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NYTimes.com Article: Are Politics Built Into Architecture?
by swsystem
10 August 2002 11:44 UTC
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This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by swsystem@aol.com.

Excellent article--interesting controversy, but also a way to smuggle some of 
the more dissident Israeli views into the NY Times.  

reply to threehegemons@aol.com


Are Politics Built Into Architecture?

August 10, 2002


PARIS, Aug. 9 - The concept of building the State of Israel
was long central to the Zionist dream. But after Israel's
independence in 1948, the phrase took on a more literal
meaning: Israel now also had to build the villages, towns
and cities that would turn it into a modern, prosperous and
secure land. As a result, urban planners and architects
assumed a central role in defining the physical appearance
of the new nation. 

A half-century later, this slice of history helps explain
the intensity of a dispute currently dividing Israeli
architects. Some argue that by designing and constructing
Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, the
architectural profession has, perhaps unwittingly,
contributed to escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Others respond that architecture is neither
political nor ideological and, as such, has nothing to
answer for. 

The catalyst for the debate came last month when the Israel
Association of United Architects vetoed a catalog and
canceled an exhibition that it had commissioned to
represent Israel at the World Congress of Architecture in
Berlin from July 22 to 26. It decided that the catalog,
titled "A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli
Architecture," would damage Israel's image abroad by
presenting a uniformly hostile view of the Israeli
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Uri Zerubavel, president of the association, blamed Rafi
Segal and Eyal Weizman, the two young Israeli architects
who edited the catalog. 

"They used our resources, they used our public name to make
one-sided political propaganda," he said in a telephone
interview from Tel Aviv. "If you are a political party, you
can do what they have done. But the association is
apolitical. It has members on the left and on the right.
Imagine if we did an exhibition praising the settlements." 

Mr. Segal and Mr. Weizman, in turn, said they were
surprised by what they called the association's "extreme

"We were picked in a competition of 10 firms of
architects," Mr. Segal said by telephone from Tel Aviv. "We
suggested the theme and even mentioned some of the writers
who would contribute to the catalog, so they knew ahead.
But when they saw the whole work, they suddenly got cold
feet and didn't want it." 

The architects have won strong support from Esther
Zandberg, the architecture critic of Haaretz, an
independent daily, who accused the association of
exercising "harsh political censorship." 

"The catalog is a rare work in its power and importance for
the community of architects and town planners in Israel,
who usually separate `pure' professionalism and `dirty'
politics," she said. "The catalog shows clearly that this
option no longer exists." 

In truth, architecture has always been inseparable from
politics in a broad sense. No less than, say, the Egyptian
pyramids, Europe's great Gothic cathedrals were conceived
as expressions of power. Similarly, both Albert Speer's
grandiose design for Hitler's Berlin and 1960's efforts to
bring social improvement through public housing were
politically inspired. But in Israel, Ms. Zandberg said,
architects "seem never to have examined their actions

In the English-language catalog for "A Civilian
Occupation," half a dozen architects do just that, although
its fiercest criticism of the settlements in the occupied
territories comes from a journalist, Gideon Levy, a
columnist in Haaretz. "They are almost always up there, the
settlements, dominating the plateau, challenging,
provoking, picking a fight," he writes. From everywhere, he
continues, "you can spot the settlement on the hilltop,
looming, threatening, dreadfully colonial." 

The cover of the 96-page illustrated catalog, which shows a
red silhouette of the West Bank that resembles a pool of
blood, is also arguably provocative. But most of the essays
avoid the language of a political tract. Rather, Mr. Segal
and Mr. Weizman note in a foreword, the catalog's purpose
is to analyze how "the mundane elements of planning and
architecture have been conscripted as tactical tools in the
Israeli state-strategy." 

Indeed, well before the 1967 Six-Day War led to the
occupation of Arab lands, settlements away from the coastal
cities were intrinsically linked to Israel's security.
Thus, from the late 1930's, the architectural model for the
kibbutz was "homa umigdal," or "wall and tower," a small
enclosed settlement that combined "fortification and
observation" and served to "perpetuate the ghetto
mentality," Sharon Rotbard, an architect and university
lecturer, writes in the catalog. 

After 1948, notes Zvi Efrat, another architect and
university lecturer, Israel then set out "to put into
practice one of the most comprehensive, controlled and
efficient architectural experiments in the modern era."
What became known as the Sharon Plan was drawn up by
architects and planners led by Arieh Sharon, one of
numerous Jewish graduates of the Bauhaus who fled Germany
for Palestine before the war and whose influence can still
be seen in Tel Aviv. 

