On spatial looseness and temporary use: Exploring Al-Hisba market
– Mira Idris and Razan Bleidi
In its central location at the intersection of the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, the popular market of Al-Hisba represents one of the most vital spots in the area. A singular “informal” setting, the market occupies an area of about six dunams in the governorate’s center, consisting of continuous open spaces laid out among several commercial and public buildings. Without formal entrances to define its borders, there is an unmistakable atmosphere that characterizes the market and contributes to its charm, creating an experience of passing through an invisible filter as one goes inside. Beyond this intangible edge, voices of sellers promoting their goods can be heard echoing throughout the space, leading along linear zones into a central plaza, where sellers have organized their stalls underneath a metallic coverage. Over the approximate range of sixty years, those spaces expanded from what had been planned as an indoor market inside a building from the fifties and grew into the extensive, loose market we see today.
As the governorate’s main historical market, Al-Hisba is usually linked in the collective memory to the concepts of shared space and community. However, a series of economic and political upheavals in the area have transformed the market’s built environment and inner dynamics. From privatization to ownership conflicts, those issues turned Al-Hisba into a contested site that seemed, in its informal status, unable to fit within the authorities’ plans to “develop” the area. Those plans included the construction of high-rise, private-sector owned buildings adjacent to the market’s edges, creating inanimate blocks and dead spaces which changed the flow of the existing open space. An even more daring, even though unrealized, plan was put forth by an official body, stating the need to demolish the market and build three commercial towers in its place. The implied vision in such plans and proposals overlooks the market’s inherent potentials. Instead, it focuses on the market’s lack of control and hygiene, both of which, paradoxically, are the natural outcomes of imposed urban development and stifling attempts at regulation and containment.
This paradox introduces an incentive to explore alternative architectural and urban interventions that can regenerate Al-Hisba through its potentials and existing layers, which will be discussed in this essay. Based on a research project conducted by the authors, titled “Urban Catalysts in Al-Hisba: Waste, Infrastructure and Temporary Use”, the essay first follows the evolution of the market as a loose informal space. It then continues to analyze different activities and potentials of the space through observations and urban experiments. Consequently, a conceptual re-imagination of the market is presented in an attempt to shed the light on unexplored urban catalysts and to revive the sense of community challenged in the market’s atmosphere today. The urban interventions, whether those conducted physically inside the market or those presented as a visual re-imagination, aim to highlight the importance of interactive research and design processes in creating a common space.
Inspired by the versatility of the activities occurring in the market, the research process behind this essay follows an experimental path. Parallel to the study of theoretical concepts, the research explores Al-Hisba through on-site urban interventions which the authors have conducted in different parts of the market. The experiments, which include photography, a football match screening, and a workshop, offer an exploration of the market’s capacity for temporary use and improvised utilization of space. This approach, which will be further expanded, has majorly contributed to the essay’s views on the existing layers of informality, and its critique of lost potentials in similar urban settings. Moreover, the interventions have sharpened the research’s vision of a more sustainable cycle of events and design that could benefit from the market’s looseness.
Looseness: Al-Hisba market as a loose space
At first glance, Al-Hisba seems to be the open space formed amid several commercial buildings in the city center, where tradesmen gather to sell their products. However, on further observation, one can notice many overlapping layers connecting the outside open spaces with the indoor and with the surrounding areas and infrastructure, thus highlighting a series of flows and hidden dimensions of the market and giving it a kind of looseness.
In their research on loose space, Karen Franck and Quentin Stevens define it as “a space that has been appropriated by citizens to pursue activities not set by any predetermined program. This perception of public space suggests that a certain amount of uncertainty and spontaneity can break the monotony of modern urban spaces”1. Looseness, in the light of this definition, is not only spatial but is also connected to the temporal changes of activity. In the case of Al-Hisba, looseness shows specifically in the duality of formal and informal uses and flows seen throughout the space, both in areas formally regulated by the authorities and in others that conform to unwritten codes generated by the everyday life.
