’s precisely what I was passionate about understanding. The project ultimately led me to a clear realization that I no longer wanted to practice architecture in Israel. I began questioning what it meant to engage in architectural practice in such contested and politically charged land.

Shoshan’s work centers on the politics of planning in contested territories. (Courtesy Malkit Shoshan)

Initially, my interest in architecture stemmed from a desire to contribute to the creation of beautiful environments. I envisioned architecture as a positive force, a means of empowerment, enhancing people’s lives. At least, that was my initial perception of the field. However, as I engaged with research, a realization struck me: Things weren’t as straightforward as I had imagined. This revelation isn’t exclusive to Israel or Palestine; globally, architecture serves as a tool of power. It is submersed with politics and it can inflict violence. It functions as an instrument that takes abstract concepts like ideology and solidifies them in physical space. This awareness prompted me to acknowledge that I wasn’t yet ready to be an architect. Instead, I chose to focus on spatial design research, recognizing the need to comprehend these complexities before venturing into practice.

AN: Do you consider your research practice as a form of architectural practice?

MS: I believe so, as I don’t see myself as an academic researcher. In today’s architectural landscape, most practitioners are deeply embedded in the market economy, which tends to be highly exclusive. The profession often serves the interests of power, with architects frequently caught up in the pursuit of designing aesthetically pleasing structures for the rich. This approach holds little appeal for me.

However, I view my research practice as a unique form of architecture. I conceptualize architecture as a relational method navigating through scales and temporal conditions, possessing the ability to translate abstract ideas into tangible forms or strategies into actionable plans that influence the way spaces are shaped. Take, for example, the study on the impact of UN missions on cities, communities, and the environment. This initiative began as a spatial study and culminated in the creation of policy papers and a matrix for policymakers, ultimately resulting in the insertion of new words and paragraphs into a UN resolution in 2017.

One of my initial projects, conducted in collaboration with a small Palestinian community of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Israel, involved designing an alternative master plan for their informal, unrecognized locality. Engaging with the community for months and years, we sought to understand how we could assist them by translating their aspirations into a practical tool—a masterplan. This tool empowered them to negotiate their rights with local planning authorities. During this period, we also adopted formats like symposiums and architecture competitions to advocate for social justice. This approach allowed me to use architecture in a manner aligned with my values.

Returning to the UN project, which included case studies in Liberia and Mali, we advocated for the redistribution of resources from foreign private companies servicing missions to local entities. Shifting from the global economy of supply chains to local empowerment and capacity building is in fact a crucial condition for achieving local stability. The UN resolution on peacekeeping missions in 2017, which we were able to influence, underscored the importance of considering the environmental impact of UN missions and the necessity of incorporating local context needs as much as possible.

A border wall in Liberia (Courtesy Malkit Shoshan)

I also believe it’s crucial, as a researcher, not to linger solely in the realm of criticism. I find that constant criticism can be paralyzing and, at times, irresponsible. It’s an easy space to occupy, critiquing others without offering any ideas or demonstrating a genuine desire to contribute to real change. Therefore, maintaining a practical and pragmatic dimension, while embracing complexity, is an integral aspect of my practice, and in part, rooted in the core principles of architecture.

AN: What are you currently working on?

MS: Currently, I am engaged in a long-term project with a family of Gazan farmers residing along the border with Israel. Their roots in this area extend for centuries, with their stories tracing back to their ancestors’ experiences during the Ottoman Empire.

This project was first made public in an exhibition under the title Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, where it earned the Silver Lion. The acknowledgment of a research-based and activist design project at the Biennale is thrilling, signaling a changing landscape in the world of architecture. The project involved weekly conversations with the farmers, collecting oral history while simultaneously investigating the spatial and everyday implications of the imposed siege on Gaza and the associated bureaucratic protocols of occupation. We are uncovering how these farmers sustain themselves against considerable odds, achieving 100 percent self-sufficiency by growing their own food and harvesting rainwater in Gaza, where over 80 percent of the population faces food insecurity.

