Geography lessons

The Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem wears its history well – stepped sides for agriculture, scrub and stones that have been there for thousands of years, a few small ruined castles and watchtowers that seem to be growing back into the stony ground. It’s not too unusual in this part of the world.

The jarring feature, here as elsewhere, is Israeli’s concrete separation wall, dominating and dividing the landscape as it the valley’s inhabitants.

By contrast, Elias and Yousef Anastas have designed an immersive installation that honours the valley’s natural beauty, its history, and its topography. It fits into the landscape, a new addition that grows out of it.

The Anastas brothers are Bethlehem-based architects, who were commissioned by the V&A to produce an installation for the London Design Fair. The result is While We Wait, a large self-supporting lattice-like structure made up of CNC-cut stone quarried in various regions of Palestine. It is visually porous, allowing viewers to see their surroundings from inside with a sensory background of evocative sound and video.

Salma Tuqan, Middle East Curator at the V&A, said the museum was excited to have commissioned the brothers. “Their ongoing work demonstrates a deep dedication and understanding of local traditions and innovation of technique. Their roving intervention stands as an ode to the natural landscape, and will resonate beyond its iterations in London and Dubai, eventually settling in the Cremisan Valley where it will become a space for collective meditation and gathering.”

While We Wait was shaped by radically combining traditional local stone cutting and masonry techniques with contemporary technology. The installation was produced in Palestine using over 500 stone modules in a towering structure that fades upwards in colour from earthy red to pale limestone.

Designed on a computer, cut by robots and hand-finished by local artisans, it presents a modern stone construction technique as part of a local and global architectural language. This process of ‘stereotomy’ – the art of cutting stones so they can be assembled into a larger configuration, a lacelike structure able to support itself entirely – is central to the work of the Anastas brothers.

In an interesting explanatory video, the architect/designers describe it as a meditation space, a structure that is self-supporting but sits lightly on the landscape – no need for lumpen metaphorical explanations there, and no need for strident political statements either. The title While We Wait says it all, providing a sense of place and opportunity while we wait for the ugly, artificial divisions to be removed.

The installation comes to Dubai for Design Week and will be showed in Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete display space. “While We Wait inhabits the intersection of contemporary art and design while also being relevant to the diverse audiences in Dubai,” says Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder of Alserkal Avenue. “We hope that this will be the first of many such collaborations.”

This is exactly the kind of things that Concrete is for – “the vision behind Concrete has always been to create a multi-dimensional platform that is ideal for museum-grade exhibitions across the spectrum of art, performance and design,” as Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal says. Designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA studio and the first OMA building to be completed in the UAE, Concrete opened in March 2017 during Dubai Art Week.

The display will be open 6 – 16 November. It will be supported by a curated public programme led by the architects; check the Alserkal website for details.

After the Dubai show, While We Wait will return to the landscape that inspired it, to be installed permanently in the Cremisan Valley where it will be a live monument and gathering place owned by the community.

Meanwhile, If you’re in London during the Design Festival, you can see While We Wait in the V&A’s Simon Sainsbury Gallery (below) from 16 – 24 September.

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