The regeneration of the historic centre of Birzeit
in collaboration with Riwaq: Centre for Architectural Conservation
The conservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings has over the years been seen, generally, as a passive act for the prevention of cultural change. However, in the case of Palestine, conservation and renovation of the historical fabric is regarded as not at all conventional. It offers instead a dynamic process of resistance and creativity that is being practiced by a mixed group of young graduates and experienced practitioners from the fields of architecture and urban planning, operating under the umbrella of Riwaq. As a leading body for architectural conservation, Riwaq is a pioneering NGO in Palestine. It was set up in 1991 to protect the historic fabric and the Palestinian identity of towns and villages in the West Bank from deliberate destruction.
NG Architects in London have been working closely with Riwaq on the regeneration of the historic centre of Birzeit -- a key university town just to the north of Ramallah -- which has been chosen as a pilot project to explore the concept of redevelopment within the ambitious wider plan to protect 50 historic centres across Palestine. NGA's contribution to the Birzeit project act as a way to offer academic, professional and technical support for exploring the potential of the cultural context in Palestine, including asking what the concept of 'heritage conservation' could mean in this location. The Birzeit project is also being seen as another means to create matrixes and networks that are able to operate whenever needed to overcome Israeli strategies of occupation.
The two main routes and their urban pockets
The multiple layers used to form the general strategy for Birzeit were initially viewed at the large scale of 1:10000 to connect the historic centre with the complex urban context around. Two main new linking routes were proposed as a result; these two routes are thus seen as the backbone stretching across the historic centre and connecting it with the rest of the town and the surrounding villages. Programs on the urban scale are proposed through activities and design interventions to take place along these two identified routes. They have been located in what NGA refers to as ‘urban pockets’, whereby each has its own proposed function and program of intervention. The design focus has been primarily on the public spaces and public properties in historic Birzeit as a practical way to get around the otherwise difficult issues of private ownership.
The work in progress for Birzeit also aims to create a model house or prototype dwelling so that local people can physically experience what can be done through design alterations to old buildings, largely in terms of improving simple environmental performance while maintaining the character and aesthetic value of the old buildings. Responsive environmental technologies and design interventions are closely related to thermal comfort and issues of energy. Additionally, the design team of NGA/Riwaq, with the help and support of the ‘Think Net’ group, will be looking into recycling methods that will raise consciousness and pave the way for a more sustainable form of architecture that pays more careful attention to cultural habits and daily practices.