The evolution of Al-Hisba’s looseness: Historical Background
So what do we mean by formal and informal uses in the specific case of Al-Hisba? Or to put the question in other words: how has Al-Hisba come into being? To answer this question, it is essential first to understand the market’s history and its connection to the evolution of the intertwined cities, Ramallah and Al-Bireh, at whose intersection the market lies.
The two cities, whose closeness has made it difficult to define one in isolation from the other, somehow intersect in Al-Manara, the governorate’s most important commercial and political center, which lies just a minute’s walk from Al-Hisba Market and the neighboring central transportation station. The area around Al-Manara gained importance over the years due to many factors, starting from its location at the extension of Al-Nahda St. connecting Ramallah to Jerusalem and the establishment of Ramallah’s most prestigious school The Friends in 1913, thus gradually overshadowing the cities’ historical centers2.
Following the Israeli occupation in 1948 and the forced displacement of Palestinians, Ramallah and Al-Bireh received an influx of internally displaced refugees from villages near Al-Lidd, Ramla, and Jaffa3. Both cities also became refuge points for middle-class families under the Jordanian rule of the West Bank (1948-1976). This new mixed demography emphasized Ramallah and Al-Bireh’s centrality in the West Bank, creating feasible grounds for the establishment of a central market for fruits and vegetables near Al-Manara, which depended mainly on the Palestinian agricultural sector4. Thus, the Central Hisba building was the first commercial building to be built in the area in the early fifties and the L-shaped building, along with its court, became the main selling area.
From this point on, the political scene in Palestine continued to change, transforming in turn the city’s economy and affecting its vital sectors including Al-Hisba’s economy and formation. After the military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the market, along with other Palestinian business sectors, was heavily affected by the Israeli attempts to integrate the Palestinian market into Israel’s economy5. One mechanism of control, according to Salim Tamari, was the “restructuring of the water and electricity grids so that Palestinians became dependent upon Israeli controlled public utilities”6 that affected, among many things, the agricultural sector; one of the main product sources of Al-Hisba.
The frequent rise and fall in the market’s economy continued in the seventies, with the emergence of educational institutions including Birzeit University and a new influx of money which consisted of remittances to families, sent by emigrant Palestinians working in the Arab World, thus contributing to the improvement of living standards in Ramallah and Al-Bireh7. The mapping of the area surrounding Al-Hisba shows that the seventies and the early eighties, the periods of this economic influx, witnessed a rise in construction and consequently, commercial expansion.
Thus, the initially unplanned area grew into a commercial center defined by several buildings, the layout of which allowed for a central open space and created linear edges with the surrounding streets. Those two spatial configurations, that of the central space and the linear ones, gradually attracted vendors and salesmen to expand their business into what seemed to be strategic selling spots that intersect with daily pedestrian movement and provide shortcuts between main streets.
However, this condition did not last long, as the market faced another difficulty under the first uprising Intifada in 1987, during which many Palestinians were no longer able to work in the 1948 occupied areas, forcing them to look for alternative employment opportunities. The decline of the Palestinian economy during the first months of the Intifada by about 25-30%8 pushed many recently jobless people to work in Al-Hisba as the only possible market, causing yet another wave of chaos in the market. New informal kiosks and selling spots were created as a result, and the market was officially “outside” in the open space around the buildings, whereas the inside space became less of a selling area and more of storage space for wholesale grocery.
Ownership, Privatization and Control: Who owns Al-Hisba?
Parallel to these political factors, the market was also affected by changes in its ownership, which was partially due to its expansion without precise boundaries on different land plots, thus dividing the market’s open spaces into zones, owned (separately) by Al-Bireh Municipality, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, and the political organization Abna’ Ramallah. This occurrence created a conflict of interests, with different sectors practicing control over one market and presenting conflicting opinions regarding its loose and informal nature9.
Consequently, Al-Hisba came to extend over seamless open spaces whose ownership can be subtly distinguished by their current state of regulation and the condition of infrastructure. The spaces owned by the municipality, on the one hand, are among the areas provided with better infrastructural services. Located underneath a metallic roof whose structure contains lighting and electrical fixtures, the municipality’s main plaza dominates the better maintained selling area and even the visual image of the market. Over the past few years, the municipality carried out two renovation acts, one of which mostly involved the metallic structure and the asphalt paved area underneath, where fixed stalls are installed. The earlier renovation targeted the interior spaces of one of the buildings from the seventies, in an attempt to place some of the market’s stalls indoors. The attempt, however, failed to attract vendors, who preferred the outdoors, and the interior places were closed as a result.
