Surroundings Exceptions to the Rule

Throughout the 40 years of its existence, the Rechter Prize for Architecture has been awarded to prominent architects in recognition of achievement in the planning and design of exceptional works. The 2003 prize, awarded on Tuesday at the new Cameri Theater building in Tel Aviv, is the exception to the rule.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

Throughout the 40 years of its existence, the Rechter Prize for Architecture has been awarded to prominent architects in recognition of achievement in the planning and design of exceptional works. The 2003 prize, awarded on Tuesday at the new Cameri Theater building in Tel Aviv, is the exception to the rule. This year's winner in the category of constructed buildings is Gabi Schwartz, a relatively anonymous figure who is not part of the inner circle of the architectural community.

He received the prize not for the design of a cultural hall or high-tech edifice, but for his plan for a residential compound for the Ministry of Housing. This sub-specialty is no longer considered desired or prestigious, and the ability to achieve significant accomplishments in this field of architecture is rare, as the prize judges noted.

The prize in the "encouragement of a young architect" category was awarded to architect and architectural curator Shelly Cohen, for her work in the theoretical and critical field, and not for any practical work, as is the norm for architecture prizes. Her receiving the prize is without doubt a striking exception to the conventional honors and the general tendency to praise solely on atypical works of architecture. The award of the prize to Cohen, who is curator of the architecture gallery at the Israeli Architectural Association's Architect House, is the exception to the rule that reduces architecture solely to the practical plane.

Schwartz, 47, a graduate of Technion's Faculty of Architecture, lives in Haifa, and is a partner in an architectural firm there . His work focuses on the design of residential housing in cities such as Shlomi, Maalot, Ashdod and Ashkelon. Planning of residential housing, says Schwartz, is a field that requires "an acrobat's skills, in order to maneuver between the various agencies: the Ministry of Housing, the Israel Lands Administration, the municipality, the urban zone plan, developers and sales agents."

Schwartz says architecture's most important role is to design for people, "but evidently, the price that one pays is remaining an anonymous architect. I admire the judges for the courage they showed in granting me the prize for an everyday, unheroic project that is not located in the country's center."

Schwartz has designed six residential neighborhoods in Karmiel. The project that garnered him the prize is a residential compound in the Ramat Rabin neighborhood that includes 67 housing units, in terraced construction along a steep slope - a long strip of land situated between two roads with a notable height difference, linked by diagonal stepped paths. The buildings are cubistic, spare and meticulous in design. The clean lines hint of the silhouette of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Years ago, Schwartz worked in the office of the planner of the museum, architect Al Mansfield, and has assimilated his influences.

In their written explanations of why they granted the prize to Schwartz, the judges - Prof. Robert Oxman and architects Ulrich Plessner and Orit Pinchas - stated that Schwartz's work demonstrates "social and formal qualities that create a balance between the community form and expression of the individual home. It radiates a pursuit of architectural quality and aesthetic expression within the framework of functional discretion. These qualities confer a sense of perfection and excellence on the project."

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the architectural and aesthetic excellence, the overall design of the compound, which is partly dictated by circumstances, is disappointing and problematic. This is evident in the rigid diagonal positioning in the soft hilly landscape, the immense retaining walls (which are designed to reinforce a few dozen housing units), the sheathing in carved Jerusalem stone, the over-planning and design of the entire expanse, to the nth detail. The compound designed by Schwartz, and Ramat Rabin in general, are associated in the consciousness with the suburban neighborhoods and residential quarters built after 1967 in Jerusalem and in West Bank and with conquest - conquest of the hill, conquest of open areas, conquest (or Judaization) of the national expanse.

Ramat Rabin is a new residential suburb of 2,000 units, whose lands were confiscated from the Bedouin residents of Ramiya. The conflict over the land still continues and nearly threatens the continued existence of Ramiya. Its residents' area of subsistence has been reduced, and their living conditions are far - as far as East is from West - from the improved living conditions in Ramat Rabin and the ostentatious public investment in its development.

Perhaps not purposefully, this year's Rechter Prize is raising ethical and political issues architecture cannot evade, even if the conventional proclivity is to engage in pure, unadulterated architecture.

Critical stance

The Rechter Prize was awarded to Shelly Cohen for her broader approach to the architectural context, and its related political, social and gender issues. Cohen was deemed worthy of the prize, said the judges, for "her contribution to the critical architectural discourse, in which she raises issues related to the juncture between architecture and life, between architecture and people." The judges justifiably noted, "The visual material that complements Cohen's work as curator is a no less important as a theoretical document, perhaps more so than any single building."

In the "Mekomi" (Local) series of exhibitions that Cohen has been curating for the past two years, the constructed environment is presented as an object for research and cultural criticism. Cohen does not focus on questions of style, excellence of architecture or architects, but rather, as she puts it, "the routine construction that may be labeled as minor or banal, and the production specs for good architecture. The main issues concern what is happening to architecture under free-market conditions, the effect of the Planning and Construction Law, and the role played by the developer or entrepreneur. In this context, formal questions become less important."

Cohen studied philosophy and art at Tel Aviv University and graduated from the Technion (the Faculty of Architecture), studied at the New Seminar for Visual Culture at Camera Obscura, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree at Tel Aviv University's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas. She has worked at several architecture firms, but since becoming a curator two years ago, has no longer been engaged in practical architecture.

"I felt bad about the fact that architecture at its best is only for the wealthy," says Cohen. "I feel more comfortable with the curating work."

Among the exhibitions curated by Cohen: "Housing Unit," with the participation of photographers Yair Barak and Tal Garbash, which "took a look at the personal expression of various residents of duplicated housing units"; and "Pastoralia" with the participation of landscape architect Naama Meishar and filmmaker Yaron Ben-Chaim, which revealed "how the array of forces and powers that be are involved in the design of Israeli nature." She also curated the "The Israeli Pavilion" exhibition, which included the catalog "A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture." This exhibition was disqualified by the Architects Association from display at an international conference in Berlin.

Both at the exhibition and the panel discussion held in its framework in the gallery, Cohen was not free to voice her unchecked perspective on the same architectural establishment that pays her wages. This conflict obliges Cohen, she says, to "commit dissident activity within the system. I try to show other stands; the gallery is the alternative place. Sometimes people within the association raise an eyebrow, but they give me autonomy. I also have to receive funding and sponsorships, and the question really is to what degree the limits of that autonomy are stretched."

The Rechter Prize, which has been awarded every other year since 1962, was for the first time this year named for Ze'ev and Yaakov Rechter, and is being awarded by the Ministry of Culture. Vying for the prizes were 38 architectural firms, a relatively high number as compared to previous years. According to Prof. Robert Oxman, the submitted works included most of the building types, giving the judges an opportunity to analyze the condition of Israeli architecture today.

"Many projects were refined and reserved, and there was a noticeable improvement in standard," said Oxman at the prize-giving ceremony. However, only a handful of works "offered new technical and functional solutions, as opposed to the many attempts at creating form that offered no innovation."

In many projects, the judges did not find "a sufficient reciprocal relationship between the buildings and the city; every building shouted out for attention."

In works by young architects, "there was less freshness and experimentation than we expected," said Oxman, and only in very few of the projects was there perceptible theoretical background or critical approach. Many of them reduced themselves to the narrow margins of the profession, disregarding the broad cultural or social context.

"The Rechter Prize," said Oxman, "should encourage the critical voice, and thereby become an important institution in Israeli culture." But to a certain extent, the judges missed the opportunity to voice a first critical note, and underscore the conflicts faced by those awarded prizes for their work, which are essentially the same conflicts faced by every architect.

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