Sept. 26, 2021 Ι Bloomberg CityLab
When Americans turned on the TV or glanced at their smartphones for news of the deadly clashes that engulfed the Gaza Strip in May — or if they followed the more recent spasm of violence in August that threatened to break the region’s fragile truce — many saw scenes that looked familiar: streets flooded with protesters, engaged in a struggle against highly armed security forces on the streets of a battered-looking city.
In many ways, the political and physical conditions of the Gaza Strip are unique: Nearly 2 million people are packed into a 25-mile-long rectangle of land along the Mediterranean roughly the size of Philadelphia. For decades, the territory has been home to Palestinians displaced by the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and subject to Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six-Day War. But since 2007, after the political wing of the Islamist group Hamas was elected to power, Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade. In response, Hamas militants have attacked Israel with suicide bombers and missile attacks, and the two sides have settled into a gruesome rhythm of low levels of violence punctuated by intense conflagrations. In May’s fighting, as many as 260 Palestinians were killed; in Israel, 12 people were killed.
Gaza is a landscape of extreme economic deprivation born of the region’s complicated political dynamics — but one whose contours may soon become more common.
That’s the premise behind the recently released book Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, published by Terreform’s imprint Urban Research. Edited by Deen Sharp, an urban geographer who focuses on the Middle East, and essayist, theorist, activist, and provocateur Michael Sorkin, the book presents a vision of Gaza as a glimpse of an imminent future, where violence, surveillance, resource scarcity and provisional use of an extremely compromised built environment are visited on all.
Sharp sees connections, for example, between the unrest in Gaza and the racial justice demonstrations in U.S. cities after the murder of George Floyd in 2020: In both, the key issue is who has a right to the city — the right to claim contested urban space. “The Black Lives Matter protests and that broader movement and recognition of the types of oppression that are going on [in Gaza] is something that’s been made visible,” he says.
The Gaza Strip, the book’s promotional copy declares, is “one of the most beleaguered environments on earth.” But the territory and its urban center, Gaza City, is appallingly understudied in terms of architecture and urbanism. That makes it a fitting swan song for Sorkin, who died last year of Covid-19. “Michael wanted to go where others wouldn’t dare,” says Sharp.
Featuring contributions from scholars, urbanists and architects from the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, India, the U.S. and the U.K., the book’s essays explore the extant condition of Gaza and its wider socio-political context, and offer speculative designs aimed at wresting back sovereignty and dignity for its residents. It posits that the ad-hoc, low-carbon design techniques that Gazans have developed look ahead to a planet failing to meet the challenges of a climate cataclysm, a global pandemic, and growing inequality. As brittle regimes are wracked by crises, mass migrations harden borders, and infrastructure buckles, Open Gaza suggest that the rest of the world may start to look more and more like Gaza.
Or has already. Anyone who’s searched for clean water in Flint or has seen their home destroyed in wildfires or floods might understand what Yara Sharif, a Palestinian architect who contributed to the book, means when she says, “The Palestinianization of cities is happening worldwide. It’s happening by destruction and erasure, but also with dramatic climate change.”
Eco-Adaptation by Necessity
Open Gaza isn’t content to just praise the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Gazan and allied urbanists and architects; nor is the book interested in depicting Gaza purely as a dystopian prison. “You could call [these visions] utopian, but I think these are alternative possibilities,” says Sharp. “They’re not fantasies.” Instead, the collection serves as a “demand that [Gazans] be able to live and shape their urban context and infrastructure, and social lives in ways that are dignified and respectful of their humanity,” he says.
The book presents Gaza’s architectural condition — extant and speculative — as defined by its power imbalance with Israel. This asymmetry means Open Gaza is free of the antiseptic techno-solutionism that often populates architecture tomes. Such documents often claim that low-carbon buildings, made from nothing more than the trees and dirt on their plot of earth, will exist in an atmosphere of generous technological enlightenment, happy consumers sipping lattes poured by robots, munching on locally sourced avocado BLTs. Open Gaza tells us this scenario might be a fairy tale. The book’s prescriptions operate with found conditions and severe local constraints on materials; it suggests that your first shower warmed by solar power might happen in between air-raid sirens.
This reality is why buzzwords like “sustainability” or “resilience” don’t mean anything to the average Gazan, says Palestinian architect Salem Al Qudwa, who writes about the territory’s quotidian, everyday buildings. For Western architects, recycling brick may be a way to save carbon and bestow new buildings with the patina of age. But in Gaza, there is no choice.
Al Qudwa has developed “incremental housing” templates, he says, that begin by setting foundations and structural columns, and letting Gazans fill in the gaps, creating a low-cost lattice for expandable housing units that feature shaded courtyards and roof decks. Homes often lack electricity, so cross-breezes are essential. Made from local materials, they offer climate-attunement Al Qudwa says non-local NGOs intent on building often miss. “My people need decent shelter,” he says. “A good house with proper insulation, with natural light, etc.”
There is no nostalgia for vernacular buildings or ways of living, says Sharif, but these practices are critical. “Gaza is looking at environmental practices out of necessity,” she says. “The only way forward is [through] traditional ways of living because there is no alternative.”
