Anda Barr, head of the Union of United Architects of Israel and the city engineer of Kiryat Ono, decided at 14 to become an architect, because of a love for design, aesthetics, math and engineering - not politics. But in recent years, long after she graduated from the Technion and moved from architectural design to management and planning, political issues keep creeping onto her radar.
While she is drinking pomegranate juice in a Tel Aviv cafe on a recent afternoon, her cellphone rings continuously.
There are the usual queries about an old building slated for destruction, after activists and architects disagree on the historical and aesthetic value.
And there are questions regarding the final draft of a response to a letter received from the International Union of Architects (Union Internationale des Architectes or UIA). The subject line reads in capital letters: Why Israeli policy on Palestine is an architectural issue for all professional institutes.
The letter went out from the president of the UIA to the presidents and chairmen of member associations in its 117 member countries. A query from the UK-based organization Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine apparently set in motion the letter, whose main point was to remind the architecture unions around the world of a resolution passed in 2005 stating that the UIA condemns development and construction of building projects on land that has been ethnically purified or illegally appropriated or that is culturally or ethnically discriminatory or that contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Barr throws her arms up in the air. "I don't have a problem with the wording of the resolution. What bothers me is that this letter is answering an organization that is not a member of the International Union of Architects and that the response was sent to all international organizations without even consulting with us first. I don't think this was the correct response."
To her knowledge, Barr says, the international union has never previously circulated such a letter regarding architects working in countries where there are also ongoing territorial disputes. "The resolution is general and diplomatic, so why is the UIA president underscoring that there is a problem with Israel?"
Criticism and calls for boycotts targeting Israeli architects are not something new, though they have not generated headlines like similar calls for boycotts against Israeli films and events, with the headline-grabbing names of superstars attached.
Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine as early as 2005 started calling for boycotts against Israeli architects, planners and engineers involved in the building of the separation barrier and settlements. With support of several notable European architects, including some Palestinian and Israeli architects based in the UK, the organization has stepped up its activities by placing local newspaper ads and circulating petitions calling on the Israeli union of architects to speak out against occupation. Last year, the organization also turned to the UIA with a proposal for expelling the Israeli union at its annual congress.
What is the relation between architecture and politics?
I wish I could say there is no relation. Each architect has his own political views and there are architects who will not take projects in the territories and that is their right.
I think that more important than where you build is respecting the integration of building into the environment. There are architects who think that building is a statement and I don't think that statements are always made at the right time and in the right place. If every building is compatible with the environment, there would be no question about the architect being Jewish or Muslim, because it would not affect the character of the place.
But if an architect builds in an area that is hilly and where most of the buildings are close to the topography and suddenly builds something that really sticks out, this could be either a landmark or antagonism.
The difference is in how the people who live there accept it as part of their own environment or not and do they like it. For example, the Eiffel Tower is big and different than the surrounding architecture, but because the city loved it it became a landmark. In Haifa, a recent building blocks the sea view of a population that is not so strong, so this becomes political because it hurts the feelings and civil rights of the people living there. In this case it's not an Arab and Jewish issue but one of rich vs poor. But the considerations are the same.
How are relations between Jewish and Arab architects?
About half a year ago, we were approached for the first time to organize a competition for building in an Arab community. The competition was for building an art museum in Umm el-Fahm. The judges were from our organization and from Umm el-Fahm, and hundreds of firms - Jewish, Arab and mixed - prepared anonymous submissions. We care about architecture. If it is in an Arab city or a Beduin village or in a Jewish city, it needs to look as good as possible and this is a shared interest.
We make an effort to include Arab architects in our union. We had informal meetings last year, where we asked them to become members. If they have their own associations or if they don't want to identify with us, we asked them to have joint activities with us. If they have their own interests to deal with specific issues and activities, we would be very glad [to assist]. But until today, it does not happen. I don't know, maybe we didn't try hard enough. Or because we architects, members of the union, myself included, are volunteers and we don't have so much free time. Or maybe it is their feelings. We do have a lot of contact between individual architects, but not as an organization.
The goal to advance professionally and raise awareness about excellence in architecture and to advance in competitions, these are the goals of every architect and not just one portion of the population. But even so the shared participation is not developed enough.