"The pressing national task assigned to Sharon and his team
of planners," Mr. Efrat writes in the catalog, "was
providing temporary housing solutions for the masses of new
Jewish immigrants and settling the country's borderlands,
in order to stabilize the 1948 cease-fire lines, prevent
territorial concessions and inhibit the return of
Palestinian war refugees." 

Borrowing from both Soviet and British experience in
building new towns, the government built agricultural
settlements clustered around a central village and served
by a regional town. Eliezer Brutzkus, a member of the
Sharon team, described the strategy for populating them.
"Truth be told, these results were obtained against the
free will of the settled subjects, namely the immigrants,
through a method whose underlying principle was `straight
off the boat to development regions,' " Mr. Brutzkus wrote
in 1964. 

Then, after 1967, a new strategy was applied to the
occupied territories. In their analysis of the West Bank,
which includes a map locating all the settlements in the
area, Mr. Segal and Mr. Weizman identify three types of
"civilian occupation," starting with the agricultural
settlements in the arid and underpopulated Jordan Valley
that were designed, they write, to establish a "security
border" with Jordan. 

After a string of Labor governments made way for
conservative Likud Party administrations in 1977, the focus
switched to the mountain ridge of the regions referred to
biblically as Judea and Samaria where, Mr. Segal and Mr.
Weizman argue, religious groups believed they were
re-occupying the biblical "Land of Israel." 

"The settlements of the mountain strip shifted the stimulus
of expansion from agricultural pioneering to mysticism and
transcendentalism," they write. 

Finally, from the early 1980's came the accelerated
settlement of areas close to the pre-1967 borders, which
permitted a spillover of population from Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem. And here, Mr. Segal and Mr. Weizman note,
ideology was less important than quality of life. "For the
price of a small flat in Tel Aviv settlers could purchase
their own red-roofed house and benefit from massive
government subsidies," they write. 

Thomas M. Leitersdorf was involved in designing two new
cities in the West Bank, Maale Edummim in Judea and Emanuel
in Samaria. In an interview in the catalog, Mr. Leitersdorf
concedes that "the decision of Ma'ale Edummim's location
was, without doubt, political." Yet he said he never viewed
his own role as political. "To tell you that an architect
influences politics?" he asks. "He doesn't. The whole story
of Judea and Samaria could have been different, but this is
on levels that are neither in your hands nor in mine." 

In their essay, however, Mr. Segal and Mr. Weizman argue
that architects played an important role by designing
settlements as strategic outposts on hilltops across the
West Bank. This location, they write, produces "sightlines
that function to achieve different forms of power:
strategic - in its overlooking of main traffic arteries;
control - in its overlooking of Palestinian towns and
villages; and self-defense - in its overlooking its
immediate surroundings and approach roads." 

Further, they say, from those hilltops, settlers can
contemplate biblical sites. "Within this panorama, however,
lies a cruel paradox," the two architects write. "The very
thing that renders the landscape `biblical' or `pastoral' -
its traditional inhabitation and cultivation in terraces,
olive orchards, stone buildings and the presence of
livestock - is produced by Palestinians, whom Jewish
settlers came to replace." They add, "The Palestinians are
there to produce the scenery and then disappear." 

Mr. Zerubavel said he saw no redeeming qualities in the
catalog. "When I first saw it, I didn't sleep all night,"
he said. "Instead of showing the development of Israeli
architecture, questions of topography and climate, it is an
anti-Israeli, one-sided presentation, with totalitarian
graphics, pictures of soldiers and tanks, every page about
Israeli occupation. We could not accept it. We are an
association of architects, not a political party." 

Mr. Zerubavel, who said he had twice refused invitations to
design settlements in the West Bank "for private political
reasons," noted that 15 of the association's 20 council
members had endorsed the decision to withdraw the catalog
from circulation. "I get letters, faxes and e-mails every
day supporting our decision," he added. 

But he said he was upset that Mr. Segal and Mr. Weizman had
held onto some 850 copies of the 5,000 printed. "When I ask
Eyal Weizman, he said he had taken a few as souvenirs," Mr.
Zerubavel said. "A few is 50, not 850." He said the
association had not yet decided what to do with its
remaining 4,143 copies. However, the Tel Aviv-based Babel
Publishers has now decided to reprint the catalog for
distribution abroad and may also publish a Hebrew edition. 

Mr. Rotbard, who also edits an architectural series for
Babel, said the catalog should be of interest to people not
engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "This is a
moral dilemma facing all architects," he said. "Some who
work for big corporations or large real estate operators
create things just as monstrous as the architecture of the
occupied territories. The catalog makes us think about the
political dimension of all architecture." 


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