5.28.2012

Israel/Palestine: Day 3-4

May 21st, Monday: Day 3

Today was our first day meeting with different peace and justice groups in Palestine.  At this point I should explain that our trip is following what's known as an "alternative" or "authentic tourism" itinerary - we're making a point of staying in the West Bank and meeting with locals, rather than following the "standard" itinerary that stays only in Israel and sees only the holy sites.  We met with two groups today, ARIJ (Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem) and the ICB (International Center of Bethlehem, part of the Diyar consortium).  We started the day at ARIJ by attending a lecture/discussion session with one of the representatives, together with a Canadian group that was there.  (You can view a presentation similar to the one that we saw here.)  This session covered the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in detail from a Palestinian viewpoint, and challenged us to take these facts back to the US, since they aren't often described in the US media.

We then met with Angie, the public relations representative at the (Lutheran) ICB.  She is a Palestinian Christian, and described both her story and the lives of some of the young people she has worked with.  Her message from the ICB is that they are working hard, through arts programs, to bring hope and change to the people (and especially youth) of the region, through youth programs, schools, art workshops, medical facilities, elder care, etc.  Her presentation was terrific, both one of the most personal and moving and most hopeful that we have heard.  She showed us some parts of the center, including an ancient Palestinian house below the gift shop that has been dated to before 500 AD.


After meeting with Angie we walked to the Church of the Nativity, to visit both St. Catherine's, the Catholic church there, and St. Helena, the original church built by Constantine that is shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and Armenians.  St. Catherine's is, in my opinion, pretty unremarkable (it was thoroughly rebuilt in the 1800s).  We couldn't get in to see the Grotto of the Nativity at St. Helena's, the original church, because the line was so long, so we decided to try again after lunch.  Instead we walked over to see the "Milk Grotto," a calcite cave venerated by Catholics.  I didn't think this was especially interesting either, but the new (modern) chapel and cloister that was attached to the grotto was lovely, and I wish I knew the architect for that project.



Finally we had lunch, consisting of a shawarma pita sandwich, then returned to the Church of the Nativity to see the Grotto of the Nativity below the church.



Next we met with a deacon and teacher at the ICB who talked more about the work at the center, and about the general outlines of the conflict.  Afterward we perused the ICB gift shop, which includes handmade ornaments made from broken glass as a symbol of turning the destruction of the Second Intifada into things of beauty.  We also visited a fair trade embroidery consortium, checked out the Bethlehem Peace Center bookstore, and wandered around a bit.  One of my favorite items was a felted wool nativity set, which is produced by a l'Arche community here in Bethlehem.  We tried some Arab dessert, kanafeh, which was quite tasty.

After that was dinner at the Lutheran center and bed - super tired! I'm having to adjust to an "early" schedule, starting around 7:30am, instead of my usual day at home that starts around 9 or 10!

May 22nd, Tuesday: Day 4

Day 4 began with a lengthy bus ride and having to cross through multiple Israeli checkpoints as we went in and out of the West Bank.  On our way out of Bethlehem, a young Israeli soldier boarded our bus and glanced over our American passports before waving us through.  The soldiers here are all young, since military service is mandatory, and their automatic weapons sometimes seem as big as they are.  We reflected on how our American passports allow us to travel anywhere in the country, while Israelis and Palestinians are confined to their respective areas of the country because of the Israeli occupation and security.

Our bus went south along the Dead Sea, finally arriving at Masada around 11am.  Masada is both a really cool natural site and an interesting archaeological site; it's a fortified mountain/plateau that was used by the Romans and the Jews in Roman times, built up significantly by Herod the Great.  It's also, we discovered, an interesting site politically, because of what the Israeli tourism ministry has chosen to focus on in its video presentations and other text.  There is one Roman historian who recounts that there was a mass suicide at the site when the Romans invaded it during the Jewish Revolt of the first century AD.  Apparently there is no archaeological evidence of this, but the video presentation before you go up the mountain presents the Jewish choice of "death before slavery" as a heroic and victorious act.  I was a bit put off by the glorification of mass suicide, but the site is beautiful nevertheless.



After Masada we went back up the coast of the Dead Sea to Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  There aren't any scrolls there now since they've all been taken to Jerusalem, and you can't get anywhere near the cave, but the view was nice over the Dead Sea.  Not my favorite site.  The video there proposed that the site was inhabited by Jewish Essenes, and that possibly John the Baptist lived with them at some point, but apparently there is debate over who actually lived at this site (which was occupied for a long period of time).  As usual, it's hard to tell from the evidence!  I just wished that the material we read at the site had given some better context, which was easy enough for me to find on Wikipedia, but should have been presented there.



