Campus & Community

Design Students Envision Future in Middle East Border Cities

8 min read

Mention the word “studio,” and one generally thinks of an artist’s garret, preferably one with northern light. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), however, a studio has no walls, and its dimensions can span vast distances. It is a method of teaching that constitutes the core of a Harvard design education.

Illustrating this point was a recent studio that focused on an emerging region of the Middle East. The project engaged 14 students in an intensive semester-long exploration of possibilities for the future of an area with a rich and illustrious past: Beit She’an, in northern Israel.

In the 7,000 years since humans first settled the site, Beit She’an has had its moments of glory. Various populations have gravitated to it for two main reasons: its location on the important caravan route from Egypt to Damascus known as the Via Maris; and its fertile land, fed by two streams, the Nahal Harod and the Nahal Asi. By 200 A.D., under the Romans, Beit She’an achieved its most illustrious era. Known at that time as Scythopolis, it was the largest of the 10 loosely allied Roman cities known as the Decapolis.

Beit She’an has also experienced violence and tragedy, both from human and natural causes. According to the first book of Samuel, it was on the walls of this city that the Philistines fastened the beheaded body of King Saul and the bodies of his three sons after Saul’s defeat on Mt. Gilboa. Later, it was also here that the Romans adapted a hippodrome to serve as an amphitheater for gladiators. (The floor of an amphitheater is known as an arena, a term that derives from the Latin word for sand, which was put there to absorb the blood of the contestants.) In 749 A.D., an earthquake reduced the city to ruins, but it was settled again successively by the Crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Egyptians, and the Israelis.

Today the inhabitants of Beit She’an are willing to consider possibilities that might ensue if peace were to prevail in the region. Hopes arise that the city might again be a vital nexus of an important region – as it was in Roman times – instead of the distant outpost that it has been since the founding of Israel in 1948. It was these hopes that brought the GSD students to this region for the “studio.”

The students were to work with people representing three different cultures, speaking two different Semitic languages, and embracing several religions. They were to focus on a region with a long, complicated history and characterized by political turmoil. They had to take into account factors such as a population that is expected to double in the next 20 years, as well as an arid landscape where the supply of water has been a pivotal issue.

In no way was the studio meant to provide a “Harvard plan” for the region, but rather a speculative and perhaps utopian view of what might lie ahead for those populations, as observed by objective and somewhat informed observers.

Carl Steinitz, the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning, taught the studio. The noted Jerusalem architect Arie Rahimimoff served as its visiting critic. In keeping with his usual practice, Steinitz insisted that the studio include students from all three disciplines at the GSD: architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design. He also specified that they must work in a collaborative fashion – important preparation for the teamwork approach that will be part of their subsequent professional work.

Given that today’s design professionals must increasingly adopt a global perspective and apply their talents to international settings, this studio provided invaluable lessons, particularly for several students who had never traveled outside the United States before.

The students’ initial mandate was to focus on the region and city of Beit She’an, which lies on the Israeli side of the Jordan River valley. With funding from two prominent businessmen from Cleveland, Albert Ratner and Robert Goldberg, the students spent an intensive week in the region in late August.

The issues they explored included water allocation, conservation principles, climatic considerations, industrial and agricultural development, transportation, tourism, and the possibility of joint projects across borders. Mindful of all these factors, the GSD students felt it imperative to widen their scope of inquiry to include nearby Jenin in the Palestinian Authority, and the Jordanian cities of Jerash and Irbid.

While in the region, the students had the benefit of learning from those with in-depth knowledge of both the area and their respective professions. In Beit She’an, they met a variety of the city’s leaders, including Mayor Pini Kabalo and the mayor of the Beit She’an Regional Valley Council, Yael Shaltieli.

In Jenin, they heard the pressing issues of the city directly from Gov. Zuhair el-Manassreh and his civil engineer, Laila Sbaih, both of whom later came to Cambridge to review the students’ work. At the magnificent Roman ruins at Beit She’an and Jerash, the Israeli archaeologist Avner Goren provided learned instruction, as did the Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash. Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to Jordan (who now serves as Israel’s main negotiator in the ongoing peace talks), spoke of the changing political dimensions of the region and the proposed qualifying industrial zone (QIZ) that aims to create a special industrial area along the Jordan River.

Back in Cambridge, the studio process first involved determining the main issues and the approach of the study. An intensive two-day session required each student to “solve the whole problem.” The 14 proposals were then analyzed for their similarities and differences, resulting in a list of 150 various “projects,” which could then be recombined to produce comprehensive proposals.

One of the most dramatic projects to emerge from the studio was a proposed Jordan River Heritage Park, to be located on the very banks of the Jordan River. Defined by a vast circle of palms encompassing segments of Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian land, the park would serve as a meeting place, a site for exhibitions, concerts, and gatherings, as well as school outings, family trips, and hikes.

Working with Annette Huber-Lee, the students were also able to benefit from the Middle East Water Project Model, chaired by M.I.T. professor of economics Franklin Fisher. The model, a detailed tool to gauge the region’s political, economic, hydrologic, and land-use relationships, was employed to estimate quantitative changes of water and land use for the alternative futures posed by the students.

The students decided to focus their study on the physical implications of three hypothetical futures, which included projections into the year 2020 of water use and distribution, demographics, and land-use and environmental changes:

• Coexistence – This scenario projects an atmosphere in which independent, self-interested activities exist among the three nations.

• Cooperation – This scenario assumes that selective agreements will be reached that might facilitate join ventures of economic, social, and environmental significance among the three nations.

• Partnership – This scenario anticipates broad-based mutual relationships with diminished security measures and enhanced cross-border trade.

During the semester, the students presented their findings twice. Then, in January, a representative group of the students gave four presentations in three different countries in four days – setting a precedent for studio presentations at the GSD. Attendance was good in all the four venues – Amman, Jenin, Beit She’an, and Jerusalem – ranging from audiences of 40 to more than 100. Despite the changing perspectives across borders, the prevailing leitmotif of all the discussions seemed to be a great interest in exploring the implications of peaceful relationships.

In its findings and in the people it involved in a teamwork effort across borders, this studio in some small measure set the tone for what may be increased cooperation and partnership. In the words of Arie Rahimimoff, “Borders are formed, then they change meaning and in some cases they dissolve. Surely the Jordan Valley, a political border for many generations, can become what it deserves to be – the cultural inheritance of all the world”

The entire project can be viewed online a, under “option studios.”

Sponsored Studios at the GSD

Applying classroom knowledge to real-world issues is an important aspect of a GSD education.

Sponsors provide partial or full funding for the studios, which have as their primary aim the intellectual development of the participating students. While the studio’s findings may not be considered professional services, it is often the case that their innovative approaches to the issues provide new insights into specific problems.

Of particular importance in the studios is the GSD’s adherence to objectivity and disclosure. Guided by faculty, students decide how to define and solve the specific challenges of the studio project. Sponsors receive no exclusive information, and all findings of the studio can be publicly disclosed. By undertaking a studio, the GSD does not endorse the project, the conclusions, or the sponsorship.

Lynn Holstein, who earned an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, now serves as director of development and alumni/ae relations at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In that role, she has had the opportunity to make numerous trips to that region.