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Building(s) in a Crisis: Of Power Cuts and More

Image LHS : Young Girl called Dalia, wounded by shrapnel .

“I was thinking of it carefully, my mind was busy with shrapnel that did not settle in the wall, did it settle in the heart of someone? At that moment a bird’s head appeared from that hole. There were two birds building their nest in the hole made by the shrapnel, it seemed to me as a proof of the life’s will to self-care, her eagerness to create a birth for every death on the other side of it.”

Iraqi critic and writer: Khaled Salhi

In the summer of 2015, at the end of the semester, there was an electricity cut-off of about 20 minutes in the Abercrombie building, where the Oxford School of Architecture is located. My office is opposite the design studios, so I went to have a look around. It seemed that everyone was getting bored so quickly. Computers were disconnected from electricity as well as from the internet/Wi-Fi. The students, who were sitting in front of their computers, were not talking to each other (suffering in these circumstances did not quite bring them together), but instead were busy with their mobiles, while biting their nails as they waited for electricity to come back. In the bathroom, on the other hand, it was not possible to use the water-taps because their sensors had been deactivated as well because of power cut. No electricity means the water-taps sensors are not working and there is no water. This was my first experience of a power cut in Oxford and it was also the first time I saw how the people in a place that is rarely disrupted by power cuts reacted to that.

During the same semester, while sitting in my office, I heard the occasional thump as a bird crashed into the office window. Another poor bird went at the large window that reflects the surrounding trees and sky. It was easy to see the trace of the bird after it had hit the window. In the impact, the dust moved from the bird’s feathers to the glass surface to record all the details of the feathers and of the flight moment at a rigid end of an open space. These are the large windows of the Abercrombie Building, the alongside building to the John Henry Brookes Building (2014) which won the RIBA Architectural Award for excellent ‘sustainable’ design. Green buildings undertake to promote sustainability and are designed with the explicit goal of fostering wild life by attracting birds. It is by addressing the

biodiversity variable that buildings such as the John Henry Brookes, which won the RIBA Architectural Award for excellent ‘sustainable’ design, earn their acclaim as ‘sustainable’ architecture. Yet, the designer of the building may not have anticipated what these large windows might do to birds in flight. And while talking about sustainability and green buildings, I use to remember how ‘designers’ are doing their best in order to bring life and to attract birds; as well as other animals to increase buildings biodiversity, to what so called ‘sustainable’ architecture.

On the other extreme end for the meaning of this ‘sustainability’, ‘resilience’ and ‘biodiversity’ due to conflict and crisis, and in a kind of paradox, elsewhere, in Gaza (where I live), buildings that were never built according to the criteria of sustainability and biodiversity fostering could, nevertheless, appeal to birds despite or precisely because of newly acquired traits in conditions of war. I remember a couple of birds came to build their nest in a hole of the wall of our home building in Gaza. These holes had been caused by shrapnel as a result of the bombing of a nearby building by an Israeli F16 missile

I also remember – could not possibly forget – the innocent Palestinian children who got shrapnel on their beautiful faces. Dalia (pictured above) is one of them! If sustainable buildings can still kill natural life, as discussed above, in places like Gaza architecture can appear altogether destructive, almost as a machine for killing human life. On the contrary, it is the natural life that seems to be best equipped to inhabit such architecture; for while concrete slabs and columns are smashing human bodies, and rubble and shrapnel are killing people, birds learn to build their nests in what is left of the walls of humans, providing the latter with a totally unexpected source of empowerment and creativity.

Dr Salem Al Qudwa

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