Jerusalem stone to rethink architectural stereotypes

From Bethlem to the Venice Biennale, the research by the Anastas brothers on the linguistic potential of stereotomy highlights the use of an ancient material, between the local and the global. The interview.

In order to read the symbolic significance of All-purpose, the latest installation that the Anastas brothers presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale by Hashim Sarkis, a few considerations on the historical use of local stone in Palestine can be an important compendium.

A favored building material of traditional Arab architecture, as the cores of old villages and even old farm sheds among the olive hills continue to testify, what everyone now calls "Jerusalem stone" took on a colonial connotation - "entered the political agenda," the Anastas tell us - with the arrival of the British protectorate in the 1930s. To standardize the city's aesthetics, the British mandated that all new construction be clad in Jerusalem stone. The arrival of reinforced concrete did not change the custom nor the law: houses in Israel and Palestine - including those of the building booms of recent years, and strangely without any substantial difference between the two sides of the wall - are now wrapped under a thin layer of stone to cover the concrete, as wrapped by a layer of make-up. This apparent uniformity is regarded by the majority as a salvation clause from the risks of an unplanned real estate acceleration, but that ends up proving to be a linguistic limitation as well as a distorted and devious homologation: like a make-up, the stone that wraps but does not support is basically a fake.

AAU Anastas, All-purpose, Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Photo Antonio Ottomanelli
AAU Anastas, All-purpose, Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Photo Antonio Ottomanelli

The latest chapter in a research project, Stone Matters, begun six years ago on the rediscovery of stone and its stereotomic potential, All-Purpose expresses and renews this set of considerations. "We think there's a fine line between what we do in a really specific context, and the discourse about our project on a global scale," they tell us. "What we are presenting at the Biennale is a typological form of living based on a stone structure with several domes that identifies a housing model developed on a single floor. The structure is inspired by the typologies we find in Palestine, but the domes also offer a relationship between the interstitial spaces and the external spaces. It's a new habitat, then, that tells both of what exhibition formats in the field of architecture should exhibit, and of a strictly contextual dimension that concerns not only architecture but also politics: we use stone with all this in mind".

In this mediation between the local and the global, stone returns to approach heterogeneous audiences, and above all it repositions itself towards a use that corresponds to its nature and typology. Without pursuing any kind of mimicry or binding reference, the abstraction of the structure presented at the Venice Biennale is therefore as much a conceptual model as it is a formal experimentation and a Palestinian tale: an All-Purpose, as the name itself teaches us, fluid and flexible for the thousands of potential uses to which it will open up.

Yet, its deliberate transversality does not fail to represent a precise formal research, which is also different from the results of the previous chapters of Stone Matters: too slender to fully recall the vernacular Middle Eastern architecture, the vault is unexpectedly penetrated by passages of light that creep between the irregular profiles of the stone blocks. A suggestion, unexpected and almost magical, aimed at destabilizing the purity of form, and to remind the inevitability of the irruption of the external environment in any kind of habitat.

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