Week 6: Architecture as Language
Week 6 sits between two very action-packed weeks. Last week, we spent three long days working at Caesarea and next week we will be working at Hatzeva, an Iron Age (ca. 1200-586 BCE) site in the Negev. We spent the bulk of Sunday and Monday on a technical write up of our Caesarea workshops, but the remainder of the week was full of fascinating tours. All of the tours took place in Old City Akko, but each gave us a new perspective, a new set of lenses through which to examine the surrounding buildings, culture, and the connection between the two.
Coincidently, the metaphor of architecture as language was used by different people throughout the week. This metaphor proved helpful as we ended the week with a discussion on interpretation and presentation. The final step in conservation is public presentation of the conserved object or place and its story – but who’s version of what story?
Our first tour of the week was with Raafa Abu Ria, a specialist on Ottoman architecture who works for the IAA. He showed us examples of how culture influenced architectural design in the Ottoman period. For example, ground floor windows are small and sit high so that even if someone were on a horse, they could not see inside. This reflects the cultural concern for women’s privacy in the house, especially in their bedrooms, where they can work uncovered. Windows, then, speak a language that tells us something about the people who designed them. The trick is to be able to translate architectural language into cultural language and vise-versa. We also visited the beautiful Al Jazzar mosque here in Old Akko.
Our second tour was with Raanan Kislev, Director of the IAA Conservation Department. He took us around the citadel in Old Akko (our 4th tour, I think?) but with a different perspective than our previous visitors had presented. Raanan is head of the Conservation Department for a reason. His tour enlightened us concerning the decision making processes that go into conservation projects. Every choice must take everything into account, and I mean everything – from structural engineering to aesthetics, from original builders to tourists in funny outfits. Every detail of a conserved site is the product of a lot of thought, a lot of discussion, and a string of decision making.
This is a nice place to segue into our tour of Akko Prison, a museum which is now owned and operated by the Israel Ministry of Defense. The fact that the museum is owned by the military should flip the switch on your bias radar to the “on” position. The Museum of Underground Prisoners in Akko tells the story of Jewish rebel inmates who defied the British through a grand escape in 1948. Although some managed to get to safety, many of these fugitives were killed or executed after their attempts. The museum glorifies the Jewish individuals who died for their nationalistic beliefs and the courtyard serves as a place where important military ceremonies are conducted today. The museum tells a very particular story – one of rebellion, martyrdom, nationalism, and underground Jewish groups in the era of the war for independence.
Raafa’s and Raanan’s metaphor of architecture as “language” echoed through our tour of the Museum of Underground Prisoners. The narrative presented has a very specific, very transparent bias to it and that bias is even reflected in the conservation work that has been carried out. The offices and Jewish wing of the building have been perfectly plastered and turned into minimalistic exhibits with projected audio-visual displays.
The Arab wing, on the other hand, has not been touched and neither has their story. At the time of the escape in 1948, the majority of prisoners were Arab and Akko was still a completely Arab city. During our tour, the Arab wing was only pointed out because one of us asked why this part of the complex wasn’t treated. The Arab inmates were only mentioned because some of them were able to escape through the same hole as the Jewish rebels and we were only told this because someone asked what the Arab inmates did during the jail-break. Their story is completely absent from the museum’s narrative. The complete lack of care for the Arab wing reflects a complete lack of care for the Arab story of this place.
We wrapped up the week with a talk on this very subject. After accompanying us on the museum visit, Yael Mosenzon gave a lecture and led a discussion on Preservation and Conservation of Audience Oriented and Professionally Integrated Heritage Management. Through our previous studies, lectures, and workshops, we had learned a lot about the planning and processes of conservation, but Yael drew our attention to questions of public presentation. Who’s story is told? Who’s voice do we hear? Why this particular narrative? Who’s purpose does it serve?
As I’ve mentioned before and will certainly mention again, conservation is not just about architectural structures and features. It is also about society. At its very core, conservation is about people – past, present, and future. Every building or object that is conserved is conserved with the intention of being seen so that someone in the future may grasp its past importance. Just as the planning and process stages of conservation are interdisciplinary, pulling from history, engineering, architecture, etc., so the presentation stage must also be interdisciplinary and these professionals must listen to and incorporate the voices of the local residents wherever possible. Architecture, like language, is developed and employed by communities and our role as conservators is to explain the connection between the two.