Contested Territories

INTERVIEWERS Martin Bressani and David Theodore

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to identify relationships and exchanges between architectural and military planning. He shows how a military urbanism based on walling, layering, and burrowing has reconfigured political space in Israel. His report Land Grab, produced with the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, studies the direct involvement of architecture and planning in violations of international humanitarian law. Based on this research, he co-curated a series of exhibitions in New York, Berlin, Malm, Rotterdam, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv in 2003-2004. Weizman is also founding director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. This new position adds to his exposure as one of the most in-demand lecturers in contemporary architectural theory. We caught up with him in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) the day before his lecture entitled “Destruction by Design: Military Strategy as Urban Planning,” which he gave as laureate of the second international James Stirling Memorial Lectures on the City competition.

MB Your work until now has concentrated upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are you using the methods you’ve developed to look at other spatial practices associated with other forms of warfare?

EW Yes. I’m interested in other conflicts, especially in the way different situations connect separate geographical imaginaries and can sometimes be understood as metaphors for each other. Since starting at the Centre for Research Architecture, I’ve had the luxury of working with other architects/thinkers. We have members dealing with the spatial politics of humanitarian aid in refugee camps (Manuel Herz), balkanization in former Yougoslavia (Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss) and issues of extraterritoriality associated with borders in other places, amongst other topics.

MB Are your students aiming for academic careers?

EW No, most members have a critical practice: they are practitioners, architects, curators, editors, artists, and filmmakers interested in thinking political problems through space. The program gives the group a theoretical grounding and a place for robust and intense critical discussions.

MB What about you? Do you intend to stay in academia or move towards practice?

EW You can never control how things develop. I try to see research as a form of practice, but there are architectural projects for Palestine that I’d like to do, although they’ve become more difficult because of the Hamas government.

DT That’s interesting. I wrote down a quote where you said explicitly that you’d find designing houses somehow absurd after the research you’ve been doing. Has your position changed?

EW No. I probably said that in the context of my involvement in planning for Palestinians. In fact, the most interesting project was one where the Palestinian authority invited me to think with them settlement reuse in post-evacuation times. It became a very intense problem leading up to the Israeli evacuation in August 2005: what do we do with the settlements when they are evacuated? Are they to be abandoned, reused, converted, recycled? What do you do with a set of suburban single-family houses? It was difficult, because the Palestinians rejected them as suburbs. The proposal was finally to spatialize a set of public institutions into the evacuated shells of settlements: agricultural university, a cultural centre, a clinic for the Red Cross, and so on.

MB What ended up happening? They destroyed them, right?

EW Yes, Israel destroyed them all. The UN later got a few million dollars from Israel, and Palestinian contractors collected the debris from the 21 demolished settlements–40 years’ worth of occupation–sorted out the toxic waste, and threw the rest into the Mediterranean where they are building a big wave-breaker around where Gaza’s port will be. There’s something so fantastically absurd about it: this jetty standing idle in the sea like a giant Robert Smithson project.

DT You describe the Israeli settlements, including those now evacuated and demolished, as a kind of limit case or weird version of urban planning developments that happened elsewhere–gated communities, suburbanization, and so on. What’s the link?

EW The Israeli colonialization was always played out with the architectural typologies of the time, those developed in Europe, in North America, or locally. Israeli architecture has always been in communication with architectural production worldwide. In fact, the most visible Israeli architects are graduates from elite international schools. Many of the architects that practice in occupied Jerusalem or the West Bank are graduates of the AA in London, but as well of Harvard, Penn, and other places. So the architecture of Israeli occupation is not a local marginal thing. It reflects the latest trends in architecture and urban design. In 1967, Jerusalem was one of the world’s first arenas for postmodernism. Israeli Jerusalem was a very modernist city. Many of the architects in Europe and the US who were trying to find a way out of modernist orthodoxy found in Jerusalem a cause clbre. Louis Kahn and Christopher Alexander advised the Jerusalem municipality on how to build in the occupied part of the city in a way they thought befitted the historical character of the occupied areas.

MB I wonder if Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 was influenced by that anthropological approach.

EW Well, if you look at Israeli architecture in the ’50s and ’60s, Alfred Neumann, Zvi Hecker and Eldar Sharon were doing hillside habitat systems before Safdie was. It was a sophisticated modular modernist architecture already influenced by local typologies of Arab villages–Friedrich Kiesler once called the Israel Museum built in similar modular style “an Arab village built in international style.” Many other international figures who were drawn to Jerusalem and advised on building there never contested the politics that allowed this form of construction to occur in the first place–that Jerusalem has been occupied and must be united under the Israeli regime. The question was how to make an architecture that would naturalize Israeli domination there. Starting in the late 1970s, ideas originating in new urbanism–of walkable communities and repetition and variation of typologies–were used in several settlements. In the 1980s, Israeli settlements mimicked gated communities. The strangest thing is when Israeli architects are influenced by Palestinian architecture, the very habitat against which they are constructing.

MB You could do a spatial history of warfare, of conflict. What about the reverse? Can we learn from your study of military urbanism something fundamental about architecture?

EW Certainly. This research looks at the way in which forms emerge across the landscape–not only as the result of a master-planning process, but of a set of conflicts: armed conflicts but also wider social conflicts. These are registered in space: land annexation, the way roads are rerouted, and so on. I’m interested to learn about the way in which conflicts are mediated into form. Take, for instance, a multi-polar force field in which NGO activity, UN activity, independent settler groups, independent resistance groups, peaceful demonstrations, and the high court etc. all intersect. The politics of their interactions are registered in space. So for example, Israel’s Wall–the “security fence” between Israel and the West Bank–could be seen on one scale as a giant state project. But it also reacts and incorporates these micro-forces into its path. Therefore, the understanding of intense conflicts allows you to identify the way
political forces are constantly brought into the organization of form. And, in fact, every city is a register of these forces. But in this region it happened much faster; formative forces are brutal and explicit. It’s a perfect laboratory. The Israeli government was never able to institute the wall in the way it was designed. Sometimes the form of the wall is determined by something as mundane as some nature enthusiasts trying to protect a hill with some wild irises on it. Or by settlers saying, “If you cut us off from that Palestinian village we will have no cleaning ladies anymore.”

DT So architects don’t have the sole or main responsibility for the built environment.

EW Yes. The wall acts as a giant sensor for a myriad of micro-forces. The making and remaking of space includes a larger field where a much larger array of people than planners and architects have agency.

Special thanks to Andrew Mitchell at the CCA for making this interview possible. For more on Weizman’s work, please refer to the following:

1. Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land. London: Verso Books, 2007.

2. Weizman, Eyal. “Architecture, Power Unplugged: Gaza Evacuations.” Log, Fall 2005: pp. 41-50.

3. Weizman, Eyal. “Lethal Theory.” Log, Winter/ Spring 2006: pp. 53-77.

4. Segal, Rafi, and Eyal Weizman, eds. A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture. London and Tel Aviv: Verso, 2003.

5. Summaries/200205_Land_Grab.asp