Dima Srouji: Archeology, Design and Reviving a Lost Craft
An emerging generation of architects and designers are redefining how we create. They are asking important questions about how we approach many of the traditional objects we may take for granted. Few, if any, however are adopting as rich a multi-disciplinary approach in this pursuit as Dima Srouji, architect, designer and founder of Hollow Forms. Srouji collaborates with local craftsmen to create new forms in pursuit of reviving the age old craft of glass blowing.
I have been trying to find glass blowers in the region for over a year now. Through this quest I was confronted with the sad reality that this once essential craft is near extinction. It also led me to discover Hollow Forms, and the person behind it Dima Srouji.
Dima is trained as an architect, and does approach her projects with an architect’s eye. She describes herself as a designer, architect and researcher.
Her work is informed by the subtle nuances of ongoing colonial occupation in Palestine, how it touches everyday life, craftsmanship and how this is magnified by the use and abuse of disciplines like design and archeology.
Glass blowing is the prism through which she examines and interrogates the value of our ever discredited heritage and identity.
Karma: When did you get into archeology? Was it always there?
Dima: A few years ago when I moved back, I was reading a book called “Facts on the Ground” By Nadia Abu Al Haj, who is an amazing professor of anthropology at Columbia in New york, but at the time I was already really interested in archaeology. Her book was really influential because she talks about the use of archeology as a tool for occupation in Palestine.
As an architect I came from the understanding of archeology as a physical space, or an exploration of the ground as an excavated space.
There are a lot of architects who influenced me like Piranesi, who was an architect and a cartographer, he understood archeology in a political way. He was one of the first people to ever map the city of Rome, but he drew it in a way where he was taking archeological monuments and scaling them up and scaling them down and putting them in completely different locations that were kind of political statements to say that time and space are not linear. He also designed his own scaleless monuments and placed them into the city. And that's really interesting to think about as an architect because archaeologists are so married to the idea of linear history. You know you think of archeology in a linear way, “The Rule of Superposition'', which is one of the projects that I worked on, I used that as a title. It's a geological rule that says that strata are vertically stacked and the older they are the lower they are in the ground. This is what Zionism is based on, the idea of origin, the idea that we were here first and therefore if you dig further you’ll find Israelite archeologies that prove that we were here. This is why Nadia's book is really important to me because she talks about how archeologists, mostly biblical archaeologists, came here in the early 1900’s and they were Judeo Christian, very very religious people, who came to literally prove the bible through archeology. This is the primary use of science as a tool for political occupation.
If we think about it from that lens, as architects as designers, as teachers as anthropologists, we can rephrase that in a way to kind of highlight how absurd that argument is. Archeology is a vulnerable practice but it also helps us think about who we are as human beings. It's a really important discipline. I wouldn’t say that I'm against it. We've learned so much about the history of humankind from this discipline but it's absolutely dangerous and it's being abused by people that are just very subjective through their work.
Karma: Everything we’re taught from the west is inherently Eurocentric, so it's really interesting that all your projects, or at least the ones I’ve seen are taking archeology as a tool and using it in a different way to validate the same identity and place that archaeology is usually used to invalidate.
Dima: Yes exactly, archaeologists have the right to say ‘oh there's a pottery shard that's a meter down, but we don't care about that because it doesn't have a specific inscription on it’ so they actually can decide what's valuable and what's not. Like how they say that community is invalid, we’re not interested in their history, we're interested in another history. So you have this fluctuation of value based on subjective perspectives of archaeologists. They have so much power really.
Karma: Yea they really do. I feel like if you’re not actually interested, the importance of archeology and archeology itself can go unnoticed.
Dima: It’s people working on the ground, but actually that concept in itself is so absurd.
Karma: It's all so strange, and in the Arab world there's so much for archeologists, and a lot of the people excavating are white people who come back and teach us about our own land. We’re always being taught by people other than ourselves.
Dima: But the weird thing is and it's super abusive. The archeologists in 1906, 07, 08, used to excavate in areas in Sabastia. They hired an excavation team from Harvard University and they were funded by very religious individuals at the time. The Harvard team hired hundreds of people from Sabastia in Palestine. I have images of women from Sabastia carrying baskets on their head to excavate stones from their own grounds. All that terrain was full of olive trees. Now the same thing is happening. There are Israeli bulldozers that come in all the time and they’re led by the Civil Administration, which is the Israeli administration in the West Bank. They have a military archeologist that is hired by the Israeli government. So they come in with bulldozers and prepare for tourist attractions. Sabastia is a really good example of how archeology has totally abused Palestinian cities for over 100 years.
