Surroundings / A parallel world
Weizman, together with architect Anselm Franke, is the curator of the exhibition "Territories, Live," which opened Monday at the Bezalel Gallery in Tel Aviv.
"Designers of the spatial landscape have never been architects," says architect Eyal Weizman, "but rather politicians and military men. Right now, most research on urban planning is carried out by soldiers and officers in uniform. Wars take place in urban areas and the army studies the city, the infrastructure layout, the built-up areas and the public expanse to know how to tear down and how to gain control, and it has a better understanding than do the architects. It is a parallel world to architecture, a mirror world of it."
Weizman, together with architect Anselm Franke, is the curator of the exhibition "Territories, Live," which opened Monday at the Bezalel Gallery in Tel Aviv. The exhibition and the discussion that accompanied it demonstrates how architecture can be "a weapon in international conflicts, like the tank, rifle or bulldozer, and a mechanism for violating human rights," and presents Israel as a research laboratory and test case.
A powerful illustration is a videotaped interview on display in the exhibition with Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, commander of the Israel Defense Force's Esh (Fire) Division and the man who two years ago commanded military operations in the Balata refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield. The interview was held with Weizman and Franke and filmmaker Nadav Harel.
With chilling matter-of-factness and euphemisms, Kochavi explains how a new architectural interpretation of the urban landscape enabled the army to gain control of the camp. In such a form of warfare, in which the enemy is one moment an enemy and the next moment a "simple" civilian, classic thinking has to be changed: if an alley or window or door are places through which people pass, said Kochavi, then here the alley is a place through which it is forbidden to pass, because weapons are waiting for you in the alley. "If you had thought that we go on paths and on sidewalks, then forget it. Now we go through walls," said Kochavi.
In the face of this new interpretation of the physical expanse, Weizman believes, "Maybe if architects learn the military understanding, we will succeed in understanding the harm to human rights in cities that have undergone a process of `urbicide.' I intend to suggest to the court in The Hague that it find a response to a situation in which there is no longer any difference between the civilian and military population. In this situation, the role of us architects is not to paint houses in pretty colors, but to be critical. A great deal of our work should be to undo, not to do.
Weizman, an Israeli architect who lives in London, was born in Haifa in 1970 and studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London. During his studies, he barely engaged in pure architecture, instead concentrating on conceptual projects related to the spatial expanse in civil or political contexts. For the past few years, he has engaged in architecture as politics (and vice-versa) and the architectural and spatial form taken by political interests.
In his dissertation "The Politics of Self" that he is now completing for his Ph.D., Weizman focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He describes the space in which he exists as a three-dimensional and multi-story architectural structure that makes it impossible to draw a classical, two-dimensional border line. As part of the research (conducted in collaboration with the human rights organization B'Tselem), he did a detailed mapping of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "We changed the order of the observation. Like an archaeological excavation, first we examined the reality and according to it we backtracked and identified what forces had shaped it," he says. Generally, Weizman adds, criticism of the settlements is political in nature, "but our objective was to deal with the subject from a different point of view, one that is concrete and tangible."
"The map revealed," says Weizman, "that the location and form of the settlements derive not only from a desire to colonize and to settle a certain population, but from a desire to control and to intentionally harm another population, the Palestinians, while violating human rights by means of the planning itself. The city of Ariel was a test case. We asked how it was that the decision was made to plan a three-kilometer-long city and to needlessly extend the distances and the parking lot standards, and we found that the motive was to drive a wedge between nearby Palestinian settlements."
The dissertation, publicized when it was only a research proposal, sent ripples of interest through the ranks of the radical left. Weizman's ideas became more widely disseminated after the exhibition "A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture," which he curated together with the architect Rafi Segal about two years ago, was canceled by the Association of Israeli Architects due to political considerations. The exhibition was staged in various versions abroad, under the title "Territories."
Weizman has contributed a great deal toward a change in the international architectural discourse after the September 11th attack of the World Trade Center, and to the study of architecture in political, legal and military contexts, among others. More recently, he has been involved in preparing curricula and research projects for schools of architecture, which are now showing much interest in these issues. Now the debate is coming to Israel, where he essentially began and was stifled. The fact that the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is involved in supporting and financing the exhibition is without doubt a noteworthy signal of a change of mood. Despite the meager response to the event by the local cultural establishment, it seems that the process is irreversible.
Weizman's research draws considerable criticism in the international arena, from the right and from the left. The architecture community in Israel has not forgiven him for exposing the fig leaf of separation between architecture and politics. There are those in academic circles in Israel who consider his work simplistic, superficial and one-sided, and that the charge that architecture is political is itself banal.
"`Complexity' is propaganda that serves the establishment," says Weizman, "while we are interested in simplifying and clarifying the situation. The claim that architecture is political is really banal. What we want is something else - to understand a political situation in architectural terms and to show the politics they represent."
In Weizman's opinion, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the ultimate architect, who in a single figure embodies both the political leader and the military man. In a recent article, entitled, "Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation," Weizman compares Sharon's location strategy and the network of military fortifications that he built in the Sinai Peninsula as "an antithesis of the linear Bar-Lev line" to the pattern of the network of settlements in the West Bank. He writes: "Indeed, the human and political rights of Palestinians are violated not only by the frequent blows of the Israeli military, but by a much slower and steadier process in which the totality of the environment in which they live is configured around them as an ever-tightening knot."
Weizman believes that "people in Israel have not really considered the implications of the use of geopolitical organization for the purpose of violating rights. The interests that drive planning in Israel are Jewish-Israeli, even within the boundaries of the Green Line, and it is inadmissible and illegal even according to the laws of the State of Israel. If you are an architect and you understand that the primary expression of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the arranging of the spatial expanse, it is practically your duty to react to it in critical fashion."
It is harder to be critical when you live abroad? "I don't feel as if I don't live in Israel," says Weizman. "Even in London, I am in the city only for a day or two during the week. Aside from that, most of the yordim [Israelis who have left Israel] are right-wingers. There is something anachronistic in the separation between Israel and abroad. The debate with people from here is international, and is held with a reference group that has a similar background all over the world. This is no longer an internal Israeli debate, and this is no longer a separate debate on Israel. The implications of the Israeli problem are global. Even the wall is not an Israeli anecdote."