Redefining Learning Environments in a Conflict Area: A Palestinian Case Study

SMArchS Thesis, Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Spring 2013

This thesis evaluates the effectiveness of learning environments in the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as administered by private, refugee and public school systems. Learning environments in the OPT are examined with a two-fold methodology: historical and architectural. The two-fold analysis utilizes a spatial and social framework, where child, building, neighborhood context, and education system, are understood as the four components of a learning environment.

The historical analysis is framed from the Late-Ottoman era until today; and, follows changing theories on education in parallel with the changing relationship between schools and the socio-spatial reality of the conflict. Results from the historical analysis indicate that educational institutions cannot operate during times of crisis, leading local family and teacher networks to develop informal education systems in informal spaces. It is determined that learning environments must be able to adapt to the conflict and must embrace local communities as architectural, spatial, and social resources. This conclusion serves as a critical foundation for the architectural analysis.

The architectural analysis uses data collected from field work of 24 schools in the West Bank in August of 2012 through informal interviews with locals, photography, and journaling. Data reveals that the socio-spatial contexts of each school are unique due to divisions of the land. In order to limit the number of variables, special focus was given to three schools in Ramallah, which is a unique enclave that encompasses within it the socio-spatial realities of other enclaves in the West Bank. Results from the architectural analysis indicate that newer UNRWA and public schools are designed in an insular manner, which leads to divisions between community and institution on architectural, spatial, and social levels. While private school architecture acts on the environment and enhances programmatic function of space; breaking insularity and potentially improving socio-spatial conditions.

This thesis concludes with several short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations that stem from revelations in the historical analysis and results from the architectural analysis. Learning environments must span outwards allowing for an expansion of school resources, a broadening of learning experiences for youth, and the unification of Palestinians.

Image: A UNRWA school close to the militarized separation wall.