Nadi Abusaada is an architect, urbanist and a historian. He is currently an Aga Khan Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Architecture. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Nadi completed his Ph.D. and M.Phil degrees at the University of Cambridge and his B.A. at the University of Toronto. He is the co-founder of Arab Urbanism, a global network dedicated to historical and contemporary urban issues in the Arab region. His writings have been featured in a number of international publications including The Architectural Review, The International Journal of Islamic Architecture, and the Jerusalem Quarterly among others.
We talk to Nadi about archiving the history of architectural and urban development, Arab Urbanism and the heritage of modern architecture.
What led you to your career as an architect, urbanist and a historian?
I initially started my career with a desire to work as a practicing architect. I briefly trained in my home country, Palestine, initially with a private architectural firm and later with the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation. My experience with Riwaq was quite foundational to many of the choices I made later. We worked on restoration projects of architectural heritage throughout Palestine, surveying historical buildings by hand and designing plans for their renovation for public use. Through my brief work at Riwaq, I came to learn the amount of work that was still needed to document and understand the architectural history of Palestine. It was my drive to take an academic path to research and write about architecture and urbanism in modern Palestine, which is currently expanding to include the broader architectural and urban history of the modern Arab world. I am also now experimenting with delivering this research to the wider public through curating an upcoming exhibition that will be open in August 2022 at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, Palestine on the two Arab Exhibitions that took place in Jerusalem in the 1930s.
Figure 1: Al Ma’rad Exhibition Poster, 2022.
How is architecture and urban planning an indication of art, culture and heritage? You are particularly interested in documenting the architectural heritage of Palestine, why is this an area you are invested in?
Architecture is a testament of the dead and living material cultures of a place. These material cultures never exist in isolation. They are always embedded in broader environmental, social and political contexts that define and are defined by them. In Palestine, the context I have been researching over the past years, architectural heritage can fill in the historical gaps that have been deliberately obscured or erased. It stands as material evidence that contests the Israeli colonial claim over Palestine. More importantly, however, it also opens windows onto the dynamics of the social life of Palestine and its urban cultures before the major rupture of the 1948 Nakba. A building’s plan or a street layout can reveal a lot about how people organized themselves and their lived environments in a particular era. They also reveal to us the continuities and ruptures in these modes of organization in different moments of history.
Figure 2: A street Jaffa before the Nakba, 1930s.
Why is archiving the history of architectural and urban development necessary to facilitate our understanding of modern heritage in the Middle East? Can you tell us more about what is being done to document modern heritage in the Middle East?
Despite the richness of modern architectural heritage in the Middle East, it remains relatively overlooked compared to the attention granted to earlier periods of history. This disinterest in the modern heritage of the Middle East is not incidental. It stems, in no small part, from the conflictual nature of this period in the modern Middle East in the eyes of many architectural practitioners and researchers alike. European colonialism had a great influence on the Middle East and its architectural culture in this era. So, for some, the modern era, roughly from the late eighteenth century onwards, is a moment of rupture between earlier ‘Islamic’ architectural culture and an entry point into a new age of foreign and imported architectural styles. Modern architectural heritage is thus rendered ‘impure’, neither fully representing ‘European’ or ‘Islamic’ architectural cultures. I see this as a false dichotomy. Global cultural exchanges have been a key component of the architectural heritage of the Arab-Islamic world historically before the modern era. The modern era witnessed an acceleration of these exchanges at a global scale, with a more tangible impact on architectural culture that is still felt today. To me, this renders the study and documentation of modern architecture in the Middle East particularly important.
Several initiatives have emerged in the Middle East over the past few years with the explicit desire to document and raise awareness about modern architecture which is usually excluded from ‘heritage’. In Lebanon, the Arab Center for Architecture run by George Arbid has taken great steps in this regard, building the first archive of its kind of modern architecture in Lebanon and the region. A new book called ‘Designing Modernity: Architecture in the Arab World 1945-1973’ edited by George Arbid and Philipp Oswalt was recently published that is also important for launching a conversation about modern architectural heritage in the region. In Egypt, the platform Cairobserver run by Mohamed al-Shahed is a similarly crucial initiative for documenting and analysing Egyptian modern architecture, especially in Cairo. In Palestine, I am currently writing a chapter for a forthcoming book called ‘Modern Palestine’ edited by Khaldun Bshara and published by Riwaq Publishers. Other publications on modern architecture in the region also include the ‘Modernism in the Arab World’ published as part of Bahrain's 2014 Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; the ‘Building Sharjah’ book edited by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Todd Reisz, among others. Together, these projects show us that interest in modern architecture in the region is not a standalone initiative but a regional movement.
Figure 3: A modern house in Nablus, 1960s. Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation.
The modernist architecture and urban planning of some parts of the Arab world sit within an international framework, and demonstrate the interplay of international influences with a local vernacular. What can this tell us about the development of Arab architecture being at the crossroad of the East and West?
