First Arab Architect to Hold Official Post in Israel Seeks to Change the Discourse

Arab architects, who have a marginalized role in Israeli design, got a boost recently when Abed Badran was tapped to join Israel's professional association. Badran wants to change the discourse, and won't be playing the part of token representative, he says.

The first Arab architect to hold an official post in any architectural organization in Israel wants you to know he's not out to represent "some God-forsaken family," or some homogeneous community.

"Arab architects in Israel have special problems of our own, and there are also problems and struggles we share with Jewish architects," Abed Badran said in a conversation with Haaretz in the wake of his election last November as a member of the national board of the Israel Association of United Architects.

Abu Ghosh - Abed Badran - 20012012
Abed Badran

"I would also like the members of the association to understand how the profession developed in Arab society after the state's founding and got to where it got," he adds. "Architecture is an urban profession, but after the Arab city disappeared in 1948 and the urban Palestinian Arab population mostly became, against its will, a rural population, Arab architects disappeared as well."

Israeli-Arab architects went through an opposite process to the experience of their Jewish colleagues. Whereas Jewish designers prospered in the country's early decades, the Israeli Arab architects were squeezed onto the sidelines and "lost their self-confidence," as Badran puts it. The majority of construction in the Arab community was for years designed and carried out by engineers or people on-site, "and I would like the association to know that the current generation of architects, which emerged after the Land Day of 1976, is already a different generation. A generation of people with tremendous professional and personal confidence who see themselves as equal competitors to Jewish architects. Many graduated from architecture school with honors, and they are educated and ideological and conscious of their responsibility and of the fact that architecture is a dangerous profession that can destroy society, but also built it."

Badran's appointment is a watershed moment for Israel's architectural establishment. The bold move is a first step in realizing the dream of the association's new chairman, Baruch Baruch, who on taking up his post a year ago set his sights on promoting "the representation of all the groups that work in this field."

To date, Baruch wrote in his mission statement, the association does not represent "communities that constitute a significant portion of the planning population," and expressed his faith that including them would stir development of the public discourse within the association and outside of it.

Along with Badran, representatives of other "excluded" groups that were elected to the national board include new immigrants and young people.

"The idea was to introduce representatives of populations that do not have a great chance of being elected in free elections because they don't know people yet," Baruch explained.

Even though the architect's association does not maintain membership records by population group, it is estimated that the number of Arab members is small. There are also many Jewish architects who do not join the association, which is considered a weak body without real influence - partly for this very reason.

The absence of Arab architects from the association and from public architectural discourse in general is hardly surprising given the marginalizing of Arabs in Israeli public life.

Arab architects "have difficulty ... obtaining major public projects," as Baruch delicately puts it, and essentially do not take a significant role in designing their surroundings.

The alienation begins back in architecture school, Badran says. The number of Arab students is not representative of the Arab population. Badran says he'd like to see "affirmative action here, or actually not affirmative action but rather expanding and refining the basis for admission to the schools, and not judging students from different worlds by the same template."

Architecture schools also have almost no Arab teachers, whether because they lack the necessary connections or because they themselves are reluctant to try to get into a club that perhaps does not really want them.

"An Arab architect won't go into academia; that's not in our culture," Badran says, "so the institutions have to be the ones to introduce Arabs into teaching, and for that I am going to fight."

Creating society

Badran says Israelis don't seem completely aware of what Arab architects can bring to the table, especially within their own communities, like "including the public [in discussions] or urban renewal, areas that barely exist among this population today."

The creation of an urban space and public zone is even more crucial in Israel's Arab society than in its Jewish society, not merely as a requirement for social justice but as a prerequisite for the very formation of "society." The fracture following the founding of the state left the Arab populace without an urban space of its own, Badran says, and points to the need to create "a tolerant Arab urban space - maybe an Arab city - where they won't be checked and monitored or be counted in terms of the percentage of the population they will constitute in so-and-so number years."

Segregated industry

Badran, 43, was born and still lives in the Western Galilee town of Kabul. He has a degree in structural engineering from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and graduated with honors from the architecture program at the Neri Bloomfield School of Design and Education, also in Haifa. Today, he is working on a doctorate from the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University.

Badran is also publicly active. In the past he edited a local paper and served on Kabul's local council. He co-founded a wide-ranging research initiative called iDAR (Interdisciplinary Design, Architecture & Research ), and developed its strategy for creative design.

He wound up studying architecture after his work as an engineer compelled him to dabble in the field as well. One of the catastrophes in the Arab village in general, he says, is that engineers think they are architects. He and his brother are partners in an architectural and engineering firm in their town that works primarily with the Arab community. ("My last Jewish client was in 2000," he says. )

Only a handful of Arab architects work in firms run by Jewish colleagues, Badran says, adding that Arabs and Jews in the field have little contact on the professional level.

In view of the growing nationalist atmosphere in Israel's Jewish society, Badran says, some are worried about Arabs no longer having a say on decisions related to the landscape.

"The fear is that this will lead to the elimination of any chance to set up an Arab space or an Arab city," he says. "It could be that Jews will not want an Arab architect insisting on his own taste, and that is a troubling situation. If the space is shared, this cannot be denied."

In general, Badran says, Arab architects are perceived in Israel "as a single unit, as a 'sector,' rather than as individuals each of whom has his own expertise, knowledge and character."

An end to evolution

For his doctoral dissertation, Badran is researching changes in the form of the Arab village since 1948 and the processes of forced modernization it has undergone. The alternative option he puts forward is "upgrading informal historical textures," in what he says is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process, while studying the structure of the community and including the public.

His dissertation analyzes the influence of the Israeli "project" on architecture in the Palestinian community in terms of space, art of construction, and execution, employing post-colonial theory, and taking note of points of friction, collision, indifference and appropriation. One case in point is "the hummus dialectic" - which he illustrated with the Arab town of Abu Ghosh, outside Jerusalem - a space that was enlisted wholesale to fulfill the exotic culinary and cultural fantasies of "the Israeli project."

Badran does a wonderful job, too, of describing the history of the town of Shfaram, which he is documenting as part of his research.

"Evolution in Shfaram," he writes in a precis of his dissertation-in-progress, "is a process that has been completed. There are remnants of dirt houses, stone houses, ceilings made of branches and soil, ceilings made of planed wood and soil, ceilings of iron and concrete, tectonics of cupolas, domes, arches, a village house based on a single space, a village house based on a courtyard, a multi-space village house, a two-story house next to the courtyard, an urban porticoed house at the end of the courtyard, an urban liwan house [with large entrance area] at the end of the courtyard, an urban house with a two-story central space, a complex house that wraps around the courtyard. But this evolution stopped in 1948." In the projects that Badran designs in a mixed style, he tries to put evolution back on its footing.