The building blocks of peace

Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas explains the idea behind the new Peres Peace House that he is building in Jaffa.

massimiliano Fuksas 88 2 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
massimiliano Fuksas 88 2
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Sitting last month on one of the top floors of the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas faced south in the direction of Jaffa, where the Peres Peace House - one of his recently designed international projects - is currently under construction. Born in Rome in 1944 to a Roman mother and a Lithuanian-Jewish father, Fuksas is considered, together with Renzo Piano, to be one of the most influential Italian architects working today on the global market. His commission to design Shimon Peres's latest initiative, which will house the veteran politician's private offices as well as a series of public spaces, may well be seen as part of a new Israeli trend, which involves clothing locally-constructed projects in designs commissioned by one of a series of acclaimed globe-trotting architects. Other recent examples include Berlin-based Daniel Libeskind's recently inaugurated building on the Bar-Ilan University campus, and the plans for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's extravagant new Center for Human Dignity in Jerusalem, designed by the renowned American architect Frank Gehry. Fuksas, who currently practices architecture in Rome, Paris and Vienna, also teaches in Europe and the US, and has dedicated special attention to the study of urban problems, in particular of the suburbs. His current building project in Jaffa is an initiative of the Peres Center for Peace, established in 1997 to encourage peaceful relations between Arabs and Israelis, and especially between Palestinians and Israelis - at a time when Peres's vision of a "new Middle East" seemed full of promise. Indeed, Fuksas said, during his first visit to Israel in 1998, Peres's initial idea was to build the center in a Palestinian city; Tulkarm was one option. "But then everything changed," he said. Nearly a decade later, the rhetoric of the Peres Peace House continues to extol a paradigm of coexistence which seems far removed not only from the state of the region as a whole, but also of the city where it is being built. The new Peace Center is situated on Jaffa's Kedem Street, in a neighborhood where the processes of gentrification and decline are simultaneously ongoing, and where the inequalities and tensions between Arabs and Jews, rich and poor, are woven into the urban fabric. In this context, the Peace Center's praise of Jaffa as a paradigm of coexistence, which emblematizes the "fascinating contrasts between ancient and modern, land and sea, Arabs and Jews" sadly eludes the reality on ground. Intended to serve as a center for peace-building activities, the 2,500-square-meter building will also contain Peres's personal archives and offices, an information center and a library open to the public. The seaside promenade leading from Tel Aviv to Jaffa is projected to end at the entrance to a wide-open plaza surrounding the center, where a park - intended for use by local residents as well as for events related to the Center - will overlook Jaffa and the sea. In 2000, Fuksas was the director of the Venice Biennale for architecture, whose theme was "Less aesthetics, more ethics." "It doesn't mean we have to build ugly things," Fuksas said during his recent visit to Tel Aviv. "It means we have to think more about content, about the reason for which we build. We have to give people emotions, not only fantastic, functional spaces." A jovial, athletic man in his early 60s, Fuksas said he viewed peace "not just as a reality," but also as "something symbolic." The building itself, he explained, would be "an object alone on the beach, which could have come down from the mountains or the sea - coming from elsewhere in the midst of conflict. We want the kindness of the water and of the Mediterranean to come inside." Three of the building's exterior walls will be composed of alternating layers of green-tinted concrete blocks of varying shapes and thicknesses and translucent glass. The blocks are being individually manufactured at an on-site production unit. The glass pieces, which will be cut and installed between these blocks, will filter light through to the inside during the day, and send it back outside at night. The fourth wall, facing the sea, will be composed entirely of glass, and the building's orientation toward the water is designed to symbolize its orientation toward the future. The building's layered walls, Fuksas said, were "symbolic of the stratification of different lives, of thousands of years of life here." The current phase of construction, which began in summer 2005, is expected to continue for another year. Once it is completed, the following stage will focus on the building's interior. The building of the underground parking lot and park are still contingent upon securing additional funds. The estimated cost of the building itself is $4 million, while the total cost of the project, including the park and the underground parking lot, is estimated at between $10m. and $11m. The funds for the project were raised abroad. "I love Tel Aviv," said Fuksas, who has visited Israel several times following his initial visit six years ago. "It's a bit exotic, a bit crazy, a big chaos. I love chaos - chaos isn't disorder. It is life." The architect, who finds it strange that Israel didn't develop more architecturally over the past three decades, said he believes the country's public building projects are now becoming increasingly engaged with architecture. "Israeli architecture is starting to be interesting," he said. Imbued with a kind of generalized optimism about the future of the region, Fuksas expressed his dismay at writer A.B. Yehoshua's insistence on the political and moral importance of boundaries. "It's all about divisions," Fuksas said. "He's such a good writer, why think like that?" He himself, he said, dreams of being part of a future "where you can take a flight and go anywhere in the world. I want people to mix. I have my past, my family, but I can also be part of something else."