Illuminated in the dark cavernous space of OMA’s vast Concrete events space in Dubai, a Y-shaped, lattice-like tower rose dramatically from the ground during Dubai Design Week late last year, inviting visitors to step inside its hollow interior.

The statuesque design, called While We Wait, is the work of Palestinian architects and brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas, of family-run studio AAU ANASTAS. Its meaning, they say, is multi-layered: it represents an exploration into the tradition of building with stone in Palestine; it references the geopolitical situation in their native Bethlehem; and explores the relationship that exists there between nature and architecture.

The lace-like structure stands at 4.3m-tall; its earthy red tones fading to pale limestone as it climbs highedifferently592 different- ly coloured pieces of stone, they have been quarried in various regions across Palestine. Drawing upon the traditional technique of stereotomy – the art of cutting stones for assembly – the stone was cut by robots using computational design software, before being hand-finished by local artists. The resulting undulating fish-shaped bricks stack together without mortar or glue to form a robust structure. Once each brick is surrounded by its neighbouring elements it is locked in. It cannot be removed unless the piece is dismantled brick-by-brick from the top down.

Despite its appearance of permanence, the structure’s relatively short stay in Dubai was just a layover on a longer journey. What began as a commission by London’s V&A Museum, where it was installed in a light-filled room during London Design Festival, will become a permanent structure in the Cremisan Valley just outside of Bethlehem.

Here, to the west of the city, in one of the last remaining nearby green areas, it will become a place for the local community’s non-denominational Friday gatherings. The gatherings are a form of protest against the Israeli separation wall that slices through the land, stretching for more than 700km and annexing Palestinian land inside the occupied West Bank. Since construction began in 2002, the wall has threatened to segregate people from their lands and isolate a historic monastery from the rest of the valley.

‘In contrast to the wall, the installation will respect the landscape visible from inside and out,’ explain the architects. ‘While We Wait invites the viewer to reflect upon the situation in the Cremisan Valley as well as notions of self, containment, and the political appropriation of natural space.’

Its name, While We Wait, the architects explain, is borrowed from a speech that was given by priest Michel Sabbah during a mass in August 2015 that called for peace in the valley after construction on the wall resumed following a year-long halt. ‘They raised a double wall: a wall on the ground and one in their hearts,’ said Sabbah. ‘One day the wall of their hearts will crumble, and the wall on the ground will collapse, too... while we wait.’

In Dubai, this story is explained through a short documentary directed by Mikaela Burstow, an essay by Karim Kattan, a topographical model, and an evocative sound piece composed by musician Tareq Abboushi that immerses visitors in the soundscape of the Cremisan valley. ‘We wanted to create something that was very different in feel to what we showed in London,’ explains Yousef. ‘In London, we had beautiful, indirect natural light coming from the roof and visitors walk- ing through the space. In Dubai we wanted to work on a more theatrical set up.’

OMA’s Concrete building, which was completed earlier in 2017, saw four warehouses in Dubai’s industrial Al Qouz area converted into a monolithic 1,250 sqm events venue wrapped in polycarbonate and sprayed concrete. Inside, four 8m-high movable walls allow the cavernous space to be set up in different configurations.

Unlike London, where the space was sometimes chaotic and crowded, Concrete gave the multi-layered structure the attention it deserves. Elias and Yousef used one of the walls to divide the space into two parts diagonally, concealing the structure from view as visitors entered and then dramatically revealing it as they ventured further inside.

‘The first section provided context about the valley itself with the films, model, and all of the other components,’ recalls Yousef. ‘And on the other side we sculpted the light and shadows around the piece itself; we wanted to present it as a precious object.’

Stone Cutting. Photo: Mikaela Burstow. Image courtesy V&A and the artists

For Elias and Yousef, this impressive stone structure is the latest in a string of projects that explore the use of local materials, crafts and industry from across their homeland. Specifically, While We Wait forms part of a wider research project with the GSA Lab of ENSA Paris-Malaquais and AAU’s research arm Scales, which is investigating different contemporary stone construction methods. Called Stonematters, the project aims to reveal new possibilities for building with stone, and has already resulted in a prototype for an artist and writers’ residency in Jericho formed of an arched latticed stone canopy. The residency is scheduled for completion in 2020.

In 2016 the duo created a wave-like structure made from hundreds of olive wood panels for Dubai Design Week. The piece was inspired by Bethlehem’s strong history of olive woodcarving – a skill that is gradually being replaced as cheaper, mass produced imports flood the market. The Anastas brothers’ hope was that this structure could inspire the olive wood artisans in Bethlehem to experiment with new forms, and in turn find new markets and applications for their highly skilled work.

Currently, the duo is constructing a stone vault extension to a monastery in Jerusalem, and on a smaller scale, working with a nunnery in Bethlehem to make another architectural structure, this time using the small terracotta products that are currently produced and sold by the nuns.

Like many successful young entrepreneurs, Yousef and Elias’s strong connection to their homeland has been enhanced by a number of years spent abroad. The brothers studied in Paris, where they subsequently lived and worked for ten years. During this time, in 2012, they set up the Paris office of the family firm AAU ANASTAS, which was originally established in Bethlehem by their parents, Georges and Pauline, in 1979.

‘Our parents are architects too, and they also studied in France,’ explains Elias. ‘We grew up in Palestine but we were educated in the French system. We actually have dual nationality, and so it seemed natural to us to go and study architecture in France when we got the chance.’

In 2011, the brothers set up Local Industries - a furniture production business that sits under the AAU ANASTAS umbrella. Working with a network of local artisans, Elias and Yousef created this offshoot of the business in order to ‘reassert the value of local Palestinian labour without freezing it in a traditional and obsolete role.’

Documentary directed by Mikaela Burstow. Photo by Bessaam El-Asmar

Then, in 2014 the brothers expanded their remit even further when they established a dedicated research department for the firm, the aforementioned Scales. All three departments – architecture, furniture and research – work seamlessly together, tackling projects from macro to micro. ‘We are very much interested in working on different scales and trying to link them together,’ says Elias. ‘It’s always a process of back-and-forth between details, assembly and building techniques.’

Their current base in Bethlehem, the designers believe, makes their architectural explorations in various scales much easier. ‘We are very much interested in working in the public sector, which is much more accessible in Palestine than in France, where it is blocked by regulations.

‘We completed a courthouse in Toulkarem and just started the construction of another in Hebron,’ adds Yousef. ‘We can negotiate things here and work very closely with the authorities; the rules are not set in stone, so we have the opportunity to collaborate. The challenge is bigger, but so are the opportunities.’

The Toulkarem Courthouse houses the Magistrate and First Instance courts, Palestine, 2015. Photo: Mikaela Burstow

Elias and Yousef Anastas

This article appeared in DAM66. Order your personal copy.