We had an inspiring conversation with Sandi Hilal about using various forms of collectivities in architecture to represent the non-represented people, after the “Cosmopolitanism and the City” talk as part of Curious Community 2019, organized by ATÖLYE and 3dots; in partnership with the Swedish Institute.
Let’s talk about how your personal life and career evolved. Because sometimes they are not always parallel, but in your case you moved from one country to another and I believe that it also shaped your career. Can you please tell us how everything evolved?
I think since I began working as an architect, the choices I make in my private life is very much also what determines my thoughts. As architects we use private, we use public, we use other forms of collectivity and yet sometimes it feels like we are completely detached from what we are doing. I feel that the profession of architecture sometimes oblige you to take a position. And I think sometimes, in certain conditions, it’s essential to take a position. So of course it was done very intuitively, it wasn’t completely planned. When I look at it retrospectively I understand why it was so crucial in our practice. Especially because I collaborate with my husband, partner in life and work, it has been obviously a mixture of what is private and what is public all the time. We also think about what it means for us to have our private life as partially public. We both didn’t want to live a sort of “private” life the way it is proposed to us today as a family; thinking about the house and the car and then eventually the summer house. You have steps in order to be a modern family. We both share the desire to skip this dream and to think about what is ours. How can we create our own dream and then inspire others into it? This was a way of practicing and working. Because most of the times we test first on ourselves then eventually inspire others on it. So, it has been a combination of private and public in that sense.
I was born and grew up in Palestine until I was 17 years old. Then I temporarily moved to Amman, Jordan for a year and a half. And from there I moved to Venice, Italy to study architecture. In Palestine, we had lived and practiced self organization during the first Intifada. We organised our own schools in the neighbourhoods when schools were closed by Israelis. I myself studied in a school that we used to call as “the schools of neighbourhood” which are schools that were organised in living rooms in the neighbourhoods. We organised ourselves in a way that we did not left one empty land without being planted. And it’s on the scale of a city, not even a small village. There was a moment when Israelis decided to close many public institutions, among them were schools and universities. We wanted a Palestinian state and we wanted freedom. And the way we expressed the freedom was through the request of a Palestinian state. I was in the mood of construction and this idea of positive thinking that state might bring you the freedom. Then I arrived to Italy and my counter generation there was actually in the process of destruction rather than construction. They were actually growing against their previous generation, parents and state. They were trying to build their own narration in opposition rather than in apposition. Meanwhile I came from a place where I was in the protest with my parents and grandparents. So I witnessed this completely different generation and struggle. After this we studied in Venice where a very strong social agenda exists within the university itself. It’s also where I learnt how to engage socially and its meaning. There was a moment where we all believed as students that if we design the public space, we are good enough; if we design the private spaces of the friends of our parents or if we are lucky enough to design a villa, we would feel ashamed out of it. As if designing the public is a good thing, designing the private is a bad thing. This was the dichotomy at least when I studied in the University of Venice. All of us had aimed to design the public as a way of contribution to the social agenda.
I studied for thirteen years in Italy. I did my PhD there. We also did our first project together called “Stateless Nation” in 2003 in Venice Biennale with Alessandro. We were asked to think about a Palestinian Pavilion. We were young, getting outside of the university, doing our PhDs. Our main concern there was thinking about a Palestinian Pavilion when Palestine is not a state, where everybody is represented by their own nation state. So we called the project “Stateless Nation”. It was a very strong question on “Is it still possible to represent a world through nation states while a big portion of our world lives outside of this nation state?”. We represented this by all kinds of passports and travel documents Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Syria or other countries hold. There are ten of theses documents. We scattered them in between the nation states, provoking to question what it means today to actually represent people only through their nation state. This was our first project together and it was very much still speaking to the West, speaking very strongly on what it means to represent the non-represented people. And then we decided to come back to Palestine for many reasons. Among them was that our first daughter was born and we didn’t want her to be raised only between me and my husband. We wanted her to understand what an extended family is; what does it mean to live in a place where is loved not only by two parents but by many others. And we felt that the best place where we can offer her a childhood was Palestine, which was not a very obvious choice. Many people were looking at us as a crazy couple taking their first daughter to live under occupation. But we were aiming for other things. We wanted an extended family, we didn’t want to live and raise her alone. This is why we ended up being in Palestine.
