7 July 2007

The architecture of oppression

By Marguerite Finn

A fierce debate is raging about the role of architects and planners in the oppression of the Palestinian people. It was sparked off by the publication of a petition organised by the London-based organisation Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) – an independent, international pressure group of architects and design professionals. The Petition asserts that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with the Israeli Government's policy of building illegal settlements on Palestinian land are unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and the principles of the International Union of Architects.

Published in The Times to coincide with the 40th anniversary, on 5 June this year, of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the petition has been signed by more than 260 architects and planners from around the world, among them some of Britain's most famous architects, a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists.

Architects and planners have produced some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings of both the ancient and modern world – the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, the Alhambra Palace, to name but a few – but there is a complex and enduring relationship between architecture and violence. The extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau are just one case in point.

Within the last decade, architecture is being used increasingly as an implement of oppression and humiliation. It is as if the talents of architecture and planning, once intended to nurture culture, are now being used to erase it. I remember the shock of hearing that the ancient city of Babylon (dating from 2000BC) and part of the 'cradle of our civilisation' had been chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, during the invasion of Iraq. Such destruction of architectural heritage is the (often deliberate) attempt at the destruction of memory, the very hallmark of identity. When buildings and villages are razed to the ground, so too is a part of the culture that produced them.

Destruction is not the only act using the physical environment to rewrite history. Planning and building can have the same effect – nowhere more clearly than in Israel today where the Separation Wall loops at will across Palestinian farmlands and villages. Originally intended only as a means of security, the wall has become a tool for annexation of Palestinian land. An abomination of concrete slabs up to 8m in height and 3m in width, the Wall is already over 220 miles long and planned to extend for 450 miles, creating 'facts on the ground' designed to prevent the realisation of a viable, self-sufficient Palestinian State.

These facts, according to the recently released Amnesty International Report Enduring occupation: Palestinians under siege in the West Bank reveal that more than three-quarters of the Wall is built on Palestinian land and when completed it will have created a 'land grab' amounting to 10 percent of the West Bank. The Israeli Government's manipulation of space in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem – through checkpoints, settlements, demolitions, annexations and reconstructions – appears to be a deliberate policy to erase all traces of the indigenous Palestinian culture.

So what can APJP do about this? They call on fellow architects and planners not to co-operate with the Israeli planning authority on three of their current projects:
  1. expansion of the illegal settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim;

  2. demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes in Silwan in East Jerusalem:

  3. a plan to build luxury homes on the remains of the 4000 year-old Palestinian village of Lifta – whose inhabitants, driven out in 1948, are forbidden to return. It is planned to construct 300, luxury homes, a hotel and shopping centre, turning the once prosperous Arab village into an expensive and exclusively Jewish resort.
Jack Pringle, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who signed the Petition in his own right (as did four previous RIBA presidents), commented: "One can not but protest at the destruction of a nation".

There is much to protest about: Israel's defiance of international humanitarian law, Geneva Conventions, the International Court of Justice and various UN resolutions condemning settlement expansion.

The situation in East Jerusalem deserves examination in a future column but I will leave you with an example of how ordinary people can make a difference: the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) and Irish trade union representatives have succeeded in forcing the Irish transport organisation, Veolia, to cancel a contract to train Israeli drivers for a light railway system in East Jerusalem. The railway, designed to link several Israeli settlements between East and West Jerusalem, is being built illegally on occupied Palestinian territory.

Who said protest is pointless?