Israeli architect Eyal Weizman won a competition to represent his country at an international conference. But the invitation was abruptly cancelled when it was discovered that his work criticised Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank. He talks to Esther Addley about the politically loaded nature of planning in the region
Thursday July 25, 2002
Eyal Weizman smooths out his map across his enormous desk and turns expectantly for a response. He knows it's impressive, just as he knows it's bewildering. The product of 11 months' labour in collaboration with the human rights organisation B'tselem, the Israeli architect has produced his own cartographic representation of the West Bank, with every settlement and every settler road, each expropriated field and each Palestinian village to which it once belonged, all marked in different shades of blue, brown and green. The midnight blue smudges, the settlement areas, he calls "the stains". The occupied Palestinian area resembles nothing so much as a sickly pockmarked kidney.
It is extraordinarily detailed, almost unfathomably so, and that is partly Weizman's point. If you thought the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was fiendishly complicated, he is saying, you are wrong: it is much more complex than that. And intentionally so. "Complexity was always a propaganda technique of Israel. Whenever you speak to an Israeli politician and you say, 'Well, why don't you retreat', they say, 'Oh, it's far too complex'. So the territorial aspect of the conflict has become very much the domain of experts, and that was what Israel wanted. If you are not an expert, everything you argue they can tell you, 'Oh, it's unfeasible.' Whereas we want people to understand, we want to make it as clear as possible."
Unashamedly of the Israeli left, the 31-year-old, who also lectures at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, says he set out to critique the policy of illegal settlements not primarily with moral or legalistic arguments, but having reached his conclusions from architectural examination. "If you are an architect and you understand that the main manifestation of this conflict is through the landscape and the built environment, it is almost your responsibility to act vis a vis that. It would be bizarre now for me to engage just within a normal architectural practice in Israel, building houses and so on."
That reluctance, however, is where the trouble began. Earlier this year, along with his partner in his Tel Aviv practice, Rafi Segal, Weizman won a national competition to curate the Israeli stand at the World Congress of Architecture, a biannual event taking place in Berlin this week. Their exhibition, The Politics of Israeli Architecture, undertook the first detailed examination of the spatial form of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, examining how their physical layout is informed by the politics behind them. The catalogue to the exhibition is illustrated with scores of unsettling, but quite beautiful, photographs of settlements taken by the architects themselves while overflying the whole region. It also contains detailed blueprints for the layout of settlements, documents explicitly called "masterplans" by their creators and supposedly in the public domain, but which the pair had to threaten going to the Israeli courts in order to be able to see.
No one at the Congress will see them, however. Earlier this month, Weizman and Segal's stand at the WCA was abruptly cancelled by the Israeli Association of United Architects. Uri Zerubavel, the association's head, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz last week, "The association thinks that the ideas in the catalogue are not architecture. Heaven help us if this is what Israel has to show. As though only settlements... were built here... My natural instincts tell me to destroy the catalogues, but I won't do that. I won't burn books."
The association has insisted, however, that Weizman and Segal stop distributing the catalogues immediately. (They have refused and it will be published by Babel in Tel Aviv next month.)
The architects insist that the IAUA knew the content of the exhibition, but concede that the material it contains is potentially controversial. "We realised that we could understand the processes of human rights violations not only in quantified space that has been taken, in statistical terms, but that it is the very form and layout of settlements on the urban level, and their positioning within the terrain on a territorial level, that is in breach of basic human rights."
But how can a small town full of civilians infringe people's human rights? "If you look at the layout of settlements, they are always built on hilltops. People know that, but they may not realise that they also are built in rings, over the summit, in a way that generates territorial surveillance in all directions. I began to understand that these are urban-scale optical devices, and every design move in them is calculated to enhance vision." Only by looking at the original architectural plans, he argues, would one register something so simple as the fact that each house is built with its bedrooms innermost, its living quarters facing the vista.
"The planners always speak about the view as pastoral and biblical, almost in a romantic sense. They speak about the terraces and olive groves and stone houses, which are obviously created for them by the Palestinians. The Palestinians are almost like the stage workers who create a set, but they then have to disappear when the lights come on." But it is not only the Palestinians' rights who are infringed, he argues. "The army also uses the eyes of the civilian settlers, almost hijacks them, to generate territorial surveillance. There is almost an illegal use of civilians to generate supervision of another part of the civilian population."
The more Weizman tries to elucidate his understanding of the way the space of the occupied territories has been partitioned during the conflict, the more difficult he is to follow. In a series of articles entitled The Politics of Verticality, the architect has argued that the division of territory along vertical as well as horizontal planes - the only way the two communities can put into practice their demands for entirely separate sovereignty over the same space - makes the West Bank and Gaza, crucially, a disputed three-dimensional volume rather than two-dimensional area. Even where the Palestinian Authority was nominally given sovereignty of the surface of a section of the territories under the Oslo Accords, he points out, Israel retained sovereignty of the airspace and the subterrain. "So they had to come up with bizarre and insane projects like tunnels and bridges, so an Israeli road would go under a town that the Palestinians have sovereignty over, meaning that the international border is in section. Architecturally, planning-wise, it's entirely unfeasible, and it makes no sense. "
But such a definition, surely, makes all planner maps obsolete, even his own? Weizman agrees, describing the current situation as "Escher-like, a territorial hologram". There are six dimensions at play in the West Bank, he says, three for the Israeli space and three for the Palestinian. "It creates a totally dystopian and weird space. It becomes so intense, it just collapses."
Weizman's conclusion gainsays most diplomatic thinking: he argues that the dream of two discrete states carved side by side is now unworkable. "It makes no sense to have an iron curtain or a concrete curtain between Israel and Palestine and have two nation-states. Even if you build tunnels and bridges, and partition the airways and the subterrain, what do you do with Jerusalem? Somebody calculated that you need 64km of wall in Jerusalem alone to partition Israelis from Palestinians, and 40 tunnels and bridges to join the different areas. This is an ecological and planning nightmare, and it is a nightmare for the economy of Jerusalem. It is nonsense. It is the ideas of politicians who don't understand territory or architecture or planning."
So what possible resolution can there be? Weizman's solution, fittingly, is a planners' one. New maps need to be drawn, he argues, which illustrate the two parties' geographical, ecological and infrastructure interdependence, emphasising the importance of such factors over political outlines. His hope is that this would eventually create a "functional integration" which would, in time, come to supersede political myth-making. "Obviously it sounds like a totally wacko idea now, but I am a real believer in this kind of bureaucracy. There needs to be a process set in motion for an incremental functional union.
He knows that such a plan requires the complete abandonment of the Zionist project on the Israeli side, and of Palestinian national aspirations? It is far away but I think it's not that weird."
"People in Israel don't really understand the political use of space [in the West Bank], they don't really understand where things are." That was one of the reasons behind his determination to create a more accurate map, he says, and to present the full detail of the settlement layouts, before he was silenced. "They want to say that architecture is nothing to do with politics, but architects and planners have always been the executive arms of the Israeli state, erasing the old cartography and trying to create their own on top of it."
· The politics of verticality is published on www.opendemocracy.net