An interview with Alessandro Petti

As a PhD candidate interested in investigating the nature of settlements that behave like archipelagos and enclaves in a densely populated urban world, Alessandro travelled during the summer of 2002 from Venice to Palestine. Slowly the latter became the epicenter of his interests and investigations –a territorial obsession. Palestine provided an “extreme laboratory” of liberal conditions within the tightest of constraints; it offered the possibility of understanding, on the edge, the working mechanisms that produced the model of archipelagos and enclaves, epitomized by the gated communities of the West, whose basic pattern has been adapted and assimilated by most cultures throughout the globe. Refugee camps and gated communities, according to Alessandro, share the same “state of exception and suspension from the rest of the city.” When he embarked towards Palestine, his objective was to name what he would experience, to unveil the forces at work in the transformation of customary modes of inhabitation, and to draw connections between refugee camps and gated communities (as they relate to resort villages in the Middle East, residential enclaves in Dubai, or other isolated, yet interconnected, settlement patterns).

Palestinian Refugee Camps

Palestinian Refugee Camps

Since 2006, Alessandro directs DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency), a collective whose work lies at the cross roads of art, architecture, visual culture, urbanism, activism, geopolitics and cultural criticism, as it evinces the political construction of a territory. In one of its numerous projects, DAAR concerns itself “with the fundamental question of how to reuse, recycle or re-inhabit abandoned Israeli colonies and military bases –the architectures of Israel’s process of territorial colonization- through Palestinian re-appropriation.” In a nutshell, “it speculates on the use of colonial architecture for purposes other than those they were designed to perform, at the moment it is unplugged from the military/political power that charges it.” This is the case of Oush Grab (the crow’s nest) military base, an “abandoned structure of domination.“ In April 2006, the Israeli army abandoned the base for tactical reasons, and the Palestinians gained access to it. This raised issues of return.

Alessandro, I was fascinated by the way in which DAAR tackles the tricky issue of Palestinian Refugees` Right of Return. To migrate outwards is complex enough, but to migrate inwards seems to pose an even harsher condition that forces individuals and societies to face a reality that sharply differs from the expected image of the past, an image that has been effaced by the colonizer. Could you elaborate on how DAAR addresses this issue?

The issue of return is highly complex. Let me first introduce you to the historical context within which we are working. By international law, Palestinians have a right to return. Nevertheless, since 1948, Israel has prevented refugees from returning to their homes. The latter have been living in exile for more than 60 years. The majority of Palestinian refugees still live around Palestine, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. They refer to their exile as Nakba (Day of the Catastrophe), which also connotes an annual commemoration of the moment in which they were displaced. Three out of four Palestinians living in what we know as Israel today were forced into exile. There have been a series of expulsions. In 1967, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in Gaza triggered a second wave of refugees. Therefore, some have been expelled twice in their lifetime. Today there are more than fifty refugee camps throughout the Middle East, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. More than 4 million Palestinians are registered in UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since 1948 until now, several attempts have been made to transform political relations in order to fulfill the right of return. Israel and the Palestinian Authority engaged in several negotiations during the 90s. But even though the right of return is recognized by international and humanitarian laws and by UN resolutions, negotiations have further marginalized the right of return. It is, therefore, urgent to relocate the right of return at the center of the political discussion in Palestine and we attempt to do this by tracing and understanding the radical political and social transformations that occur in refugee camps.

How has temporality influenced their construction?

For decades, Palestinian camps have been conceptualized as temporary places. Initially, refugees built only tents. Throughout the years, the latter have been substituted with shelters. The first image that comes to mind in relation to a “refugee camp” is linked to these specific, transitory and precarious architectures. This image does not correspond to the full reality of Palestinian refugee camps, though. They tend to be made of different kinds of materials, political and historical matters included. As “temporary camps” have congealed, they have been perceived as politically dangerous: giving up temporality means giving up the right of return. Palestinian refugees have been forced into a “suspended life” in order to preserve their right to return to their land. The Palestinian leadership has to rely on the dramatic conditions of refugee camps to be able to argue for the urgency of return to the place of origin. This decades-long approach is central to reestablish the right, but has forced refugees to live in an unbearable condition.