Rafi Segal and Chris Mackey’s “Solar Dome” — whose name riffs on Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system — makes the convincing case that there are few places better suited to an entirely solar grid. Gazans uses less than 2% of the average American’s energy footprint, and Gaza’s sunny climate further reduces the need for expensive energy storage. And the concept of “energy independence” takes on new meaning when citizens acquire utilities from a hostile neighbor. As such, Segal and Mackey recommend a system of building-scaled photovoltaic panels augmented with solar water heaters, and a district-scaled system of concentrated solar power towers.
Similarly, a chapter by Denise Hoffman Brandt unveils a plan for pavilions that collect fresh rainwater and use sunlight to desalinate groundwater, and floating ocean desalination pods made from trash.
Sharif’s “Learning Room” plan, detailed in her chapter of Open Gaza written with Nasser Golzari, addresses the imposed mutability of Gaza’s built environment. A system of modular, mobile shelters made from gabion walls, rammed earth, wire mesh, bamboo, and more, it’s a migrating community center for exchanging skills, made from rubble itself. “The idea of the Learning Room was not to see it as a permanent structure that is going to shape the identity of the city,” says Sharif. “It was an experimental space [you] can keep modifying and changing. It’s not a new urban structure. It’s more of a lab to allow new structures to happen.” In this way, the Learning Room underscores the difficulty of long-term planning in Gaza.
It also distills the tactical flexibility Gazans must demonstrate to keep themselves housed. Western architects have made it a polemic to use only materials close at hand — to design their buildings as a bird builds a nest. Architect Jeanne Gang keeps birds’ nests on her desk for inspiration, but it’s unlikely Gazans need such a reminder.
The most visceral and imaginative collision of low-carbon aspiration with apocalyptic utility arrives in Helga Tawil-Souri’s chapter on the IPN: “The Internet Pigeon Network.” To surmount Israeli restrictions on electricity and bandwidth, the NYU media scholar proposes a decentralized network of pigeon roosts, trainers, and pick-up nodes. This avian internet would fly pigeons with flash disks tied to their necks from point to point, offering a faster and more secure way to share information. Reliant on local knowledge and labor, it’s another way of Gaza asserting infrastructural independence.
A Different Kind of Smart City
But it’s not as though the built environment of Gaza is untouched by technology. In some ways, the digital network that monitors the city and its residents represents a variation on the data-intensive “smart city” concept — another way Gaza looks ahead to the future.
Since 2014, Gaza’s reconstruction has been managed through an online database called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). Updated in real time, the GRM records all the building material that flows in through its border, along with what it’s to be used for and who will receive it. The mechanism, designed to ensure that resources aren’t being used for military purposes by Hamas, was agreed upon by Israel and Palestine, and was meant to be temporary. But Franceco Sebregondi of Forensic Architecture says it puts Israel in an “ultimate supervisory role”: His chapter in Open Gaza, called “Frontier Urbanization,” details how the GRM gives Israeli authorities a granular picture of Gaza’s built condition, and the ability to delay Gaza’s rebuilding.
Such omniscience is increasingly a goal of the design and building industry, where there’s a push to translate plans into data and ensure that what’s built closely aligns with digital models, to more efficiently manage construction and operational performance. But that’s not the only way it could be used. How much of this information, for example, might a refugee resettlement nonprofit at the U.S.-Mexico border want to share with immigration authorities? While the GRM is relatively primitive, its broad usage across Gaza still creates a map of its reconstruction that exists nowhere else.
For Sebregondi, who earned a Ph.D. on the architecture of the Gaza blockade from Goldsmiths, University of London, this intrusion reveals that the problem of the smart city is not technical. It’s political. As with sunny visions of our eco-friendly future, design and urbanism themselves have no inherent autonomy to resist political agendas, and their calls for ease, efficiency, and low-impact living make ready Trojan Horses for power. “Who will be in charge of accessing certain data?,” says Sebregondi. “What levels of transparency and access [are] granted by using this infrastructure? I don’t think that the technologies behind smart urbanism cannot be re-engineered toward serving another idea of collective urban environments. But the ones that are currently marketed and very light-heartedly deployed across our cities tend to pursue the opposite.” This, he says, is a “dark horizon we need to avoid and fight against.”
The complex intimacy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned the region into something of a proving ground for purpose-built surveillance technology that could be plugged into a future smart city. Indeed, Israeli companies are selling cybersecurity technology all over the world, including the U.S., where it’s used in a new training center in Baltimore.
Sebregondi sees Gaza as further along a continuum of ricocheting colonial violence: As states become more fragile and defensive and climate change adds layers of stress, inequalities skyrocket and people divide into camps. Where these two groups are anywhere near each other, the market for surveillance and control technology booms. Debates over the role of militarized police on the streets of U.S. cities and the rise of privacy-eroding public safety technology have collapsed the distance between Palestine and Pittsburgh.
“There is an extent to which Palestine becomes a sort of crystal [ball] of this particular future, within a very compacted and dense territory, [featuring] some of the most striking aspects of this splintering urbanism,” says Sebregondi. He describes the “boomerang effect of colonization,” where techniques to wield control over restive populations in distant countries eventually come home, as with the NSA’s experiments using the Iraq War to develop domestic surveillance programs.
It’s a cycle that’s eradicated distance, says Sharp, pulling Gazans and the rest of the world closer together, and bringing the front lines, already at their doorstep, into ours.
“These circulations of violence and containment,” he says, “come back to haunt us all.”