In parallel, I am co-authoring a book with Amir Qudaih, a member of the Gazan family of farmers. Additionally, in collaboration with FAST, we have initiated a new project focusing on climate-induced migration. This project examines, among others, areas in the Sahel undergoing rapid changes due to prolonged droughts, water scarcity, and food insecurity. These conditions contribute to violent conflicts and mass migrations, leading to new habitation patterns that could benefit from complex design thinking and spatial approaches to enhance the well-being of forcibly displaced persons. 

This project is conducted in conversation with the UN Peacebuilding Fund, and I am currently preparing a class on this topic for the GSD, where I also teach a class on survival(ism) in partnership with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. In this class, we look into nuclear technology and its related spatial infrastructure, examining everything from mines to power reactors, bomb test sites, and disposal systems, exploring how they intersect with issues related to social and environmental justice, and how design can make these relations and risks public.

Through my practice and teaching, I experiment with design activism, exploring whether and how architecture can drive change and improve living conditions and social cohesion across all strata. It is crucial to empower students and the younger generation of designers to embrace complexity, ask bold questions, and commit to the hard work needed to mobilize change.

Palestinian architect Yara Sharif, PhD University of Westminster, is a partner at Golzari-NG Architects in London and the cofounder of Architects for Gaza (AFG), a new initiative founded by architects, planners, designers and environmentalists to collectively restore and rebuild Gaza. In Open Gaza, Sharif and Nasser Golzari—both members of the Palestine Regeneration Team (PART)explored design ideas and projects that surfaced as a result of their research and practice in the city of Gaza. Here, she discusses Edward Said, Orientalism, preservation as a mode of resistance, and the politics of maps.

AN: Representing Palestine is an important part of your practice. How do you go about explaining Palestine to people who have never been there? 

Yara Sharif: I find that talking to students about Palestine can be full of positive challenges. With students, whenever we talk about Palestine, we allow them the opportunity to search for the story themselves. And automatically they realize how much missing information there is about the Palestinian narrative. Our role is just facilitating the conditions for them to learn about the story themselves. 

Generally, when we deal with students, we take them with us to Palestine, give them projects about Palestine, and go on field trips where they get to experience the extremity of the situation starting in Tel Aviv, where youngsters like to go and party or go to the beach. And then we move up to Hebron where they see how people live on top of one another and how they experience segregation and division. So in that sense students learn the story on their own. Because it’s very difficult to explain a landscape that has a lot of invisible boundaries and invisible borders. As much as you describe it on paper or reading about it, it’s very different seeing it. 

Practitioners in the U.K. regularly deal with commonly discussed themes, subjects like ecology, the environment, equality, and diversity. But when you start to apply these discourses to contexts like Palestine, people are not exactly aware of what they mean. It’s a context that doesn’t have enough water or electricity and where basic human rights are taken away. So we try to approach these discourses from a perspective where apartheid, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing takes place.

But we are also generally careful when we talk about Palestine so as we don’t fall into the trap of dividing Palestine. We talk about Palestine as a whole, full place because one of the things that happens in an occupation, if I may say so, is that we suffer from the way the media narrates the context in fragments. This has happened recently with the Israel-Gaza War. When Palestine is discussed this way, it’s easy to forget that Palestine itself is a term that exists. 

AN: Can you talk about your work with the preservation group Riwaq and the 50 Villages project?

YS: I started working with Riwaq back in 2001. This was before I moved back to the U.K. where there was a conversation in the diaspora about protecting Palestinian identity. Later, we started to think about how we take these conversations further and consider Palestinian architecture beyond just the preservation of stone. When we talk about Palestinian heritage, we often talk about the rural and how the landscape is being made invisible with all of the divisions and lines. Therefore, the 50 Villages Project was about reclaiming these historic centers and including them in our landscapes and on our maps. 