Finally, after an overpriced touristy lunch at Qumran, we headed further up to the top of the Dead Sea to visit one of the beaches there for a "float."  Swimming, splashing, etc in the water is not permitted, only floating on your back.  This is a decidedly different beach from the ones in Sarasota, Florida - sharp, gritty brown sand, oily-feeling water that stings you when you've been in for more than a few minutes, and no vegetation or animals.  Almost nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  I went in for about five minutes and then was done.  The rest of the group tried out the mud treatment, plastering stinging mud on their skin and trying to allow it to try before washing it off.  The mud was really soft and squishy, which I found pretty disgusting.  Anyway, it was an experience!


After our float we went back to Bethlehem, and took the opportunity when driving back in to the city to stop and take pictures of the "Separation Barrier," also known as the Wall.  This is the wall built by the Israeli military to separate Israel from occupied Palestine, and it snakes around in mind-bogglingly complicated twists, sometimes enclosing buildings on three sides or even going through people's homes.  We visited in particular the shop of a woman whose house has been cut off on three sides; you can see more about this in a piece on 60 Minutes called Christians of the Holy Land.  Listening to Claire in person describing her experience with Israeli military was very moving, and the wall itself is an almost awe-inspiring presence around her home.  The graffiti on the wall, by contrast, is almost all positive messages of peace and hope.  I invite you to learn more about the wall by looking through the Wikipedia article and reading about some of the opposition to its construction on Palestinian land.





Finally we were back for dinner, and Presbyterian mission worker Doug Dicks came to have dinner and meet with us.  He has been here working in the region for nearly 20 years now, currently living in Amman, Jordan, and is very knowledgeable about the region and about Palestine in particular, since he lived here for a long time.  He encouraged us to walk through an Israeli checkpoint, which we will do later, and gave us his candid opinions about the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement in the church as a way to protest the occupation.  After that we finally got to sleep!  Busy day!

5.22.2012

Israel/Palestine: Day 2

Today, Sunday, was our first full day here, and we took it pretty easy but still saw some awesome things.  We started the day by walking down to the Church of the Nativity to take a look while the morning service was going on.  We'll be back there later so I'll post pictures of it then.  Then we attended the service at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church (aka Christmas Lutheran), where the service was presided over by three bishops - the local one and two visitors from Canada!  The church was nearly full, with more than 50% tourists, including our group and another from Washington, DC.  The service was mostly in Arabic with some English (provided by the visiting Canadian Episcopal bishops).  Afterward we met some of the locals at coffee hour and looked at the church facilities, which are very nice, especially knowing the struggle it took to build them and re-build them following the Second Intifada when Israeli retribution attacks destroyed much of what was newly built in 2000.


After a quick lunch at a falafel joint, we spent the afternoon sight-seeing.  We drove out beyond Bethlehem to the monastery of Mar Saba, located in Area B of Palestine, which was quite beautiful.  We couldn't visit the church or interior of the monastery, we just viewed the outside, but it was still amazing.  Along the way while driving through Area B (joint Israeli-Palestinian control) we could see a marked contrast from Area A (full Palestinian control).  In Area B, which is not very developed, nearly the majority of structures were only partially-built, and the open areas were not very clean or well-tended, while Area A looks like a regular town with many new buildings and some nice areas.




After the monastery we visited the (Catholic version of the) Shepherd's Fields in Beit Sahour.  This "holy attraction" included a small chapel and some excavations of a Byzantine-era monastery.  As Craig, our trip leader, pointed out, the point of these (basically invented) locations is not so much the historicity of what happened there as the history of Christian activity on the site, which has been here since the 4th century.  Pilgrims have been coming here ever since then looking for the "holiness" of the Holy Land, and their involvement with the site makes it more interesting than the fact that the Biblical shepherds might have lived near here.  My favorite part was the variety of succulent plants that were growing on the site!  By contrast, the worst part was the view of the "fields" themselves, which are now covered by Israeli settlements (Har Homa) on the hill across from the site.





On the way back to Bethlehem we stopped at a big souvenir shop, then visited the International Nativity Museum in Bethlehem (one example of the works in the museum is below).  The museum could more accurately have been called the "Italian, and a few other countries, Nativity Museum" since there were 47 nativity sets from Italy on display versus displays by 39 other countries - that is, there were more Italian sets on display than there were other countries represented.  Those Italians love their nativities, apparently.  On the way to dinner we discovered a wood-carving shop where I bought a nativity set from the craftsmen who made it, at a better price than they had them at the souvenir shop.  I had to blow some sawdust off the set, but I think it makes it more authentic.  Dinner was back at the Lutheran Center, I then gave a presentation about planning and permit policies in Israeli-controlled Palestinian areas, we had some good discussion, and that was our day.