What was the reaction of the members of the International Union of Architects to a proposed motion last year at the UIA congress to expel the Israeli architects?
We sent a representative - architect Itzhak Lir, our former president, and
he went at his own expense. He reported that they wanted to kick Israel out, but not for political reasons, but because we had not yet paid our dues. There was a vote and 74.5 percent voted against throwing Israel out, including the Palestinian organization. It doesn't matter that the excuse for the vote was money. The Palestinians could have voted against us and they did not. They [Israeli and Palestinian architects] were in connection all the time. Aside from this, every country assigns a member representative to the international congress and each one could have raised the motion to boycott us, but no one did.
Why hadn't you paid UIA dues and why retain membership?
The membership fees of the international union are very high - 7,500 euros. They calculate our fees based on how many students graduate in Israel with an architecture degree and based on the country's standard of living. We have 8,000 graduates, 4,000 working architects, but only 1,000 members. So we wrote a letter explaining that the fee is disproportionately high for our number of members. They wrote us back that that is the policy, period.
Even before the meeting with the UIA we had a meeting with Tzipi Livni when she was foreign minister and with Dalia Itzik when she was education minister, together with all professional organizations, because the British Academy was boycotting all Israeli academies. I said, if you want our members to take a stand, you need to financially help us to continue to be members of the UIA. But they said they don't support nonprofit professional organizations, so we have to pay out of our own low budget.
Every country sends its representative and we exchange information, work together and learn from each other. The byproduct of all this is a very important dialogue; even professional dialogue can bring greater understanding between nations that don't have another form of communication. We have to deal with professional issues but if political issues arise then we can also use this platform to explain our point of view.
How did you respond to the most recent letter about Israel that was sent to architect unions around the world?
I think our participation in the UIA is important. There are members from
countries with whom we do not have diplomatic relations and with whom it is important to be in contact. But it is hard to pay an organization that isn't trying to help us, but to damage us. Like us, they are not supposed to be a political organization. We try to avoid politics and be professional. But this letter stuck politics in aggressively. We are sending a letter of response.
A copy of the letter signed by Barr a few days ago raises the following points:
1. As founded, the UIA is a professional organization and not a political organization.
2. As a member of the UIA, the Israeli organization was not approached directly by the head of the UIA, or by the UIA, nor by Abe Hayeem (head of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine).
3. Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine is a purely political organization and, as such, does not represent any professional member institute in the UIA.
4. All the areas in question are subject of great debate and dispute, and there are many planning activities taking place for the benefit of both sides, Palestinian and Israeli. The 2005 UIA assembly decisions are not of equivalent concern and ideological meaning.
5. The letter was distributed to all chairpersons and presidents of UIA member sections, without any reason at all.
6. The Israel Architects Association is a legitimate member of the UIA, is paying member fees and has representatives and work group secretaries that have contributed much to the UIA, creating the working groups on architecture and energy, sustainability, hospitals, workplaces and hi-tech issues.
7. The Union of United Architects in Israel regards the letter as a political letter and asks that it be withdrawn.
On the grounds that they didn't study in Israel proper but in the disputed West Bank, students in the School of Architecture at Ariel University Center were disqualified by Spanish authorities recently from an international architecture competition, after they had been working for more than one year and had spent close to 100,000 euros as finalists building a functional solar house (reimbursement for expenses is being negotiated). The decision to expel them also came several months after the core group of students with the president of the Architecture School was hosted in Madrid earlier this year by competition officials and the mayor. Students at Ariel are Jewish and Arab. As an architect, what is your response?
To answer this question, first one needs to look at [Israel's] decision to open a university in the territories. Personally I think the decision was political and pedagogic. But we are not a political organization so we do not get involved in political and pedagogic decisions. But people who make a big, professional effort should not be thrown out of a professional competition because of political reasons.
Isn't the argument about the boycott that some Israeli architects are building on settlements influencing facts before an agreement is reached?
Not all buildings make a political statement. There are also schools, playgrounds and gardens being built in the West Bank. The issue of peace is dependent on goodwill on both sides and I hope a peace treaty will be reached, and then the territories that will be returned will also include buildings - like when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Until today, we say thank you to the architects of the British occupation for all the important buildings they built, for how they influenced the layout of Jerusalem and for creating the rules for building in stone in Jerusalem.
