paper aims to visually study the simple objects that exist around us and the
buildings people live in, in order to account for how a simple architectural
language can help in the current situation in the Gaza Strip. A
descriptive analytical method was adopted as the main methodological tool in
order to gather information about existing minimalist objects and ordinary
architecture in Gaza. Field investigations were conducted in order to
photograph different areas in the Strip’s communities: Gaza city, rural-to-urban
areas, and marginalized areas were compared to well-known minimalist artworks.
Minimalist architecture in Gaza is not an alternative paradigm but a
consequence of the current situation of material resources, building techniques,
and form-making processes. This paper aims to show that, by using certain
aesthetic design strategies, such as a particular arrangement of building
elements and patterns, a more livable architecture can be obtained that
advances aesthetic values, such as a sense of order, simplicity, and clarity,
thus enabling a particular enjoyment of beauty.
value, basic geometry, Gaza, minimalism, minimalist art, minimalist
architecture, new vernacular, simple architecture
Minimalism is used to describe an architectural design
approach according to which the represented object is reduced to its essential
elements. Minimalist architecture is characterized by an economy of materials
and the distillation of functional requirements to essences, such as light,
form, texture, space and scale, place, and human conditions. Concerning
architecture, and for the purposes of this visual research, other relevant
aspects of minimalism include the use of basic geometric forms, raw materials,
and the repetition of structures.
In Gaza, however, we find yet another aspect of
minimalism that has to do with the reduction of every day life to a bare
minimum. Persistent violence has led Israel to restrict access to fuel, electricity, and other basic resources to levels falling far below the area's normal
The scarcity of these essential resources is only made worse by the overcrowding
in Gaza, since the people
there are residing in one of the most densely populated stretches of land in
The Gaza Strip is a narrow land area located in the
vicinity of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, with a length of about forty-one
kilometers and a width ranging from six to twelve kilometers. According to the
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2016, there were
approximately two million inhabitants living in the Strip, an area
comprising 365 square kilometers. The
Strip is linked to the outside world through five border crossings, four with
Israel and one with Egypt. All materials and goods required by people in the
Gaza Strip must officially enter through the Israeli border crossings, whereas
the Egyptian crossing is only employed for the movement of people. Access to
the Mediterranean Sea is limited to three nautical miles along the Strip's
The area has had to cope with difficult circumstances,
such as low income and a high rate of unemployment, and a state of siege that
prohibits the entry of many essential items, including construction materials.
As cities expand upwards, the urban life of their
citizens shifts from horizontal to vertical. Urban life in the Gaza Strip has
been shaped by periods of growth along with periods of crisis, and it is these
that have brought about transformations in the culture, social structure, and
urban landscape. In this sense, open spaces have evolved into closed spaces,
producing a form of signage that is specific for box-like buildings. The
majority of residential buildings in the Strip are characterized by their
cement, uneven, rough layers of plaster on unfinished brick walls, and
convenient simple structure. They are even designated as ‘boxes’ by locals.
The current unstable economic situation and the lack of
access to building materials because of the Israeli blockade often force
families to build lower quality houses. Most of these houses do not look
beautiful and seem to have been built in the 1970s or the 1980s, displaying the
impact of the new vernacular architecture in the Strip.
The minimalist architecture in the Gaza Strip does not occur as a purposeful
deployment of an alternative paradigm but as a consequence of the current local
situation of material resources and building techniques, and of the form-making
process. This paper discusses, however, the use of minimalist architecture
principles and its visual aspects as a source of contemporary aesthetic in
buildings and uncertainty of planning in the Gaza Strip
In this dense urban area, residential buildings display a
wide variety of housing qualities, ranging from extremely solid concrete frame
constructions equipped with all services to squalid windowless shacks made of
concrete blocks. Those buildings and the people who live in them are not all
the same. Some occupants in Gaza are able to raise enough funds to improve
their dwellings to middle-class standards, while others continue to live in the
most basic shelters, unable to afford any improvements at all.
