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Art & Social Space
Decolonizing Architecture: Interview with Alessandro Petti
by Ana María Durán

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

Alessandro Petti: 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 in the contrary to struggle and to envision the return. The resulting concept 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 of “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 plant their roots elsewhere. So even though they build houses, they can´t own them, even if 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. The first image that comes to mind in relation to a “refugee camp” is linked to specific, transitory architectures, such as precarious shelters and tents. This does not correspond to the reality of Palestinian refugee camps, which tend to be made of different kinds of materials, political and historical matters included.

AMD: How did you engage the community in the research and design processes?

AP: 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 practically right; 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?

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

AP: 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 articulate themselves 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 of an other.

We work in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, which host approximately 8,000 individuals. It is a very interesting and active camp. Political activism is unique here as modes of inhabitation and nation building. Refugees for example don’t 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 different 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 becomes “the enemy” to be fought, because the two-state solution they support 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.

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