Museum of hope in the Palestinian West Bank

The new Palestinian Museum on the West Bank was designed by Dublin architects Heneghan Peng and aims to offer a new perspective on the country and explain its culture, history and society to the world


The parched countryside outside the city of Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank roundly undulates with soft-topped hills and valleys. Just decades ago there were few buildings here but now tall blocks – made mainly from chiselled indigenous limestone – stand solidly on the curved peaks. On one hill, beside Birzeit University, is a newcomer, The Palestinian Museum, with a view over and between the mini-Manhattan topped hills, towards the Mediterranean (across territory forbidden to most Palestinians).

This building takes a different approach to hilltop building to its neighbours. Its folding form offers waves of relief and dynamism, but with a sharpness.

Dublin-based architects Heneghan Peng’s first, and enduring, instinct was to place the building’s glassy side to the west, with a slope descending from it. Once that had been decided, out came Google Maps and Earth – “that great design tool,” says Róisín Heneghan – because she and Shih-Fu Peng were struck by the contours of the land and wanted to work with them, just as people of this land have done for millennia – creating terraces to put cultivation on an even footing.

Heneghan Peng too has created a terraced garden descending from the cafe on the building’s west side, using rocks from the site to build small walls and leaving larger boulders in place for plants to negotiate. The east side of the building, where the entrance and car park are, has small slit windows, employing the tradition, from Irish cottages to museums and churches, that protects the building – and precious people and objects – from the weather. The Palestinian Museum has been constructed to standards that allow international works to be exhibited safely here: a Mona Hatoum piece, for instance, will not fade in the sun or heat.

The main exhibition gallery on the east side is window-free but the architects have also created a thin, west-facing glazed gallery for activities and works that can take the blaze.

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Phase two of the building was meant to step down the western slope but the garden which is there now – by Jordanian landscape architect Lara Zureikat – has been such a success that the second phase will probably be on the east side. Heneghan says the garden will cultivate the powerful effect of smell and food memory on people and connect cafe-goers to the land by including its fruits, such as apricots, on the menu when they are in season.

The garden offers a layered history of plants that arrived in Palestine over the centuries, starting with indigenous olive trees at the base. Visitors invariably start walking from the top where plants are pleasingly finger-tip high so you can brush your hands across geraniums and chamomile, and rub lavender and rosemary, sending up hearty clouds of scent. Further down, wheat whispers as the breeze bashes its ears and at the base olives – dotted all over the countryside – stand as quiet witnesses to a violent history.

The building’s other main outdoor space is an amphitheatre that embraces a natural contour too, descending to the teaching rooms. Great stone benches here add another satisfying external dimension to the museum.

It is here on pre-opening day the organisers’ expound their dreams for the museum: as a centre to explain Palestinian culture, history and society that connects Palestinians across the world. The aim is to offer a new perspective: “People think we live in tents and throw rocks,” one smiley man in a sharp suit says afterwards.

The building itself changes perceptions, done to a contemporary style rather than a pastiche of Islamic architecture, and designed by international architects to high eco standards. It will be the first Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building in Palestine, and one of only a few in the Middle East. It is on track for a Leed silver rating but, at a recent meeting, the builders were told they may have achieved a gold.

This is despite a challenging construction process that involved training local builders in new techniques – dealing with thermal bridges at windows and doors, and adding insulation and thermal slabs. The latter meant the exterior limestone could not be put on in the traditional way with mortar, but had to be screwed on, involving a recce to Germany to learn the technique.

The sloping roof also proved a challenge to build as – judging by the solid vertical and horizontal building everywhere – people are not used to it and yet it was not insurmountable: indeed, slopes and curves are deep in Islamic building culture. Local tradition A compromise came in the main gallery where the bare concrete on the ceiling was just not up to scratch and – in line with local tradition – the decision was made to plaster over it, leaving the black service pipes in sharp relief . Air-conditioning rises through gaps in the floor, as it does in Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway visitor’s centre in Antrim.

The Palestinian project engendered the acquisition of new skills on the Irish side too. Project architect Conor Sreenan studied Arabic in Trinity for two months.

Other challenges involved delays on materials at borders and people involved in the building, including the landscape architect, being refused visas to visit the West Bank. “They said it could not be done but here it is,” says local architect, Bilal Abu Rayan, standing on the bright terrace. He is positive this will set a precedent and one of the builders confirms this by saying people are already trying to poach his newly skilled staff .

If the atmosphere on the opening day is anything to go by then the building has succeeded – people are proud and excited. Yet there is a defensive undertone because early reports concentrated on the fact that the museum has opened with no exhibition. Museum chairman Omar al-Qattan perceives it as racist, “as if Arabs can’t get it together but, hey, didn’t they notice there is a military occupation?”

The building itself is an achievement they say and, perhaps fittingly, the exhibition space now contains construction installations – including a row of bright orange concrete mixers and gravel piled high in one corner. “I just said don’t wreck my wall,” says Heneghan.

This building is of its place but in a reimagined way: using local limestone but polishing it rather than chipping it in the traditional manner. The building respects nature’s contours and works with the weather – reflecting light with its white stone and guarding against sun with great black-fins marching against the glass, which serendipitously also provide pockets of shade. As museum director Dr Mahmoud Hawari says: “What I like about the museum design is that it is from nature to nature.”