The Secret to Peace in the Middle East, at an Architectural Expo

An exhibition in Tel Aviv is showcasing the work of a studio that has designs on bringing peace to the region via architecture.

Keshet Rosenblum
Keshet Rosenblum

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority late last week, the "Architactics" exhibition opened at the ZeZeZe Architecture Gallery in Tel Aviv Port. This coincidence provides an injection of realism into what, a week earlier, seemed like a series of interesting mental exercises, but far from the present reality. The aim of the exhibition, organized by the Saya – Design for Change studio, is to mobilize tools from the world of design and architecture to help to promote the peace talks.

"The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is based mainly on a territorial problem, and therefore architects must play a central role in finding its solution," says architect Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat, who, together with fellow architect Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, founded Saya in 2006. Since then, they have been working to shape the nature of the diplomatic solution below the media radar, outside the architectural discourse and away from peace organization conferences.

"Architects have a unique eye that is capable of making very fine distinctions that have a significant influence on the way people live," he says. "In the final analysis, the creative thinking that characterizes the profession is the most meaningful way to extricate ourselves from crises and to find a solution for them."

The studio started out with the final project of the two at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, in 2003, together with Aya Shapira (who died two years later, a victim of the Asian tsunami), and after whom their initiative is named (Saya = Studio Aya). The work dealt with an architectural response to the separation fence, whose construction was beginning in those years.

"It was the army and politics. There was no architectural discussion surrounding the construction of the fence. The discourse dealt only with politics and not with the space," says Greenfield-Gilat. "We wanted to find the connection between a solution of territorial conflicts, on the one hand, and planning, architecture and design on the other."

As part of the project, the three proposed a link between the light rail system in Jerusalem – which was being planned at the time – and the separation fence and border crossings. They planned an imaginary transportation system for East Jerusalem, focusing on a terminal building for the railroad that would serve as a crossing point opposite Damascus Gate.

"Our mentors said, 'There's no such thing, that's politics and not architecture.' And I say planning is the most political thing there is," says Greenfield-Gilat, 37, a religious man who graduated from a Hesder yeshiva (combining Torah study with army service) in the territories, and who defines his identity as "Zionist Jewish."

"Our objective is not a documentation of the occupation, an outcry or protest, but to offer the tools for solving the conflict for members of the political leadership who will be obligated to do so," he says.

"I'm not objective. I believe that it's possible and obligatory to reach a peace agreement," he continues. "The motivation is not left or right, but Zionism – in my opinion, that means guaranteeing the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And that means saying goodbye to the territories, with all the pain involved, which I share. But certainly nothing here will be acceptable to anyone who doesn't support the two-state solution."

Over the past three years the architects have created a number of models for border crossings and future points of interface between East and West Jerusalem. For example, according to their initiative, Highway 60 will become a binational highway, with the border in the middle, and vehicular traffic on both sides. At the French Hill junction, meanwhile, a large terminal will be built that can also serve as a commercial center. The solutions were formulated together with Palestinian architects.

That initially theoretical connection to the world of politics later became an actuality. In 2008, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert used the studio's diagrams in order to demonstrate to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas how the separation would look in Jerusalem.

After taking a master's degree in public policy at Harvard, Greenfield-Galit served as an adviser to Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah), during the years when she served as the leader of the opposition while heading the Kadima party. In the context of his job, he authored strategic plans on subjects such as economics and education.

How it will look

The exhibition is divided into three parts. The first includes a proposal for how the diplomatic solution will look (which includes the studio's early works); the central section is devoted to making the information accessible to the public, and includes two models - one of Jerusalem and its environs, the other of the entire country; and the last is a physical expression of an Internet-interactive project called Is Peace Possible? in cooperation with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which enables the user to examine all the realistic possibilities for a land swap in the context of future negotiations.

"This is, in effect, a clear way for everyone to see for the first time the numbers and balance sheets involved in negotiations over the settlements: 'If I annex Ariel, how much land is involved? What is the number of settlers? What am I giving back to the Palestinians, if anything? If we annex Beit El and Ofra – how does that relate to Jerusalem, what is the percentage of land that such a move takes away from Israel?'

"The idea is to demystify the issue," Greenfield-Gilat says. "It has become such a mess – with terms such as borders and annexation and blocs and percentages – that people see it as something too complicated and insoluble."

The third part also proposes tactical tools developed by the studio for a new perspective on the spaces. For example, one display shows a map of Jerusalem's Old City and its environs as a layered mosaic of ethnic identities. "The Old City is the volcanic heart of the conflict," he explains. "Until now the classical approach to a solution was that to see it as a single unit whose border has to be defined," he adds, explaining that this perception is one reason for the failures.

Another map clearly shows how Jerusalem – and Al Quds, the Palestinian capital after the partition - will look as two real cities, one on the mountaintops and one at their feet, which makes it possible to think about urban planning and the necessary transportation and infrastructure systems.

Another exhibit deals with tourism, and presents the border crossings of the two states, airports and seaports, border crossings to neighboring countries and the gates of the Old City.

"Tourism in the Old City is an issue in itself – maybe it will serve as a terminal, where you'll leave your passport on one side, and get it stamped when you exit on the other side," he says. "We also want to construct buildings," says Greenfield-Gilat with a smile, "but first we'll finish our mission in life – which is to bring peace."

The exhibition is on display at the ZeZeZe Architecture Gallery, Hangar 21, Tel Aviv Port, until August 24, and will include the following events:
Friday, August 1, at 7:30 P.M.: A lecture on "Maps as shapers of the diplomatic discourse," with Shaul Arieli; Friday, August 9, at 11 A.M.: A gallery conversation with Dan Rotem, representative of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace in the Middle East; Thursday, August 22, at 7:30 P.M.: A lecture by Daniel Seidemann of the Terrestrial Jerusalem organization, about spatial-design dimensions in solving the conflict.

Architects Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat (left) and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai.Credit: David Bachar
An illustration from the "Architactics" exhibition.Credit: Saya
An illustration from the "Architactics" exhibition.Credit: Saya
A photo of Jerusalem from the "Architactics" exhibition.Credit: Galit Aloni

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