Karma: I really really loved your Ghost collection and how you brought archeology and glass blowing together. How did you get into glass blowing?
Dima: I’m glad you realized that because this project is the first time I started thinking about archeology and glass blowing at the same time. Before that I was feeling like I had two personalities. The first an architect and designer, because I like to make contemporary forms and 3D print and so on. And the second was very research based, serious year long research based projects. So in the beginning I didn’t really know how to tie these two together and this project was the first time I was able to achieve that.
When I was in grad school, I was in studio with Greg Lynn. He’s very influential to my work. His nickname in the architecture discipline is the “Blob Guy’ because he was one of the the first architects in the 70’s to use the ‘spline’, which is curvature that is used on CAD, and at the time was a revolutionary thing to be able to draw a spline with just three dots. Thinking about what a strange object is and how it's related to contemporary society, and why are people drawn to them. For example fruits, like heirloom fruits, people used to think that a lemon needs to be symmetrical and purely yellow, but now there's this shift in actually appreciating strange objects. So the lemon that's completely deformed is probably more expensive at whole foods than a normal one. So there is this shift in thinking about what true form should look like and that’s when I started to be really interested in strange objects, deformed objects, objects that you can 3D print then burn and melt then cast something in. It was super experimental. But when I used to make these objects that were essentially architectural forms at the scale of a building, I felt that there was something missing in the 3D prints and objects I was making.
When I went back home I found Marwan and Abu Marwan who I blow glass with. I was working with Riwaq, we were renovating historic villages in an area called Jaba’, and I saw them making chemistry sets for a lab, and they reminded me a lot of the objects I used to make in grad school. At the time I felt that there was something weird happening here because the arguments that architects like Peter Eisenman, who I taught with for a few years and has always been a mentor to me and to Lynn, are very formally based. He is only interested in the metaphysics of form and what the building looks like, and he’s not interested in program or how someone experiences space, how it can impact society in a cultural or economic way at all. The point Eisenman makes is that architecture has meaning in itself.
Hollow Forms was a deflection point in my thinking when I saw them blowing glass, I was like okay actually there is such a long history of glass blowing in the region, this is something that is socially, culturally, economically impactful. The industry of glassblowing has been culturally super valuable and the forms speak and are really interesting and contemporary and experimental, so we can use that to bring together both sides of the discipline. So I started experimenting with them and making weird things. I was designing on 3D modelling softwares and having as much as I can a true collaboration with them. I bring my laptop to the shop with me and show them drawings and sometimes they’ll say this is crazy you need to make this shorter or this part longer for it to sit right.
On another note, I think it’s important to stress the importance of the relationship with the craftsmen in this project. Obviously they have years of experience so what I was trying to do was something difficult, because I feel like I'm getting more out of this than they are. So I worry about that a lot, and this is something that I’ve been talking to other designers about, what does it mean to be collaborating with craftsmen? In my case I'm really trying to bring awareness to the industry of glass blowing because it’s dying. There’s none left in Jordan, In Palestine there’s nobody but the Natsheh family and the Twam family I’m working with, Syria was the most important place for glass blowing but after the war that is no longer the case at all, and in Lebanon I think there’s only one left as well as in Egypt.
Karma: But has anyone ever worked with Abu Marwan and Marwan the way you’re working with them now?
Dima: No, not that I’m aware of.
Karma: Have you ever spoken to them about their experience working with you? For them, they were blowing glass in basic forms, like glass tubes, and then after you came along they started experimenting with forms and ways of making that are completely new So it must be kind of experimental and exciting for them as well?
Dima: Yes, they thought I was crazy in the beginning, but it’s cool that we now learn things together. Sometimes I'll tell them like let's melt all the glass and pour it into metal and see what happens. They think I’m crazy like I want to burn the house down, but then it works and they start changing the way they make their work with other people.
Karma: Since you had the privilege of studying with great professors and gaining that experience, your mind and your design thinking expanded in a way. Now you’re sharing that expansion with them. So even if they think you’re crazy, they’re subconsciously changing the way they think about how to design and make these objects.
