Leah Gallant (MAVCS 2020) is the arts editor at
F Newsmagazine. Like
Brad Pitt, she is mostly
made of water.
Illustration by Rula Zuhour
A product of contradictory and dehumanizing Israeli policies and practices, the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab, which is located within Jerusalem’s city boundaries but outside of the separation barrier, is characterized by dense high rise buildings and poor infrastructure. Kafr Aqab is the thesis subject of recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) graduate Rula Zuhour, who completed her Master of Architecture (MArch) degree in 2020. Her thesis, which won the 2020 Schiff Architecture Fellowship, and which will be published in full by Chicago-based architecture press MAS Context this fall, uses mapping and data visualization to critically examine the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab and suggest its possible futures.
Like many Palestinian neighborhoods, it lacks basic services, with no access to healthcare and water utilities available only two days a week for its 80,000 residents. One of the reasons for its high population density is the complex and segregationist set of policies that makes up the Israeli ID system, which requires that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza hold different IDs that limit the areas they can access. This means that Kafr Aqab is one of only a few areas where Palestinian families who hold different IDs can live together.
We talked about why architecture is inherently political, how racist and anti-Black policies and practices in the United States relate to Israel’s apartheid system, and what Kafr Aqab might look like in fifty years.
Leah Gallant: You practiced as an architect in Palestine for six years before coming to SAIC, and you mentioned in an earlier conversation your concern that to continue to practice as you were would mean contributing to inequality rather than confronting it. Can you tell me about your previous work as an architect, and what you meant by how it would contribute to inequality?
Rula Zuhour: I had a fairly traditional, capital-A architecture education. It was part of an engineering department where we learned about architectural design, urban design, and structure. When I graduated, I was very design-centric and just wanted to design beautiful spaces, which led me to a series of jobs where, as is historically true, architecture serves only the wealthy and the privileged, even within a context of occupation.
Many practices are breaking from that paradigm and shifting their focus from answering to market demand to serving the interests of the community, but I feel like as a whole discipline, we still struggle to see that architecture is inherently political, whether it’s in Palestine or in the U.S. I didn't want to take part in projects that not only weren't addressing those issues, but were sometimes even involved in demolishing historic buildings that represent our heritage, our existence, and our history. Some were also harmful to the environment, by relying on quarries in Palestine, for example. I really wanted to learn more about how architecture is inherently political, and now I can see that every decision that goes into designing spaces actively includes and excludes certain communities, impacts their movement, and reflects a certain identity. When architecture does not confront inequality, it automatically becomes complicit in it. This is especially true in Palestine, because any building that does not address the occupation, whether it's in Israel or Palestine, ignores the fact that the very space in which the building resides is weaponized and used as a tool for oppression.
LG: Can you give some examples of a couple of specific projects you were working on?
RZ: One eye-opening major project that I worked on was with a client who got funding from Qatar and started building his whole empire, a city called Rawabi, which grossly depicted the aesthetics of an Israeli settlement. This was extremely problematic for Palestinian identity and heritage, and even the idea of a closed community, or one that serves only a certain class of people, is alien to Palestinians. Rawabi also exploits cheap Palestinian labor and buys Israeli products, it’s very controversial. In addition, while working for Senan Abdelqader, a Palestinian architect with an Israeli passport, I worked on projects in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and being able to see both sides of the architecture process, whether it's east or west of the wall, was very eye-opening to me.
LG: Can you talk a bit about the role the future plays in this project? The way you have the project structured now, it's broken into five sections that look at the present conditions and policies that have led to why Kafr Aqab looks the way it does. Namely, how the future can figure as a sort of fantasy to critique the present, as with a
lot of science fiction, dystopian or otherwise. However, your work looks at several possible futures, none of which present a humane resolution because they are extensions of the oppressive Israeli policies that have shaped Kafr Aqab. Are there solutions that you see within architecture, even if small-scale ones, or do you think that although architecture can be a way to look at how the Israeli state’s apartheid legislation manifests spatially, paths towards justice can only happen in other disciplines, or through other means?
