[Arch]comicologies: How to Construct a Narrative

by Samir Harb

An archaeological reading of Ramallah’s Mukataa allows us to chart political complexity and human behaviour through architecture

The Mukataa compound plan transformation, Palestinian Authority headquarters, Ramallah
From left to right: 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011

AL-MUKATAA, A PATCH OF LAND that has been exhausted by periods of political epochs, tells the history of a long-lasting period of transformation. Passing through the main centre of the city of Ramallah, Palestine, it’s impossible not to notice the newly constructed Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters – new building, walls, security watchtowers, gates – surrounded by armed security guards.

I pass this site on daily basis, this symbol of power dominating the main street that connects the northern cities of the West Bank with the centre of Ramallah. Unjustifiably so, as the future state has not been established, but rather suspended, with an image of power that articulates the vision of the new Palestinian project of liberation. At this particular time, architecture plays an important role in constructing a narrative for the wider population. if the PA builds an architectural landmark in the middle of the city, it is to prove its emergence as a working state – and appearing to be a state becomes more important than how it actually functions.

is this site material evidence of what produces the notion of freedom and independence championed in recent political agendas? What image has been constructed in the process? What is going on, what has been going on and what will happen next? And more importantly, how are our everyday lives articulated through such processes? These questions may not be answered by architecture, but architecture may enable an alternative dialogue.

In understanding this movement within the built environment, it is useful to consider the similarities between the practice of architecture and the making of a graphic novel. The buildings and the material flow of the city can be understood as objects in transition linked to a chain of events, be it political, economical, historical or environmental. And the graphic novel as a practice may be defined as creating a series of frozen images, which – in this case – undo the stratification of a certain architectural building. What matters here is sequential: the development of the building becomes a story.

The intersection in the city between architecture, archaeology and the graphic novel

This is what i tend to call “[arch]comicology”, the meeting point of (1) the vertical: material transformation accumulated within successive historical, political or economical events; (2) the horizontal: the way the materials have been distributed in relation to each other and within the geography of the city; and (3) the centre of the intersection, where the object that dismantles the narrative into a series of single events can be found. This dynamic, shifting centre is the space where everydayness happens.

Since its construction, for example, the Mukataa has been a power hub regulating the administrative and policing systems. it was established as part of the British colonial project to take control of the Palestinian territory. In fact, its clones – the so-called “Tegart forts” constructed by colonial police officer sir Charles Tegart – were dotted across the territory of historical Palestine. These buildings functioned as structures to facilitate the counterinsurgency operation Tegart led against the rebellions and uprisings between 1936 and 1939. generally the buildings were located on the main roads between cities; the mukataa of Ramallah, for instance, was constructed on the road linking Jerusalem and nablus.

Afterwards, the mukataa became a locus of power used by the Jordanian (1948) and then the israeli Administration (1967), and eventually the PA (1994). Through such intense change, the body of the mukataa emerges as an archive of events, bringing together memories of defeat, capture, loss, freedom, hope, peace, death, life, continuity, torture, sovereignty and power in a single place.

A building or structure is a material formulation in time. Specifically, it is a sculpture depicting time and human behaviour. In the case of the Mukataa, one structure can be seen to stand on the historical fault lines between successive eras. An archaeological reading of the material transformation of this particular building allows political complexity and spatial tectonics to be traced through the events that have taken place over time and have ultimately shaped the building.

With this historical understanding of the building in mind, i focus on three main stages in the production of a graphic novel: reading, re-ordering and juxtaposing. The reader who is looking at the graphic novel takes on the role of an archaeologist, piecing together a story one frame at a time. And the architecture of the city can be viewed as an archaeological site, a place to sift through the remnants of processes that have accumulated in layer after layer of material. looking at the city as such allows a broader narrative of its landscape to unfold – one which is different than that produced by the power system.

However, what is important at this point is the outcome of these images. The process is very much akin to a photographer editing photographs after a shoot or an anthropologist going over notes after conducting fieldwork. Here the notions of re-ordering and juxtaposition come in. The making of comics becomes an essential tool to slow down and order the process of transformation into a meaningful sequence of fixed frames, to freeze each event into a single frame, be it a frame that the illustrator has chosen or one that is produced by the limits of the instrument he is using – a canvas, a piece of paper, or even a smartphone. This act in itself holds a matrix of images and moments of ‘becoming’: collapse, construction, erosion, dissolving, appearance and disappearance. And in this way, every building in the city can be seen as an archaeology of the death of political eras and the birth of new ones.


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