Week 4: The Tangible and the Intangible: From Section Drawing to Social Value
After three days of rain and cold, it is nice to sit in the sun and recall the events of the past week while looking forward to the next. All of us Saving the Stones participants agree that this week was densely packed with information and exercises, but passed quickly nonetheless. We took part in a wide variety of exercises and discussions, as usual, but this week it was all tied together with an exploration of “Tangible and Intangible Heritage”.
The week began with Sunday’s exercise in engineering for conservation. After David’s introductory lecture, we all paired up for some hands-on documentation work which involved problem areas of nearby buildings. The section of wall Asia and I were assigned is a prime example of what not to do when attempting to fix an old building. What a mess! Not only was the craftsmanship appalling, but the enthusiastic use of concrete caused further deterioration of the natural sandstone. We made section drawings of a portion of the wall, then wrote a description of the materials used, causes of deterioration, state of preservation, and a proposal of how to conserve the wall. In the process, we literally stepped back from our small section to see what the real problem is - the original design had engineering flaws that were later compounded by the insertion of a large metal door. The problem with our wall was not just the cement the owners used as a sort of band-aid, but the construction and adaptation of the building as a whole. Oops!
We spent Monday with Ram Shoeff, architect and head of the IAA Planning Department. Half of the day was dedicated to furthering the documentation skills we started developing the day before. We took photos of our “choice” walls and used multiple layers of tracing paper to identify building materials and problems. For Asia and I, this underscored just how bad the damage to our wall is and how it could have been avoided if the owners knew how to properly repair and maintain their building. The second half of the day was dedicated to a lecture on the importance of proper recording and documentation, as well as how to document properly.
For many of us, Tuesday’s survey exercise with Faina Milshtein (IAA architect and Akko’s surveyor) acted as a transition between what is called “tangible” or “built” heritage (i.e., buildings, artifacts) and “intangible” heritage (i.e., social and cultural values). After a lecture on the role of survey in documentation, we were paired up and put to the test. Dagan and I surveyed a central courtyard house by the sea, which was built on foundations dating back to the Crusader period (13th century). Much of the exterior was original (or at least preserved evidence of original features) but the interior had been completely altered with a few exceptions.
Yes, we went into people’s homes. No matter which building we went to, we were all greeted with utmost hospitality - a defining characteristic of the Arab world. The family Dagan and I visited knew very little English but happily practiced what they knew as we sipped the “exotic” (aka: fruit punch) flavored soda the 12 year old girl offered us and watched the end of Terminator 2 (in Arabic) as her father insisted. Of course we remember the building we examined, but what we will remember for years to come is awkwardly sitting on that family’s couch as they spent their afternoon together.
We finished the survey exercise on Wednesday morning, before we were introduced to one of Akko’s Arab residents and social activists. Sami is a textbook sceptic who spends his efforts fighting on behalf of his people. His point of view is helpful for understanding the different opinions in Akko’s Old City. He is also sensitive to the social and political issues that Arabs, particularly Arab children, face in this city, such as underrepresentation in government, housing problems, and lack of quality education. Sami’s voice was challenged by our next speaker, Tzili Giladi, the IAA Supervisor for Akko, who countered many of Sami’s extreme positions. Next up was a discussion of antiquities law and legal bodies led by Radwan Bdachi, a legal consultant for the IAA. Our long day ended with a Hebrew lesson and a quick bike ride home, in hopes of missing the rain that threatened to pour all day.
Thursday brought everything together under the heading “Evaluation & Intangible Heritage”, courtesy of the ICC’s own Shelley-Anne Peleg. We talked about so much that day that it would take another day to recount it all. We spent some time looking at the historic, aesthetic, scientific, and spiritual values of Akko, but the question that guided our discussion (and will continue to guide our studies) was “Could there be other social values in the cultural heritage of Akko?”
To prompt our thinking on a deeper level, Shelley invited one of her favorite visitors, an elderly, 3rd generation Akko resident who shared his family history, his memories of the way things were, his perspective on the present, and his hope for how things will be. We then visited the family who lives in the “10/50” house, a traditional central courtyard house that was part of a pilot program to show the local residents what proper treatment of their historic homes can do for them and their community. The house is beautiful, but that was not the focus of our visit.
The couple are 4th generation Akko residents with 15 children, 7 or 8 of which are married with children of their own - the father had lost count! Of course, we were greeted with traditional Arab hospitality - coffee strong enough to keep you awake and chatting for hours. We talked about many of the same things we did with our visitor and saw the past, present, and future of the people of Akko through the eyes of a generation that has seen much change.
One of the themes that came up in both of these visits was the importance of guiding children, of intentionally passing traditional values on to young people in hopes that they will live healthy, happy lives that are true to their cultural heritage and identity. Both families recognize that certain traditions have to be recreated in response to an ever-changing environment, but they also recognize that it is the spirit of tradition that truly matters. For example, the mother of 15 children recounted how she and the women of her community went to the hamam, the traditional turkish bathhouse, the week before her wedding for pampering and women-only festivities. The hamam was closed in the years between her own wedding and that of her daughter, but instead of abandoning the tradition altogether, the women had a henna party instead.
Yes, both of these traditions center on the beautification of the bride, but it is community and shared experience that matters. The woman did not recount the specifics of her beauty treatments, but recalled the women in the community cooking, sharing food, and sharing their time with one another in celebration of the good fortune of one of their own. The experience was important because it was shared and bonded the women in their community.
Throughout our discussions over the past four weeks, the word “generation” has come up a lot when we talk about the purpose of building conservation. The word is easy to use and its nice to think that we are doing something for future generations, but it did not really strike me until I saw the father of the 10/50 house seated with his eldest son standing behind him. The son looks just like the father probably did about 25 years ago, but with today’s fashion sense. I wish I could have taken a picture because the juxtaposition illustrated exactly what we are talking about - staying the same while constantly changing. Its a fine balance, but one that is necessary for a cultural to survive.
We ended the week by discussing the connection between “built” or “tangible” heritage (i.e., buildings, artifacts) and “intangible” heritage (i.e., values, traditions, rituals). How do we preserve the intangible? How can we protect the social values that are passed from generation to generation? Using the same method we use to conserve buildings: survey, documentation, classification, and performing the necessary work in order to pass what is conserved on to future generations.
This is impossible without the local community, the community that we serve and connect with on a daily basis. Not only are they our priceless archive, but they are the reason we conserve heritage, whether tangible or intangible. In conservation, we often talk about preserving “the spirit” of a place, but where does that spirit come from? Stone and mortar or flesh and blood? Our visitor on Thursday said “If I leave Akko, I will die. It is in my blood.” Here, within Akko’s walls, place and spirit are inextricably linked. There is a reciprocal relationship between stone and soul; to conserve one is to conserve the other, but both must be tended to and are worthy of our attention.