In search of normality

#115 [00:38:35] | 17.07.2015 | 2 comments
Doug Suisman

How many architects can say they’ve awaited instructions at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (feeling ‘like a fish out of water’), flown into what was effectively a war zone, and moved a senior Palestinian minister to tears all in the course of their working day? Doug Suisman, Principal of Santa Monica-based Suisman Urban Design, can.

The quest to bring a sense of longed for normality to the Palestinian people’s troubled lands has led the American architect on a journey that couldn’t be more extraordinary if it tried. In this podcast, WAN’s Editor-in-Chief, Michael Hammond was privileged enough to hear Doug’s fascinating story (which at times sounds like something from a movie) direct from the man himself.

The saga begins back in 2003 when non-partisan, non-profit think-tank, RAND, approached Doug. Its experts had looked at various options for the setting up of a separate state of Palestine, but had decided that merely creating a state wasn’t enough: it had to be a successful one, and effective infrastructure would be key.

With little or no personal knowledge of the Middle East and its terrain (there was no Google Earth back then and maps of the region were scarce) with the help of experts from RAND, Doug and his team proposed The Arc, a sweeping infrastructure plan for a prospective Palestinian state.

Doug Suisman - RAND - The Arc
“The Arc would establish a national corridor that would provide swift rail, roadway, water, power, and parkland for the main Palestinian towns and cities.”

Following the curved mountain ridge of the West Bank, The Arc would establish a national corridor that would provide swift rail, roadway, water, power, and parkland for the main Palestinian towns and cities. The corridor – and its lateral branches within each city – would enable the new state to accommodate an estimated 3 million returning refugees by expanding urban neighbourhoods and housing stock in a coherent and sustainable manner.

Doug Suisman with Mayor of Gaza City Abu Maged Ramadan
Doug Suisman with Mayor of Gaza City Abu Maged Ramadan

During the interview – Doug describes how when he and his team finally got clearance to fly into Israel and enter Jerusalem was ‘the moment when an intellectual exercise became very much an emotional experience’.

He talks of how they were afraid the Israelis would send them home or that the Palestinians would just laugh them off; and of just how wrong they were. He even describes how he half-expected soldiers with guns to greet him at the Palestinian Planning Ministry, but instantly knew there was nothing to fear when all that was there was a slide projector on a table in a room of governing officials – ‘just like any city planning office anywhere’.

Doug Suisman with Palestinian Prime Minister Qurei
Doug Suisman with Palestinian Prime Minister Qurei

Doug goes on to mention architects’ predilection for ‘hubris’, but adds that while they alone clearly can’t heal the problems of the world, what they do, which is ‘to envision a better world’, can at the ‘right moment and the right place help address very, very difficult human problems and conflicts – and that’s really the highest calling that we have, I think’.

The Arc has since undergone many deaths and resurrections during the years of turmoil, but Doug will never fully give up on it. Above all, he eloquently stresses the power of hope among ordinary people. Listen to the story of ‘The Arc’ here…

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