How to build without a land

A project by
Saba Innab
2011- Ongoing.



A project that revisits the relationship of construction and land to time, to temporariness that gradually transforms- or deforms- into durability. Referencing the Palestinian cause in particular, but also human alienation in general, the work recognizes the impossibility of construction without land as self-evident. However, imagining such a possibility may be essential prerequisite to effecting long-due change in architecture and politics. The project is composed of several elements which construct together a spatial narrative.

The project started in parallel with my work as an architect in the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon. The camp was completely demolished by the Lebanese army after an armed conflict with an Islamist fundamentalist group called Fath al Islam in 2007.  The idea of camp reconstruction held such revolutionary dimension within, but it allowed for a redefinition of power relation by the Lebanese Government regarding Nahr el Bared and the Palestinian camps in Lebanon in general. Although “How to build without a Land” was initially triggered by Nahr el Bared, the project tries to rethink building and dwelling in temporariness in a broader conceptual framework that gradually take us from the dilemma of rebuilding a camp into a further aggravated dilemma which is building, living and even dying in a state of suspension. The work explores variable notions of “building”, whether by the construction of a scene, an object or by building with “language”.

Being landless.

Deterritorialization is becoming a human condition. We build without understanding that building really belongs to dwelling, and that we do not dwell because we build, but we build because we dwell. It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing. The limits of my words are the limits of the language. If the physical world is defined by the limits of words, then deconstructing words and their spatial meaning becomes a prerequisite to understanding that limit. What is beyond language then? What is beyond the limits?  We are still trying to rethink building because it’s the essential component to dwelling.

Little by little an unbridgeable gap grew between dwelling and architecture, and poetic dwelling is what is left. Departing from the existential impossibility of dwelling, many tried to rethink “building”, some in a romantic and some in a humanistic way. Still others in complete opposition, critical and extreme, believed that the only thing left for humanity was to start all over again. Another level of deterritorialization appears when we live in temporariness, in refuge, in exile. Being landless. We realize that in the absence of this land, the land of “Palestine”, even the poetic dwelling is lost.

How do we build without a land? How do we build temporariness when it is mutating constantly into permanence?

Dwelling in temporariness had transformed “physically” from the tent to barracks to urban densification. This built transformation manifests living in the past while projecting into the future, where the present doesn’t exist. The cycle of life in the temporary, in the waiting, becomes something similar to a reality that is parallel to the major or main time. And with living, we don’t- necessarily- become the place we are in. But when we die we become the death and the land. The question remains, how do we die if we live out of place, in other words, how do we die if we live only in time?

Temporariness here is defined by landlessness. Landlessness is signified by the land of Palestine, and by extracting the land from someone as an adjective that he/she becomes landless, landlessness is signified by the presence of the “absent”.

As an attempt for reading this” absence” or the “limit” , one of the elements of the work, “Untitled” is revisiting the frontiers with Palestine and “retracing” them from current satellite maps. The Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian frontier strip is retraced from one side- the opposite side of Palestine, and transformed into different densities, shapes of terrains and settlements are abstracted into pictorial forms and lines, that are unfolded and reattached becoming an organic – somehow an alive- line, that is neither real nor imagined, not only because it doesn’t exist in this form, but because you can feel the temporary nature of it and how it changed through time. The presence of the line is defined by the “absence” of land defined by the loss of Palestine.

The work is accompanied by a linguistic exercise, which departs from the Arabic root “سكن”, which is one of the translations of “dwell”, a body of thought is constructed by” dwelling” enough on the root and its derivatives. The work departs from the direct meaning of the root. The word has two meanings; one is to “remain or stay in peace”, the other is “being still”. This linguistic complexity reveals an impossibility of dwelling, and hints at the fact that we can only dwell at the end of things or when we die. But in temporariness, even in death, dwelling is not possible.

Another element, Blueprint (II), which developed initially from series of paintings (No- sheep’s Land) of scenes created in an inner monologue that is constantly fed by the everyday life of crossing/ transition/ building/ rebuilding, and gradually transforms into radical or may be Utopian/dystopian, possibilities superimposed on real/ imagined lands.

Blueprint is composed of a wooden model, composed of 1cm wooden cubes, and an Ink drawing on canvas (two pieces, 320 x 100 cm, 220x 100 cm)

The two objects create a fictional space that rethinks architecture and building. This exercise is inspired by the legacy of radical and utopian architecture but with different point of departure.

While the model hovers suggesting a space in-between a Utopia and a dystopia, the drawing on the facing wall represents the possibility of such place, as if it was built.

What becomes of building and dwelling between the imagined and the real and between the temporary and the permanent? How do we build without a land?

Maybe the only thing left for architecture is to reveal the impossibility of poetical dwelling through empty signs and sublime uselessness. Could building without a land be a form of rejection to loss? If we dwell enough on building without a land, could this reveal a moment of true rejection to all forms of normalization, coping and numbness?

The strongest moments of change are only recognizable in the absence of any reference to a better future.

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