Building a Case for More Ethical Architects in Israel

With workplace deaths a common occurrence on construction sites across the country, why are architects not getting involved and voicing their concern?

A construction site in Tel Aviv.
Nir Keidar

Hundreds of construction workers have been killed in work accidents on Israel’s building sites in the past decade. The subject came up in the Knesset this week – not for the first time – in a discussion that included representatives of the contractors, government ministries and an activist group called the Coalition Against Construction Accidents.

The situation in Israel is scandalous and demands a public outcry – especially from the architectural community, whose representatives were notable for their absence from the debate. Despite the close connection between architecture and construction, the architectural establishment has never expressed any public concern for the fate of those who do the work, or for a possible practical solution to the problem.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Other important political and social issues related to planning, design and architecture also slip beneath the architectural radar.

Israel’s architects are not alone in their silence on matters of architecture and ethics. Indeed, they can point to examples among the profession’s global elite. Take, for example, the unfortunate response of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid to a report on the deaths of some 1,000 construction workers at sites in Qatar, where she is designing a grandiose soccer stadium for the 2022 World Cup.

Replying to a question at a press conference in 2014, the diva of the architectural world replied, “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it ... I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government – if there’s a problem – should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.”

The response is harsh and infuriating, and at the same time raises once again the question of the architects’ “duty,” and whether they do have the power “to do anything about it.”

The attitude of the late American architect Philip Johnson – one of the most influential figures in 20th-century architecture – couldn’t be more cynical and blatant, but is also spot-on. He once said, bluntly, “Whoever commissions buildings buys me. I’m for sale. I’m a whore.” The statement became infamous, perhaps because it touched on the entire DNA of the architectural profession.

In his 2005 book “The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World,” British architect and critic Deyan Sudjic summed up a long architectural history that Johnson summed up in a few words, of cooperation with despotic regimes, greedy developers, injustices in the distribution of space. The list is long. The catch is that they are, essentially, what makes architecture possible.

A bird's eye view of a construction site in Tel Aviv.
Nir Keidar

The dissonance between those activities and the ethical issues leads, almost by necessity, to a separation between the lobes. Many architects crowd together on the practical side and repress, or are unaware of, the background noises that are liable to paralyze creativity or endanger work connections and sources of income. On the other hand, there are fewer architects who abandon the practice of architecture and turn to the intellectual and academic sphere – from which they try to influence ethics and criticism from the outside.

In an interview I conducted a few years ago with architects who had “switched sides,” they explained that they were unable to continue to be tools in the hands of market forces, to plan projects that perpetuate economic and social gaps, and to take part in the policy of occupation. They admitted that not everyone can afford to be righteous, especially financially, and expressed hope for change.

Squaring the circle

Is change really possible? Is it possible to square the circle, to connect the lobes? In his recently published book “Children of Time and Residents of Space: The Role of Architecture in a Changing World” (in Hebrew), architect Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat claims that the connection is not only essential, but also possible. Greenfield-Gilat calls for a link between “building architecture” and “thinking architecture,” and between the creative lobe and the spatial lobe.

“There is no theoretical discipline today that supports the practical world and enables an architect to be ethical and understand what kind of world we are living in,” says Greenfield-Gilat. “An understanding that is not intuitive and doesn’t exist separate from architectural practice, but is an essential part of it. Architects must take an ideological stand. They must formulate basic rules – a Hippocratic oath where it’s possible both to create and build, and to think.”

Toward the end of Greenfield-Gilat’s studies at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, the West Bank separation barrier was built and became the subject of his final thesis. Although the barrier is the most dramatic architectural project in Israel, it was totally ignored by the architectural world and aroused almost zero discussion, except for a few comments about its ugliness.

Architecture in its present format, he says, “makes it difficult to conduct a discussion about the profound connection between the space and the reality of those who use it, and it plays almost no active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The inability of the ‘masters of the space’ to forge a new approach ... indicates there may be something lacking in the discipline of architecture.”

In 2006, Greenfield-Gilat – together with architect Karen Lee Bar-Sinai – launched SAYA/Design for Change, which works to promote planning and architecture as tools for implementing political arrangements in the region. The firm formulates joint Israeli-Palestinian ventures on the conflict’s seam lines in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and proposes architectural models as an integral part of a future diplomatic solution. He advised then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in their negotiations with the Palestinians, and works with research institutes and government organizations in Israel and other conflict zones in the Balkans and Cyprus.

A professional tour of the West Bank by the Israel Association of United Architects about two years ago testifies to the missing gene in the discipline of architecture. Ahead of the trip, a warning was sent to the participants that the tour “will deal only with planning issues,” and “all political aspects will be prevented.” That is without doubt one of the clearest signs of lobotomized thinking in a profession where there isn’t a single square meter that is not political, especially in Israel and the West Bank.

Had the association itself not rejected the 2002 exhibition “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture” – curated by architects Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman – and destroyed the accompanying catalog, its members would have become familiar with the decisive role of their profession in the injustices of the occupation.

Greenfield-Gilat has reservations about Segal and Weizman’s project – the unavoidable architectural version of Breaking the Silence – and says he was “taught in the Technion that architecture is a profession that seeks solutions and not only exposes injustices, and that architects have a unique contribution to make that isn’t shared by any other discipline. They are the ones who are obliged to exploit this ability to improve the space.” In all the contexts in which architecture operates, the reality shows that it’s impossible to find solutions before exposing the injustices and promoting awareness of their existence. Whether a full fusion between the lobes is possible is an old question that remains unanswered.