5.19.2012

Israel/Palestine Day 1

Hi friends,

We arrived safe and sound in Bethlehem this evening after flying in to Tel Aviv and transferring by tour bus from there, skirting around Jerusalem.  Israel is the only country, other than the US, that I've flown into that requires additional screening before boarding the plane - I guess they tie for the "paranoid about security" award!  Everything since then has been surprisingly easy, though, including going through customs and passing the checkpoint into the West Bank to Bethlehem.  There was a line of cars waiting to get back in to Israel, though.  The biggest difficulty I've encountered has been figuring out how to fix Blogger, since it defaulted to Arabic when I got here (it recognizes the Palestinian Territories address) which made it impossible for me to read the menu options to figure out how to put it back to English.  Eventually, after trying all the buttons, I fixed it, so I can now write you this post!  We arrived here at dinnertime, and after dinner everyone immediately wanted to go to bed, so there's not much else to report today.

Our hotel in Bethlehem, which is currently getting a facelift:


View down the hill from our hotel, toward Bethlehem:

The other hotel guests, a group of English and Irish tourists with their pastor, are having a sing-a-long in the lobby, and are currently singing "Edelweiss" (they've had a bit to drink, I think), so I'll take that as my cue to head to bed.  More to come tomorrow!

5.18.2012

Israel/Palestine Introduction

Dear friends,

Tonight I leave for a peacemaking trip to Israel/Palestine, led by Craig Hunter, pastor at the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Denton, TX (http://tpcdenton.org/).  We will be visiting several towns in the West Bank, including Bethlehem, as well as Nazareth and Jerusalem, and then several of us will be heading over to Jordan to visit Petra.  I plan to post my reflections and photos here as I can, and please feel free to comment on the posts if you'd like to respond!  Thanks for your well-wishes and prayers, and I can't wait to start sharing our trip with you!

In the meantime, here's a before and after picture of my recent haircut, from which I was able to donate 13" of hair to Locks of Love:

5.14.2012

C-BIP Studio Part III

(The final post in a three-part discussion of the Columbia Building Intelligence Project.  See my other posts: Part I and Part II.)

In this final post, I'd like to propose some ideas about what could make C-BIP better if the studio continued, and to share some of our final output.

As I wrote last time, I thought that the two-part development of the studio had some major flaws.  Not allowing students to re-use their own elements in the building strategies meant that some of us tried to adapt similar elements designed by others to align with our goals, thereby distorting the elements to an unworkable extent.  Alternatively, some groups designed "modules" composed of several elements together that could be plugged in to their buildings as independent units, thereby avoiding the problem of how to adapt elements to buildings.  I think every group had to choose a limited set of problems to solve, because the studio proposed so many different issues: workflow/cooperative design, open source development, parametric design, quantitative versus qualitative evaluation, the role of the architect in this process, whether elements are "products" or "architecture," etc.

So what would I, as a student, like to see changed?  To begin with, I think the studio was trying to do too many things.  I want to stress again that I think the attempt was commendable - this studio was working on real issues of real value to the architectural community.  But if one of the purposes of studio is to produce excellent design work, I think the time given to the two phases was insufficient for either of them.  We could easily have spent the entire semester working on building strategies, designing parametric elements as a group and targeting their development to the goals of the strategies.  Or, we could have spent the entire semester developing a collaborative studio-wide workflow around the individual elements, improving their useability, trading them around, and fleshing them out.  The final review in that case could have been a live demonstration of our elements, perhaps with each of us assigned to demonstrate someone else's element - that would have ensured that the elements really functioned as claimed.

One of the critics at the final review said that she thought our projects were, for the most part, "too virtuous" - they didn't challenge the system enough and they accepted the premises of the studio too thoroughly.  On the one hand, I'm kind of pleased with that, because I think it means we all took the issues of the studio seriously and tried to work within them.  On the other hand, I think part of the reason for this was that the studio was so saturated with requirements and conditions that it was hard to break out of the system.  The system was itself so new to us and so all-encompassing that we (or some of us, anyway) got trapped inside it.  I think that reducing the focus to either the elements or the strategies, without losing the additional interest in parametrics, energy, CATIA, etc, could help with this.

Overall, the semester was engaging and challenging, although often frustrating, but I think we are all here to be challenged.  Congratulations to all my classmates for surviving another semester!

My final element presentation:
CBIP Element Final Review

My group's final building strategy presentation:
CBIP Group 4 Final Presentation


And finally, a little C-BIP humor from resident awesome person Kim Nguyen (thanks, Kim, for the links):
CBIP Quotes
CBIP Comic
Enjoy!

