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Revitalisation of Birzeit Historic Centre, Palestine (awarded 2011–2013)

Several archaeological studies date Birzeit in Palestine to the Byzantine and Roman eras. It is located 11 kilometres north of Ramallah and 25 kilometres north of Jerusalem. Its historic centre covers about 4 hectares. The town stands at 780 metres above sea level and is surrounded by hills, predominantly terraced for agricultural use, especially olive groves (Lampra- kos, 2013). Like other West Bank towns, traditional structures in the old centre are one-storey high and made of the well-known golden-yellow local sandstone and lime mortar. Many houses are covered by domes; concrete flat-roofed kitchens and bathrooms are generally added to the rear of the houses. Economic, political, and demographic transformations of early to mid-20th-century Palestine have impacted the town and its residents; this includes two world wars, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, in addition to the more recent Israeli colonisation and settler activity. All of these combined to provoke great waves of Palestinian emigration. Many left to work in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States; others went further afield and emigrated to the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia, as well as Brazil. This exodus has had profound demographic and cultural effects on the town of Birzeit. Consequently, many of the traditional homes in the historic centre were abandoned and underwent severe decay (Mostafavi, 2013b). This deplorable situation was exacerbated in the early 1980s when the dynamic Birzeit University relocated to a site several kilometres to the south; this move had a major impact on the town and drained it of its vitality and charm.

The Birzeit historic centre regeneration project, sponsored by the Palestine Regeneration Team (PART), was conceived as the pilot project for Riwaq’s “50 Villages” programme. Riwaq is a pioneering non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Palestine and is an important platform for architectural conservation. Set up in 1991, its mission is to protect the heritage and

Palestinian character of towns and villages in the West Bank that are often the target of Israel’s defiant, deliberate, and continuing destruction and occupation of Palestinian lands. Riwaq is not only concerned with rehabilitating the historical fabric of Palestine, it is also an organ of passive resistance and collaborative creativity; those involved are specialists from the fields of art, architecture, and urban planning. The choice of Birzeit as a test case for the programme was based on its pivotal location in the West Bank and its close proximity to surrounding towns and villages, especially Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority; these factors made it a good representation of Palestinian rural areas (Golzari and Sharif, 2018). Birzeit was also selected because it has a supportive municipality and several active local NGOs, including Rozana School. Additionally, it has a socially diverse, but economically disadvantaged, faith-based population (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslims); a largely intact but neglected historic fabric (Figure 3.14); and various resources nearby, including archaeological sites, natural springs, and olive groves. Riwaq believed that these factors - both limitations and opportunities - would increase the project’s chance of success and heighten its visibility. The goal was to provide a model for similar initiatives and interventions throughout Palestine (Lamprakos, 2013).

Riwaq’s work links social and physical spaces by integrating conservation techniques and creative design into a participatory process. This is evident

Revitalisation of Birzeit Historic Centre, Palestine, by Riwaq - Centre for Architectural Conservation in their approach to public space

Figure 3.14 Revitalisation of Birzeit Historic Centre, Palestine, by Riwaq - Centre for Architectural Conservation in their approach to public space: interventions were both materialistic (designing sequences of public spaces) and non-materialistic (naming streets based on local narratives). Riwaq’s programme focused on villages for two main reasons: about 50% of the surviving historic structures are located in villages, and the majority of the village inhabitants suffer from difficult economic circumstances. By focusing on villages, much of Palestine’s remaining heritage would be saved and rehabilitated, while at the same time, new job opportunities would be created; this in turn would spark new investments that could improve socio-economic conditions. In essence, the Riwaq model was conceived as an inclusionary and participatory endeavour from the outset: public meetings and community-planning sessions were regularly held before and throughout the duration of the project to inculcate a sense of ownership and pride in the rehabilitation of the town. Thus, the project was one of both physical and cultural conservation, as it aimed to promote awareness of the old social and cultural bonds that shaped the rural landscape, preserve aesthetic, cultural, and social values, and provide inspiration for current and future generations of Palestinians, thereby promoting solidarity and a sense of cultural pride and identity.

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