The areas owned by the other two parties, however, are in a relatively inferior condition. The linear land plots are mostly covered using pieces of cloth stretched from the neighboring buildings’ roofs, whereas the plaza-like spaces lack any overhead cover or definition. Therefore, most of the activities occurring at those sites are dependent on “improvised” and informal infrastructure and are consequently more susceptible to weather and season changes. Instead of fixed stalls, movable and umbrella-covered stalls can be seen in those landscapes along with instant services such as the offering of hot beverages and porterage.
The shared ownership of the market can also be read in the different forms of control practiced over its spaces. Among those is an office of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs located inside one of the buildings in the market, and a security point regulated by the Abna’ Ramallah Organization at the edge of one of Al-Hisba’s open plazas. Al-Bireh Municipality, on the other hand, keeps an official check on the legality of the selling process, ensuring that stalls are installed only in the allowed areas and that the rent for a “place” inside the market is paid.
On a related note, the market’s physical and visual dominance in one of the governorate’s most strategically placed parcels just at the edge of Al-Manara Roundabout, allowed it to be highly influenced by large scale projects of regional and economic importance. In 1997, the construction of a central transportation station started adjacent to the market as an expansion to an existing building. The station, which was opened to the public around the year 2000, connects Ramallah with many villages and cities in the West Bank. The effort was advertised as a “joint work of public and private sectors”10 since it is a collaboration between Al-Bireh Municipality and the Palestine Real Estate Investment Company (PRICO); the latter having gained the prerogative to manage and organize the station, in one of the most evident examples on the privatization of public services in the area. Besides transportation services, the building today contains a shopping center and several offices11.
An extended city: Urban layers and users
The history detailed above created a versatile, unique market which despite being regulated by the local authorities, still conforms to many aspects shared by informal markets around the world; mostly in the fact that it does recognize borders or limits, but is always spontaneously expanding and growing. It is, therefore, something of an extended city, a term which Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer describe in their study of informal markets as a “cluster of networked sites produced by political upheaval, migratory movements, regulatory bodies, laws, technologies, and other translocal forces that are acted out locally”12.
As an extended city, Al-Hisba displays a complexity which the users of the market have learnt to utilize and transform into a potential. The reuse of the dead spaces created between old buildings and new ones, for example, is one such utilization. With some dead spaces used as storages and others as shortcuts and inner paths that connect stores inside the buildings with specific areas in the market, those uses create complex, somehow exciting relationships between the user and today’s market.
This explains why Al-Hisba, gradually, reveals more than just an everyday market: Each zone has defined and connected itself with the surroundings without the need for space-defining boundaries or previously assigned functions. What might look like an organized market in the middle of the central selling area loses shape as it approaches the main streets and one of the adjacent plazas, known informally as the “mosque plaza”. At those “junctions”, one encounters unregistered pop-up umbrella stalls, old farmer-women selling at spaces other than those “specified” for them, vendors shouting at the streets and on sidewalks, children under the working-age running around with carts offering their services, and even people parking at illegal spots, occasionally considered part of the market.
The “junctions” here, however, are not necessarily minimal intersection zones, but can also be dominant, highly visible ones such as the large mosque plaza. The plaza in questions displays a vast capacity for different activities: a public transportation parking lot on working days, a private-car parking area on holidays, a selling area for temporary stalls on Fridays after the Friday Prayer event, and most surprisingly, a zone for unloading goods and collecting the market’s waste during active, busy hours of the day. Similarly, linear zones have creatively been turned into goods-specific selling areas: one area selling inexpensive clothes and fabric, another displaying cheap utensils and targeting specific groups of users, while the rest of the market specializes in selling retail grocery.