As I said before, in Venice we learnt that designing public is good and designing private is bad. So we had to ask what does it means when the public is represented only by the state. And then arriving to Palestine, we were very much confronted again by the notion of the public space. Because in Palestine, there were various forms of collectivities. Among them were the form Masha’a, coming from the Ottoman period. Masha’a is also the way Israelis managed to expropriate part of the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Whenever there was a Masha’a land or Miri land, which are forms of collectivities that were part of the Ottoman Period, Israelis actually translated this literally into public space. The public is the state, the state is Israel, and therefore this was the legal form according to the state of Israel withi the illegality of the occupation through which they managed to expropriate many collectivities of Palestinian people. So you begin to think that the public is not good all the time, sometimes the public is able to expropriate what people have in common. So in our heads we began to problematise what the public is. It would be misleading to think about the public only as good for everyone. Because it also depends on who belongs in that public, have access to that public; who is included and who is excluded, who is in and who is out. This was an extreme example. But sometimes extreme examples are very useful for us to begin to see the ones in softer forms that exist in other places that we were not able to understand before. So if we learnt anything in Palestine it is that as architects, we have to rethink private and public as forms that are dependent on their use. There is no good public and bad private. There are a lot of grey areas, intersections. It is also important to understand how people react when they don’t belong to the public. What happens? How their private becomes their public space in big parts?
*Mesha’a: “In many parts of Palestine the lands cultivated by the villagers are held by them under a system of customary joint ownership known as Mesha’a. The Mesha’a system is often described as a system of communal ownership, and the lands held in Mesha’a said to be owned by a corporate body, usually a village, and to be temporarily partitioned among the individual members of corporations — redistributions taking place periodically. (Ottoman Palestine 1800-1914 Studies in Economic and Social History,1990)
“Living Room” Workshop by Sandi Hilal, Photos by Andreas Fernandez
And after the Palestine you went to Sweden.
Yes. We left Palestine thinking and bringing this notion of the Masha’a with us. I have to say, I was very skeptical about living in Sweden. I was not sure if I would be able to actually live here for a very simple reason. I lived in Italy for thirteen years. And if we are talking about integration, I have to say that I describe myself as one of the best models of integration ever. I studied in Italy. I speak Italian very well and did my PhD in Italian. I’m able to give a whole lecture in Italian. If you would compare my Italian to even some family members of my husband, I speak it much better than them because I have a very strong academic background. I love Italian food. I cook more Italian food than Arabic at home. And I miss Italy more than my husband. And yet I have never been granted to be full Italian. I was running the race of integration the way it is proposed to everyone. You are integrated the moment that these are your models to become Italian, Swede, British, French… As much as you can melt into the plate. This is what integration is described as. And each time you think you arrived somewhere the point is somewhat further, it’s on another step. It’s kind of like a mirage. And you should run again. So I decided that I’m not running this race. Because I ran it once for thirteen years and it did not work, it was an illusion. Because I am me, I’m combining many cultures, have many things inside me. I’m a much richer person by combining these cultures rather than prioritizing one rather than the other in order for me to be accepted. So I decided no, this is not my race. I would not run this race. If I can’t find another way to be integrated in the society, then I’m not willing to live in this society. On the other hand, being an architect and having spoken about what was the process of problematising the public space, I was also suspicious about the public space and the use of it. Also this rhetoric of representing the public space, particularly in a place like Sweden where everybody had access to it, is true. It’s true when we speak about access. Everybody by law has access to public space. But the question is, does everybody feel belonged to that public space and think they are an active member of it? So the one thing is the access and the other one is ability to belong, to be a member that can actively help transform this public space. These were my thoughts when I arrived to Sweden. Integration the way it was proposed to me was not working and I had a very hard time. I speak about myself because I sort of feel that I am on the front line. I feel self-confident enough, yet I felt that it was so hard for me to be able to actually break the highly codified public space of Sweden. You need a very good school in order to understand how you should behave in the public. There are rituals to be behaving in the public. And I have to say it exists particularly in Sweden, but certainly in many other parts of the formalized society. The codes of the public are highly codified to the point where sometimes people feel that it is so hard for them to actually be able to be a part of. When I think about myself, coming here as a privileged architect and artist, being immediately part of the society, If I was to tell you that I fully understand these codes perfectly, I would be lying. It’s not an easy thing.
I live in Stockholm. From urban planning point of view, Stockholm is one of the cities that are highly segregated. People would know who you are from the place you live in. Your address is very important in many ways; to understand your class, your access to society, where you are from. It is a city that managed to create it in such a way that you can even live in Stockholm without realising there are other people of many different cultures living in the same city. You can live in your neighborhood without ever encountering refugees or migrants. It is a place that managed to create different islands on urban level. I realised that people are not necessarily doing their best to go to the public, but withdraw in their private spaces and create their own collectivity. So you would find Iranians having their kids meet together in their living rooms, still cooking Iranian food and try as much as they can to have an Iranian market nearby. It’s the same for Turkish people or Palestinians. If you think about the city in that sense, you have this big Swedish public run by the state as an abstract public, then you have many invisible living rooms that are all over the place. They use the services of the city. but never interact with the public or with each other.
