MRJ Rundell & Associates; London

INTRODUCTION

Founded in 1993, the AM Qattan Foundation is a registered charity in the UK which operates out of premises in London, Ramallah and Gaza. It works towards the development of culture and education, with a particular focus on children, teachers and young artists. For more information on the AMQF including its vision and values, click here.

Having outgrown its existing accommodation in Ramallah, the AMQF is planning to construct new premises in the Tireh area of Ramallah. It is running an international architectural competition for the design of what will be a major new cultural center and office building.

The competition is an opportunity to champion excellence in design, reflecting the quality of the AMQF’s work in the culture and education fields for over 15 years. As well as responding to the AMQF’s functional needs, the new building is expected to set a standard for the architecture of subsequent public buildings in Palestine.

The AMQF hopes that the competition and execution process will raise awareness about the role of the built fabric design in improving the quality of urban life in social, cultural and economic terms.

The creation of a new headquarters for the A.M. Qattan Foundation offers many opportunities for Palestine and Ramallah, including the development of its rich architectural heritage. Palestine has a tradition of complex and beautiful architecture ranging from the courtyard peasant houses of old Ramallah and the Throne Village buildings of the 18th/19th centuries to the spacious hillside Villas built in the 1930s. The interplay of courtyards, staircases, arches and towers has been taken as the starting point for our design, through which we have tried to establish the basis of a new Palestinian vernacular. We have blended the best of local materials, forms and tradition with our own creative input to develop an architectural language that is evidently of its time but also evidently of its place.

 

The formal composition of our proposed building is strong and uncluttered. We have opted for a low-rise solution that makes use of the sloping hillside to accommodate the required footprint and so avoiding the construction of another anonymous tower block. By setting our building close to the land, and by allowing the external forms to appear to rise from the ground rather than to dominate it, we feel we have created something that is harmonious and at the same time practical. When viewed from the East the most evident feature will be the three main blocks that house the three main elements of the scheme: the Library, the Gallery and the Foundation itself. These are set on a terraced plinth that moves in and out of the terraced Olive groves, making use of the traditional techniques of stone walling to link the building visually to the hillside. Open staircases will crisscross the site, creating a magical series of paths that can be explored and enjoyed at leisure, and from this same vantage point the main formal element on the plinth will be evident – a regular pattern of recessed windows emphasised by shadows cast deep within their openings.

 

Approaching the building from the North, the building’s formal arrangement is further revealed. The Courtyard – a form of open “Livan” intended to become the focus of the complex – is set slightly below the street and is shielded from the bustle of daily life by the change in level. This method of separation is an important feature: seclusion is provided by the landscape rather than by protective walls. The layout of the courtyard itself is influenced by the architecture of universities throughout the world, and in particular the slightly informal set of buildings that make up the great Peckwater Quadrangle in Oxford; bounded on three sides by regular buildings this courtyard is completed by a separate building – the Christopher Wren Library – that both closes the space and opens it out to smaller courtyards surrounding it.

 

At very close quarters a final level of interest becomes clear – the facings of the stone walls will be carefully worked to create a series of textures and patterns that will enliven the surfaces when illuminated by the sun raking across the facades and terraced walls. By being clearly conscious of the way the building appears to viewers from near and far we believe the building will inspire at every level and, as such, will deserve its place as a new focal point within Ramallah’s cultural landscape.

 

A further way that the new Foundation building will help enrich the life of Ramallah is through the provision of outside space for communal events and enjoyment. Public space is severely limited at present and we envisage the courtyard as a meeting point for the community, a place where concerts are held and informal meetings are welcomed. Furthermore we are suggesting the creation of a playground for children on the unused land to the West of the site – a place where the future inhabitants of the town can grow to love and understand it; a place that engages with nature and offers kids the chance to enjoy its benefits. We see this outreach to local children as a first step towards the integration of a possible future Centre for the Child in Ramallah to echo the work already being carried out so successfully in Gaza.

 

Quite apart from the direct benefits that the Foundation already offers, we believe that the actual process of constructing the buildings can have a positive impact on the area in a wider sense through development of local skills in fields ranging from stone carving to tile making. We have ensured that the building can be built almost entirely from local materials and we hope to be able to work with local suppliers to improve their quality and to develop products suitable for export to international markets.

