Activist Architecture

When we think about Israel and Palestine, two images tend to come to mind—the rocket and the wall. These concepts are typically understood as political devices, when at root they are indisputably architectural (destructive or constructive). The publications of multimodal practitioners, such as Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land and Malkit Shoshan’s Atlas of the Conflict, have introduced the Middle East conflict to the architectural discourse, revealing that mapping, planning, building and demolishing are among the primary tools of occupation. At the same time, the position established by Weizman and Shoshan is that of the “outsider”, one whose removal from the institution (both conceptually and geographically) allows them a vantage point of critique, manifested through documentation and diagnosis.

A rather different approach is being tested by Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, the founders of SAYA, or Studio Aya. For them, politics is the natural habitat of the architect: “We see ourselves as people who serve society and the context of a better place to live...In a way, Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius were our teachers, not necessarily in the sense of design, but as architects shaping the way people solve a problem.” This stance recalls the modernist project of society-building, whose diminishing legacy was recently highlighted at the 2012 Venice Biennale in Public Works: Architecture by Civil Servants, an exhibition by OMA. It also revives a strong lineage of civic architecture in Israel by ex-Bauhaus students beginning in the 1930s. SAYA’s approach, though, is not simply the naïve conjecture of power-hungry architects: Bar-Sinai received her master’s degree in Cities, Space and Society from the London School of Economics, while Greenfield-Gilat specialised in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and even joined Tzipi Livni’s new centrist party Hatnuah (“The Movement”) for the recent Israeli elections.

SAYA’s entry into the political sphere, however, predates these developments; it all began with a drawing. In “A Plan for Peace That Still Could Be”, an article for The New York Times, Bernard Avishai describes the failure of the peace negotiations since 2006, mentioning that Ehud Olmert, the then prime minister, displayed “an architectural sketch for a symbolic Palestinian checkpoint” during discussions of a patchwork municipal framework for the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. As Green eld-Gilat puts it: “When a summit between Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert takes place, they don’t talk about details; they talk about concepts. So why did he show him a design of a specific spot in Jerusalem? Because it exemplifies a vision of how you could actually approach a problem. Words cannot replace an image...and even though it was never built, we put an idea in the head of the chief negotiator on the Israeli side, and that was powerful enough.”

For a young architect or student, a drawing is an incubator for the imagination, free from the constraints of planning boards, budgets or even the basic laws of physics. Yet SAYA are proposing a renewed responsibility for the digital realm, one that both supports hypothetical paradigms and processes countless factual parameters. In collaboration with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and project manager Chen Farkas, they have launched Is Peace Possible?, a project that invites users to draw their own proposals for the border between Israel and the West Bank, based on the 1967 “Green Line” agreement and the demographic and geographic changes that have occurred since. In an interactive map, Jewish settlements in the West Bank can be annexed to Israel based on population, geographic footprint, distance from the Green Line and historical precedent (or likelihood). Based on the selection, the map then determines what Israeli territory would be annexed to Palestine, based on the principle of equal size and quality of swapped land.

As SAYA explain: “There are about 550,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line. About 200,000 live within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, which most Israelis don’t call settlements; they just see them as neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that happen to be beyond the Green Line. But you have 350,000 who live deeper in the West Bank. The question is, how do we get to a solution that annexes the least amount of land and the most amount of people to Israel?” SAYA based the interface on years of research into the realistic terms of negotiation, eliminating all possibilities that have never been seriously discussed—for example, annexing the Jordan Valley. “In a sense, it limits the game, but it does keep you in the boundaries of what will happen in the negotiation room. The span is very small—we actually enlarged it a bit to give a sense of drama, but it was important for us to provide people with accurate information on what you can and cannot do.” At the same time, the efforts to legitimate the settlements of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the last 65 years could be seen as absurd, given that Palestinian Arabs who have been displaced in the same time period enjoy no such support; in fact, they are just as severely disenfranchised in Muslim countries such as Lebanon or Egypt.

There is no single solution, and each user’s unique proposal can be shared online to contribute to the discussion. Inevitably, as with anything related to the Middle East, the reaction has been mixed. Many commentators pointed out that crowdsourcing such a question is inherently flawed, given that Palestinians have less access to computers and the Internet than Israelis. But SAYA have actually aimed Is Peace Possible? to American audiences, believing that “an honest broker for the conflict is very much required”. Still, the question persists: is crowdsourcing the appropriate medium for such a complex (yet relatively tiny) territorial dispute, regularly shaken by non-democratic vigilantism on both sides? A disproportionately high number of people around the world have strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but their debate may obscure the logistical factors that might support one solution over another—which can only be understood by actually living there.

The emphasis on population figures is another point that demands debate. The Israeli government is highly complicit in subsidising the movement of Jews into suburban developments in the West Bank, and the locations of these settlements are hardly incidental. They may be placed on higher ground for security reasons, or in areas that facilitate water pumping. Meanwhile, some independent groups have established small, unauthorised outposts simply davka (a Hebrew term meaning “just because” or “deliberately to antagonise”). Therefore, the settlement population figure represents only one relevant factor, in addition to altitude, natural resources, access to infrastructure and proximity to significant religious sites. In reality, the number of Jews living beyond the Green Line may be the most volatile (and susceptible to manipulation) of all the aforementioned aspects. However, SAYA’s research has shown that this figure will remain the currency of the real-life negotiation.

SAYA are the first to admit they are “not fully satisfied with the project yet”, but for different reasons. “We were thinking about a version for the Arab world, which would probably make the game very different. We try to do everything with Palestinian partners, but this project comes very much from the Israeli perspective as the dominant negotiator, the creator of settlements, the military power. Some would say that we are obeying the assumptions of the Israeli government. But we are here to provide solutions, not to make a career out of documenting the occupation. We have devoted ourselves to bringing peace to the region, and this is our motivation for resolution planning. We deeply disagree with the policies of the current government and the settlement movement. Assuming, however, that a solution will take these factors into account, we think it makes sense to incorporate them—whether we like it or not. Some people need to see themselves as freedom fighters who oppose evil, no matter the cost or consequences. We’re not against that, but architecture is a problem-solving profession. If you can live with the notion that your building is impacting the lives of people around it, then take responsibility for the consequences of your proposal.”

SAYA’s approach is not limited to the Middle East. Their next project looks at another conflict zone—the Balkans—and its development towards full membership in the European Union. A map will be made for the 2013 Balkan Forum, allowing users to develop a portfolio of renewable energy initiatives in different countries in the region. The “currencies” of the map will consist of the resulting effects on GDP, employment, greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs. SAYA are also considering how to apply their methodology to public health issues, such as the relationship between bus stop locations and child obesity, in collaboration with the New York City municipality. “We would love to design a building, and we probably will one day,” say Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai. “But this is a new front for architects—an eye that can read space in a different way is a valuable asset to larger frames of reality.”

Nevertheless, this work also begins to suggest something very far from its architectural origins: it looks like a tool for the classical sense of democracy. Could this nuanced, personalised and geo-located decision-making process be a new form of voting, where politicians run on frameworks, rather than preconceived platforms? SAYA are equivocal on the point. As a political candidate himself, Greenfield-Gilat says that “voting is a constitutional right to express your belief in a candidate selected in a lengthy, ongoing process.” Their portfolio, however, demonstrates a rather innovative quality for politics—a robust capacity to sustain debate, articulate dissent and contextualise indecision. From that perspective, the future is far from black and white.