Birzeit is located ten kilometers north of Ramallah. With a population of approximately 7,765, Birzeit is one of the largest towns in the Ramallah district, and is significant for its history, modern university, and reputation as a place for progressive learning. Birzeit was a vital revolutionary base for Palestinians during the uprising against the British Mandate (1936-1939). It was also an important base for Palestinian resistance between 1947 and 1949, and a safe refuge for its chief commander Abdul-Qader al-Huseini who used one of its houses as a headquarter base. The present name of Birzeit means “well of oil,” which is fitting for an area known for its extensive production of olive oil, which was historically kept in wells.
Birzeit recently became one of the primary platforms to represent Ramallah’s rapid urbanization and growth, which has spread to the district’s periphery and surrounding villages. This has led to the development of a new city center outside of the historic center on the western side of the town, adjacent to the main regional road that also leads to Ramallah and Birzeit University.
The historic center of Birzeit lies on a small hill on the town’s eastern side. According to RIWAQ’s Register of Historic Buildings (2006), the historic center encompasses 108 historic buildings, 63% of which are one-story buildings. Most of these buildings date back to the Ottoman era, with the exception of the caravanserais, which dates back to the Mamluk period (AD 1291-1516). The caravanserais is located at the northern side of the historic center.
Due to a general decline in rural life after the 1967 War, the people of Birzeit abandoned the historic center and moved to newly developed areas near the new regional road linking Ramallah and the northern villages. The situation worsened in the 1980s when Birzeit University relocated its new campus out of the historic center. In turn, Birzeit lost its central role as a hub for the university’s faculties, administrative offices, and the students’ social and entertainment life. On the regional level, Birzeit, among other adjacent villages, had also fallen prey to the rapid urbanization of Ramallah’s metropolitan area. Several new housing projects, neighborhoods, and cities were proposed in the region causing new urbanization dynamics that reshaped the land use in the area. As a result, the new part of town became increasingly more developed, while the historic center continued to suffer. By 2008, the population of Birzeit’s historic center had declined to 183 people.
“This is an intervention on an already existent village with people already living there. In this case, there was a very strong connection between what was projected and the people who were there. Naturally, there was dialogue, and ideas were exchanged between the people and the planners. What was done there was a reinterpretation and a new configuration in response to articulated new and different needs. And to define exactly which needs were essential to the population plays an essential role. The bond is perfect, there was no presumption of doing everything new nor [the presumption of executing] grandiose ideas. That’s not what happened here. This is, therefore a project that will have continuity and future evolution. And one that is also done with great technical and non-technical quality. This is to be appreciated because often there’s a tendency to rush things when intervening on a poor area or an area that is in bad economic shape. [In this case], it is the exact opposite; this is where quality must be stretched as far as possible, and quality should be the focus. There’s a quote from Che Guevara I always remember that says ‘Quality is respect for the people’”.
Alvaro Seiza, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2013
The Birzeit revitalization project is considered a pilot project for RIWAQ’s grander initiatives, and helped us envision our plans for restoring the most significant 50 historic centers across Palestine through the 50 Villages Rehabilitation Project.
The project was designed to integrate the historic center within its territorial context (within Birzeit’s new town and Palestine at large) through parallel processes of dynamic planning, strategic physical interventions, and cultural activities. It sought to widen the choices and opportunities of the local community by improving the general built environment and the living conditions of both existing and future occupants and businesses. It also sought to revitalize the historic center’s abandoned structures and spaces through innovative activities.
Birzeit Conservation Master Plan
RIWAQ engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process for Birzeit to guide the historic center’s rehabilitation between 2007 and 2012. With a multidisciplinary approach, a vision was formulated and translated into tangible goals and objectives.
Embracing a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder process, RIWAQ conducted studies and initial planning procedures while at the same time implementing the project’sinfrastructural and built environment.
The vision for Birzeit’s historic center, which was assembled with the input of the community, the Municipal Council, and civil society institutions, was intended as such: "a lively center, attractive to its residents, investors and visitors, for mixed land use, respectful of its identity and cultural heritage."
In cooperation with Birzeit’s municipality, this was RIWAQ’s first building conservation project and entailed the complete renovation of a building that housed al Rozana Association. Al Rozana Association was created by local families to encourage local and international tourism in the town, as well as organize Birzeit’s annual Heritage Week in the historic center. The roof on the second floor of the building was never completed due to a devastating earthquake in 1927. This project is one of the first of RIWAQ’s Job Creation through Conservation initiatives.
In partnership with Birzeit’s municipality, RIWAQ prepared a protection plan for the historic center. This included identifying all of Birzeit’s historic buildings and archeological sites, delineating the boundaries of the historic center, and proposing a set of planning by-laws to guarantee the protection of the village’s cultural heritage properties.
RIWAQ conducted several spatial and socioeconomic studies to understand the historic environment of Birzeit. The spatial studies explored the territorial context and its structure, typologies and potential uses, heritage values, conservation levels, and mobility and accessibility issues. The complementary socioeconomic studies investigated the level of socioeconomic integration, segregation, and unique functions and uses for historic centers in relation to bordering territories and economic parameters. Taken together, these studies investigated and analyzed the built and socioeconomic environments in order to assemble a rapid assessment of the historic area’s conditions; this served as the base for our collective strategic actions and planning processes.