 

The environmental performance of the building has been fundamental to our designs. We aim to make use of the copious amounts of local sunshine by incorporating glazed roofs in most spaces – light will be filtered and cooled by deep glass blocks arranged to form a decorative illuminated ceiling. Strongly recessed fenestration will ensure adequate shading from the strong south light and the way the building has been set into the hillside will help keep internal temperatures stable. Heavy walls will add to the building’s thermal mass and space for geothermal equipment has been allowed so that the building can both be heated and cooled using renewable sources. Covered arbours, where meetings can be held under the shade of vines, will be provided on the terraces and the design makes deliberate use of the cool West wind to further soften the summer heat.

 

The building explained

 

The first impression a visitor has of any building is crucial to his appreciation of it. We have deliberately opted for a low-rise arrangement as we feel that its human scale will emphasise the open and approachable atmosphere that characterises the Foundation’s mission. The wall that separates the main buildings from the street will be perforated to allow views through to the landscape beyond, and the gates themselves – forged from metal by local craftsmen – will normally stand open to welcome visitors inside.

 

Once through the gate the layout of the centre will become immediately apparent with three clear volumes set around the lowered courtyard. This courtyard will play a crucial role within the overall foundation: it will be the focus of the three separate elements that make up the foundation and it will be a protected, peaceful – but immediately accessible – space in which to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings.

 

Entering via the main gateway visitors will be received in a foyer. A low ceiling height has been used in this space to avoid any sense of overpowering grandeur. However there is no shortage of visual excitement – as soon as the visitor enters the building its full extent will be unveiled: the route through its various levels will take the form of an internal “street” with linked staircases winding down the hillside. This street – the open interconnection of all the offices that make up the Foundation – forms the core and essence of the building.

 

From the Reception a lift will allow disabled access to all floors and the next half level down opens out onto the courtyard that forms the hub of the Foundation. This Courtyard level includes one office/residential space that could either be used as the director’s office, or alternatively (and as currently shown) as Mr. Al Qattan’s private rooms which give directly onto a West facing terrace. Across the courtyard there is a separate reception area for the Gallery, Lecture Hall, Cafe and Bookshop, and, from the Cafe, doorways open to a terrace where tables, sheltered under a vine-covered arbour, overlook the view of the city.

 

The Gallery lobby is spacious to allow art to be displayed in the circulation areas and wide stairs lead to the main gallery above and the Hall below. The Gallery comprises a single space, top-lit through the same hexagonal glass block system that is used elsewhere, so that best use can be made of daylight. The open space allows for maximum flexibility: following our experience of designing Galleries in London we have suggested a layout of smaller interconnected rooms to produce a variety of atmospheres within the exhibition space, but this is a detail that would be developed further as the project progresses.

 

To the South the Library is also reached directly from the courtyard. In this building a reception area (with cataloguing behind) leads onto a stair down to the main reading room. This whole space is again top-lit and the double height thereby produced will emphasise the open airy atmosphere that is a key feature throughout the building.

 

Within the Foundation building the next level down opens out onto a series of external terraces and at the very centre of this floor we have placed the director’s office: leading directly onto the internal staircase street, as well as close to the offices of the main directors and administrative personnel, this central location in the hub of the building (but slightly removed from the immediate presence of casual visitors) is an important element of the existing building and we have ensured that it is retained. Internal access throughout the building is provided on both this and the Garden level below, and the Gallery, Lecture Hall and Library are all easily accessible.

 

The Garden level is the final point of arrival of the staircase street. From here the full extent of the building can be appreciated and within the staircase atrium we have included an open seating area that can be used by both staff and visitors for informal meetings and lunches. On one of our visits we met a group of children from Gaza who were being entertained as part of a tour of the Foundation – we envisage that this kind of event could take place in the atrium space as it is both central and public, allowing the work of the Foundation to continue while allowing visitors and staff alike to benefit from the energy thereby produced. A small courtyard will provide an unexpected and intriguing conclusion to the street “journey” while also allowing light into the deep plan of the building.

 

This final office floor (levels below are kept for guest accommodation, parking and service areas) contains the rest of the offices, and in particular the Art department that is located a short distance from the lift to give direct access up to the Gallery itself. A wide foyer in front of the Meeting Hall will allow separate access at times when both the Gallery and Hall are in use as visitors can reach the Hall via the stairs/road to the East of the site.

 

While we have attempted to respond to the brief as accurately as possible we are aware that a degree of fine tuning will be required to take proper account of the complex interrelationships within the foundation. We believe that the inherent flexibility of our design allows significant scope for the designs to be adapted and we would greatly welcome the opportunity to develop the scheme further with the relevant personnel.

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