As a result of this diversity, the scene today is that of a market that houses a bit of everything: legal and illegal stalls, public transportation, shopping, goods unloading, and waste collection. Among those urban layers, one layer stands out as being the tangible and accumulative “product” of Al-Hisba: waste. Compared to other markets in the West Bank, Al-Hisba receives a relatively small amount of agricultural products with an average of 1034 tons per month. Around 1% of the imports are spoiled, rendering a monthly amount of 10.34 tons of organic waste, 80% of which is dumped as Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Additionally, with a percentage of only about 1.5% of waste being recycled in the West Bank, the option of a recycling system in Al-Hisba is not offered13. Despite some individual efforts to process some of the spoiled imports to create new food products, both the lack of a sustainable disposal and recycling systems and the lack of supervision and maintenance in the field of hygiene have made it difficult to protect the market from waste accumulation. The waste, most of which is organic, also includes other types of waste most notably plastic and cardboard.
The accumulation of waste is mostly noticeable in detached, marginal areas of the market, among which is ‘Souq Al-Fallahat” or the zone specified by the municipality for elderly women to sell in. This highlights yet another controversial aspect of Al-Hisba, that of the dominance of male sellers in the central zones, despite customers being of both genders and from different age groups. But the selling action which depends heavily on advertising goods by loud, often rhyming calls, somehow and according to an unwritten rule assumes it is natural to exclude women from this process. However, women are rarely seen selling in their “zone”; having complained about its physical condition, accumulated waste, and its detachment from passers-by routes and busy streets. Consequently, in revolutionary acts that can be witnessed now and then, some women, often old farmer-women, are seen selling in the “prohibited” areas, shouting at the top of their lungs to advertise their goods. The result is often a confrontation with the municipality officials and the media, adding to the market’s unconventional occurrences.
The informal: Mobility and temporality
The preceding study of Al-Hisba’s layers constitutes a ground to analyze the concept of informality. In the market’s specific context, “the regulated” and “the planned” are linked to formality and control. Thus, organized stalls and the interior spaces designed to store wholesale grocery, and even the dominance of male sellers are considered among the many fixed and formal aspects of the market. In contrast, activities that tend to be unexpected or rather not to conform to the market’s “rules”, are indicators of the informality that uses space creatively and challenges infrastructural deficiencies. Those activities, such as pop-up and street stalls, illegal parking, public gatherings, and women selling alongside men in “formal” areas, all communicate a sense of mobility and temporality that constitutes an important part of Al-Hisba’s character.
The temporality of those informal activities demonstrates an inherent value that is impeded, as previously illustrated, by imposed control and a lacking design. However, regarding this value as a potential rather than a merely hidden value creates a need and an opportunity to explore and expand it against its challenging background. Thus, the actual characteristic layers of the market can be seen as incentives for a change capable of regenerating their temporal effect. This perspective is one way of acknowledging the existing urban layers while still maintaining space for the instigation of urban intervention by defining urban catalysts, which will be discussed in the following sections.
Urban Catalysts and Space Potentials: Urban Interventions as Temporary Activities
Having defined the activities occurring in the market within their temporal frame, one can wonder how urban intervention could benefit from this definition. During the research phase that led to this essay, we attempted to experiment with the meaning of temporality by conducting three urban interventions in the market’s space. The interventions examine the changes in different flows of movement, users, and the processes that can result from each experiment. Moreover, the measures by which those experiments were designed, relate specifically to three issues described in the preceding analysis: waste, infrastructure and temporary use, by understanding them as catalysts.
In their book American Urban Architecture: Catalysts in the Design of Cities, Wayne Attoe and Donn Logan introduced the term urban catalyst as “an urban element that is shaped by the city (its ‘laboratory’ setting) and then, in turn, shapes its context. Its purpose is the incremental, continuous regeneration of the urban fabric. The important point is that the catalyst is not a single end product but an element that impels and guides subsequent development”14. Catalysts, which could be social, legal, or even political, represent points of potential in any project. They could be either “existing urban elements of value enhanced or transformed in positive ways,” or “an introduction of a new element (the catalyst) causing a reaction that modifies existing elements in an area”15.