During the strategic planning process, RIWAQ held meetings to acquaint the community with the project, as well as discuss the importance of preserving the historic center and its range of impacts on community life. These sessions positioned us to engage in a collective comprehensive analysis of the project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Through this exercise, the built heritage was considered a strength for local development, as was the involvement and commitment of local authorities and the community. The absence of an institutional framework to guide development, as well as the abandonment and ownership fragmentation within the historic center however, was considered a threat and weakened the project’s outlook. Speaking to this, a stakeholder group was formed and included representatives from local CBOs, governmental authorities, tenants, and owners of historic buildings. Additional studies were conducted to further analyze the project’s viability, from which was borne a preliminary vision, and a set of strategic and informed objectives and project plans.
Embarking on preventive conservation of at least sixty historic buildings, this intervention aimed to upgrade the built environment while protecting historic structures from further deterioration. Conservation actions included rubble removal, pointing, roof insulation and the reconstruction of demolished building parts. Between August 2008 and January 2009, more than twenty buildings in two target areas at the core of the historic center were completed. Another phase of building restoration included twelve more buildings between September 2008 and February 2009.
The third phase, which started in December 2010, focused on fifteen historic buildings, the rehabilitation of three public plazas, and the expansion of the main plaza to serve as public space for cultural events and to connect the historic center to a communal playground and garden. The last phase, which was implemented between August and December 2011, included four complexes in the north, east and west edges of town.
Infrastructural updates and street tiling were seen as important steps towards the improvement of public spaces. This project unearthed and laid the infrastructure for the main commercial street connecting the entrance of the historic center to its core; the street was later tiled. The project was funded by the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) through fundraising efforts of Birzeit’s municipality.
Taken together, the following had a pivotal impact on the revitalization of Birzeit’s historic center: Eliyet Rabee’, one of the historic center’s most deteriorated buildings, was renovated to become a service center for the municipality and was subsequently leased to a restaurant. One year later, with support from the Tewfik Nasser family and with funds allocated to Birzeit’s municipality from the CHF, the municipality transformed an additional building into a small hotel and restaurant.
El Etem courtyard house was subsequently renovated to become a residency space for Birzeit University. The space also houses RIWAQ’s residency program, where individuals produce creative work across various disciplines.
In 2011, the Nasser family leased a building to the Palestinian Writing Workshop; this marked the movement of new organizations into Birzeit’s historic center. With additional support from the Nasser family, Birzeit University's Old Campus gymnasium was renovated to offer a training space for the Palestine Circus School.
In cooperation with local women and youth associations and organizations, al Rozana Association holds an annual Heritage Week in the historic center of Birzeit to encourage folklore craftsmanship and cultural productions, including food, crafts, and art. The heritage week has become an important part of Palestine’s summer activities and attracts thousands of people every year to Birzeit’s historic center
In 2008, Birzeit University’s Architecture faculty incorporated the history of Birzeit in their curricula as case study projects for Palestinian and foreign students. Three workshops were held;two were conducted in Palestine and one in Belgium. Partner universities included La Cambre Center for Visual Arts (Belgium) and the University of Dortmund (Germany). In 2009, Golzari Architects in London created the Birzeit Historic International Competition for students of Central St. Martin's in the UK and the three major schools of architecture and planning in the West Bank. The competition was conducted to find solutions for the entrances and public spaces in Birzeit’s historic center. In 2010, in cooperation with two local schools, RIWAQ delivered workshops, tours, and drawing lessons on the historical significance of Birzeit’s historic center. Later that year, RIWAQ held a summer workshop for architecture students from the University of Arizona. Nine students and their professor (the Tejido Group) lived in Birzeit and presented landscape solutions for urban connectivity.
In 2009, RIWAQ held a lime mortar and limestone conservation and structural consolidation workshop for thirty architects working in the field. Practical training took place in the historic center of Birzeit. In January 2010, RIWAQ organized a national competition for professional architects to design scenarios for Birzeit’s annual Heritage Week festival. The proposals were required to demonstrate historic trails showing the potential spots for booths and booth design.
RIWAQ’s third Biennale in 2009 focused on our 50 Villages Rehabilitation Project where activities took place in different venues, namely Birzeit’s historic center. Artist Jacob Szczęsny showcased Birzeit and his design of a water spring called "Polish Spring," which was placed in the public garden. The “Polish Spring” installation is a stone bench, with fresh water running alongside.
In May 2012, el Etem courtyard house was inaugurated, and during the 4th RIWAQ Biennale in October 2012, three visiting artists from Centre Wallon d'Art -La Châtaigneraie came to Palestine to live in Birzeit and produce art interventions in its historic center.
This project focused on rediscovering the original names of buildings, streets, alleys, and space, as well as installing sign systems in the historic center of Birzeit in order to reinforce the use of the names in everyday life. In cooperation with the local community and municipality, street names were gathered, discussed and agreed upon along with a numbering system.
This garden was the first and only public garden in all of Birzeit. The entire installation in the garden and children’s playground was provided by Birzeit’s municipality. A ceramic mural in the garden was prepared by local school-aged youth as part of an art course and training organized by RIWAQ. Prior to this in May 2010, volunteers planted trees and shrubs to beautify the historic center, create shaded areas in the alleys and plazas, and define its green edges.