Aerial view of Lifta, an abandoned Palestinian village in Jerusalem (ImageBank4u/Shutterstock)

We realized, as a very simple exercise, that if we protect these 50 villages, we will be protecting 50 percent of our historic centers from being demolished. So this project was as much about protecting villages as redrawing maps. In a settler-colonial landscape, there’s a lot of renaming of sites. So this redrawing of maps also means regenerating a landscape makes the invisible, visible and also changes the narrative that the landscape is paved for colonizers to occupy it with illegal settlements. 

For us, reclaiming and keeping the landscape active was a form of resistance because we knew that we’re giving these villages time. There’s this famous notion that keeps repeating itself comes from Edward Said and imaginative geography. Said talks about how being in an occupied context means that we are never the ones who do our own mapping. So the subjective maps are really driven by the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral map.There’s this idea that you use certain narratives to reflect a place, to allow for modernization and for it to be occupied, which, sadly, feels like that’s going to happen with Gaza if the assault doesn’t stop.

AN: In lectures you often discuss how Edward Said and postmodern feminist theory influence your thinking. These sources inspired you to create “subjective” maps, a drawing type that subverts a tool we often consider objective. What is a subjective map?

YS: Drawing upon subjective postmodern feminist theory of accumulating subjective experience that collectively contributes towards the objective, the maps don’t necessarily dictate boundaries, so the maps are the basis for redrawing but also reclaiming the landscape. 

Drawing of border condition by Yara Sharif (Courtesy American University in Cairo Press/Terreform)

There is something subversive about making visible the invisible. There are things that only a Palestinian would know how to read because there are things that only they experience and they know. This idea of invisibility was always kept in the background. There’s also this idea that Palestine now is not only a village or a city, but also all of these leftover landscapes that were created as a result of the boundaries and divisions. These maps are trying to capture that.

AN: In the West, modernist aesthetics communicate progressive values, but in places that have been colonized, this architecture can carry a very different meaning. 

YS: I think that’s right. As an academic who lives, works, and teaches in the U.K., these are very important questions we raise with students. When we talk about decolonizing the curriculum, or decolonization generally, how do we judge what is modern in architecture? How do we judge modernism in the context of coloniality? But most importantly, how do we judge aesthetics? This is the time to start questioning these aesthetics and what we can learn from the Global South. This is something I think we have to work for.

In light of what’s taking place in Gaza today, which is horrific, I feel it is important as architects to keep remembering and thinking about how we can rethink the terrain that is Gaza bearing in mind that there has been a constant process to not only eradicate its people but also the landscape, and how important it is to consider the ruins as part of the Palestinian narrative.

Destroyed housing in Gaza (Courtesy American University in Cairo Press/Terreform)

Ruins are a fundamental part of the Palestinian narrative. I think architects have a moral responsibility around the world to rethink cities in terms of ruins and the spaces that were flattened to make them. What was made invisible? In Libya, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, these places all look the same by looking like nothing. 

This emptiness is quite telling. We need to have a moral responsibility so as not to reproduce another London or some other city in these places. How do we deal with memory and identity that has been fractured by history?

AN: Can you tell us about your latest project, Architects for Gaza?

YS: The primary objective of this collaborative effort is to work together and create a collective statement calling for the right of the people of Gaza to a safe home and reclaim their basic rights for a city. Furthermore, we aim to discuss action for urgent reconstruction and self-help methods to empower families to rebuild their homes. The discussion within the group will allow us to expand and fine-tune our approach and take necessary action as required.

Some may be familiar with our past involvement in Gaza with UN-Habitat and UNRWA as part of the Gaza Green Reconstruction project in 2010–11. Subsequently, we contributed to Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp’s Open Gaza, which featured different reconstruction projects aimed at healing Gaza. 

The statements in this article reflect the views of the individuals who made them and were not composed or directed by AN.