RZ: I’m struggling with that critical question, of what it means to work with speculative architecture in this context. Some professors tried to direct me towards “subversive speculative intervention,” which is a new cool thing in architecture, but all my research, and even the role I want to play as a Palestinian, and as an architect, led me to an investigative speculative approach. And I think that small-scale architectural interventions will do a whole lot for a neighborhood like Kafr Aqab, it is completely neglected by the city, so any kind of design service would have a great impact.
As a Palestinian, the only humane soluation for Kafr Aqab is to allow its residents to return to Jerusalem, to move freely, and to live with their families regardless of their ID color — or even dismantling the whole ID system, having no walls, abolishing the “center of life” law, and providing equal civil rights to Palestinians. And as I show in the Israel's colonization apparatus map, you can see that this apparatus is so complex and intricate that it becomes impossible to imagine a different reality. I tried to do it, and I thought I would have to redesign the whole region and start from scratch. It’s a reality that we’ve been living with since we were born.
Many Palestinians are inspired by Afrofuturism, and, like African Americans, they use fiction to reimagine their homeland. While fiction can be an outlet, the fact that the reality is so traumatic and dystopic led me to use speculation as a tool to reveal the present stakes of Israeli policies and practices. To elaborate more on that, I think that while Native Americans and African Americans are dealing with a sort of aftermath of an apocalypse, Palestinians are at a different moment in time, where we are very much living in the apocalypse. In order to imagine a post-apocalyptic world, one needs to identify and anticipate the extent and impact of an apocalypse. Especially right now, in light of the annexation of the West Bank, it felt critical to me to illustrate that the annexation was not a decision that was made overnight, or a single chess move that Israel was making, but the culmination of decades of oppression only made possible by the displacement of Palestinians, the expropriation of their land, and the complete control over its natural resources.
LG: I’m curious about the lives of architecture projects like this, that are speculative or analytical projects that are exhibited at progressive, anti-capitalist, or anti-imperialist architecture biennials or published in print — i.e., they don’t become realized buildings, but they also have this concreteness or potential reality to them. How do you situate your work in relationship to the work of analysis and speculation in architecture, and who is your ideal audience for this work?
RZ: This type of work is especially popular in architecture biennials, and since architecture is so solution-oriented, and traditionally serves a certain class of people, biennials become a platform for wider audiences and students to explore new topics and challenge current paradigms in the discipline. Within the Israeli-Palestinian context, Israel has also used pavilions in architectural biennials to construct false political and historical narratives. The most obvious example that comes to me is Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal’s exhibition in the 2002 International Union of Architects congress in Berlin, which was about how the Israeli state uses architecture and planning. That exhibition was hugely opposed and censored by Israel, and when something is so violently opposed, you know how powerful of a tool it can be in constructing an opposing narrative. This is exactly what my thesis attempts to do, by taking part in creating this larger narrative which is crucial to keeping the Palestinian identity and cause alive. For me, as an architect, that's the first step to catalyzing true change, rather than the superficial solutions that we usually resort to.
“When architecture does not confront inequality,
it automatically becomes complicit in it.”
LG: You mentioned in an earlier conversation how many stories there are about how the occupation shapes Palestinian lives, and wanting to do something that’s more research- or fact-based. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
RZ: I think using both research and stories can help form a deeper understanding of any human condition, but especially the Palestinian one, because it’s so grossly misrepresented and undermined. Between research and stories, there is both a shift in scale when addressing this kind of condition, and it’s also key to have both to identify the root of the issue. Stories humanize people who are affected and impacted by these practices and policies. This reminds me of a quote that really touched me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, addressing his son: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body.” And presenting the research alone tends to distract from the fact that human lives are at stake, whereas sharing stories alone makes one think of those experiences as sad, unfortunate, isolated events, which might stop us from seeing the issues that are systemic and intentional. The story that I share in my thesis was purposefully a typical one within the context. It wasn’t unique or extreme, because I wanted to emphasize how obscene and typical that reality is, and the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians share the same story.