What about the argument that building on occupied territory breaks the agreements of Oslo, Camp David and the Geneva Convention?
The policy of the UIA talks about land that was illegally appropriated. The Golan was annexed by Israel but Judea and Samaria is not legally part of Israel. The legal definition is different and the laws of planning and building are different.
But I don't think that is the point. I think we need to sit and talk to reach a peace agreement. I don't think the issue of building is the main issue. It is not our job to call each architect and tell him where or how to build. We are a voluntary organization and our agenda is professional, not political - even that if you take all Israeli architects you will find that the vast majority are on the Left. There are many organizations with political goals and any of our members can join them if they want to be political. We also will not boycott our members if they decide to join a militant organization. Our goal is professional development as architects and to raise awareness to excellence in architecture, through meetings, conventions, exhibitions and competitions.
What is Israeli architecture? Is there something unique and identifiable about it?
Today there are no special architectural trends in Israel but most countries today also don't have any unique styles. Everyone now builds modern. And when countries look to borrow from local, traditional elements and incorporate them in modern buildings, it often turns to kitsch.
I think what is particularly outstanding is the need to build quickly to meet the needs of the population. From 1948 until now the country did not grow at a normal rate because of immigration, birthrate and standard of living. Israel has the highest birthrate for a developed country with a high standard of living. These things together caused an abnormal speed of building that is not known anywhere else in the world. One negative side of this is that the same design was repeated over and over and that there is almost nothing particular to any cities. You could be in Bat Yam and you wouldn't know if it was Bat Yam or Hadera.
There is also no traditional Jewish architecture because in the past Jews were dispersed all over the world and were involved in professions that were portable, because they had no stable homeland. There are no typical villages here, but the kibbutzim and moshavim have their own characteristics. Public housing does as well. For example, the vertical H-style buildings, with four apartments at each corner of a central hall, allowed for a lot of air and light, but did not create an urban, continuous feeling at street level. Tel Aviv has its Bauhaus architecture, but this is not Israeli style, this came from Europe and we see many examples around the world.
Why do Jews and Arabs in the same areas build differently?
Today everyone is doing modern building and there is not a great difference. One positive aspect of Arab villages is that they sit very well on the topography in hilly areas. One reason is because they did not have what we have today, laws about the maximum slope of streets. Israeli villages and towns on slopes are full of zigzagging streets with high supporting walls.
The Arab traditional style to live with a few generations of a family in one home once influenced the building style. To their credit, before the green movement, they were also building in a way that was appropriate for the climate. For example, sometimes on their [flat] roofs, they built a pergola covered with grapevines for shade.
Is it important to use local materials?
It depends what you mean by local. Not all stone used in Israeli buildings is local, the majority of the stone comes from Hebron and Bethlehem. We don't build with materials found on the spot. Only one time did I hear of a building that actually dug down beneath its foundation to get materials.
It is environmentally sound to shorten the distance on shipping, but now there are more opportunities to get better materials all over the world. For example, porcelain granite is better than ceramic and aluminum is sounder than wood. It makes sense to use materials that are of a better quality and not just because they are local.
Does it seem that many neighborhoods in the cities and in the suburbs are planned without beautiful main streets and centers and that except for a few places, centers are increasingly becoming unattractive mall areas off highways?
I ask myself this question a lot. In the last years there has been a huge improvement in Israeli design - fashion, jewelry, furniture, housewares, etc. - to a very, very high level. Even the food industry has seen a huge improvement. But architecture hasn't gotten to a similarly high point. Maybe because all the other [creative] fields do not require clients. A clothing designer, for example, can make a few samples and hang them in the window of a store. But an architect builds for someone else or for a city. And unlike the other professions, all architectural plans must pass through committees - the local committee, the district committee, and sometimes also a national committee.
The issue is also that the aesthetic sense is developing slowly. It is different from any other art and in the end I think it will lead to a better architecture. To be fair, if you look what's happened in 60 years here, it's a quantity that can't compare to what happened during the same time in the US or Europe. There was less time to think and there is less tradition. In a place that is developing slowly and has a long history of tradition, it's natural that things are more aesthetic.â€¢