Temporality and Permanence: Exploring Architecture as Exterritorial Space with Saba Innab

Interview by: Sarah Rafson

“How do you build without a land?” This is the opening question of architect Saba Innab’s 2011 No Sheep’s Land exhibition at Agial Art Gallery in Beirut, and one that she continues to probe through her built and speculative works.

a photo of Saba Innab - with long dark hair, wearing a black cardigan and a gray shirt. She stands in front of a building fragment.
The artist, Saba Innab. Courtesy Biennale d’Architecture d’Orléans 2017 and Frac Center-Val de Loire.

Themes of extraterritoriality have informed much of Innab’s life and practice. Born in Kuwait and now based out of Amman and Beirut, the architect examines the relationship between land and structure in relation to the history of the Palestinian people. Through materials such as cast concrete, metal, and stone Innab’s work juxtaposes transience and permanence as a proxy for deterritorialization and architecture.

Innab studied architecture at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, where she examined the urban morphology of Amman in relation to politics of spatial representation. Later she began to interrogate the extraterritorial spaces of Palestinian camps and its residual effects through architecture. She has been involved with projects like the rebuilding of the Nahr el Bared Refugee Camp in Lebanon, where she worked as an architect under  the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies.The project was shortlisted  for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013.

Innab’s work has been exhibited at the Triennale di Milano Architecture Week, the Marrakech Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, exhibits across Amman and Beirut, and most recently the the 57th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA) in Pittsburgh. It was there that we caught up with Innab to discuss her work on view, What is Unseen Cannot Be Broken, and the issues that drive her practice.

Installation view of What is Unseen Cannot be Broken at the 57th Carnegie International. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

inside a museum gallery with high ceilings, there's a row of simple. gray fragmented cement archways lined up to make the viewer seem like they're looking down a corridor. They're lined up in front elaborate and extremely detailed mantle pieces and other historic architectural elements

Sarah Rafson: Tell me about your piece What is Unseen Cannot Be Broken

Saba Innab: The piece is based on an image I found of a Gazan tunnel that was exposed by the Israeli army. To see the tunnel strips it of its core characteristic, to remain unseen. In this case, invisibility is what allowed the tunnel to exist. The tunnel in this context is a method of survival, and once exposed, it becomes the sign of the colonizer. The tunnel’s form embodies the impossibility of movement.

This project is a lamentation of architectural archetypes–the tunnel and the arch. Based on the image, I modeled only the visible parts of the tunnel, as fragments of a body that have been excavated, not exposed. The meaning changes immediately. An arch underground is a structural element; once it is seen in isolation, it becomes an architectural gesture, a reference to authority. The fragments themselves become an oxymoron.

This piece is part of a series examining different archetypes of architecture in order to expose the fragility of extraterritorial space, whether in refuge, or exile, or—in the case of this tunnel in Gaza—when in siege.

The other casts in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture are replicas of fragments of famous buildings, your piece showcases a ruin. What is in dialogue in your piece?

You can say my piece is the cast of an image. I tried to speculate and analyze the size and proportion of the tunnel, the curve of the arch below ground. The fragments in my piece follow the line between what’s visible and invisible.

The Hall of Architecture is a space of hegemony and authority, representing dominant architectural styles in pre-modern architecture from Gothic to Romanesque masterpieces. What is Unseen not only interrupts the space, but is an invitation to imagine the source of this form and the excavation of the tunnel.

I think some people mistakenly thought that my work was something being renovated. It fits with the plaster cast collection, but it’s also an odd object. I’m interested in how this object can convey a moment in a constant struggle of a site in complete contestation. In this particular context, seeing is destroying!

Momentary Foundations. Drawing detail from Moment 4, 2018, pencil and AutoCad. Courtesy Saba Innab.

a black and white sketch of repeating forming a corridor archways, overlaid on a pink mountain drafted via CAD (a computer drafting system). The sketchy lines of the draws contrast with the solid lines of the CAD mountain

How is this different from your work, Momentary Foundations at the 2018 Milan Architecture Week?

