Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal are a team of two extraordinary architects who live permanently at Beit Sahour on the outskirts of Bethelem in Palestine. They have worked since 2007 to revitalize, reconstruct, take apart, and reconceive both the ruins and abandoned spaces that are the remnants of the vast spaces throughout Palestine that have been destroyed, dispossessed, cut into pieces over some sixty years since the Nakba in 1947. Their work is extraordinary because it is unique in every way: from those they call on to work with them (artists, film makers, architects, young people from the refugee camps) to the visions they conceive and the materials and histories on which they draw. Their work is an engagement with what others think as impossible: how to imagine a future made out of ruins that are openings to new possibilities? How to take an abandoned military Israeli military site and reimagine its possibilities for habitation? How to imagine living in the enemy’s house? Refusing to wait for politicians or legal systems to change the terms of the debate, Petti and Hilal are changing those terms in advance and through the new infrastructures they both imagine and make possible. What kind of public space might be envisioned and built (as they have) at the center of a refugee camp while endorsing and making more real the “right of return”? These creative, modest, and brilliant young architects open their home to those from around the world to live and think with them through art, video, architecture, anthropology and history and more. Their two principal projects, “Decolonizing Architecture” and “Campus on Camps” are living archives in formation, of what is needed to think a future even as checkpoints stop their entry, arbitrary roadblocks cut access to villages, even as those who are ready to take up month long residencies in their compound are denied access and stopped at the airport gates.

Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal have no pretention. They are mobilizing the dormant energies around them and around the world to activate acts of political creation — their efforts are not designed to tell us what’s wrong with Israeli policy but to embrace a notion of critique that allies with Foucault’s definition: not to be governed by these people, at this time, in this way. They came to speak to us at the New School on the late afternoon of November 17, 2014. The Orozco room was at full capacity with people camped outside the doors. The anthropologist, Ilana Feldman, who is studying their projects, was there to comment as were Carin Kouni who directs the Vera List Center and myself. Listen closely to their visions, attend to their practices and projects. And if you should find the opportunity, take part in this venture in any way you can! This is engagement and critique oriented to the possible, to the making possible of what is deemed not possible, and to the future tense. -Ann Stoler

2 thoughts on “Spatial Ordering of Exile: The Architecture of Palestinian Refugee Camps

  1. Dear Ann,
    first of all, thank you very much for your concise introduction into the work of Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal. Reading it, I actually was a little bit surprised by your reference to the Nakba. Based on my previous discussions in and outside the academic world, I would say that the Nakba and in this connection Israel’s declaration of Independence and the War of 1948 are highly contentious issues. Some scholars argue that from the perspective of Israel it was a defenisve war after arab leaders not only rejected the UN partition plan but attacked the young state of Israel and in this way initiated the war. Other scholars radically reject such an understanding or agumentation. I would appreciate if you can explain how you understand the Nakba and how your version reflects the complex processes that occured at this time in the Middle East. Thank you very much.

  2. The Nakba is contentious, in the sense that Israel legislates to obstruct any public commemoration of what happened to the Palestinians in 1947-8. Those who attempt to obscure the reality of the Nakba (they used to blame it on Palestinian leaders urging their communities to leave!) generally do so to support an Israeli self-justificatory narrative. For any in doubt as to what took place I would recommend Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.(One World, Oxford, 2006).

Leave a Reply