5.10.2012

C-BIP Studio Part II

(A continuation of thoughts about the Columbia Building Intelligence Project - see my earlier post for more commentary.)

C-BIP Studio has now ended, and we're working on our final exhibition materials (more to come).  So now I'd like to look back on how the second half of the semester went.  In this post I want to get into more detail about the actual structure and methodology of the studio.  As I said before, I think the studio had really interesting goals and an environmental ethic that matched up well with current thought in architecture and planning.  The workflow proposed to achieve these goals, however, I found much less convincing, and in fact I think the studio "system" was poorly designed.  In the language of our critics, the design of the studio workflow was a "missed opportunity" to achieve some really interesting results.

To briefly summarize the mandated workflow, in the first half of the semester we were asked to design parametric building "elements" that could be used to retrofit a building; these elements were supposed to have some impact on building energy use, but otherwise were freely designed.  In the second half of the semester, we formed groups of four and attempted to design a building "strategy" that made use of the elements.  The goal was to create a renovation process, using the elements in combination, that could achieve both energy and other goals, and could be applied to multiple buildings in the city.  Each group began with a specific building of a certain type, and was supposed to generalize their strategy to apply to other buildings of the same type.  We were instructed not to use our own elements in these strategies, and not to alter the elements created by other students, but instead to propose "feature requests" whenever we wanted a change to be made to the elements.  The unstated goal was to avoid "Frankenstein" buildings that merely tacked the elements on without integration.

In the first half of the semester, everyone more or less seemed to succeed at developing a parametric element, with a standardized interface provided by the studio instructors.  But problems arose as soon as we began exchanging our elements, testing them using a complex local network.  Differing abilities in understanding networking, scripting, and interface design meant that elements varied widely in their useability.  This issue, unfortunately, never got resolved despite the best efforts of the TAs; even at the semester's end, many elements still did not function as their authors intended.

In the second part of the semester, the lack of functional elements made designing a building strategy around the elements basically impossible, except at a very small, modular scale - which, wisely, was the route many groups chose to follow.  Our group tried to implement the elements at a large scale across not just one building but an entire block, and found it nearly impossible, within the studio constraints, to develop an interesting, effective, and working strategy.  Many groups avoided the CATIA component of the strategy altogether, or brought it in at the last minute, choosing to focus instead on the conceptual framework of the strategy itself.  We then tried to design a parametric massing tool, as urged by the critics, but ran out of time to create something that actually functioned.  In that sense, we failed to achieve the studio's goals.  Along the way, we developed what I consider to be an interesting building strategy, but this strategy doesn't have anything to do with the elements developed by the other students - it could be carried out without any reference to those elements.

I think the major problem with the studio workflow was a confusion over whether the goal of the studio was to create a building system - the stated intention - or a parametric tool.  The studio rhetoric was that we were all using CATIA, an advanced parametric modeling software based on scripting, to design the elements and building strategies; but in reality we were being asked to design tools that assist with building strategies.  We were provided with exceptional support through TAs, outside consultants, and our unique studio environment, but nevertheless we are not programmers, and writing tools is hard, so very few of us (perhaps none of us) managed to produce useful, interesting, and functional tools.  Most of the tools produced were one of these things - either useful, or interesting, or functional - but few achieved more than one of these.

The proscription against altering the elements of other students, and against using one's own element,  compounded the issues above.  The idea was to mimic a model of distributed open-source programming, where users request features and owners can decide to accept or reject the changes, but in reality programmers use their own tools (or they wouldn't write them), and users are free to write actual code into the tools (to add functionality), not just to propose ideas for changes.  I think the groups that were most successful at using the elements were also the ones that hacked them the most, with or without the consent of their owners.

So does this mean that the C-BIP workflow was a failure?  I think it was, in the sense that many of us became incredibly frustrated and few (or none) of us managed to achieve the studio's goals, but I don't think that this meant that the studio as a whole was a failure.  I think that C-BIP was an important experiment in studio design, in workflow design, and in collaborative thinking and working, despite this semester's glaring problems.  I also think we succeeded in getting really interesting feedback and commentary from the guest critics at our final review - we got them thinking about the right issues.

If C-BIP lives on in future incarnations, I have a few suggestions - but I'll save those for the next post.  For now, enjoy some photos of our studio, courtesy of Kim Nguyen!

5.06.2012

Happy Spring!

Most of the flowers are done blooming around here - except for my Hoya carnosa, or wax plant, of the "Krinkle Kurl" variety (also known, apparently, as "Hindu Rope"):

Budding...


Blooming!

This is the first time I've seen this plant in bloom, and it's really cute - the flowers are fuzzy!

Happy Spring!  Regular posts will return shortly - finals are almost over.