That piece was actually the start of What is Unseen Cannot Be Broken. Momentary Foundations is a narrative built around four found images or moments. Each image exposes the complexity and fragility of the extended Palestinian refugee and exile; the permanent temporariness. The narrative departs from two moments in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp reconstruction process and links them with two other moments in the bigger context of refuge and exile.

Each image is abstracted and deconstructed through its architectural elements—columns, ruins, and tunnels. The architecture becomes the entry point to understanding the inscription of authority and politics onto space, and the meaning of extraterritoriality in each context.

What was your involvement with the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp?

In 2007, Nahr el-Bared Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon, was entirely demolished after an armed conflict between the Lebanese Army and an Islamist Fundamentalist group that had planted itself in the camp six months before the conflict. Two years after the demolition, I joined the reconstruction team as an architect and urban planner, but with a critical position—what does it mean to rebuild a camp? To build and plan something that originated in such an incremental, elusive way, driven entirely by need as opposed to desire for design?

The idea of reconstructing the camp held revolutionary potential—in the construction of spatiality and the possibility of addressing  temporariness through building. However, the Lebanese state and army gradually became involved in the process, imposing their vision of security through planning. The master plan had to comply with a number of points, such as limiting the number of stories, the heights of retaining walls, and the length of a block.

Nahr el Bared Camp right after the rubble removal, fall of 2009. At that point, the camp was turned into a military zone which no one access without permits from the Lebanese Army Intelligence. Courtesy Saba Innab.

a barren, yellow rocky and sandy landscape against a blue sky

Is there a standard across all camps, or were those rules specific to the Nahr el Bared Camp (NBC)?

NBC was actually the first Palestinian camp that was destroyed and reconstructed within an official framework in Lebanon. The destruction of NBC was justified—with no actual justification as it was promoted as war on terrorism. The fact that the destruction happened after the conflict concluded could be read as tool for the government to create the model camp that they envisioned.

During the bombardment, a group of activists (which would later become the Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Commission) worked with the community to reclaim detailed maps of the architectural plans and social structure from memory. This basically forced the process of reconstruction to go in a very particular direction, involving the whole camp in the process as a major partner. These documents are unprecedented in their nature—if the extraterritoriality motivated an unjustified destruction of the camp, it indirectly enabled the reclamation of the space of the camp from memory.

Reclaiming space from people’s memories, rendered a gap in the reconstruction process between the remembered space, the reclaimed space, and the produced space.

To go back to Momentary Foundations, the first image is a still from a video documenting a building in NBC being bombarded by the army.  Similar footage was shared with me in a design session with one of the refugees. A video showed a building in a semi ruined setting before collapsing seconds later. His memory had become evidence for analyzing the violence and its planes, and pixels, to extract the only reclaimable thing: the number of columns. So the image of columns collapsing is not just a ruin, it’s the embedded building knowhow in local structures that spans regionally and that is constantly unfolding other references.

In Rem Koolhaas’s theme for the 2016 Venice Biennial, “Elements” shared an interest in doors, staircases, windows, and so forth. I saw it as a kind of return to autonomy, of architecture without politics—it’s just about building components. In your work, for example, at the Marrakech Biennale, with the staircase on its side, or here at the International, with the tunnel in isolation, I think you have found a way to make those elements political.

Architecture without politics is also political. I’m not really interested in tackling prototypes and archetypes of architecture in isolation. However, I use the method of isolation and abstraction in relation to a particular context to read the meaning of the architectural element and its embedded knowledge. Through collecting these spatial moments, architectural typologies and knowhow, I am trying to create an alternative epistemic structure regarding the notion of permanent temporariness.   

