Michael Turner - Yuval Tebol - July 2011
Chairman of UNESCO's Israel World Heritage Committee Michael Turner Photo by Yuval Tebol
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From the living room of Prof. Michael Turner's home, on a quiet street in the northern part of Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood, there is a magnificent panorama of the southern slopes of the Old City and the villages of Silwan and Abu Dis. "It's a view of two walls," Turner says, "the Jerusalem wall and the separation wall." The first, ancient wall of the Old City was declared a World Heritage Site in the early 1980s. The second wall, or parts of it, may also become a heritage site of sorts someday - as a symbol of oppression or of peace, depending on what the map of the Middle East looks like in another few decades.

Turner, 70, an architect and key figure in the field of conservation here and abroad, is finishing a 12-year tenure as chairman of UNESCO's Israel World Heritage Committee. Despite his many accomplishments - topped by the addition of six sites in Israel to the World Heritage List - he was ousted from his post two months ago. Committee members related at the time that the reason for Turner's removal was a harsh opinion he had written against construction plans involving the Western Wall Plaza. The Education Ministry, which oversees the UNESCO committee and terminated his role, contended that no extraneous considerations had been involved in the decision.

Even now, outside the system, Turner is not anxious to talk about the circumstances surrounding his dismissal. "I was offended. It hurts," he admits with a bitter smile, "but it's a volunteer job and there isn't anyone to complain to."

Did he have an inkling that the Western Wall issue might have an impact on his activity in this way? "Somebody took me aside and said, 'This opinion is no good,'" Turner says. "I told him that I don't provide opinions unless I am asked to do so, and in this case the court and the national committee demanded an opinion. The person said to me, 'Perhaps you can think it over again, because it will come back and get you.' How exactly is it going to come back and get me? Are they going to take away my pension? So far it's coming back to get them."

The farewell party Turner held at his home a month ago was attended by all the members of the Israel World Heritage Committee, as well as architects, planners, academics and representatives of government ministries. One of those present said the large turnout was a testament to the tremendous regard in which Turner is held.

Turner was elected chairman in the summer of 1999, a short while after Israel decided to sign the World Heritage Convention. That agreement describes the kind of natural and cultural sites worthy of being preserved and the role of governmental bodies in identifying and protecting such sites.

"Israel had no intention of signing this convention," he explains, "but the government was afraid that the Palestinians were going to establish a state in May 2000, and was trying not to leave behind various lacunae in the form of unsigned treaties. Since the committee was appointed, a significant change has occurred in the approach to issues of preserving the architectural and cultural heritage in the country. This subject is on the agenda."

What is the role of the World Heritage Committee?

Turner: "Declaration of World Heritage Sites in Israel - the drawing up of a tentative list of sites that we promote at UNESCO - is only the tip of the iceberg. The important thing is the discourse that develops among local authorities and government ministries in connection with preservation-related issues. I always say that the committee has no 'soldiers': Nobody forces government representatives to attend meetings, but on the other hand, they can't avoid them. The committee enables people to coalesce for the purpose of [sharing] information with international value, and to develop a method for discussing restoration. Beyond that, the committee's activity has international value. It makes us a part of the community of nations and improves Israel's reputation in the world."

The process Turner spearheaded as committee chairman involved coming up with an objective understanding of the unique value of a site slated for preservation.

"Take, for example, Masada: The real story [in terms of preservation] there is at the base of the mountain - that's where you have the most complete collection of Roman fortifications left in the world," he says. "In addition, Masada represents summer-palace architecture of the late Herodian period. Another matter we discussed is the future renovation of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv," he adds.

Like many of his colleagues, Turner is not a fan of the Mann plan: "You could say that the value of the auditorium is its usage - in other words performing music - and the music will also be there after the renovation. I see the Mann Auditorium as representing the height of development of beam-column buildings in Modernist architecture. It is therefore important to preserve it in its current form. The test of the renovation will be whether it manages to retain the universal value of the auditorium or it is damaged."

'A genetic problem'

The British-born Turner studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, and immigrated to Israel in 1965. Friends describe him as possessing "Israeli chutzpah and British dignity." He spent two decades working in the public sector, first at the Interior Ministry and later for the city of Jerusalem as director of its municipal planning department. In the 1980s he opened his own office. Among other things, he drew up plans for restoration of the Roman amphitheater at Shuni (near Zichron Yaakov ) and the Crusader castles at Montfort and Arsuf, and was involved in the planning of Tel Aviv's Neveh Sharett neighborhood. He has taught at the University of British Columbia and at the University of Colorado, and is today coordinator of the master's program in urban design at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, as well as being engaged in a wide range of public and academic activities. Besides his work with the Israel heritage committee, Turner served for five years as deputy chairman of the World Heritage Committee at UNESCO. Since his dismissal, Turner has accepted an offer to serve as a special consultant to the organization's headquarters in Paris.

Turner says his desire to be involved in public service stems from his British origins - "It's a genetic problem," as he puts it. "The idea of civil service is very important to me. I have taken upon myself to work for the public's benefit."

You have been criticized for treating projects too meticulously, and on more than one occasion they got bogged down.

"I'm only a mechanic here: Lest people think I come with a private agenda, I got rid of all my private clients in the area of preservation, and today I am an expert in waste-treatment facilities," he laughs.

