Palestinian architect and author Suad Amiry discusses challenges facing conservation architects

Despite being a prominent architect, an award-winning author and a community leader, Suad Amiry is down to earth. Between poignant analysations of society, which can include noting the resulting loss of cultural heritage due to globalisation, invalidations of the Israeli occupation and recognising the increasing presence of Palestine’s middle class, Amiry’s quick-witted, sensitive humour often breaks the rising tension of the conversation.

Born to a Damascene mother and a Palestinian father from Jaffa, Amiry grew up between Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo. She studied architecture at the American University of Beirut, obtained a Master of Arts from the University of Michigan, and received a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, for which she specialised in Palestinian village architecture.

Launching Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in 1991 and penning several novels since 2003, including ‘Sharon and My Mother-in-Law’, ‘Golda Slept Here’ and ‘My Damascus’, Amiry is also vice president of Birzeit University’s Board of Trustees, a board member for the Palestine Investment Fund and the Palestine Housing Council, as well as a jury member for The Palestine Award for Culture.

In its nearly 30 years of operation, Riwaq has won a number of international awards, including the Prince Claus Award in 2011, the Curry Stone Design Prize in 2012, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013. And, most recently, Amiry was the recipient of Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Woman of Outstanding Achievement Award.

The map of 50 villages Riwaq aims to rehabilitate

Among the organisation’s extensive project list is its 50 Villages Rehabilitation Project, a large-scale cultural heritage initiative that was launched in 2005 with the primary aim to rehabilitate and revitalise Palestine’s most significant historic centres. Riwaq’s ‘Registry of Historic Buildings in Palestine’ (2006), which documented 50,320 historic buildings in 422 villages and towns in ‘Minor Palestine’ (the West Bank and Gaza), determined that saving 50 villages and towns would result in saving almost 50 percent of the cultural heritage in rural Palestine.

Based on architectural qualities, including the architectural fabric and historic, aesthetic, social and communal significance, such as the feudal throne villages, Riwaq compiled a list of the 50 most significant villages across the region. Today, it has revived more than 17.

Riwaq renovated Beit Iksa

While Amiry no longer heads Riwaq – the organisation is now co-directed by Shatha Safi and Khaldun Bshara – she still maintains substantial influence over its proceedings and programmes.

“In conservation architecture, we have three kinds of challenges,” she said. “The first and the most important is the attitude of the people toward the place and their own culture. Everyone wants to imitate the west and live in an apartment. They associate cultural heritage with poverty and with the past, which they want to forget.

“The second is globalisation. Globalisation is dangerous because we are losing the specificity of culture, not only architecture. The beauty in humanity is how varied it is. Originality has great value, but unfortunately, globalisation is anti-originality, so we are losing the character of not only Iraq or Palestine or Jordan, but the whole world. Soon, we will visit China and not be able to identify that we are in China.

Interior renovation work

“The third challenge, as a Palestinian, is the Israeli occupation. In Palestine, we have globalisation, we have the lack of respect for cultural heritage and of course, the aggression of the private sector, and in addition to all of this, we have our conflict with the Israelis.”

Amiry’s love for “peasant architecture” was sparked during her studies at the American University of Beirut, when a German professor took her class on a day trip to Lebanon’s mountain villages. She admired their connection with animals and nature and appreciated the way the buildings merged with their landscapes. Later, during a road trip across Italy, she would come across this sense of awe again, as she witnessed the country’s well-preserved towns, history and culture.

“While driving in the car and seeing all these little villages, I said, ‘Oh my God, how could these people protect their cultural heritage in such a way?’ Being Palestinian, although I was living in Jordan, I decided I want to go to Palestine and fulfill the dream of caring about peasant architecture.”

Amiry moved to Ramallah from Amman in 1981, and took up work in the architectural department of Birzeit University. Intending to stay for only three months, her relocation turned into a 37-year stretch, which saw her transform from a curious student into a formidable powerhouse who quickly gained popularity wherever she went.

Amiry has designed and built only a handful of buildings during the span of her architectural career, as she prefers to “protect what’s beautiful” rather than “add to the mess”. In addition to the 50 Villages Rehabilitation Project, Riwaq has also rehabilitated various buildings, published numerous books, articles and research in both English and Arabic, increased job opportunities for Palestinians through its conservation work, and, recently, launched a new project – ‘The Life Jacket: The Revitalization and Development of Rural Jerusalem’.

According to Riwaq’s project statement, for the last four years, it has been developing and implementing a vision in response to the challenging geopolitical situation in Jerusalem, which has “manifested in the marginalisation, fragmentation and segregation imposed on the area”.

This vision builds upon Riwaq’s experience in restoring historic buildings into community centres in Sh’ufat, Abu Dis, ‘Anata and Beit Ijza, as well as the accumulated experience from Riwaq’s 50 Village Rehabilitation Project in rural Palestine. Proposing an approach that capitalises on the social and economic potentials of these spaces, Riwaq aims to rehabilitate the villages, strengthening their connection to their natural surroundings and to Jerusalem.

Locals stroll through a newly restored Jamma’in

Riwaq is currently working in Kafr ‘Aqab, Qalandiya, Al-Jib and Jaba’, with future plans to reach out to the rest of rural Jerusalem, which includes Al Qubeiba, Biddu, Beit Duqqu, Beit Hanina, Hizma, ‘Anata and Abu Dis. The project proposes methods that interconnect the villages through existing social networks, interdependent services and common local economies.

Amiry moves in and out of Riwaq with ease. While she hopes the office will become more of a cultural institution rather than a purely architectural firm, she finds herself increasingly pulled toward the literary world. Working on her next novel, Amiry predicts she will soon retreat to a quiet home surrounded by nature.

“I always listen to my inner self,” she said. “I always do things from the heart, and that’s why I have enjoyed my work all along.”

“My dream is to be more in nature, to have a simple house,” she added. “I don’t care much about material things, so simplicity is a relief for me. Humanity has made a very complex system, into which we all fit, and I think anyone who can exit that is very lucky.”

This article was originally published on Middle East Architect in February 2019. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s