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Architecture of (In)dependency - Interview with Senan Abdelqader

by Architecture Students' Association

With his work tailored to the leveling of social injustice in Israel, Senan Abdelqader is one of the pioneers in Palestinian architecture. His many projects and academic career in Israel provide an anti-Zionist approach to urban and architectural development and teaching rhetoric at his newly-founded Arab Institute for Research and Arab Culture in Art Design and Architecture. Amid Abdelqader’s struggles to develop his practice in a state that excludes him and the Arab population from its nation-state definition, he has succeeded in influencing the dogma and providing an alternative belief system to a younger generation of politically-conscious Arabs. McGill students were offered the ability to interview Senan Abdelqader in the context of his guest lecture Architecture of (In)dependency.

AG: Ankit Gongal
HW: Hao Wang
ASA: Architecture Students' Association
SA: Senan Abdelqader

HW: Having studied in Germany, do you think your European education influenced your perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

SA: Having grown up in Israel, my childhood education was shaped about a Zionist epistemology. As a 17 year-old, I began to feel more and more imprisoned and started questioning the political bias that oppressed me and the Palestinian people. Feeling trapped, I moved to Germany to pursue my education, first in cinema, then in civil engineering and finally in architecture. During this time, I read Arab authors and historians who contradicted the ideology that was being taught in Israeli schools and decided I want to provide a better life for my people. After my studies, I went back to Israel to develop my practice which focused on projects that would provide opportunity and independence for Arab people. Instead of staying in Israel and being submerged in Zionist propaganda, my European education allowed me to understand both sides of the situation and make informed decisions.









The Courtyard House 

HW: Can you provide an example of how you perceived the political conflict differently from an architectural perspective before and after your stay in Germany?

SA: Before moving to Europe, I did not fully grasp the influence of politics in architecture. As I mentioned previously, I was to study cinema originally and then civil engineering for pragmatic reasons. As I pursued my studies in architecture, I engaged myself in European architecture. My involvement in design competitions proved to be absent of political conflict, as the success of a project was defined by its technological and structural accomplishments. I questioned my purpose in this domain and decided to take a different route with my work back home. My aim was to topple to the centralized planning and authoritative system that ruled societal development in Israel which forced Arabs to the margins of society. More specifically, the goal of my projects was to overturn the established condition of Arabs in Israel - the master/slave dynamic as I call it. As it currently stands, the Arab population is excluded from the nation-state definition of Israel and my design and academic work must revise the entailed inequity.

ASA: As of 1948, with the official creation of the state of Israel and the consequential mass confiscation of what was once Palestinian land, how would you define your role in providing the Palestinian and Arab minority with proper and independent urbanization in Israel.

SA: This is the main issue we are facing at the moment. Current planning legislation in Israel hinders the demographic growth of my people and expropriates Palestinian territory to the hands of Israelis. The demographic imbalance creates what I call urbanity without urbanisation, modernisation without space. In 1948, our development was halted and our rural society did not have the opportunity to evolve into an urban society. This is why it is a mistake to call our villages urban spaces. These areas are largely populated, yet they do not have the public facilities and infrastructure that characterize proper urbanization. I believe my role is to provide my people with this development so we can thrive as a population and regain our independence.


The Terrace House

ASA: As an Arab who developed his practice in the Jewish state of Israel, could you explain the hurdles you’ve had to overcome in order to get to where you are now, and more generally, how would you describe the inequality of opportunity for Palestinians.

SA: From 1948 to 1966, the Palestinian people were under military occupation in Israel. My people were not attributed the same rights as the rest of the population, and so, we had to get involved in order to better our situation. We were finally given Israeli passports and nationality. However, last year, with new formalized laws and policies surrounding nationality, we were no longer considered citizens of the Israeli nation. The entire political dynamic screams injustice, inequity and dependency. Only in the past few years, the Arab population became increasingly aware of their situation and education, and developed a conscience that strives for political independence. We are starting to make progress. Many like me found success in the private sphere through our education and managed to influence our own condition, but there is still much to accomplish on the public level. We will still have to wait many years before we have our own university in Israel, as for the state this represents a significant threat to their control.

HW: From your previous answers, I can see that your architectural practice bears the responsibility for social justice. Could you provide an example that relates to this necessity?

SA: After my success in the private sphere, I was given the ability to work on public projects for the municipality for a short period of time. This was the first time a Palestinian was given such an opportunity. They invited me to complete an urban planning project in East Jerusalem that would theoretically accommodate 7000 units. I saw this as an opportunity to influence the condition of Palestinians. However, as I continued my work on the project, the municipality shrunk the limit to 2500 units. For me, this was a concrete example of the state’s manipulation of laws and policies to limit the demographic growth of Palestinians. This project devolved into a continuous debate between my people and the municipality and I cannot even label this experience a success because of the final outcome. At a certain point, they prevented me from practicing in Jerusalem and I was forced to move to Jaffa. Even though these experiences have made my profession increasingly frustrating, they have clarified the need for my work to bear social responsibility.


Mashrabiya House


Mashrabiya House

ASA: Now that you’ve achieved influence in the development of urbanization for the Palestinian people and have become the first Palestinian professor of architecture in the history of the state of Israel, where do you see yourself in 10 years and what future endeavours would you like to accomplish?
SA: The question comes at the right time because last December I initiated the Arab Institute for Research and Arab Culture in Art Design and Architecture. It is the first time such an institute has been established in Israel and is countering the Zionist rhetoric of the universities. The fact that the institute is part of a larger Israeli academy poses problems, but without this association the institute would not have the same influence. I see myself continuing down this path at the Institute so i can impact more lives of the younger generation. The increase in Arab enrolment over time justifies my efforts and the anti-Zionist discourse I am providing.
AG: Tragically enough, architects require the support of clients and consequently have a tendency to stay apolitical in order to avoid disrupting relationships with these clients and government officials. Are there projects where you think the architecture is less of a material intervention and is more concerned with tackling political issues that benefit the larger community?
SA: The younger generation of architects is definitely more involved in community activism than before. Many architects today are involved in other fields of work such as politics and sustainability, which allows their practice to bring an interdisciplinary stance on issues like social injustice and climate change. More than ever before, we must rethink our profession and the influence we have on our communities. However, as you said before, the architects require the support of clients so this goal isn’t always easily achievable.
AG: In any case, it is really refreshing to see an architect that is committed to a social and community agenda instead of taking the safer stance.
SA: I think I have done enough small projects to demonstrate my cause and good will. I am now focused on teaching so that the younger generation pick up the torch and continue striving for independence. 
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