Accordingly, the interventions were “injected”, spatially, based on potential loose spaces and flows. The interventions (a screening, a workshop and photography) achieve different goals of generating new acts of temporary use in Al-Hisba while examining the market’s existing infrastructure and processing its main products of food and waste, thus exploring the research’s catalysts.
– Football Match Screening
On the 23rd of December 2017, the famous football match (El Clásico) was screened live in Al-Hisba with contributions from the Architectural Engineering department at Birzeit University and Al-Bireh Municipality. The main idea was to explore the market’s capacity for new unprecedented activities in its context. The screening took place in the main market plaza at noon underneath the metal roof. With help from kiosk owners and municipality employees, the projector, amplifier and screen were attached to the existing structure supporting the roof; with the screen facing the kiosks to enable the sellers and visitors to watch without interrupting the selling and buying process. All materials needed for the setup were also acquired from the market and its surroundings, highlighting the market’s self-sufficiency and the possibility of using the existing structure in the market as an infrastructural facility, as electricity was obtained from existing electrical installations and extensions were supplied from the municipality’s electricity provider in Al-Hisba and extended over the structure. The often marginalized and hidden aspect of infrastructure is thus brought to the surface acting, as Delalex notes as “a porous frontier. It ٍ[infrastructure] must not be regarded as a limit to be transgressed, or an impermeable boundary separating the city from its outside, but as a zone of contact and encounter”16.
The screening attracted the attention of most users of the space, creating points of gathering close to the screen. Many people chose to occupy those new gathering spots between the stalls where coffee was served for the attendants, whereas others preferred to watch from their positions by their kiosks in the “back rows” where the sound was still audible and clear. The market’s customers were also among the newly formed audience, stopping by to watch, chat and take pictures. The intervention, which was able to completely transform the market’s atmosphere for a few hours, showed potential for new simultaneous activities (selling and screening) and for the possibility of introducing new events that would be able to create gathering spots and hint at a sense of a shared space. In a way, this experiment responds to Philipp Oswalt’s perception of temporary use which can become “a vehicle that provides opportunities for new, unplanned activities, transforming banal and everyday spaces into breeding grounds for new forms of art, music, and pop culture, as well as for economic development, technological inventions and startups”17.
– Healthy food workshop for children
A workshop on healthy food and children’s participation in food making was held on November 25th, 2017 by the researchers in cooperation with the Estonian Metsaköök initiative. The workshop took place inside a small restaurant in the market (whose owners helped arrange the free workshop) and attracted 14 kids, 6 of whom work in the market while the others were accompanied by their parents who were either selling or shopping in the area. The chosen restaurant is located at the junction between Souq Al-Fallahat and the main market plaza. As a room open on three sides, the indoor space is integrated with the outside, which made it easy for the workshop to attract passers-by who stopped to watch, participate or ask for some smoothies.
The workshop highlighted the condition of children working in the market and their engagement with the visiting children and with the newly-appropriated space. Furthermore, through its dependence on food acquired from the market’s kiosks, the experience emphasized another aspect of the market’s self-sufficiency and capability to support food processing workshops and engage the public in the activities. In a similar fashion, one can imagine organizing other workshops that make use of spoiled organic matter, using various processing methods to create new products like jams, pickles, and dried fruits and vegetables.
Inspired by the work of Participating Artists’ Press Agency (PAPA), a random sample of users in Al-Hisba were asked to photograph spots of their choice in the market and its surrounding and to caption their photos on a series of visits to the market carried out during November 2017. The photos and captions acquired from this experiment shed light on the condition and interests of different groups of users, especially young women; some of whom deemed the market an “uncomfortable” environment for females. Others, on the other hand, described their previous selling spots at the edges of the streets as the best spots and regretted their inability today to sell there according to the municipal laws.
In addition to its contribution to our understanding of the market, the undertaking of the above experiments highlights the possibility of the simultaneous occurrence of multiple activities in Al-Hisba without causing a clash between designed events and existing ones. This observation inspired the research’s alternative vision of the market to emphasize the addressed catalysts through architectural intervention, which will be unfolded as a re-imagination of Al-Hisba.