In the previous answer I addressed the notion of global cultural exchange in terms of architectural heritage and built culture. However, in my current research which started during my time as an Aga Khan Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I grew increasingly interested in tracing the individuals and networks who enabled these exchanges. I am especially interested in looking into the first generation of trained Arab architects and their role in shaping architectural discourse and practice in the Arab world in the early twentieth century. Most of these architects were trained abroad—including in Istanbul, Paris, and London—and were influenced by the architectural and engineering schools they studied at and the cities they lived in. Upon their return to the Arab world, these architects set the foundations of the profession. Their training abroad did not hinder their ability to adapt their expertise to the local conditions they worked in. After all, this was a period when several Arab countries were entering their post-colonial stage and developing a local and national architectural language was a key preoccupation in the region. These architects were no less involved in international architectural networks than their Western counterparts. They contributed to international architectural congresses, journals, and competitions. They also established the institutional foundations for the regional exchange of ideas within the Arab region. In 1945, the first pan-Arab engineering congress was held in Cairo, eventually leading to the Arab Engineers Association in 1963. This regional dimension was as critical to the development of modern Arab architecture as were the international influences and local contexts in which those Arab architects worked in.
Figure 4: A Cover of Majallat al-Imarah (‘Journal of Architecture’). The publication was a crucial space for the development of an internationally-oriented Arabic architectural around the mid-twentieth century. Fine Arts Library Archives, Harvard University.
As the co-founder of Arab Urbanism, why did you see a need to create this space and what is the intention behind it?
Although my research on regional architectural exchanges within the Arab world are of a historical nature, I am equally interested in being part of the process of understanding and intervening in these processes today. In 2019, I co-founded Arab Urbanism with Dr. Noura Wahby with the sole purpose of opening the space to discuss and document architectural and urban process in the Arab region. It was an attempt to facilitate a regional discussion around these questions that crosses geographical boundaries and even disciplines. Our platform is both independent and open access and all of us do our work voluntarily. Today, we are a team of 16 editors who come from different countries and professional backgrounds, both academics and practitioners. We also run three main projects: the magazine and tafseela.
Figure 5: A snapshot from Cold Dissent (2019), A Short Film Directed by Taher Abdul Ghani & Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Featured in Arab Urbanism Magazine.
How did the magazine develop and what are your aspirations for the publication in the future?
The magazine is a project that has been three years in the making. It developed out of our desire to begin a conversation on how and why our cities are designed, built, and destroyed. We envision it as a platform for critical engagement with voices based across the region in diverse spaces that subvert, create and renew perceptions of urban history, planning, architecture, geography and resistance.
As academia and urban practices grow further apart, we thought of ways to bring together researchers, practitioners and residents to critically debate changes happening in our cities. As an open access platform, the magazine opens a space for the expression of new and critical ideas. These ideas guide our understanding of the past and present of our urban sphere, and draw imaginaries for its future. Having the space to speak, construct and contest is crucial to develop new pathways to understand urban realities as they are negotiated on a daily basis.
We published our inaugural issue in 2020 and then covid-19 got in the way of things in the following year. But we are now back with an exciting forthcoming special magazine issue titled ‘Imaginaries from a Blackout’ co-edited by Lana Judeh and Mohammad Abulrob. We received hundreds of submissions of written pieces and visual statements on everyday experiences of infrastructures in the Arab region that will be published soon.
Figure 6: From “Furnishing Modernity: Residential Entryways in Post-Independence Lebanon”, A Photoessay by Stefan Maneval, Arab Urbanism Magazine.
What is Tafseela?
Tafseela is one of Arab Urbanism’s projects of which I am extremely proud. It is an interactive platform, developed in partnership with IW Lab led by Dr. Wesam Asali. The word tafseela in Arabic has multiple meanings including narrating in detail, division, or plan. So, it is a word that is used frequently in architectural language, but usually in technical terms. Our aim is to expand the understanding of tafseela to also include the social, environmental and political contexts that underpin the architectural design process. It also includes designs that are not led by the conventional design process represented by the architect, but also those produced outside this system, driven by need and constrain; adaptability and possibility; and by resistance and agency. Since its launch, we received tens of contribution of details of architectural and urban elements from across the Arab world that have been mapped on our digital platform.
Figure 7: From “The Urban as a Tool”, A Tafseela by Wesam Al Asali, Arab Urbanism.
Your writing has been featured in a number of international publications including The Architectural Review, The International Journal of Islamic Architecture, and the Jerusalem Quarterly among others. What has been the most memorable reaction to your work so far?
It is truly heartwarming to see people engage with the works I put out in the world. I am not going to mention a specific example here. But there are two lives to each work. Once any work is out, whether it is a piece of writing, a lecture, or an exhibition, it is reborn. That is why, to me, it is important that we as academics should be engaged beyond our conventional spaces of the lecture hall and the academic journal. To me, the most precious projects that I have worked on are those that ended up in openly accessible books or publications. I am also very excited to see how visitors will react to my first exhibition, Al Ma’rad, which will be launched at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, Palestine this August. I spent many days on the steps of this center, hearing talks and attending workshops by people I have always admired. It is a great privilege to be able to give something back to this particular venue in the city I grew up in and among my people.
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