How can architectural design find a role within such a complex, fluid situation?

Proposing any architectural transformation in camps within this state of affairs has deep political implications, for it would contribute towards normalization. Therefore, any intervention within a refugee camp involves thinking about how to achieve a seemingly impossible change without giving up the right of return. And it is in this complex intersection where we locate our interventions. The context inevitably leads to a radical conceptual shift. We felt that we had to challenge the notion that improvements should be treated merely as humanitarian. Refugees are important political subjects. We had to face the complexities of normalizing the situation, acknowledging that the camp is not simply a humanitarian space, but a political space. We started investigating refugee camps in the West Bank, propelled by the idea that it was possible to transform life conditions by transforming the camp. We dwelt upon the possibility of establishing a university within it. Several organizations have built different kinds of infrastructure, but we were convinced that we had to go beyond the provision of basic services. Refugees themselves were already articulating these new relationships in very interesting ways. We learned from them how to be inside and outside the camp simultaneously; how to transgress its borders without normalizing the camp condition.

What has resulted from focusing your efforts in a place where some sort of an anti-architecture seems more appropriate?

When we started thinking about how to intervene in a Palestinian refugee camp, we felt trapped between two opposing positions: one was humanitarian, and the other, driven to political normalization; both incurred in the danger of perpetuating an unbearable situation; one by making it slightly more bearable, the other one by surrendering the option of return, a possibility we did not want to undermine. An interesting shift in the last decades has, nevertheless, given place to the emergence of a third position: to transform the camp by building institutions that would not contribute to normalize it; but rather reinstate struggle and the vision of return. The corollary of this shift is that, after 64 years in exile, Palestinians have acquired a different concept of what a city is. This novel definition stems from the fact that a camp is not made of what usually composes a “city.” A camp triggers a different sense of place and space. In it, categories such as public and private, collapse. A basic tenet of any city: the articulation of public spaces with private spaces, makes no sense within a camp. Even the notion of a private house looses meaning among those who cannot legally own land in the “host countries” upon which they temporarily settle. Camps are subject to administrative mandates that forbid legal appropriation of the soil. Palestinian refugees were transplanted and denied the option to bury their roots elsewhere. So even though they build houses, they can not own them, although somehow, they do: they sell them, rent them, exchange them outside of any legal dimensions, without documents that could prove ownership of the land, for it is illegal to own houses. From a political and judicial standpoint, refugees remain at the tent stage. The same dispossession applies to public space, which is not really public, because it lacks sovereignty. Camps, wherever they may be, are exceptional spaces devoid of nationality. Refugees are not Lebanese, or Syrian, or Jordanian citizens. Camps are extraterritorial islands. The basic DNA of any city does not operate in theirs. This does not mean that the inhabitants of a camp don´t form a sense of place, a sense of the urban. Throughout 64 years, an architecture of exile has been produced and this type of informal urbanism has remained unexplored, underrepresented. So we decided to respond by opening a university in the midst of one of the camps a year ago.

How do you engage the community in research and design processes?

When we started to speculate on the idea of “right of return,” we engaged in intense discussions with different agents and activists. The first formulation that took shape was related to the absence of image, of visual representation, in a discourse that spoke slogans, UN resolutions, rights and principles –words that never articulated how their concepts would look like. We questioned ourselves: how could we envision the right of return in a pragmatic way; how could we materialize it and discuss it in visual terms, beyond mere statement. Our disquietude triggered a difficult, complicated dialogue with Palestinian refugees and institutions. We had to push them to think pragmatically. How to imagine the right of return? How could this right be articulated spatially and visualized? We worked with several towns and collectively imagined “the day after.” How would it be?

Did common history play a role, if any, in these formulations?

It remained central to view present phenomena with historical perspective, particularly now that radicalized positions have acquired momentum. We felt the need to step back and understand how the notion of normalization had played out since 1948 in different geographical areas. In the Arab States, for example, strong stances have been, and are made in favor of the Palestinian cause, but, cynically, refugees are marginalized from society. In Lebanon, there are more than 60 professions in which Palestinians cannot participate. In Jordan, even though the Palestinian population makes up 60% of the total, its members lack political rights. These issues play off in different ways in different places. In the West Bank, refugee camps are characterized by a very particular condition: refugees still live within historical Palestine. Even though they are not citizens of the state, they still live close to their place of origin. In the 90s, the Palestinian authority was established. The fact that in the West Bank the host government is the Palestinian authority poses interesting possibilities. On the one hand, there is a sense of what it means to remain refugees in terms of identity; on the other, of how not to be absorbed into the local environment, which has become something other.

