The contaminated architecture by AAU Anastas

An interview with Palestine-based architects Elias and Yousef Anastas as they carry out a multidisciplinary practice that brings together the global and the local.

by Salvatore PelusoPublished on : Nov 26, 2022

"When we think about Israel and Palestine, two images tend to come to mind— the rocket and the wall. These concepts are typically understood as political devices, however at their root, they are indisputably architectural (destructive or constructive). The publications of multimodal practitioners, such as Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land and Malkit Shoshan’s Atlas of the Conflict, have introduced the Middle East conflict to the architectural discourse, revealing that mapping, planning, building, and demolishing are among the primary tools of occupation,” report's writer, designer and researcher Tamar Shafrir in Domus 970, published in June 2013. On the pages following this article, entitled Activist Architecture, the magazine featured the very first built project of AAU Anastas—an architecture firm based in Bethlehem and founded by brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas—the Edward Said National Conservative of Music in Bethlehem.

  • AAU Anastas, Edward Said National Conservative of Music, Bethlem, 2011. | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
    AAU Anastas, Edward Said National Conservative of Music, Bethlem, 2011 Image: Antonio Ottomanelli
  • Edward Said National Conservative of Music imagined as a generic and anonymous architecture, that could incorporate a public space and have an impact on the neighbourhood |AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
    Edward Said National Conservative of Music imagined as a generic and anonymous architecture, that could incorporate a public space and have an impact on the neighbourhood Image: Antonio Ottomanelli

AAU Anastas's work stems from a profound understanding of the complex dynamics of a specific territory but also inscribes itself in a discourse that goes beyond its own context, using globally comprehensible vocabularies. This is why they speak of 'global provincialism'—an approach capable of bringing different worlds into tension without banalising them or making them a caricature for easier international consumption. On the contrary, by clarifying and problematising connections and differences, they manage to develop original and innovative expressions.

We interviewed Elias and Yousef about their work, which is truly multifaceted and capable of generating a layered ecology of ideas and actions. We start with their first project—"For the Edward Said National Conservative of Music, we imagined a generic and anonymous architecture, but one that could incorporate a public space and have an impact on the neighbourhood. We designed an urban form capable of engaging with its context. In Palestine, the development of cities is not regulated by masterplans, but follows the proliferation of isolated forms, which often do not communicate with each other. The idea was to create a building that is banal but has the potential to generate a new form of urbanism in the city,” the Anastas brothers explain to STIR.

  • Local Industries | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
    Local Industries Image: Omar Shaheen
  • Local Industries of the region | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
    Local Industries of the region Image: Omar Shaheen
  • Images of Local Industries  | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
    Images of Local Industries Image: Omar Shaheen

“The fact that we use architecture as a political tool is not really central to our practice. Every aspect of everyday life is political, but this statement is valid in any city and context. Talking about political architecture can be a trap because it creates expectations about the possible symbolic aspects of a building. For us, the success of a project is determined by its ability to react to its surroundings, with the society, the culture of a place, creating meaningful connections with the people who inhabit it.”

The conservatory relies on its programme to create a public place. The unity of the different volumes is given using local stone as a cladding material, which is common in all Palestinian cities. On this material, the office developed a comprehensive research programme entitled Stone Matters, which aims at including stone stereotomy—the processes of cutting stones—construction processes in contemporary architecture. It relies on novel computational simulation and fabrication techniques, in order to present a modern stone construction technique as part of a local and global architectural language.

AAU Anastas, All-purpose, exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, 2021. Part of the Stone Matters research project | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
AAU Anastas, All-purpose, exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, 2021. Part of the Stone Matters research project Image: Antonio Ottomanelli

“Stone Matters, is a research on stone material, which is traditionally used in Palestine but has an enormous capacity to evolve and transform. This research also started because there is a colonial rule here, imposed by the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate for Palestine, that stone must be used for building envelopes for at least 70 per cent. Stone has gone from being a structural material capable of characterising historical architecture to being today only a cladding for concrete structures,” explain the Palestinian architects.

“In recent decades, this standard has been used as a colonial tool. In Jerusalem, the Israelis started to use stone not only to follow the rule but mainly to enlarge the city and erase the boundary between the recognised historic centre of Jerusalem and the surrounding suburbs. They used the material as a tool of conquest and colonisation. Our research links stone to the way cities evolve, creating a relationship between their technical uses and urban morphology. It is mainly based on experimentation and prototyping of architectural elements and is triggered by a local and unique situation. Furthermore, it is important for us to think about the material not only in terms of architecture but also in terms of resources and extraction, landscapes and natural environments, connecting a particular context to a global level.”

AAU Anastas, Stone Matters, Jericho, 2017 | AAU Anastas | Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
AAU Anastas, Stone Matters, Jericho, 2017 Image: Mikaela Burstow

An apparently different project from the practice of Elias and Yousef Anastas is that of an online radio station, born during the pandemic. But when listening to the two architects talk about Radio Alhara (Neighbourhood Radio), one immediately realises how coherent this is with their work. “Radio Alhara is a public space. It is an online platform, it is true, but the way it is conceived and functions is based on the idea of appropriation and communality, just as it is in physical spaces,” said Anastas. “The name came about during the pandemic, and because the health crisis brought us all—globally—to a neighbourhood scale, we were all more connected and on the same level. Through the radio, a network of solidarity was born, bringing together struggles and actions from different parts of the planet. This allows us to think about new forms of cooperation, to develop concepts that we also apply in the field of architecture, and to reflect more broadly on our condition, looking at the similarities and peculiarities of each one.”

Radio Alhara, Sonic Liberation Front with Julmud at While We Wait Cremisan Valley | AAU Anastas |Elias and Yousef Anastas | STIRworld
Radio Alhara, Sonic Liberation Front with Julmud at While We Wait Cremisan Valley Image: Courtesy of Elias and Yousef Anastas

Connecting thought and action, architecture and production is the goal of Wonder Cabinet, a cultural hub that will open in March 2023 in Bethlehem and that will condense the various aspects of the work of Elias, Yousef and the network of people with whom they collaborate—it will be a studio and radio station, an artistic residence, a restaurant, and a production site. “The basic idea of Wonder Cabinet is to make production collective and involve people working in different disciplinary fields. We think that architecture can once again become a subject that dialogues on the same level with different forms of knowledge and still be linked to artisanal production methods. We will try to develop a platform free of the financial burdens of large cultural institutions, integrating different structures and practices that are all based on the idea of contamination of knowledge.”

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