“Do you like The Maze?” Architecture without architects in Balata Refugee Camp


December 2013 brings record-breaking snow to the Middle East
December 2013 brings record-breaking snow to the Middle East

“Do you like The Maze?”
Architecture without architects in Balata Refugee Camp

“It’s where we used to play hide-and-seek”, points our guide Ramsis. We squeeze into a series of 30cm-wide alleys separating the camp’s precarious housing. In the 1950’s, the UN allocated tents, one per family, regardless families’ size. Seventeen years after it opened, the camp’s population was 10, 776; this number has swollen close to 28,000 today, but exact figures are difficult to discern. Eventually, the UN replaced its tents with 4×3 meter concrete cubes. More substantial structures were then built on top of the original concrete caves, and this practice continues today. “We build on top when families get bigger”, explains Ramsey.

Looking upwards to Balata’s ever-raising buildings means suppressing claustrophobia and vertigo. It’s obvious that moving anything other than people through the Maze’s narrow streets is hugely problematic. Efficiently moving goods or  immobile people, or undertaking large-scale construction operations require rooftops. “When someone dies we use the rooftops to get them out. Also for furniture”. This house, destroyed during the Second Intifada, is slowly being rebuilt in the same plot of land, with much of the materials, brought over the rooftops, piece by piece.
Walking through The Maze, the consequence of ‘architecture without architects’ is omnipresent. Self-regulated building procedures reflect Balata’s ‘permanent-temporariness’ – slap-dash  building measures that reflect refugees’ hopes of leaving Balata to return to permanent homes in Jaffa. But these building standards present notable issues. “We are having problems with foundations.” Looking up at four, even five additional storeys built, it’s not difficult to see how these standards can lead to very real danger.
Passing the only school in the camp, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East  (UNRWA), raises questions about replacing the ‘temporariness’ of the camp with long-lasting infrastructure. “How would they [the UN] do it though, there is no space for infrastructure”, counters Ramsis.

Balata’s stylish public/private thresholds show pride in homeownership
Balata’s public/private thresholds show pride in homeownership

Moreover, removing the ‘temporariness’ from Balata poses a symbolic threat: it would solidify the camp’s existence. Why build lasting infrastructure if you don’t plan on staying? “People say they are from Jaffa, or from Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and that they only live in Balata. Improvements would be good short-term, but people remember where they come from”. And they want to return.

Hearing, above the other senses, prevails in Balata’s Maze. The narrow corridors stretching in every direction leave an eerie darkness, even at the height of the day. Glimmers of fluorescent light penetrate into the alleys from small windows of kitchens and ground floor rooms. Chatter, clatter of pots and pans, and potent smells of meals and coffee in the making brush past you as you squeeze your way forward. Next, you find yourself passing under bullet-ridden satellite-dishes and bullet-holes patched with mortar: the urban healing itself perpetually.
The Maze is interrupted by a commercial street running through Balata’s north-south axis. It is wide enough to accommodate the suk and two directional flow of traffic – wheel-carts, straggles of children, and patched-up cars of all shapes and sizes. But the very notion of a main street, commercial street, or in fact, a wide street is baffling in the context of a refugee camp, it is a nod to permanence in a cloud of temporariness. Yet, these streets and their limited commercial capacity allow Balata to function as a satellite area of central Nablus, in many ways independent in its everyday activities.

Crossing to the camp’s eastern side, we’re faced with two structures that define Balata’s unique architectural language. One is a 4x3x2m concrete cave, a replacement of the UN’s tents, visible from the street. Next to it is a solid interpretation of Bauhaus architecture. Horizontal lines feature strongly along the Bauhaus façade with curved corners and touches of minimalism. ‘Less is more’, echoes the fundamental phrase. However, in Balata ‘less’ in fact, means, less. The camp’s resourcefulness, utilising the most minimal assets in the most maximum way possible, is striking. However, with so much ‘less’ only little can be achieved. Standing in front of this Modernist ingenuity though, it seems as if we find ourselves momentarily in central Tel Aviv

Refugee camp modernism next to a remaining UN cave
Refugee camp modernism next to a remaining UN cave

Joint article with Jonathan Brown: Balata: A camp of transitory permanance
Full picture gallery:   “If you come in force, you’ll be met with force”

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