Attacking the Israeli architects' association is wrong
The attack on the Israeli architects’ association implies it is behaving uniquely badly. This is unfair and unwarranted, writes Paul Finch
I have until now hesitated to comment on Angela Brady’s initiative, supported by RIBA Council, to have Israel’s main architectural body suspended from the International Union of Architects (UIA). This is largely because discussing Israel and Palestine as an architectural issue is missing the point; it is certainly a land issue, but that is not the same thing.
Moreover, statements from one ‘side’ or another are far too capable of misinterpretation or misrepresentation: supporters of the RIBA stance say any criticism of it is a ‘politically motivated smear’. So, just for the record, I do not support the building of homes in the occupied territories, and I find the security ‘fence’ repulsive.
But I find myself agreeing with Michael Gove, for once, that ‘selective outrage’ is at work here. What institutes have been suspended or expelled since the UIA’s formation, and how many might have been? Virtually none. Will there be a rush to suspend the Russians because of what is happening in Ukraine? Were the Chinese suspended when they were destroying much of their magnificent built heritage, or invading Tibet? Certainly not. Ditto the US/Cambodia, and so on.
The attack on the Israeli Association of United Architects implies that it is behaving almost uniquely badly. This is unfair and unwarranted, and is further evidence that Israel tends to be subjected to greater criticism, and judged by much harsher standards, than other countries in the region. I see no calls for action against institutes whose members work in countries where people still get their hands chopped off on a weekly basis for relatively minor misdemeanours, or whose records on the treatment of migrant building workers are shockingly bad.
Were there mass complaints to the UIA when Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog did their work on the Beijing Olympics, or Zaha Hadid built in Baku? I must have missed them - but would not have supported any suspension of anyone as a result. Indeed, there is a very powerful argument for supporting international design in countries at a different stage in their political development: the lifting of the spirits through cultural or sports architecture can play a part in broadening the appetite for those aspects of civilization which we take for granted in the West.
Designing a torture chamber for a dictator is not the same thing as designing a concert hall which will be used by millions of people over its life, engaging with a world which is both universal and individual, that is to say the worlds of feeling and emotions, of body and mind. We should be grown-up enough to recognise that it is possible to create fine architecture in the context of a hideous political regime (think Terragni).
There is scant evidence of architectural quality in the buildings being undertaken in the occupied territories, and it is an absurdity to suggest that this construction is an architectural initiative or policy. Any designers involved are bit-part players in a drama over which they have no control and very little influence. Like the idea that architects are uniquely responsible for tall buildings, or the housing crisis, or a sustainable planet, loading blame on them is a form of arrogance. It is saying: ‘We are responsible for everything’, when the opposite is the case. It is a perfect example of the Koolhaas dictum that architecture today is stranded between megalomania and impotence.
As for those few professionals engaged in the occupied territories, when signing a contract they should have been asking themselves not whether they had professional sanction to do so, but what involvement in the programme said about them as citizens of the world.