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U.S. Architects Criticize RIBA for its Stance on Israeli Counterpart

By Esther Hecht
April 21, 2014

Well-known U.S.-based architects have taken issue with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Britain’s leading architectural association, for its political stand against its Israeli counterpart. According to the Architects’ Journal, Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier, and Rick Bell, the executive director of AIA New York, have spoken out against the RIBA’s decision to seek the suspension of the Israeli association from the International Union of Architects (UIA) “until it acts to resist projects on illegally-occupied land and observes international law and accords.”

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The motion was presented to the RIBA council on March 19 by the association’s past president, Angela Brady. It passed 23 to 16, with 10 abstentions. The UIA is to meet in August.

The RIBA contends that the Israel Association of United Architects (IAUA) has disregarded the international body’s Resolution 13, which “condemns development projects and the construction of buildings on land that has been ethnically purified or illegally appropriated … [and] all action contravening the fourth Geneva Convention.”

In response, the IAUA asked the international association not to bring up the motion at its general assembly in August, arguing that the motion was “disproportionate, incompatible with circumstances, and contrary to the spirit of the UIA.” The Israeli group also wrote to the president and vice president of the RIBA that the IAUA “has no political agenda [and] no impact on personal stance.” The letter adds that Resolution 13 “was never meant to be a tool to be used against architects or associations of architects under the aegis of the UIA.”

A third letter from the IAUA, to British Prime Minister David Cameron, refers to the RIBA motion as a “a discriminatory, unjust political act designed to isolate Israel,” and concludes, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do well to be resolved through dialogue. Boycotts have been proven not to be the best foundation for increasing understanding between parties in conflict.”

According to a statement by the RIBA, “It is not the case that the RIBA is in any way anti-Semitic.” A spokesperson for the British association declined to say whether it had ever passed a similar motion regarding any other association in the international group, which claims to have some 130 members, including Russia and China.

New York City-based architect and Pritzker Prize winner Richard Meier wrote to the RIBA’s president, according to Building Design, stating that he and many other New York architects condemn the action.

But British architect Abe Hayeem, a RIBA member who is the chair of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine and co-founder of UK Architects Against Apartheid, has said that “the one action [of the anti-apartheid group] that had the most impact was to get the RIBA to end its links and recognition of schools of architecture in South Africa…on the basis of the almost negligible number of black students attending these schools. [This] did alter their intake.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visited Israel on March 12, pledged in the Knesset that he would oppose the boycott of Israel and defeat all attempts to delegitimize the country. Cameron was quoted in Israel’s daily Ha’aretz as saying Israel's fate "will never rest on statements by amateur politicians.”

Itzhak Lipovetzky-Lir, past president of the Israeli architects’ association and its coordinator of international relations, said in an interview that his group has been a member of the international union since the 1950s and has been contending with attempts to expel it for a decade. The UIA Resolution 13 is a general policy, Lipovetsky-Lir added. “More than a few countries that are members of the UIA [have] disputes over construction on conquered land, for example, China and Tibet, or Russia and Chechnya. Therefore, the organization, in which membership is voluntary, has tried not to take a decision against a member country because it could undermine the entire organization.”

The Israeli association has a good relationship and a lot of joint activity with its Palestinian counterpart, based in Ramallah, he said. For example, following the Gaza war in 2008 the two groups worked together to bring members of the French organization Emergency Architects Foundation to help rebuild Gaza. The RIBA is “asking something impossible of us. We can’t force our members not to work in the territories,” he said. “Like all Israeli society, we are divided. The architects act according to their conscience.” Lipovetzky-Lir added that he and Peter Oborn, the RIBA’s vice president for international relations, had decided to meet in Israel in early May to improve understanding between the two associations.

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