Jewish Journal

Architects ask: What might a Palestinian West Bank look like?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Jan. 5, 2011 at 9:40 am

A model showing an alternative to the pitched red-tile roof typical of the architecture of Israeli settlements. Photos courtesy of Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency

A model showing an alternative to the pitched red-tile roof typical of the architecture of Israeli settlements. Photos courtesy of Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency

“Decolonizing Architecture,” an exhibition on view at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, assumes that the current residents of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank will ultimately have to evacuate their homes. The three architects behind the show appear to have no doubt that those areas will be transferred to Palestinian control.

The question the architects attempt to probe in this compact and provocative display is simultaneously politically theoretical and architecturally concrete: What will happen to the houses left behind when Palestinians take over Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

A query inscribed on one of the walls is more blunt: “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?”

REDCAT’s gallery is currently configured as four rooms, and this exhibition, which has attracted 2,500 visitors since opening in early December, is the first presentation in the United States by the Bethlehem-based organization known as Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency (DAAR). Established by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in 2007, DAAR brings artists and architects to Bethlehem and encourages them to examine — in a hyper-local and highly critical way — the built environment of the West Bank. The show at REDCAT uses the tools of architecture — including drawings, models, maps and video — to explain one view of the situation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank today.

After viewing the exhibition, Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, called it anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and accused the organizers of omitting important context, including the Jewish historical connection to the West Bank. “Israel’s presence in the region was described in ugly terms, without any mention of the terror attacks that necessitate Israel’s military oversight of the area,” Rothstein wrote in an e-mail.

Weizman is no stranger to controversy. The Israeli-born, London-based architect is best known for co-curating “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” a show intended to be the official Israeli submission to the 2002 World Congress of Architecture but which was withdrawn at the last minute by the Israel Association of United Architects. The association’s president later called it “one-sided political propaganda” in The New York Times. (A version of the exhibit was mounted in New York and Berlin; the catalog was reprinted in 2003.)

By putting forward a vision of what might happen to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the REDCAT show harkens back to questions asked in advance of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 — explicitly so. Visitors to “Decolonizing Architecture” are welcomed by an ominous two-minute video clip of one settler’s house being torn apart by a backhoe — one of the more than 1,000 residential buildings destroyed before the disengagement from the 22 Israeli settlements in Gaza was complete.

In the section titled “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?” the show looks past the currently stalled peace negotiations and offers a bricks-and-mortar vision for the evacuated settlements in the West Bank radically different from what happened in Gaza. “The guiding principle,” the architects write in the text that accompanies the exhibition, “is not to eliminate the power of the occupation’s built spaces, nor simply to reuse it in the way it was designed for, but to reorient its logic to other aims.”

The show presents the Israeli settlement of Psagot (population 1,600) as a test case for this kind of transformation. Founded in 1981, Psagot sits on a hilltop east of Ramallah (population 27,000) and south of the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh (population 38,000). First and foremost, the DAAR architects propose that the settlement — which today functions as a gated community for religious Jewish settlers separated from the Palestinian areas around it — be woven into the urban fabric of the Palestinian cities nearby.

“You see, it is suburban in relationship to Jerusalem,” Weizman says of Psagot, in a video on the “Decolonizing Architecture” Web site. The settlement is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, but sits practically adjacent to Al-Bireh and Ramallah. “It’s very close to the Palestinian urban fabric,” Weizman said, “so it’s urban in the context of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, and it’s suburban in the context of Jewish Jerusalem.”

What might actually come of Psagot in a negotiated peace deal for a two-state solution remains unclear, as is true of the entire West Bank. “If you try to make a line around Psagot as a settlement bloc, you’ve got some trouble,” Americans for Peace Now West Coast Regional Director David Pine, who also visited the show, said. “There’s no line that you can draw without cutting communities of Palestinians in half.”

“Decolonizing Architecture” doesn’t attempt to draw any such lines. Instead, it simply assumes that places like Psagot will one day be evacuated and transferred over to Palestinian control, and that the transfer will necessitate some architectural modifications to the houses left behind, if only to turn the settlers’ homes —highly visible representations of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — into something that could better serve Palestinian purposes. (One of the simplest changes they propose is the removal and reconfiguration of the pitched red-tile roofs typical of Israeli settlement residential architecture.)

To be sure, the DAAR architects aren’t the only ones proposing architectural visions for a future Palestinian state. Doug Suisman is a Santa Monica-based urban designer whose infrastructure plan called “The Arc” recently won the “2010 Future Project of the Year” at the World Architecture Festival. Developed over the last six years in partnership with the RAND Corp., Suisman’s plan calls for a mix of railroads, motorways and bus routes to connect the primary Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to one another.

“We assumed that there was a peace accord in place,” Suisman said. By this, he meant that an agreement about borders — including a solution for Jerusalem and for the West Bank settlements — had somehow been reached. “Huge assumption,” Suisman acknowledged.

In creating “The Arc” — an inherently hopeful, self-consciously apolitical vision of a future Palestinian state — Suisman avoided looking at Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “It’s an important question, but it’s not the most important question,” Suisman said.

By contrast, “Decolonizing Architecture,” which looks directly at the settlements, does not make the same assumption of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, as the architects explain in the exhibition brochure, DAAR was launched as a way to entertain “the possibility of significant transformation” in the theoretical realm, despite its being “blocked by the political impasse known as the ‘peace process.’ ” Despite numerous attempts to reach them, none of the architects involved in the show responded to requests for comment.

“Decolonizing Architecture” is on view until Feb. 6 at REDCAT. Architect Alessandro Petti will participate in a panel discussion at the gallery on Wed., Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles. 213-237-2800. redcat.org.

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