Rebirth in Bethlehem

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Words:
Oliver Wainwright

Palestinian architects are making a cultural asset in the brutal shadow of the Wall

A plethora of other political cartoons and slogans have joined Banksy's trademark stencils.
A plethora of other political cartoons and slogans have joined Banksy's trademark stencils. Credit: Oliver Wainwright

It is impossible to visit Bethlehem without encountering the wall. An 8m high horizon of concrete, the Israeli ‘separation barrier’ marches relentlessly along the edge of the city, winding back and forth in mysterious loops, punctuated by huge cylindrical watchtowers.

At one point it performs a curious backflip to encircle Rachel’s Tomb, a humble domed structure considered sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims for 2,000 years, but now only accessible to Israelis. Elsewhere the concrete barrier goes out of its way to annex strategic swaths of prime real estate. It encircles a once popular Palestinian hotel at the top of a hill, which has now been converted into a base for the Israeli Defence Force.

Despite being declared illegal by a United Nations resolution in 2003, the wall continues on its brutal way, intent on completing its 440-mile journey through the West Bank. Its route is marked by an advanced guard of razor wire, which is being rolled out across the Cremisan valley on the edge of Bethlehem, severing a 19th century monastery from the town. Regardless of outcries from local Catholic priests, their vineyards and olive groves will soon become part of Israel, hidden from Palestinians behind the barricade.

This act of architectural violence is now a morbid tourist attraction. Since Banksy paid a visit to Bethlehem in 2005 and declared the wall to be ‘the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers’, it has been a magnet for street art. His trademark stencils have been joined by a plethora of other political cartoons and slogans. This canvas of protest can be admired from the rooms of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem’s answer to the Waldorf, which opened last year boasting ‘the worst view of any hotel in the world’.

  • Political grafitti to the fore.
    Political grafitti to the fore. Credit: Oliver Wainwright
  • One of Banksy’s celebrated stencils makes its point.
    One of Banksy’s celebrated stencils makes its point. Credit: Oliver Wainwright
  • The wall continues its march across the Cremisan Valley outside Bethlehem.
    The wall continues its march across the Cremisan Valley outside Bethlehem. Credit: Oliver Wainwright
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Few tourists stray beyond this enclave, but if you follow the wall for a few hundred metres, you encounter a sight  far more inspiring than any graffiti. Picking your way around the barbed wire, you come across neat rows of vegetables and herbs forming a little allotment. They were planted by Munther Bandak, who recently returned to Bethlehem from the US to breathe new life into the furniture factory his father built here in the 1950s.

While Bandak was away, the wall was built through his land, resulting in the loss of several acres. But thanks to local architects Elias and Yousef Anastas, the old factory is being reborn as the Wonder Cabinet, where artists will rub shoulders with carpenters and welders, with a gallery and cinema as well as a café, supplied by the allotment.

‘We want to make the kind of social and cultural platform that Bethlehem is lacking,’ says Elias Anastas, showing me around the factory floor, as a colleague balances on a forklift truck, hanging a banner for the opening party that night. Stacks of steel chair frames are piled in one corner, awaiting powder-coating in a long red oven, while others are busy setting up a pizza oven and a sound system.

  • Munther Bandak’s new allotment up against the wall that divided his land.
    Munther Bandak’s new allotment up against the wall that divided his land. Credit: Oliver Wainwright
  • The old Bandak furniture factory prepares for its rebirth party.
    The old Bandak furniture factory prepares for its rebirth party. Credit: Local Industries – Wonder Cabinet
  • The old factory is now a focus for architects, designers and makers.
    The old factory is now a focus for architects, designers and makers. Credit: Local Industries – Wonder Cabinet
  • Some of the output of The Wonder Cabinet factory and cultural centre.
    Some of the output of The Wonder Cabinet factory and cultural centre. Credit: Credit Local industries – Wonder Cabinet
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The Anastas brothers have been using the Bandak factory since 2011, when they established Local Industries, a branch of their practice that focuses on making furniture with local artisans. Once a bustling provider of furniture for schools across Palestine and Jordan, the factory had been suffocated by the political situation. By creating space for other designers and makers here, they hope to kickstart a new wave of production.

‘We’re trying to reassert the value of local Palestinian labour,’ says Anastas, ‘without freezing it in a traditional role, or mindlessly imposing alien standards. The Bandak factory was always a place for artisans from different fields, and it’s a spirit we’re trying to revive.’ It is a fledgling shoot of optimism, sprouting against the odds in the shadow of the wall.


AFTERWORD

Another ray of light in the West Bank comes in the form of the new $21m Qattan Foundation cultural centre, providing a gallery, theatre, library and artists’ studio space on a hill outside Ramallah. Designed by Donaire Architects of Seville, it takes the form of a shimmering metal box rising from a terraced limestone plinth – its multiple levels teeming with excited families at the opening in June.