Who were the people who opposed your actions?

"A very small group of government officials. I don't know why they were opposed. Each of them evidently has his own agenda. These are not people who saw the process as a goal, but rather wanted to pursue their personal goal within the committee."

The desire to preserve sites may reflect cultural enlightenment, but at bottom it serves real-estate and economic development.

"I agree with you, which is why it should be viewed in an integrative manner. Sites slated for restoration do not exist in their own right. Take for example Rothschild Boulevard [in Tel Aviv] - there is a symbiosis there. The building scheduled for preservation contributes something to the new towers [nearby], and the towers do something for that building. Even Richard Meier [the American architect, who is currently building a tower on this street] chose to call the project 'the White Tower,' in reference to the White City. I want to encourage this symbiosis."

But frequently the result is tied to real-estate interests. Every building is labeled "Bauhaus," but then it becomes obvious that the excuse for the preservation is the addition of two mini-penthouses and a rooftop apartment.

"That is precisely John Ruskin's claim" - referring to the 19th-century cultural critic, "that the restoration is the absolute destruction of the building."

Not at any price

Thanks to Turner and the other members of the Israel World Heritage Committee, there are now six World Heritage Sites in Israel, aside from the Old City of Jerusalem: the Old City of Acre, Masada, the White City in Tel Aviv (the city's central core of International Style structures ), the biblical tels (mounds comprised of layers of archaeological strata - in this case three different sites: Tel Hatzor, Tel Be'er Sheva and Tel Meggido ), the so-called Incense Route (including the Nabatean cities of Ovdat, Mamshit, Halutza and Shivta, as well as several fortresses and khans in the Negev), and the Bahai holy sites in Haifa and the Western Galilee. There are other potential heritage sites in the country, which the committee will promote at UNESCO over the next few years.

Beyond the international prestige involved, the declaration of a heritage site contributes greatly to allocation of funds for preservation of the location by government ministries and local authorities. Data collected by UNESCO also suggests that recognition leads to an increase of between 30 and 300 percent in the number of visitors to a heritage site.

For his part, however, Turner is not convinced that recognition is something to be sought at any price.

"One of the sites slated to enter the list is the lagoon at Dor Beach, which has 23 sunken ships that were part of 2,000 years of Mediterranean shipping," he explains. "People said it would be preferable if we didn't declare it a heritage site, because thousands of divers would suddenly start coming there with their snorkels and damage the vessels."

Another site that might come up for a vote in the next few years is the collective settlement as an institution representing historical, cooperative living arrangements in this country. The list of possible sites includes Kibbutz Degania and Moshav Nahalal.

Turner: "The question is what value this has. If the value is [related to commemorating] cooperative society, maybe the buildings themselves can be razed. I'm being deliberately extreme here, of course, but I haven't formed an opinion yet regarding the kibbutzim."

How is Israel perceived in international conservation forums?

"What we did over the past decade greatly enhanced Israel's reputation in the world. We did a lot, but naturally I also think how it might be done even better."

Is there a connection between Israel's political situation and its standing in UNESCO? How will the founding of a Palestinian state affect the votes?

"Of course, there's a connection, because UNESCO is a more political body than the United Nations. The Palestinians have already put together a possible list of their own [sites] and even tried to advance a vote on Bethlehem becoming a World Heritage Site. I think that, should a Palestinian state arise in September, it will receive great support and will succeed in declaring numerous sites."

Do you think that Israel should push to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, declared a World Heritage Site?

"With all due respect, it is not our territory. Israel never annexed the Tomb of the Patriarchs and therefore we cannot submit its name ... In the past I was approached by various people who told me that we need to be active in UNESCO on the topic of Jewish heritage in the world. I am vehemently opposed to that. India, for example, declared 27 Jewish buildings as part of the Indian heritage, which is wonderful because I know they will protect them. I don't want to appropriate for ourselves all sorts of sites in the world. That would be like the Italian government suddenly coming and pulling some sort of a stunt on me in Caesarea.

"As for the Tomb of the Patriarchs, if the politicians want to promote it and bring schoolchildren there on tours - it would be a provocation; it has nothing to do with world heritage."

What will happen if Israel decides in the end to advance construction around the Western Wall contrary to UNESCO's opinion?

"UNESCO doesn't have helicopters and they can't do much. On the other hand, it's another aspect of the ostracization. It hurts me as a citizen."

Even before his dismissal, Turner expressed a desire to find a replacement for himself as head of the local heritage committee and discussed the matter with the Education Ministry's director general, Dr. Shimon Shoshani. In retrospect, that apparently served as a pretext for supplanting him.

Under the bylaws of the Israeli UNESCO committee, members serve two years, with the possibility of a two-year extension. Along with Turner, several other committee heads were replaced at the Israeli branch of UNESCO. Last month Haaretz reported that Turner's replacement would be the Jerusalem-based architect Arie Rahamimov, a familiar and respected figure in the field of preservation. Currently, however, Rahamimov is involved in the planning of sensitive sites in East Jerusalem on behalf of the right-wing Elad settlers' organization and the Jerusalem municipality, projects that put in question his ability to represent Israel in a professional and unbiased manner at international UNESCO forums. Turner declined to comment on Rahamimov's appointment.