Habima Reveals Its New Self - to Some

The decision to exclude architecture critics from the long-awaited unveiling of the national theater is just the latest step in this absurdly secretive project.

Habima has no need for draft bills, preliminary readings, political deals or exhausting votes lasting into the night. At the national theater, which is an institution supported by public funds - including the erasure of its debts - one arbitrary decision is sufficient to keep people's mouths shut. And so, when the theater formally unveiled the renewed Habima building to the media on the eve of its opening to the theater-going public, architecture writers and critics, of all people, were excluded. They were simply not invited. And anyone who arrived at the well-guarded territory anyway and tried to mingle with the theater writers who were invited, was removed with polite firmness. Were it not absurd, it would be funny.

Had the festive event been designed to provide a taste of the upcoming dramaturgical repertory, then at least it would have been possible to find a far-fetched excuse for the surprising decision to exclude architecture writers. But the star of the show was neither the repertory nor the backstage area, but the building itself, with its walls, columns, auditoriums, lobbies, staircases and all the other elements that are generally defined as architectural. Architecture writers should have been the guests of honor. Is it possible that the national witch-hunting atmosphere has also infiltrated the national theater?

Habima - Moti Milrod - 24112011
Moti Milrod

Compared to the murky legislation being cooked up these days in the corridors of power, the selective censorship against architecture writers is presumably no more than a slight blow. But it is yet another attempt to silence a critical voice in a field that affects the daily life of every person - the sphere that deals with public space and its design, with decision-making in the field, with the distribution of resources. These things were discussed quite often at a number of round tables during the sweet and almost forgotten summer of social protest. The nation also demands spatial justice.

It is possible that the national theater lost out by keeping us outside. Perhaps a glimpse of the interiors of the building would have resulted in a good word. After all, it couldn't be any worse than it is on the outside.

Secret planning

Already from the beginning of the "renovation" Habima behaved clandestinely, as in a police investigation under a gag order. Now when the building is standing there isn't much to hide, but a habit is hard to break. Whatever the case, the censorship of the architectural discourse during the guided tour of Habima is another example of the chronic absence of transparency in the fields of planning and architecture.

Knowledge is power, and those who have the power, whether they are the decision makers or the professional planners, or the spokespersons and the public relations people, as in the case of the tour of Habima, will do everything possible to wrap the truth in incomprehensible professional rhetoric or in lyrical language so that people won't really understand exactly what's going on. In the case of Habima, the main trick is the use of the euphemistic term "renovation."

The renovation at Habima is not a renovation but an all-out revolution. The result is an entirely new building, with different dimensions, a different character and an entirely different presence in the urban space. The term "renovation" was meant to obfuscate the truth in order to evade even the little public transparency required by law. Absurdly enough, the "renovation" plan was not even submitted to the district committee for planning and construction - a procedure that would have given the public a chance to express opposition. Instead the project underwent some abridged route to obtain a construction or renovation permit, below the public radar. As was publicized at the time, permits were granted to some of the work on the building only retroactively, when the changes were already facts on the ground.

In matters of this type, the public has the right to rely - although not blindly - on its representatives in the government to make the right decisions. It has the right to rely even more on the planners to justify the trust in their skill, abilities and judgment. Since a building does not disappear after the curtain comes down, the necessary judgment, skill and responsibility are doubly important.

The person responsible for the renovation work at Habima, architect Ram Carmi, is the last person from whom we can demand responsibility - according to his own philosophy. An Israel Prize laureate in architecture and a key figure on the local scene, Carmi is the outstanding betrayer of trust and rejecter of responsibility. Architectural activity, according to Carmi, is a seance, and the architect is only a medium who answers to higher powers, so how can he be bothered with responsibility for the outcome?

He has never admitted his colossal mistakes. Carmi recently summed up his architectural philosophy in the formative article, "How an architect works," in which he wrote unequivocally that "sometimes I feel that more than I design, the designing activates me. I'm activated - in other words I am no more than a pipeline, or a violin, for something greater than I, and I am ready to serve it, as though to serve it as a mouthpiece."

Nor does Carmi believe in architectural discourse, commentary and criticism, which he sees as superfluous to the sacred architectural act. Perhaps it is his spirit that hovers over the exclusion of architecture writers from the opening event at Habima. According to Carmi, architecture "rejects superfluous mediation," removes from its path "everything superfluous and unimportant," and constructs buildings "that have no need for the intellectual, interpretive mediation of the critic (here Carmi honors me by mentioning my name ).

At this point in the theatrical drama we can only wait, either for a corrective visit inside the building, or for that moment in another 50 or 100 years when we may even get used to it.