Above and below: The ruins of Lifta

Restoration and justice

FAST opposes these plans. The conference in the Balie could signal the start of the creation of an alternative plan. The houses in Lifta should be protected by UNESCO as monuments of the ordinary environment that existed before the creation of the state of Israel. But should Lifta become a monument to the Nakba? Restored? Renovated? No, says Shmuel Groag, an Israeli architect and member of Bimkom (which means ‘instead of’ in Hebrew), a group of architects who lobby for the preservation of human rights in the field of planning and architecture. He says there is a danger that the success of the memory project will confirm the image of the Arabic inhabitation of Lifta as part of the past. A few thousand people lived in Lifta before 1948. Three generations later there are more than thirty thousand people from Lifta, says Odeh. What do they have to gain from the renovation of their village, abandoned almost sixty years ago? All they want is their property back. Speaking about an architectural challenge: it would be a big challenge to accommodate thirty thousand returning villagers today in the highly urbanised context of the small town of Lifta.

Renovation and restoration projects create a momentary and spatial snapshot of a certain building or area; and the choice of moment is not always (i.e. usually not) determined by aesthetic considerations. DDR cultural heritage in Berlin – the Palast der Republik – is being demolished and the Berliner Schloss rebuilt. In Amsterdam a remarkable seventeenth-century staircase in the Palace on the Dam is to be demolished – why, by the way, doesn’t ArchiNed cover this? – to make way for an extra lift for receptions hosted by the Queen. Just imagine if a pressure group was set up to repair the damage to Paris and social injustice caused by Baron Hausmann and recreate Paris as it existed before the creation of broad boulevards. Restoration does not, by definition, mean justice.

For years the American architecture historian Andrew Herscher has been studying the architecture of political violence in former Yugoslavia. His analysis of the relation between violence, architecture and memory steers clear of sentiment and is therefore extremely powerful. Buildings are often destroyed as a way of sending a painful message to the loser or to damage their collective memory. Just as often, however, the collective memory is used to justify violence. After the war and the destruction of important buildings, the violence of renovation and restoration begins. They are, says Herscher, entirely ideological terms. In Pristina, he says, more damage was inflicted by reconstruction than by war. Political and economic interests determine what, where and how restoration takes place. Herscher concluded his clear presentation with an apt quote: ‘An object that has been destroyed is not replaceable; it disappears forever. Devastation is never solely material; it has multiple aspects, multiple meanings, but it is always final. We shall build new libraries; publish new books, announce the optimists, accustomed to a regular rhythm of destruction and rebuilding. But the idea of reconstruction contains the notion of future destruction.’ (Dubravka Ugresic, The Culture of Lies, 1996).


The conference was extremely interesting and valuable, but the title, Reconstruction of Memory, turned out to be problematic in many ways. In psychology it is generally accepted that the reconstruction of a memory cannot simply be taken as a truth. It is often coloured or even manipulated by external factors. The reconstruction of a collective memory, therefore, is almost a contradiction in terms because the process of  reconstruction itself forms part of the collective memory. What’s more, Palestinian collective memory is extremely lively, as we heard from Yacoub Odeh. Moreover, it has become clear that architectural and structural interventions such as renovation, restoration and reconstruction do not simply signify the rectification of past wrongs and do not by definition result in a sort of ‘spatial justice’. All speakers agreed that the only way to effect justice for Lifta is a legal way (the right to return) and not an architectural way.

With this conclusion in mind, what then is the answer to the question posed by Malkit Shoshan at the start of the conference: ‘How can a profession (architects and planners) call to account the political and ideological misuse of (architectural) heritage?’ The answer can be found in the CVs of the conference participants. They are all passionate and talented professionals who, from within a variety of organisations, are striving to create a better and more just situation in their own surroundings and their own profession. To them there’s no cynicism about the word ‘engagement’. It forms a fundamental aspect of their professional vision. The solution to political and national conflicts cannot be found within the discipline of architecture, but projects like Lifta facilitate the development of a state of mind that could eventually generate an acceptable solution.

Above and below: Housing developments in Israel in the fifties

The context of a ruin

After Bronstein came Zvi Efrat, head of the department of architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. He talked about the image of the ruin in Israeli culture. Zionism, he says, is the motor behind the biggest architecture project of the modern movement. According to the design by state architect Arieh Sharon (not to be confused with Ariel Sharon), the country was systematically filled with innovative buildings and settlements – proof that the Zionist and also the modernist ideal could be created. The historical photos presented by Efrat show white buildings on a hill with an abandoned Arabic village in the background.