This section follows a conceptual re-imagination of the market, building upon the presented historical and experimental reading of its dynamics. The proposal, addressing both the architectural and urban scales, introduces a new cycle of activities dependent on local production that responds to the issues of waste, infrastructure and temporary use.
First, the alternative program benefits from the markets’ products (food and waste) by adding a new layer of recycling into Al-Hisba. On the architectural scale, the project suggests turning the bulky transportation building at the heart of the market into a light cardboard and organic waste recycling facility that integrates food processing and packaging workshops as well as existing shops. The central transportation hub, on the other hand, is to be relocated north of Ramallah city to decrease traffic congestion in the city center, while still maintaining a transportation “stop” at a land plot near the market. Other building-scale interventions propose openings and subtractions through the existing fabric to create new axes into the market, thus creating the potential for more “junctions”.
The program then addresses the issue of infrastructure by examining the following question:
“What if a new paradigm for infrastructure existed? What if the very hard lines between landscape, architecture, engineering, and urbanism could find a more synthetic convergence?”18.
While the intervention on the landscape scale starts with the re-leveling of the open plaza and the creation of edges that informally define selling areas, the effect of the “seamless” is fulfilled through the injection of poles of infrastructure throughout the space. For a place where divided ownership has caused a disparity in infrastructural services, the poles, designed as structural elements supporting a suspended covering, offer an equal supply of those services, as they also function as infrastructural elements. Each pole is connected to a rainwater storage unit and has a base that represents a meeting point as well as a service point for the users where they find waste storage, power and internet supply points as well as drinking water outlets. This new layer is to be connected to the existing networks and the new electricity supply that results from anaerobic digestion of organic waste in the recycling facility.
Hence, the alternative landscape allows for flexible configurations of stalls and kiosks, which can be folded and stored in specified spaces, creating potential for new activities to occupy the space, including screenings, performances, and temporary seasonal markets, thus maintaining the sense of mobile informality and communal activities. Alongside those temporary activities, it is necessary to read the proposed interventions as part of a cycle that offers new job opportunities for both men and women of different age groups and in a versatile range of fields such as selling, food processing, and recycling, all in a market that offers equal services and possibilities in its different parts.
Throughout its consequent parts, the essay intentionally avoids defining Al-Hisba as a public space, as that the term has undergone many changes, and has become, at some point, no longer recognizable in itself19. As an alternative, the emphasis on looseness and informality in the definition highlights another aspect as essential in creating space: the aspect of creative use of land.
By acknowledging the vitality of every user’s input in today’s market, and by proposing a productive cycle within which all users are provided with identical infrastructure and opportunities, the sense of space ownership can be redefined. Thus, without an official change of the ownership status, the intervention undertakes the task of reshaping the relationship between the users and the land through shared challenges and daily occurrences. This is where public space can be substituted by shared space, which David Harvey defines as “a relationship between objects which exists only because objects exist and relate to each other”20.
As a set of relationships, both the city and the extended city within are full of urban complexity. Therefore, writing about extended cities is one way of approaching cities themselves. In studying informality, the research process goes beyond proffering an alternative design, as it also reveals the dynamics and politics of planning (or the lack thereof) and investment in cities’ centers. It is here that urban and architectural interventions are expected to act as active agents seeking out unexplored potentials and catalysts.
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Mira Idris is an architect and researcher based in Jerusalem. She is currently working as a research and teaching assistant at the Architectural Engineering and Urban Planning Department at Birzeit University, Palestine. She is also an active urban sketcher and has been part of several urban initiatives while working at The International Peace and Cooperation Center in Jerusalem. Her research interests comprise architectural history and studies of landscape and open space. Her latest project was the visual article “On Landscape Transformations and Sketching”, published as part of the Imagine project launched by the organizations Sakiya, Urbana, and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
Razan Bleidi is an architect based in Ramallah-Palestine, before working as a full time teaching and research assistant in Birzeit University she worked for several architecture offices in Ramallah. Razan’s research interests are focused on user experience in different designed or planned spaces, trying to study human interaction with their surroundings, and the impact of the designed spaces on human behaviour.
Volume 3, no. 3 Autumn 2020