Dima: Yes, that's very true. And they’re definitely changing mine. And the thing that makes me even more happy is that for them being in a village between Jerusalem and Ramallah, most of their work comes from Israel. A lot of the production they used to do would be exported to Tel Aviv because it’s much cheaper for Israelis to hire Palestinian glass blowers than an Israeli one. So when I met them, all their newspapers were in hebrew and people from Tel Aviv kept calling them ordering things so I asked them why are you doing this? I'll pay you double but you need to start working with more Palestinians.. This is starting to slow as they’re getting more clients here. Any time someone asks me where I make all my glassware I give them Abu Marwan and Marwan's number and tell them to go there. People started to design their own ceiling lamps, cups for their house etc. But again this is their livelihood so at the end of the day they need to make money to live.
Karma: Back to your Ghost project, I'm just so interested in it. I think it's really powerful. What do you think of the relationship between objects and people? Do you believe there are energies embedded in these connections?
Dima: Ghost was very much about that. After I researched about Sabastia and archaeology in Palestine, and after reading “Facts on the Ground”, I started thinking about who decides the value of objects when they go to museums. So who decides the value of an object from lets say Sabastia while its in a glass vitrine inside a museum that no Palestinian can get to anyway, what does it mean for them to be there as displaced objects? So I started thinking of the objects as displaced and traumatized artifacts just as much as people are traumatized and displaced. They’re essentially physical refugees in some way. So I started imagining what it would be like to bring them back, like a form of restitution, to exhibit them in a context that’s in the Middle East where their value is completely different. Obviously I couldn't bring the physical objects themselves so I started replicating them in a way that was not identical but as if they were ghosts coming back to visit and to also tell their story. Because we forget the history of glass.
Everyone thinks it originated in Rome and Venice but that’s not true. It started here in the region. The first people who blew glass in the world were in the south of Akka. There’s a small river called Nahr Naamain, and there people started blowing glass because the sand was super high in silica. They used to produce glass blocks and export to Syria and Lebanon, it was all the same back then, but it was an industrialized system. There were massive manufacturers of glass so over time people came in and saw what they were doing and wanted that same material as well, so they brought it back with them to the rest of Europe. I’m still learning about the material history, there’s a lot to it and it’s hard to trace all the way back. So the material culture history is really important and using the vessels themselves as a way of actually telling the story of what archeology and displacement means. What it means for archeological artifacts to be displaced.
Now there is an argument that i’ve spoken about with a few other people at the time, it’s kind of like an ontological discussion that philosophers are having elsewhere. But it's the idea of human to human relationships versus object to human relationships, and if human to human relationships are more superior than objects to human relationships. A lot of progressive thinkers like marxists and anarchists will tell you that human to human relationships are superior because we are anti capitalists and any value should be thought of in terms of human value rather than object value because you know they’re against the neo liberal system. But for me it totally depends on how you define objects. I don’t mean commodities or in monetary value, I mean in cultural and spiritual value or in terms of memory, the value of memory for me is really high. When an object is embedded in memory, whether it’s based on human memory.
For example, I've moved around to ten cities in the last ten years. Everytime I move I bring objects with me that make me feel like home, whether it's my books or my plants or my rug. I literally take my rug everywhere I go because it makes me feel like home. It’s probably a projection of my own memory and my own emotions onto the objects. So there is this layer that you impose onto the surface of an object or onto the identity of the object that makes it more valuable for you. I like to believe that there is something intrinsic in an object, not that it has a spirit but that applying memory onto surfaces actually somehow changes their physical structure and their value in reality. This is where fiction gets exciting. There is this connection between the human and object after some kind of interaction. Then it's a question of scale, when you think of an object like the ground in terms of archeology, the human to object relationship there is superior to me than a human to human one. Maybe in that way Peter Eisenman’s right to talk about architecture/objects containing maining within their objectness. Meaning maining
Karma: Yes look at what's happening to the world because of that!
Karma: I agree with everything you’re saying and believe in it. I wear this gold bracelet that my grandmother has had since she was 18 years old. When she died I decided to keep it on me and have my energy and memory embedded in this bracelet. Maybe eventually, I don't know how, the universe will send someone my way that will be able to hold this object and read her energy and mine togehter. It’s very spiritual. I think it's important to understand the value of human to object relationship. Human to human relationships are kind of ruining the world right now.
Dima: I do the same thing! hahah! I also wear my grandmother's bracelets! Yes I agree I think it's a very surface understanding of how the world works, human to human is not superior at all, they should be equal.. And thinking about it in terms of climate change, thinking about the ground as a physical object is very important. Nature is a hyperobject. Timothy Mortin talks about all these things.
Karma Malhas is a multi-disciplinary artist and Industrial designer, she is currently the Design Manager at Shams El Balad and the founder of Run Naked.