After 1948 the inhabitants of Israel lived next to the ruins of abandoned Arabic villages. Ruin – with all their romantic and sentimental connotations – became obvious elements in the landscape of Israel. Yet, they lost their real meaning: they were simply ruins, and not the ruins of destroyed Arabic villages. Remarkably, In local architecture ruins were actually embraced. The prize-winning design by architect Al Mansfeld for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem refers directly to the structure of an Arabic village. And since the 1980s there has been a proliferation of post-modern oriental curves in Israeli residential architecture.

And the inhabitable Arabic houses? They were often occupied by left-wing Jewish-Israeli intellectuals and artists. Attracted by the romantic image of the East (just think of Eduard Said’s Orientalism!), they moved into these abandoned houses without considering the fate of the original builders and occupants.

That’s what happened to some of the houses in Lifta. The vast majority are still empty. An urban plan for the area was drawn up twenty years ago. But, as so often happens with master plans, it has only recently been ratified after countless amendments by the local authority. It now forms part of an ambitious design (which includes a bridge by Calatrava) for the entrance to Jerusalem. The plan proposes exclusive homes for wealthy Americans who want a pied-à-terre in Jerusalem. Some old homes will be renovated and there will also be a museum full of old agricultural machines. The machines come from Arabic villages but they will be presented in the museum in the context of Biblical stories and not in relation to their real history.

'A friend of my mother used to live in this house. Hanging from the windowsills of her lovely house were the most beautiful flowerpots. As children we often secretly tried to pick the flowers, but she always saw us and said, 'Carry these bags upstairs for me and you can pick a few flowers'. Once upstairs, she explained to us that the picked flowers would wilt quickly in the heat. And so we went home empty-handed.'

On the projection screen we see what remains of the beautiful house remembered by the speaker: one wall, two empty windows, a ruin. The speaker is Yacoub Odeh and the house is in Lifta, a village on the edge of Jerusalem that Yacoub was forced to flee when he was an eight-year-old boy during what’s called the Palestinian Nakba (the disaster, as the Palestinians call the Israeli war of independence of 1948). The subject of the conference, organised by FAST (Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory) is the destruction of the collective memory regarding the Nakba. The village of Lifta and the current Israeli master plan for the village form a case study.

The city as a reservoir of collective memory

According to French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 1952) and Aldo Rossi in his footsteps, buildings and monuments are the vessels of collective memory in a community. The wartime destruction of buildings and monuments is often seen as an attack on the collective memory and, hence, the identity of the enemy. Images of the destruction of the bridge in Mostar, the Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan and the collapsed Twin Towers in New York affect us deeply, often more than images of murdered people. The construction of a church in the middle of the Al Amhabra mosque and the conversion of the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque mean much more than simply a change of function; they send a message from the conqueror to the conquered.

The day started with an introduction by Israeli architect Malkit Shoshan, initiator of the gathering and director of NGO FAST. It’s generally accepted now, said Shoshan, that the creation of the state of Israel meant the destruction of Arabic life in hundreds of villages. The Zionist slogan ‘a land without people for a people without land’ was an illusion, a denial of the truth, even a lie some people say. The refugee camps on the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan are proof of that. However, we still know much less about the physical fate of these villages. What happened to the houses, the streets, the schools and the squares?

What’s in a name?

The first speaker was Eitan Bronstein, an Israeli intellectual and director of Zochrot. The aim of this organisation – the name means ‘we remember’ in Hebrew – is to make the people of Israel aware of the existence of the Nakba. They organise walks through Jewish-Israeli towns and villages built on the sites of abandoned Arabic settlements. Next to the street name on a busy street they hang another sign bearing the former Arabic street name. This simple action incites extreme reactions from people on the street. The sign is removed almost immediately. For many Israelis, Bronstein explains, accepting the occurrence of the Nakba and the Arabic history of their own town, means calling into question the right to existence of both themselves and the state of Israel. Justice, though scarcely mentioned, is perhaps the most important theme of the conference. Amongst the audience is a delegation from London – members of British Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine; a group of architects (including Sir Richard Rogers and Charles Jencks) who oppose the strategic use of architecture and town planning by the Israeli government in its struggle against the Palestinians.