Is it only based on ethnicity or also socioeconomic parameters?
It’s based on socioeconomic parameters very strongly. For example, if you take the case of the Syrians or the Turkish people, they might be rich enough but they still decide to live there. Because they want their kids to be raised with others with same ethnicity. People find access to Swedish public very hard. One thing they would always tell you is “We will never be invited to any Swedish house.” They immediately feel it’s very hard. There is already a separation. So they organise their living rooms and have their collectivity, raise their kids as they are still living in Turkey or Syria or Palestine. This is something that happens everywhere actually, it’s not just a Swedish phenomena. After all these analyses, I did a project called “The Living Room” The whole idea was about how to understand the public, and also the interaction between private and public. Who has the right to host? Who has demanded and asked to be a guest forever?
Coming to Turkey, how was your experience? What were the highlight from “Curious Community” talk which was having the headline “Cosmopolitanism and the City” for you? Could you share us your learnings or key takeaways from this interaction with the Turkish counterparts.
I feel that Turkish institutions are also in front of the questions of “How can we understand public today? What does it mean for us to actually have these refugees in our public? How much can they transform? How much will we ask them to behave and not change our own attitude?”. I also saw quite different attitudes in both cases, between the way SALT is operating and the Design Biennial is operating. Because the director of the SALT was mentioning that they receive private money and try to understand how to inject this money into public. What is interesting to me is that how they had a long term research to understand how to deal with the situation they are living better, no matter the number of audience they have. They want to understand and analyse their space more, rather than working particularly towards the audience. On the other hand the Design Biennial concentrates on what it means to educate their public/audience and if the ones that would be a part of their world are the ones educated to be. They are actually having another way of saying that they want to educate their audience, include their audience in the programs they create. I feel that Istanbul is a place that is living this experience in extreme and the challenge would be to question what kind of public space people can accept to live in. Is the answer to accept the separation and segregation as a matter of fact and live in islands, or are there other ways to actually taking the risk of transforming our own public? I feel that Istanbul in particular, because of its notion of combining many cultures and its location between the Middle East and Europe, has both formality and informality. It feels like there are a lot of things that Istanbul had to deal with and the institutions decided to react to these different situations in interesting ways. I feel that the notions we deal with, particularly private and Masha’a, are certainly urgencies today in Turkey. So it felt amazing understanding how we share urgencies rather than each one living their own urgency. And that building bridges would be a better way to understand. Each time I’m in Istanbul I have the feeling that I will never end learning from this place.
In your projects there is a certain way of storytelling. You are also not only working in the context of architecture but also art. How do you materialize your ideas in terms of projects, installations and exhibitions? How do you start with the process?
This is actually a very interesting question. Because many artists might have an institutional critique towards the white cube and what it means to operate within it in museums, galleries and art spaces. Our attitude was a bit different because we were actually trained as architects. We also built some architectural projects like a school in Shuafat Refugee Camp for one thousand girls. We built “Concrete Tent”, a space where learning happened as a university, in a refugee camp. We also built a square in a refugee camp. So we had to deal with what is public in a refugee camp, which is one of the most difficult questions you can ever ask, since a refugee camp has no private and public in the way we understand. People do not own their own houses. There is no municipalities to take care of the public. So what does it mean to be in a camp and think about public space where actually, it is the most collective space you can ever think of? It has this paradox of being a highly collective place among people that escape certain things and find themselves living together in a form beyond we know that exist. And you can’t imagine working on ground in places like refugee camps. You deal with the messiness and the emergencies constantly. You might get completely frustrated. The reality might be super hard. So when we found ourselves operating in the white cube it was a moment of us dreaming, again. It was the only place we ever had that would permit us to do whatever we have in our minds. The most crazy things that we can ever think about was done in the art world all the time. But that doesn’t mean that we did the crazy thing in the art and didn’t bring it back to the ground. The art and the ground were feeding each other continually. This was the only way for us to still be dreaming that we can change the ground. Art gave us this interesting drive to still be in and out of reality and to live in what we call “grounded utopia”. The museum/biennales and art spaces gives you the possibility to still think about dreams and utopia while working on the ground. So for us, the practice of combining art and architecture is crucial. Otherwise we would not be doing the same things we are doing right now. Our practice cannot be separated into two different areas. Because we also use the museum as the space for building. As we build in the ground, we also build and think in the museum. Therefore it’s like another reality that permits us to dream and practice whatever we think might as a utopia. Some projects might begin in the museum and others might begin on the ground. So it’s certainly a combination, but at the end I would call it “grounded utopia”. It is our way of understanding how to process the ground and reality in a complete different manner.