We work in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, which hosts approximately 8,000 individuals. It is a very interesting and active camp. Political activism is unique here as are its modes of inhabitation and nation building. Refugees, for example, do not vote in the local elections, but nevertheless, the strongest political parties meet in Dheisheh. Even though refugees are not elected, their political representatives have immense impact in the region. This situation is completely different in the camps of Lebanon and elsewhere. The refugees here build a unique political platform in order to counteract the red line they are not allowed to cross. The official discourse minimizes the right of return; therefore, paradoxically, for most Palestinian activists, the Palestinian authority is the main “enemy” to be fought: the two-state solution the authority supports normalizes their situation by eliminating the possibility of returning to the place of origin. Right now this camp is simultaneously “inside” and “outside.” Normalization would mean accepting to be completely outside.

You have identified a very particular form of “informalism…”

Indeed. A parallel reflection relates to one of the reasons why so much attention is suddenly poured upon informal settlements. Global interest in these expanding urban areas has grown as they themselves expand and become central to the economies and laws of the “formal city”. The act of normalizing the so-called “informal settlements” acquires significance in the midst of an economic crisis: governments need capital and more citizens who can pay taxes. Therefore, some questions, which we would like to pose, emerge. We acknowledge that there are two alternatives: one of them is to maintain the level of poverty in informal settlements or refugee camps; the other one is to intervene and normalize them. Third options create political platforms that are able to articulate different political and social relationships. Human needs, such as the provision of water and electricity for example, are met by the camp as a whole, and not by individual households. In these new articulations, the idea of the common predominates over dichotomies such as private-public, even in the sense and definition of ownership. We have reached a moment in which it is imperative to comprehend the DNA that is emerging from this situation. Grappling with its molecular structure forces us to think about the city in different ways. The city itself is in crisis. Camps becomes the place where we can be inspired to reconstitute a political community, a place where citizens share certain kinds of resources, rather than a privatized field. Another example that contributes to illustrate this point is the cultural center that was built within the Dheisheh refugee camp in 1992 on a site that had been first used by British colonial institutions, then by the Jordanian government, and ultimately by the Palestinian authority. The community took over the place, and instead of retrofitting it for the same purpose, they transformed it into a cultural center, with sports facilities, a hall for weddings and a library –what the community truly needed. No one perceived this project as embedded in a process of normalization. Quite the opposite: the cultural center did not result from humanitarian help and improved their lives without normalizing their camp. As architects, we try to build upon these experiences, to understand how one can construct something that is in constant tension between two sites: an Architecture of exile.

You work in the threshold between art, architecture and politics. How do you perceive your role as an architect, considering you work in an interstice that refuses inhabitation.  

We work at the juncture of many disciplines, indeed, but it is important to clarify that we discovered that we somehow wanted to function as an architectural studio and consciously chose architectural projects as our guiding methodologies. We believe in collective intelligence more strongly than in the idea of artistic genius or individual copyright. Despite the colonial context, we enjoy our daily life with greater intensity if we are working and sharing with others. That sensibility towards social creation is more akin to the practice of architecture. Another aspect that we wanted to preserve from an architectural studio was the choice to produce interventions that were related to space and material interventions. At the same time, we purposefully take a distance from the normal practice of a professional architectural office. We refuse to search or wait for clients. In that sense, we autonomously decide, more like artists perhaps, which projects we want to embark upon. This allows us to practice architecture in a freer way, not trapped within the constraints of the profession. It is the artistic component of our work that makes it possible. Our work is described by some as politically controversial and is often perceived as naïve and utopian by UN agencies and members of other organizations. But we see our practice as grounded in reality and believe that our propositions are realistic insofar as they do not accept the limits imposed by a corrupted political reality. We aim to trigger and amplify political imagination.