View of Time is Measured by Distance, 2016, plaster and cement. Commissioned for Marrakech Biennial 6, 2016. Photo: Nuha Innab. Courtesy Saba Innab.

a  white cement sculpture of stairs on its side, photographed in front of ruins of red stoned buildings - the photograph shows the stark contrast between the two objects

Your work on Constant’s New Babylon really resonates with me. I have seen Constant’s work used to inform projects that share a vision of paradise I don’t relate to. Tell me about your vision.

I have been intrigued by radical architecture and New Babylon for years now. The first references started with How to Build Without a Land, and this idea of architecture as a form of rejection. This continued through other projects, most recently in Tomorrow, Poetry Will (not) be the House of Life, shown during Biennale d’ Architecture d’ Orleans, organized by Frac Centre-Val de Loire. This work is based on collection and reclamation, looking at three things—building and dwelling in permanent temporariness, the nation-building processes of the “host” countries to this extended refuge and exile, and finally the relation to Modernity and its processes. Between models, notes, and drawings, I inserted two original drawings from New Babylon (part of the Frac Centre-Val de Loire Collection) to critique his critique of modernity and deterritorialization.

On one hand, like many other radical projects they came to subvert the system of modernity, but then they ended up producing the same narrative they were trying to subvert. For example, Constant spent twenty years working on his New Babylon, designing for the player man, assuming equality and mobility. The moment of departure assumed that all people are in an equal position of power, a utopian proposition that is automatically dystopian by nature. His piece automatically becomes Global North-centric, Eurocentric, and even colonial. Not to mention male-centric! On the other hand, with my interpretation another level of deterritorialization appears when we address those that live in temporariness, in refuge, and in exile. When landless, we realize even the poetic dwelling is lost.

On a more playful note, there is Disco, which is a little intervention I did for Portal 9 discussed how a few radical Italian architects of the 1960s deserted public space as a site of experimentation in favor of the underground city; they built discos instead.

Sketchbook spread of Disco, 2013. Drawing and Auto cad. Published in Portal 9, Stories and Critical Writing About The City, Issue #2 Spring 2013, The Square. Courtesy Saba Innab.

a black and white image of a sketch on grid paper overlayed on a CAD generated map

You’re an architect, you’re an artist, you can be either and both. Do you see your sculpture as an extension of your architecture?

Yes, they are an extension of my architectural practice. I like to call it “conceptual architecture.” These objects communicate the theories that you try to accumulate, they offer an understanding of space and provide a way of seeing. Everything is really linked through research and producing objects, models, and sculptures—I have a hard time actually calling anything “sculpture,” because for me everything is a model, regardless of the scale. It’s a model that is all about capturing a moment, a spatial moment, rather than the actual space. Capturing memory, an idea of power, and an idea of seeing a space, I think, are all parts of building something around the meaning of the “permanent temporariness,” of marginalization, and the fragility of refuge and exile. This goes back to the impossibility of architectural practice to deal with these issues.

By collecting methods, reclaiming them, reproducing them in these forms, I guess I’m asking the question, can the ephemeral be documented and considered part of the history of architecture, which is normally written by the Global North?

What is next for you?

Many things. I would like to focus on my collective—OPPA, (On/Pre/Post-Act) with my sister Nuha—who is also an architect. We have many projects in mind and we are launching in fall 2019.

About the author:

Sarah Rafson is an architecture writer, researcher, editor, and curator. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Columbia University’s Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program, she has worked on books with Kenneth Frampton, Bernard Tschumi, and Barry Bergdoll, and collaborated on exhibitions at MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Center for Architecture in New York, and the Parsons School of Design.

While at MoMA, Sarah assisted in the development of exhibitions on contemporary architecture and was the editorial assistant for the catalogue of the 2015 exhibition Latin America in Construction.

While at Columbia, Sarah won the Buell Center Oral History Prize for her thesis on the feminist Chicago architecture curatorial collective, CARYATIDS. She currently sits on the board of ArchiteXX and writes on a range of issues in architecture and design.

Find Sarah on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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