The award-winning architect Nadia Habash, newly elected as the first woman to head the Palestinian Engineers Association, says she will strive to “improve the working conditions of engineers and preserve the dignity of a profession.”
In an online interview, she said that wherever she had worked previously, her goal was “to include economic rights, freedom, and dignity for all sectors of society.”
One of the founders of the Department of Architecture at Birzeit University, Habash is well known for restoring historic sites in ways that benefit the local community.
Her work on the Arraba Palaces, near the West Bank town of Jenin, won her the Hassib Sabbagh and Said Khoury award in 2017. Two years later, she was named one of the 50 most influential architects in the Middle East.
Habash was born in Jerusalem in 1959 and graduated from the University of Jordan’s School of Architecture in 1982. Her graduation project was a design for a “defensive” housing suburb for middle-income workers in the Ras Tala area of Ramallah. The project reflected her idea of the role of architecture in meeting people’s economic and psychological needs.
It also demonstrated the resistance of the Palestinian community in Ramallah to occupation, as the neighborhood was designed to alert residents in different ways if strangers entered.
29-Year Travel Ban
Habash took her master’s degree in Professional Architectural Design and Design Theory-Philosophy at the University of Michigan in 1986, but at that point the Israeli authorities banned her from traveling for 29 years because of her social activism. This prevented her from completing her doctorate although she had scholarships from three American universities.
“The travel ban for me was killing my attendance at activities and many international competitions, in light of the importance of a live presence in these international forums as a means of communicating with others and acquiring new knowledge.”Nadia Habash
The travel ban also prevented Habash from participating in scientific conferences and interrupted her efforts with the Egyptian architect Seif El-Din Abu El-Naga to establish the Union of Arab Architects.
“The travel ban for me was killing my attendance at activities and many international competitions, in light of the importance of a live presence in these international forums as a means of communicating with others and acquiring new knowledge,” she said. (See a related article, “Palestinian Universities Say Israeli Restrictions Force Foreign Professors Out.”)
Habash was nevertheless able to work on archaeological and heritage restoration projects in Palestinian cities in cooperation with international organizations such as Unesco.
These included the restoration of the vegetable market in Bethlehem, the Independence Park project in Ramallah, the archaeological park in Hisham’s Palace in Jericho, and the historic reservoirs in the villages of Deir Istiya and Kfar Aboush.
Her Proudest Accomplishment
Her proudest accomplishment was to restore the Aqabat al-Khalidiya neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the working conditions proved an exceptional challenge.
In 1987, the Supreme Committee of Jerusalem summoned her to rehabilitate buildings in the neighborhood in order to prevent their confiscation, and to improve the living conditions of residents at risk of displacement because they were constantly exposed to attacks by settlers.
“My goal was to enhance the resilience of these residents in their homes by restoring some areas that help improve living conditions.”Nadia Habash
“My goal was to enhance the resilience of these residents in their homes by restoring some areas that help improve living conditions,” she said. The team worked “secretly” in homes, drawing maps manually, and bringing building materials into work areas at night.
Meanwhile, her ambition remained to implement low-cost public housing projects in the city of Ramallah for camp residents and the middle class, and to demonstrate the role of architecture in meeting economic and social rights.
But although Habash was a member of Ramallah municipal council, her ideas were rejected by the local authorities and by investors, who preferred to use the land for commercial projects.
“The monopoly and rush of real estate developers of the capital owners to invest in construction has caused a significant increase in land prices,” she said.
“Huge financial resources” were being deployed to construct new buildings on empty plots of land, while heritage buildings were “vulnerable to deformation and demolition, and turn into sites that pose a danger to society.”
People living in camps in the historic center of Ramallah cannot afford to buy land, she continued. “They are forced to commit violations, either through additions to heritage buildings in a way that causes distortion of the urban heritage, or building in the camps after these areas have reached their maximum capacities.”
Teaching a Sacred Mission
Despite her engagement in restoration projects and now with the Engineers Association, Habash maintains her position as a professor at Birzeit University.
For her, academic work is a “sacred” mission of transmitting the values in architectural design to future generations—values which include linking architecture to the local Palestinian reality, and taking pride in local architecture and working to preserve it. (See two related articles, “‘Open Gaza’ Seeks to Reconnect Gaza Through Architecture and Imagination” and “Shared Pain Inspires Palestinian Team’s Proposal for Rebuilding Beirut Port.”)
“She was able, from her first lecture on engineering design, to bring the real, tangible outside world with all its complex accumulations to the classroom and make it a way of thinking and life that is reflected in architectural designs.”Alaa Abu Awad
A former student of Habash
These values were behind the establishment of the Department of Architecture at Birzeit in 1987, which started with eight students until it reached a hundred students in a single class.
Alaa Abu Awad, a former student of Habash, said in a phone interview: “She was able, from her first lecture on engineering design, to bring the real, tangible outside world with all its complex accumulations to the classroom and make it a way of thinking and life that is reflected in architectural designs.”
Habash always advises her students to study all the components of the surrounding environment as a first stage in a project; drawing the architectural design comes in the second stage and must be inspired by these components and meet the needs of the residents of the planned area, Abu Awad said.
Awad, who worked as a research assistant with Habash at Birzeit, added that she supported her students by transforming their simple ideas with structural solutions into realistic designs; she also encouraged them to combine practical experience with academic work and study how humans interact with space.
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For her part, Habash insists that “the aim of studying architecture should not be to produce geometric forms separate from the environment (and) society. Engineering is not a show of ‘muscles’ but rather a social service before anything else.”