I don’t think of architecture as an especially political discipline. Sure, there are the (typically quiet) politics of place-making, which are an important consideration with every project, even where they’re not self-evident. Every building embodies some point of view or other, often deriving from the economics of its development or the power-base of its owner. Consider the differences between, say, a corporate high-rise and an urban nonprofit SRO.
But architecture usually doesn’t play much of a role on the grand stages of legislation and diplomacy, other than as a dramatic backdrop or as the occasional political football, à la the Eisenhower Memorial.
So a recent flurry of news stories involving the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Israeli Association of United Architects, the International Union of Architects (UIA), and Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory came as a big surprise. In March, RIBA’s governing body, RIBA Council, passed the following motion:
Since the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) has paid no regard to the UIA Resolution 13 of 2005 and 2009, the RIBA calls on the UIA, as the international guardian of professional and ethical standards in our profession, to suspend the membership of the Israeli Association of United Architects, until it acts to resist these illegal projects, and observes international law, and the UIA Accords and Resolution 13.
And just what is the UIA Resolution 13? It “condemns development projects and the construction of buildings on land that has been ethnically purified or illegally appropriated, and projects based on regulations that are ethnically or culturally discriminatory, and similarly it condemns all action contravening the fourth Geneva Convention.”
In other words, the U.K.’s architecture association called on the profession’s international parent organization to discipline its counterpart in Israel. Why? Because a voting majority on RIBA Council opposes the settlements—“these illegal projects”—and wants to hold Israeli architects accountable.
Talk about a hot-button issue. The settlements have been condemned by the U.S. government and the United Nations as a major obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. RIBA’s motion comes on top of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement (which he subsequently walked back) that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it fails to develop a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And the motion has provoked protests from Daniel Libeskind, AIA, Richard Meier, FAIA, and other notables in the U.S.
Far greater minds than mine have tried and failed to make sense of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. I’ll spare you my opinion on the matter. But I will offer a thought on the RIBA motion itself, drawn straight from the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Regardless of one’s position on the occupied territories, it is plainly unfair to hold the entire architecture community in Israel accountable for the settlements, because not every architect in the country has been involved in their design and construction. Moreover, some must disagree with the underlying policy.
Did the IAUA move to suspend RIBA when Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, agreed to design the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan? After all, her client was Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar as president of the oil-rich country—a country that watchdog Amnesty International describes as “plagued by endemic corruption” and Washington Post editorial page calls “authoritarian.”
Individuals and groups of individuals make bad choices, but that’s no reason to condemn an entire community.