The Mashrabiya House is located in the Arab Palestinian village Beit Safafa between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The house was designed as a contemporary re-interpretation of traditional elements of Arab vernacular architecture, providing at the same time new and imaginative solutions for the transforming social and cultural landscape of the village on the brink of urbanization.
The principle of terraces and retaining walls one of the most typical features of the traditional Arab landscape was adopted for a steeply sloping building plot, forming an earthbound, partially inhabited "landscape ground." The basement itself is carved into the hillside, forming a massive stone-clad platform, like a deck with sunken courtyards as light wells. This deck accommodates a workshop, a studio, and a gallery, thus separating the work and public functions of the house from the living areas above. At the rear side of the plot, this platform folds up to become an enormous, inhabited stone-clad retaining wall, which accommodates several apartments.
The landscaped ground forms a platform on which the building itself stands. The heaviness of the ground is contrasted by the lightness of the vertical structure. The floating effect is achieved through the creative interpretation of an Arab mashrabiya, a latticed window screen that traditionally formed a threshold between private and public spaces. Here, the wooden screen is re-imagined in the form of a large-scale stone envelope that surrounds the building, combining the mashrabiya motif with stone. Its typical semi-transparent effect is achieved by positioning the stones slightly apart, irregularly spaced, thus creating an effect of lightness and porousness. The resulting stone envelope is structurally separated by a narrow gap from the actual apartment building behind. The playful arrangement of small and large openings provides views from the interiors out onto the landscape, while carefully retaining privacy.
Hosh and Bustan
The concept of open spaces within and around the house is equally informed by sensitivity to traditional Arab elements, while insisting on contemporary formal and material solutions. The raised courtyard between the rear retaining wall and the mashrabiya is reminiscent of a traditional hosh, while the mashrabiya at the top of the building becomes a "garden wall" for a rooftop garden, following the bustan motif: a closed garden as a sheltered place of tranquility and privacy.
An Arabic Interpretation of Sustainability
Beyond the formal references to Arab vernacular traditions, the building explores and develops concepts that can promote an agenda of sustainability, while maintaining historical cultural continuity: Thus, the mashrabiya is not only a traditional threshold between public and private spaces, but also provides an element of climatic control. The stone mass of the outer envelope acts as a climatic buffer: It helps in absorbing heat during daytime and releasing heat during the cold Jerusalem nights, thereby protecting the building against solar radiation as well as winter rain and winds. The gaps between the stones ensure a constant flow of fresh air. A further element of passive cooling is the 1m gap between outer and inner envelopes, which ensures constant circulation of fresh air around the building. Moreover, being open to the top of the building, it generates a suction effect like that of a chimney: hot air travels upwards, and fresh air is sucked into the gap from below.
Beit Safafa, like most villages in the Jerusalem area, now faces social and cultural challenges, typical of the transformation from a tightly-knit village community to a suburban center. In this context, the building provides an original solution by combining a traditional building form with modern urban apartment living. The building is sensitive to the traditional fabric of the village, yet open to new residents, as it combines living and working. It is also the home of the new Gallery for Palestinian Cultural Representation.