A.M. Qattan Foundation – New Cultural Centre and Palestine Office
International Building Competition
The Jury of the International Building Competition for the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s new Cultural Centre and Palestine Office convened on the premises of Birzeit University in the Occupied Palestinian Territories on the morning of Thursday 18 October 2012.
The Jury was composed of Shadia Touqan, Caecilia Pieri, Khaldun Bshara, Omar Yousef, Ziad Khalaf and Omar Al-Qattan (the latter two being respectively the Foundation’s executive director and Board of Trustees secretary).
The Jury invited each of the four competing teams to present their proposed designs. Presentations took approximately 90 minutes each and were made in the presence of the Foundation’s chair, Abdel Mohsin Al-Qattan, and another member of the Board of Trustees, Leila Al-Qattan.
The Jury then adjourned and reconvened at the Foundation’s current offices in Ramallah at 3pm for its deliberations. Omar Al-Qattan chaired.
Taking as its main reference article 4.8 of the competition brief (which lists evaluation criteria), the Jury began by considering each design separately.
The proposal of Francisco Mangado Arquitectos from Pamplona was inspired by the idea of surprise and discovery, which informed the architectural journey as visitors entered the space. This journey also led to an exquisite story-telling space and pool, starting from an impressive entrance, but marred somewhat by the placement of a parking ramp nearby. The use of the water feature, and a careful and delicate use of light and shade were particularly appreciated, as was the contrasting visual metaphor of enclosure and expansiveness that marked the visitor’s journey. The architects also proposed an impressive and flexible public gallery as well as a future expansion scheme.
However, the “surprise” idea, though intriguing, did not seem to have been fully articulated in the actual circulation, which struck the Jury as confusing. The divisions between programmes and between the public and private office spaces were not always clear. The café and garden seemed isolated, while the guest residences were positioned strangely adjacent to the front entrance. Other major concerns included the lack of a foyer outside the multi-purpose hall; and huge spans which appeared to the Jury as both technically and financially onerous. Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, the fortress-like structures appeared forbidding rather than inviting, and the inclusion of a long footbridge to connect the structures seemed unappealing and wasteful.
MRJ Rundell and Associates of London were complimented by the Jury for the quality of their research into the local and regional idioms, particularly traditional building techniques and materials, although it was occasionally confused by alternate references to Egyptian and Turkish-Ottoman architecture. This proposal struck the Jury as highly pragmatic and detailed, with relatively simple and functional ideas. Of the four designs, the Jury also felt that this had made the best use of the site. The team also proposed careful and sensible solutions for shading and an interesting use of mass.
However, the Jury felt that the design lacked in vision and panache what it offered in pragmatism. The central courtyard idea, for example, seemed academic and dry. It also failed to use the views to the valley by placing a building in front of the visitor’s line of vision, without achieving the elegant cosiness of a traditional courtyard.
Once again, the fortress-like aesthetic seemed forbidding rather than welcoming and the wall-like entrance, with its adjacent parking ramp, made the building uninviting.
The Jury then unanimously decided to exclude these two proposals from further consideration.
The Jury subsequently focussed on the design by Pesquera Ulargui Arquitectos of Madrid.
The Jury was divided on the qualities of this design, with one group commending its originality, uniqueness, ambition and courage in daring to propose totally unexpected and unconventional ideas and a very special quality to the interior space. Its respect for the landscape and the exquisite subtlety of its designs were particularly appreciated.
Some jurors, however, felt that the design’s principle idea was too removed from the local context, or too subtle to make sense in Palestine.
However, several factors also compromised the proposal’s argument. First, while the proposal argued for an “anti-landmark landmark”, which would be characterised by its subtlety in comparison to the aggressive, anti-aesthetic salience of most contemporary buildings in Ramallah, some jurors felt that it made a nonsense of the brief’s requirement for the building to have an unmistakably visible (rather than an over-subtle) identity.
Secondly, there was strong concern about local ability to build such a building, with its very precise specifications for prefabricated components. Other major concerns were about insulation, airflow and convection in a building that would be so open yet simultaneously populated by both office workers and visitors. The building seemed also to have no “spine” and the proposed highly visible elevator would only have caused continuous distraction for its users. Finally, the distribution of spaces struck the Jury as highly impractical.
While the Jury felt confident that Pesquera Ulargui Arquitectos would be more than capable of finding some solutions to these problems, given their previous record, there were too many other serious concerns militating against their proposal. With the exception of one vote, therefore, the Jury decided to exclude it.
The final proposal to be discussed was that by Donaire Arquitectos of Seville.
A number of problems were identified with this proposal. First, the proposed use of stone louvers on the main block, with a secondary glass façade, worried the Jury in terms of future heating and cooling costs and carbon emissions. Secondly, the terrace, while visually stunning, also posed its own set of problems, both in winter and summer. There was also concern about the seemingly impractical shape of the gallery.
However, the Jury felt that this was the most functional and flexible of the four designs, while also enjoying a degree of elegance and beauty in a number of its aesthetic choices. The architects had undoubtedly found the best solution for the challenging spatial requirements of the brief, opting for a solution that was neither bulky and overbearing nor over-subtle and unmanageable. Their future expansion scheme was commendable.
Connections between different spaces, particularly the private and public areas and various levels/floors were properly thought through with the user and visitor very much at the centre of the architects’ solutions, rather than any theoretical preoccupations. The Jury also felt this to be a worthy advocate of the Foundation: inviting, elegant, spacious, unpretentious and on a thoroughly human scale.
The Jury thus voted by five votes to one to recommend to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees the design proposal by DONAIRE ARQUITECTOS, Seville, as its first choice. It also chose to commend Pesquera Ulargui Arquitectos, Madrid, for the originality of its concept, and to thank both Francisco Mangado Arquitectos, Pamplona, and MRJ Rundell and Associates, London, for the depth of their research and the sophistication of their proposals. It also expressed its gratitude to all four teams for the significant amount of time, effort and money they had invested in preparing their proposals and for their commitment to working in such a difficult environment as the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Ramallah, 19 October 2012