The Collective Dictionary, the first collective project of Campus in Camps aims to propose new definitions and encourage people to generate words through personal experiences and narratives. In this regard what is the meaning of threshold for you?
I think the threshold comes very strongly out of “The Living Room” project. Coming to Sweden I realised that a lot of interesting things are happening in the threshold, in the intersection between the private and public. Yet, Sweden is one of the places that try to separate and draw a very strong line between the public and private. Thus I became interested in threshold as one of these spaces that permits us to actually gain agencies through using our own private space for public use or in certain cases to turn the public in our private living rooms. So it came out of “The Living Room” as a concept, where the living room needs the condition of threshold either by actually expropriating the public or in another way. For example I was invited to do “The Living Room” in the Museum of Architecture in Sweden, where I simply built walls and decided to stay within my living room in the public as a way to say “I exist, I have agency and I can transform public.”. While in the private I tried to destroy walls in order to symbolically say “Let’s open up the private to the public and the other way around, not separate them as good and bad all the time.” So this is what threshold is to me, very strongly.
You are very much related with the major issues we are facing concerning the public space. From your perspective what are the major issues that governments and organisations should focus in the Metropolitan areas?
I want to speak from a perspective of people that are actually practicing hosting all the time. Maybe because we never had the state in Palestine, we never thought that the state should host in our behalf. Palestine is still a place where hosting is a very important way to organise society. Sometime hosting might become something pressuring. But it also has a lot of interesting aspects to look at. During this crisis of refugees we witnessed this moment where hosting became a duty of a government. I was shocked when, in a place like United Arab Emirates, people are extremely hospitable on their local level, yet in their laws they are not acceptant at all. Everybody accepted in these places needs to be a guest until his-her work contract expires. Your stay there is only tied to your contract and you should leave there the moment you don’t have a job anymore. This also applies to your kids. So there is a complete detachment between the practice of hospitality in everyday life and these laws. I think it’s worth it to understand when did we accepted in certain places, that the government is the only host? Does this apply to all of us or not? How is this in Turkey at the moment? I cannot answer all these questions. But I could say that one major question to understand better today about the public space is, “Who has the right to host and who needs to behave only as a guest?” This is what determines our way of understanding the public today. We are only worried that these guests would change, shift and not behave well in our public. And when I hear “refugee crisis” I immediately understand it as a “public space crisis”. Because what does it mean to share public spaces? Who is the host and who is the eternal guest? These are the major questions for our public spaces today globally, not only in Sweden or Palestine or Turkey.
How do you want to proceed with your research? What is your next project?
At this moment, I’m dealing with nine living rooms simultaneously, in many places around the world. And I feel that I started a project that might take a long time for me to even understand. I feel that what I’m doing mainly in this period is to bring these living rooms together. They all have different hosts, hosting on their own ways, each one on their own manner. I’m very much creating the framework for it and telling the story. For me, it is a moment where I am understanding my role and what it means again. Meanwhile, more and more living rooms will be opening. I accepted commissions next year in Alaska and Denmark. We will also be opening our living room again in Palestine. In the future I would certainly be trying to understand what it means to activate these living rooms in various parts of the world. But I have to say it’s not only “The Living Room”. Alessandro Petti and myself designed the “Concrete Tent” in Dheisheh Refugee Camp when we were doing “Campus in Camps”, which is the university in the refugee camp. We were challenged to think on what is the building where this university should exist. So we designed a concrete tent, describing what “permanent temporariness” is for us. “Concrete Tent” is now being built in the NYU Campus in Abu Dhabi and in Rabat very soon. We became interested in how when they are located in a place, suddenly they have to adapt and can change the discourse, yet they are part of a larger network that makes them feel that they are not alone. This is happening both in “The Living Room” and “Concrete Tent”. I would say in “The Living Room”, it’s in the domain of hospitality; in the “Concrete Tent” it’s much more in the domain of knowledge production. In both these project, I feel that we are up to something and we need a long time to understand what it is. Each time it is activated in one place, suddenly we understand it in a completely different manner. And these are super site-specific places. But they also need to connect themselves immediately to the rest of the places they are situated. This is maybe the first time in our practice, maybe because we sort of bring ourselves out from Palestine, that we see this knowledge create alliances and connections in other parts of the world. It’s a super exciting moment. We feel like each time, we have these seeds as if we are creating a plant that is connected together, connecting many dots in the world together. We are extremely excited about this. I don’t know where this will take us. My plan is to work a full time job on both the “Concrete Tent” and “The Living Room” projects for the coming years, if I have time and possibility. I will be around.