Out of necessity, and for reasons of economy, buildings
in the Gaza Strip have tended to be reduced to their bare essentials. The main
concern of many people has been to build a shelter whose shape and form is the
most economical. Gazans build individual homes for all sorts of reasons but
mainly because they want to build something tailored to their family's
requirements. Single and extended family houses are scattered throughout the
Strip and aligned to the outer perimeter of Gaza City. Consisting of a slab of
living spaces, raised on pilotis, and with a flat roof, they look like local
variations of the modernistic villa. It was, indeed, the influence of early
modernism that first arrived in the region, reaching its zenith in the 1930s and filtering through across the
Strip via Palestinian construction workers, almost to the point of becoming the
In Gaza, nowadays, the lack of urban and regional
planning and property management is a critical issue. Building licenses are
granted liberally, existing land use regulations are often ignored, and the
Strip lacks experience with planning mechanisms, in general. At the same time,
the population is increasing while the available land is decreasing. Building
forms and spatial relations are dictated by the lifestyle of extended families
and the needs of the occupants (Figure 1), rather than by the intended
composition of a designer, if there is a designer at all! As for the role of
the architect, until the late 1980s, the architect did not necessarily have to
be involved in the design process, and the building process itself could be
approved even without the architect’s signature.
Figure 1. A typical self-built house in the Gaza Strip where forms are mainly dictated by needs of the occupants. Building without architects is a common practice in Gaza, where good and low-skilled workers regularly undertake work towards maintaining the quality of buildings while almost all poor houses go without plastering their outside or, often, even inside walls.
construction and architectural components in the Gaza Strip
Building techniques in most of the local buildings are
kept simple and minimal because skills are not technologically advanced. Each
individual building deviates little from rational arrangement and construction,
both of which result from the local climate, materials, skills, and knowledge.
The geometry of buildings is dictated by the materials available for
construction and by the topography of the landscape. In order to build in the
most efficient way, materials and components have to be put together according
to their inherent properties, including size and shape. This gives a sense of
order to an architecture that is not based on conceptual ideas but on immediate
commonsense logic and the rationale of local place-making.
And while the architectural project is generally understood to bring about
order in space, order and rhythm in the Gaza Strip may not, at first, appear to
inform the quality of building work, or may not be easily discernible.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that in spite of structures being traditionally
built with the local knowledge and the few trades available, buildings in Gaza
are no less poetic than those resulting from an orderly and detailed planning
Figure 2. Hollow concrete blocks with which
local work crews in the Gaza Strip are well versed.
Another consideration is the client’s budget that demands
that architects work with local builders and determines the choice of the main
building component, concrete masonry units (Figure 2) that are the only popular
material with which the workers have experience. Following typical
architectural plans, workers employ poured concrete and concrete masonry units
as some of their principal building blocks. Blocks are then coated with a lime
plaster wash in order to protect the building against dampness, and are
arranged with apertures that provide screening and filter daylight into
interior spaces. Responding to the limitations of the local workforce, plans
employ simple construction techniques and materials. The focus is on using
every day materials in different ways, with no interest in innovating with
minimalist art in the Gaza Strip
Objects do not just stand in an autonomous space that
ensures their separateness from their surroundings. They take place in what
sculptor Donald Judd describes as an actual space; they share a space in which
the viewer’s body is also located. Judd’s objects challenged the idea that the
presence of the artist's hand is tantamount to quality aesthetics, or that, in
other words, the effect of a minimalist artwork in an exhibition would vanish
were no one to place it in a frame or on a pedestal. In this sense, for
example, the most impressive photographs of minimalist artworks are those that
do not isolate the minimalist artworks but show them in their surroundings.
As this paper looks at the relevance of minimalist art to
every day architectural practices in Gaza, it should be pointed out that only a
small number of people in Gaza are able to look at paintings and sculptures because
there are few exhibitions and galleries available. In general, sculptors, art
experts, and critics have to receive their education abroad, whether in other
Arab countries or in Europe. Access to art has been limited to school education
and a few other activities, such as annual exhibitions organized by certain
artist associations, owing to which the professional status of artists also
became more established. As the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip have
constantly been in a condition of political instability, in addition to the dire
economic situation, an ordinary citizen looked upon art only in terms of its
usefulness as a technique (Figure 3), and it was thus no accident that this
period saw primarily the development of the applied arts.
Figure 3. Similar to the grid formats of
minimalist artist Carl Andre, a local had arranged bricks in a particular
From this point of view, residential buildings in the
Gaza Strip may look like disorganized groups of gray concrete boxes crowded
together. However, if you look beyond these outer layers and begin to examine
everything that goes on underneath them, you find that a complex web of human
life-support systems is at work in these dwellings.
