Saturday, June 16, 2007

row over Israeli architects deepens

The world of international architecture is being rocked to its foundations by a fierce row over a campaign which demands Israeli architects end their complicity in creating “facts on the ground” which exclude and oppress Palestinians and wipe out the possibility of a viable future Palestinian state.

The dispute has engulfed some of the leading figures in British and Israeli architecture. In an interview in the latest issue of the British weekly magazine Building Design, Israel’s most prominent architect, Moshe Safdie, accuses British architects of being “hypocritical, self-serving and hateful” for signing a petition organized by the London-based organization Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP).

The temperature was raised further when it emerged that a lobbying group British Architect Friends of Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have written jointly to the Paris-based International Union of Architects (UIA) - the worldwide umbrella of 102 national organizations and 1.3 million architects - calling on it to suspend the membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) unless RIBA dissociates itself from the APJP petition. The letter alleges that with its “anti-Israeli focus” the campaign violates EU clauses and definitions on national discrimination and anti-Semitism.

The petition was signed by RIBA’s current president Jack Pringle as well as by former presidents Sir Richard MacCormack, Paul Hyett and George Ferguson, and president-elect Sunand Prasad. Boston-based Safdie lambasted Pringle for signing the petition and suggested he should either have resigned as RIBA president before doing so, or should have sought a decision from the RIBA Council over whether it supported the petition.

The petition, which was published as a half-page advertisement in the Times newspaper of London, was signed by more than 260 architects, planners and others from around the world, among them some of Britain’s most famous architects and a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists. The petition says that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with Israel’s policies building of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory are “unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and UIA codes.”

The petition argues that it is time to challenge the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) and the Israeli government to end such projects, and says the IAUA should adhere to UIA codes. It calls on the IAUA “to declare their opposition to the inhuman Occupation, and to end the participation of their members and fellow professionals in creating facts on the ground with a demographic intent that excludes and oppresses Palestinians.” APJP has sent copies of the petition with letters to the presidents of the IAUA and the UIA.

The petition has infuriated the Israeli government and its supporters, and readers of Israeli newspaper and TV websites have posted numerous hostile messages, in some cases accusing British architects and the British in general of anti-Semitism. A typical message said that “Israel-bashing” England is on its way to becoming “the first Islamic state in Western Europe”. One reason for the anger aroused by the APJP petition is that it came around the same time as the University and College Union (UCU) voted at its annual meeting to support moves towards an academic boycott of Israel. The boycott issue is now one of the hottest topics in British-Israeli relations, and in the House of Commons Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the UCU to drop the resolution it had adopted. The APJP petition does not specifically call for a boycott, but it is being drawn into the boycott controversy.

Moshe Safdie claims to advocate a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and says that “many have objected, as I have, to building in the West Bank. Some have joined groups fighting the construction of the wall, but we are all aware of the complexity of the issues and all of us, collectively, are disappointed and angered by the position of our British colleagues.” Safdie said he was disgusted that British architects, including Will Alsop, Terry Farrell and Richard MacCormac, had singled out Israel when regimes across the world carry out “the most terrible atrocities.”

Jack Pringle robustly rebutted Safdie’s remarks. He told Building Design: “Moshe Safdie is a brilliant architect but it’s not for him to make policy for the RIBA, myself individually or as president.” Pringle “totally accepts” that there are oppressive regimes all over the world, “but to say you can’t criticize one without criticizing them all is extremely na├»ve”.

In his blog on the RIBA website, Pringle explained that he and his successor, Sunand Prasad, had signed the petition in their own capacities and not as representatives of RIBA, which is a non-political organization. He added that although he is a staunch supporter of a State of Israel, he signed the petition because “I believe, as a citizen and as an engaged observer, that the Israel/Palestinian issue is the most destabilizing and the most important issue in the Middle East and thus in the world today.” Until a lasting and fair peace is established in the region, there can be no prospect of a stable world peace. “To do this both sides must play by the rules with a measure of respect for each other’s rights. These particular petitions relate to Israel’s actions on territory in contravention of many UN resolutions, with the notable involvement of architects and planners.” Pringle also condemned the “many grave, violent and heinous Palestinian misdemeanors in other spheres of the ongoing war, with its attendant terrorism.”

Pringle rejected any charge of anti-Semitism as “very offensive to me and quite absurd as a glance at the petition with its many Jewish co-signatories will show. Indeed, many Jewish agencies support the petition, and its main promoter is Jewish himself.” (The last reference is to the APJP chairman, the architect Abe Hayeem). He was sorry if any RIBA members were offended by his signing the petition, “but I trust they will understand the balance of my opinion – and my right to express it.”

Other signatories to the petition have also publicly defended their stand. The eminent architect, critic and theorist Charles Jencks (pictured below)wrote a letter of protest to Building Design after Michael Peters, who is founder and chairman of the international branding consultancy Identica and has worked extensively with Israeli architects, warned that as a result of the petition “British architects are going to burn their bridges with a number of developers – Israeli, British and European”, Jencks, who has been one of APJP’s most vocal supporters since it was set up in February 2006, described Peters’ warning as being in “the worst tradition of intimidation. Of course, some architects will succumb to such veiled and explicit threats because it sometimes pays to be silent, but the list of signatories – including four RIBA presidents and the next one – shows that, contrary to Peters, many British architects do indeed understand the situation in Israel and that number is growing…One cannot but protest at the destruction of a nation.”
The issuing of the petition coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, which has focused world attention on the massive changes that have been wrought by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. As the APJP petition states, acting against international law Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, with the help of Israeli architects and planners.

The APJP petition highlights “three typical projects that make Israeli architects, planners and design and construction professionals complicit in social, political and economic oppression, in violation of their professional ethics.” One of the projects is in the village of Silwan near Jerusalem, where 88 Palestinian homes are under threat of demolition as part of a development for ultra-religious Israeli settlers from the El-‘Ad group on illegally annexed Palestinian land. The EU has condemned the development. APJP points out that the Ministry of Housing for the Jerusalem District and Jerusalem Municipality appointed Moshe Safdie’s Jerusalem office to prepare a Master Plan for the southern slopes of the Old City which include the Silwan neighbourhood of Al-Bustan where the 88 threatened houses are located.

The second project is for the conversion of the ruins of the Palestinian village of Lifta , also near Jerusalem, into a development for wealthy American visitors with, APJP says, “the exclusion of the original Palestinian inhabitants, their heritage and memory.” APJP is supporting the campaign to save Lifta which is spearheaded by the Israeli group the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST).

The third project is the E1 plan to expand the largest illegal Israeli settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, to link it with metropolitan Jerusalem. This will dissect the northern and southern West Bank, destroying the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.

The issuing of the petition raises the question of whether architects should involve themselves in political issues. Former RIBA president Paul Hyett wrote in Building Design that politics has a role to play in architecture. He recalled his past as a member of Architects Against Apartheid, when he played a part in the 1972 decision of RIBA to sever links with the South African Institute of Architects.

On a 2002 visit to South Africa, when he was RIBA president, Hyett apologized to the South African Institute of Architects for any upset caused by the decision to sever links 30 years earlier. However, “many South African architects told me that severance had been a huge boost to morale. They said it had highlighted international support for their own disgust at their government’s actions.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 11 2007

No comments: