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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.


Readers' comments (3)

  • i agree- there are many other ways people should be pro-active.

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  • None of the individuals whom the AJ has reported as attacking the RIBA Council’s Israeli motion, Gove, Meier, Libeskind, Bell and Finch, have said anything in support of the IAUA. Paul Finch even condemns building in the occupied territories; an opinion shared by large swathes of the civilised world, UIA resolution 13 and now, democratically, the RIBA Council.
    Selective outrage may not be ideal but surely it is better than none. And what would the naysayers have done; nothing? "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (E. Burke)

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  • I am surprised that Paul has not grasped that Israel's architects work willy nilly as partners with the state and its military regime in a huge real-estate enterprise that is based on ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, the Palestinians, and the dominance and supremacy of Jewish Israelis. Israel is built over the ruins of 530 destroyed Palestinian towns and villages, and 93% of the land in Israel, that was sequestered from the Palestinians, is now out of bounds for them to live in or build. This is a unique case that replicates the situation of apartheid South Africa, in the field of housing, planning, property ownership and development, even though Israel does have many trappings of democracy. South Africa was expelled from the UN and UIA in the 1970s, and Paul as BD editor at the time, must remember the RIBA cutting its ties with the South African schools of architecture in 1978, and also BD holding a competition for Trafalgar Square in conjunction with UK Architects Against Apartheid, the forerunner of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine.
    With the never-ending expansion of settlements on both sides of the green line, and the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank, all against international law and the Geneva Conventions - this, over decades of expansion and expropriation of land on which Palestinians can almost never get permission to build, this is architecture used as a tool of occupation, and constitutes participation in war crimes. The UIA and RIBA have a responsibility to carry this Motion through as a salutary message to Israel's architects' association, that their detachment and impunity has a price -if they wish to be considered as participants amongst the world's democracies.

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