In a manner that is convergent with minimalist art, though not necessarily
directly informed by it, place- and space-making techniques in Gaza display
resourcefulness, not hopelessness.
Another example is that of ordinary Palestinian women in
the Gaza Strip, who are accustomed to preparing traditional flat bread for
their families, using wheat flour received from humanitarian aid agencies.
Baking bread at home saves hundreds of shekels on groceries every year.
Freshly-baked bread is prepared every day at some houses. Similar to the basic
arrangements of minimal art shapes, women lay clean circular surfaces of dough
and repeat the pieces of dough in rows and columns (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Dough circles repeated in rows and
columns, as they were prepared by a poor woman inside an empty room, in the
The natural light entering through the aluminum frame of
windows into each empty room fills up the actual space of the house, and the
metallic safety designs further enhance the general sense of simplicity, order,
and abstraction that characterizes the room (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Horizontal and vertical lines, a
typical aluminum window in Gaza (a) vs. a painting (b), homage to Mondrian.
Minimal arts seek to advance a certain type of beauty,
yet surely this aesthetic aspect does not restrict their potential for
improving life. Beauty as a consequence of utility in the industrial arts is
not at variance with the freedom from practical attitudes, for beauty is still
in the realm of perception, of contemplation, not in that of utility. No matter
how much of an artist a builder or a potter may be, she or he is necessarily
controlled by the practical needs that houses and pots are called to provide, the
more so that applied art consists in the application of design and
objects of function and everyday use. Whereas fine arts
serve as an intellectual stimulation to the viewer or to those with academic
sensibilities, along with being produced or intended primarily for beauty, the
applied arts incorporate design and creative ideals to objects of utility, such
as a cup, magazine, or decorative park bench. There is considerable overlap
between the field of applied arts and that of the decorative arts; to
some extent, they are also alternative terms.
Figure 6. Stacks of construction materials.
The aesthetics of raw materials, the relationship of
objects to the actual space, the effects of natural light on street volumes,
these are all available features within the visual context of the Gaza Strip,
producing highly reduced arrangements. Following these basic principles, local
minimal art sculptures were primarily made from industrial materials, such as
natural stone, wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, and plastic. These
objects, frequently reduced to very simple geometric shapes, were industrially
produced, thus removing the artist’s personal signature from the work. The
works were also characterized by serial arrangements of a number of shapes in
small and medium dimensions. In a similar display but lacking an intended
artistic concern, freestanding objects, such as metallic tubes and wooden
stacks, can currently be seen lying in the streets of the Gaza Strip, with
their circular and rectangular ends being repeated in horizontal and vertical linear
patterns (Figure 6). Wood pallets, stacks of plywood, and rusty tubes appear as
highly similar to the sculptural works of minimal art, with their focus on the
formal aspects of composition. While watching the blacksmith at his workshop
working the metal with a hammer and anvil, or the carpenter working at his wood
parts, one can see that they are also making pieces of sculpture, keeping the
process simple, in addition to cheap and affordable.
Moving through the streets of the Strip, one can see
solid and hollow cement blocks arranged as three-dimensional works in modular
and grid formats, in a sculptured pattern that is similar to Donald Judd’s
minimalist cubes. And while the artists Donald Judd, Carl André, and Richard
Serra achieved their aesthetic effect by controlling the context, their simple
raw forms are typically viewed in a very simple and clean museum or gallery setting.
On the other hand, and with no intentional aesthetic concerns, local workers in
the Gaza Strip arrange the blocks geometrically in their own ways, according to
block thickness. Other static minimalistic objects on display in the streets of
the Gaza Strip are wooden stacks for construction materials, stacks of wood and
cement bricks in a unit-bar version, and concrete masses (Figure 7). While
these objects are simply scattered throughout the streets of the Gaza Strip,
many of them can also be viewed as accidental sculptures that embody the
concepts of minimal art, displaying aesthetic strategies like repetition and
Figure 7. Static and self-standing minimalist
objects in a dirty urban environment of Gaza.
boxes and the form making process in the Gaza Strip
On a larger scale, wherever there are many buildings
together, type is minimized as forms are repeated across the site. For larger
buildings that have a natural tendency to be more complex than smaller buildings,
it may be necessary to reduce complexity through repetition.
Thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip live in moderate dwellings or poor
shelters that have gradually become permanent settlements. The over-crowded
residential buildings are equipped with cement blocks for internal and external
walls, and with flat-slab concrete roofing. A generic form or type can be
repeated to accommodate a complex dwelling brief. In
this way, the range of different forms and building types is minimized. The
same can be said about the repetitive use of building products and components used in the building process that come together to
form a simple whole.
In this visual analytical study, I discussed some
of the minimalist characteristics of buildings and architectural forms and
components in the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, it should equally be remembered
that the existing aesthetic quality is also a result of the economic and
political state of affairs. At the same time, buildings emerge as responses to
their physical surroundings. This is so obvious in the plan of residential
buildings in the Gaza Strip, which took many of its cues from the existing
structures on the plots.
Figure 8. Repetitive use of building products
and components in Gaza.
The existing concrete, gray boxes are uncluttered by
formal concepts. Quite simply, there was a certain way to build structures, and
most buildings were made that way (Figure 8). The absence of concepts produced
visual simplicity of form and a certain aesthetic appearance. It should be
noted, equally, that, with regard to the basic cubic forms, humans naturally
tend to build cubic forms. Examples of architectural abstraction can also be
easily seen in the streets of the Strip (Figure 9). At the same time, the gray
color of concrete can be noticed while moving through the city roads and
neighborhoods. And while gray might be the first image that comes to mind when
we think of concrete, this can also add an element of style, of raw beauty, to
Figure 9. Approaching the real cube: a simple
brick and concrete structure in Gaza that has the power of minimalist work,
while meeting local needs and budgets.
The minimalist paradigm in architecture is about the
search for the essences of the human condition, such as place, material,
texture, space, and light. The process of stripping down, the need to get down
to the bare bones, coincides with existing building techniques. The minimalist
space that results is tantamount to a void in which one can listen to figures
with a pure and unconstrained eye, in order to rediscover the many universal
qualities that are contained in the everyday simplest and most common-place
objects. In the Gaza Strip minimalist architecture is not an
alternative paradigm but a consequence of the current situation of material
resources, building techniques, and form-making processes. The simplicity and
aesthetic qualities of these minimalist buildings highlight the need for a deep,
cultural understanding of the existing situation. One finds simplicity in the
visual appearance of architectural forms, and in the analysis of the many
elements that make up our daily life. The majority of buildings in the Strip
are simple, with an architecture of minimal appearance, without any additives
or decoration, but minimalism also applies with respect to the geometric form
of buildings, and their composition and methods of construction. The number of
materials, components, and joints used in constructing the building is also
minimized. The outcome displays a profusion of aspects that detail the
innovative synthesis of interior functionality, space, mass, light, and
aesthetics, all of which merge in minimalist designs and architecture.
This visual research is not a remake of minimalism but
redeployment of its concepts in order to draw attention to the potential of
architecture. In other words, to bring into contact two worlds, one is the
world of art, in particular here, minimalism, the other is the everyday world
of the average Gaza family.
The upshot of the discussion undertaken in this paper is
that beauty is in everything, especially in everyday life, and inspiration
comes from simple everyday objects. Ordinary people can take some amazing
pictures just by looking at everyday objects, thus emphasizing certain
aesthetic details of things. This researcher has taken many pictures that are
rich in everyday aesthetics and in aspects of good quality buildings (Figure 10).
Such pictures offer a glimpse into everyday life to the never-satisfied local
aesthete, or they may be an invitation for others to travel to those areas of
the Gaza Strip.
powerful dichotomy of the richness of imagery and the simplicity of the things
surrounding people in the actual space in Gaza.
Salem Al Qudwa is a Ph.D. by design researcher at Oxford
School of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University. As a Palestinian architect,
he has managed construction projects ranging from primary healthcare clinics
and schools to the rehabilitation of shelters for poor families living in marginalized
and rural areas in the Gaza Strip.
Published on September 5, 2017.
This paper is part of the Ph.D. by
design research project, “Architecture of the Everyday: a Possible Response for
the Gaza Strip, Palestine.” An earlier version has been presented at the “First
Jordanian International Conference on Architecture and Design” (Amman, Jordan,
April 2014) and the “Open Gaza Conference” (University of Westminster, London,
UK, Nov. 2015). All pictures in this paper were taken by the author while
working in Gaza between 2007 and 2016.
Special thanks go to Prof. Yuriko
Saito for her encouragement given for the earlier version of this paper. I
would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for the helpful comments and
suggestions on this paper.
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