Snap Judgment: The architecture of conscience

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The great British architect Lord Richard Rogers is concerned. He's concerned about the security fence being built to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing from the West Bank into Israel. He was concerned enough earlier this month to host in London a group of some 60 other British architects and planners that issued a statement declaring: "We hold all design and construction professionals involved in projects that appropriate land and natural resources from Palestinian territory to be complicit in social, political and economic oppression, and to be contrary to internationally acceptable professional ethics." This group, the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP), has also called for a boycott of architects, planners and construction companies involved in building the fence, charging them with being "complicit in social, political and economic oppression… in violation of their professional code of ethics." The APJP boycott declaration is part of wider campaign in the architectural world against the security fence, much of it spearheaded by Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect living in London who calls its construction a "war crime" and told The Independent that "a boycott would be totally legitimate." Weizman was given a sympathetic forum earlier this year in an article by New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who himself concluded that "the wall… threatens to sever the threads, already fragile, that might one day be woven into a more tolerant image of coexistence." (One might argue that the suicide bombings the fence will prevent pose a far more potent threat to the fragile threads of future coexistence.) It is not surprising, though, to find some Israeli architects joining a campaign against the fence; I know several, and in common with much of the local cultural community, their political views lean strongly to the Left. But as Moshe Safdie said of the boycott proposal, "The timing is appalling and I am just outraged. In Hamas, Israel is facing an enemy determined to destroy it. I am a big opponent of the wall, but as long as Hamas is in power, I am for the wall, it is for survival." Even The Independent, a strong critic of Israeli policies, including the fence, editorialized against the APJP stance: "If, as has been suggested, the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine advocate an active boycott of Israeli architects and that country's construction industry, they will be going too far. The idea that an economic boycott will further the cause of peace and justice in the region is misguided… An effort to halt the construction of the separation barrier, however well intentioned, would simply end up making life inconvenient for blameless Israeli citizens." THERE ARE issues involved here beyond the efficacy of such an action. To start with, these architects seem awfully selective in their moral indignation. How much moral accounting, I wonder, goes into Lord Rogers's decisions to take on as clients some of the world's biggest multinational corporations? What about his willingness to work for the government of China and help design a master plan for Shanghai's new business district? That nation's decades-long occupation of Tibet doesn't seem to have been much a factor, nor the fact that hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have been displaced by the frantic urban renewal under way in Shanghai. And I wonder how many of the other architects in APJP have practiced their craft in the oil-rich dictatorships of the Middle East, where one finds no shortage of either human-rights abuses or major projects designed and built by British firms? None of this is meant to deny that Israel's security fence, which is being built to save lives, will regrettably inconvenience in some measure the lives of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Still, for a project designed as an emergency reaction to the wave of terror attacks that killed over 1,000 Israelis in the past five years, great pains have been taken to design and build the barrier in a way to minimize that impact, including changing the route several times at the insistence of the Israeli Supreme Court. It's worth noting, for example, that not a single Palestinian home has been relocated or destroyed in the construction of the fence, which isn't the case with many major urban architectural projects carried out in the Western world. Why, even New York Times critic Ouroussoff has championed, over the objections of community activists, urban renewal projects that include the eviction of long-time residents. Why then single out construction of the security fence as a crusade-worthy architectural issue? Much of it of course has to do with the wider international double standard that selectively focuses on rights issues in Israel that go ignored elsewhere, effectively turning the Jewish state into the "Jew among nations." BUT THERE is also an explanation particular to the architectural profession worth exploring. As an earlier great British architect, Edwin Lutyens, once noted: "There will never be great architects, or great architecture, without great patrons." By "great," Lutyens didn't mean just great taste, but also wealthy and powerful. Architecture, after all, can't be practiced by lone individuals starving in an attic; getting a building built takes considerable capital and, in many cases, serious political will. Thus it is that no other art form has been so closely dependent throughout history on the patronage of the rich and mighty, from the days when the Pharaohs' pyramids were built on the suffering backs of Israelite slaves, up to the grandiose plans for the Third Reich that Albert Speer concocted for Hitler. So if architects, especially of the British variety, do want to join together to make a moral statement, how much more convenient for them to do it at the expense of an Israel, and not a China, or a Saudi Arabia, or one of their many corporate clients. Lord Rogers is of course entitled to his political views; however, if he really wants to play a constructive role in this region and help the Palestinians, why not offer to donate his costly services to design the new housing in Gaza to be built on the ruins of the settlements that Israel evacuated this past summer? As for the fence, as a piece of architecture it's certainly no Great Wall of China, and on the day when lasting peace comes to the Middle East, it will likely be taken down without leaving behind much of an impression. But the lives it will have saved, and the generations after them, will go on - and perhaps in that regard, it will have at least fulfilled Christopher Wren's dictum that "Architecture aims at eternity." The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.