Architectural preservation: What should go and what should stay?

This month, New York Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is hosting ‘Permanent Temporariness’, an exhibition held in collaboration with DAAR directors Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti. Consisting of seven major installations and performances focusing on the social, cultural and political dynamics that shape the lives of displaced Palestinians, the work will also examine the meaning of architectural preservation – and whether or not refugee camps should be considered for protection.

While architectural preservation often focuses on reviving and protecting structures built centuries ago, it also covers buildings that were constructed in more recent times – like the modernist structures or rough industrial zones that have become part of national heritage. The field of preservation reframes our understanding of aesthetics and includes material and immaterial cultures, and social and identity structures. Preservation safeguards buildings that are claimed as part of a political and social narration of a city or people, and in seizing its subject, preservation gives historical value.

With some Palestinians living in refugee camps for more than 70 years now, the questions arise: should refugee camps be preserved? Do they have historical value? And if so, what does that say about the false sense of temporariness?

“Refugee camps became sites of heated discussions on what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten,” said Petti. “If we look at refugee camps with the lens of architectural preservation, how might our understanding of camps change? Can we consider them cultural sites to be preserved? For many it might even be disturbing to be forced to look at refugee camps from this perspective, but this is the reality in front of our eyes.”

‘Permanent Temporariness’ will speak to visitors differently depending on backgrounds, however, the ‘Concrete Tent’ installation will force audiences to examine the brutal reality of a displaced people.

Inspired by a traditional refugee tent, ‘Concrete Tent’ recreates this supposedly temporary and degradable structure using a permanent material. It will encourage the public to think about whether or not Palestinian camps have a history and how architectural preservation plays a role, despite the poor-quality and withering materials often used to construct the tents and communities.

“I always say that architecture is the tempo of time and place,” said Iraqi architect Hisham Munir. “You cannot separate any proper work from the time that it was made in… This is the unfortunate part of dictators or governments – they erase things of the previous era. These buildings are landmarks of time – they should be kept so people will know the history of their cities.”

If we are to agree with Munir, then perhaps refugee camps should be remembered, and not just in books and poems, but through architecture – the most impactful of the arts.

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