Architects ask: What might a Palestinian West Bank look like?

“Decolonizing Architecture,” an exhibition on view at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, assumes that the current residents of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank will ultimately have to evacuate their homes. The three architects behind the show appear to have no doubt that those areas will be transferred to Palestinian control.

The question the architects attempt to probe in this compact and provocative display is simultaneously politically theoretical and architecturally concrete: What will happen to the houses left behind when Palestinians take over Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

A query inscribed on one of the walls is more blunt: “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?”

REDCAT’s gallery is currently configured as four rooms, and this exhibition, which has attracted 2,500 visitors since opening in early December, is the first presentation in the United States by the Bethlehem-based organization known as Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency (DAAR). Established by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in 2007, DAAR brings artists and architects to Bethlehem and encourages them to examine — in a hyper-local and highly critical way — the built environment of the West Bank. The show at REDCAT uses the tools of architecture — including drawings, models, maps and video — to explain one view of the situation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank today.

After viewing the exhibition, Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, called it anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and accused the organizers of omitting important context, including the Jewish historical connection to the West Bank. “Israel’s presence in the region was described in ugly terms, without any mention of the terror attacks that necessitate Israel’s military oversight of the area,” Rothstein wrote in an e-mail.

Weizman is no stranger to controversy. The Israeli-born, London-based architect is best known for co-curating “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” a show intended to be the official Israeli submission to the 2002 World Congress of Architecture but which was withdrawn at the last minute by the Israel Association of United Architects. The association’s president later called it “one-sided political propaganda” in The New York Times. (A version of the exhibit was mounted in New York and Berlin; the catalog was reprinted in 2003.)

By putting forward a vision of what might happen to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the REDCAT show harkens back to questions asked in advance of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 — explicitly so. Visitors to “Decolonizing Architecture” are welcomed by an ominous two-minute video clip of one settler’s house being torn apart by a backhoe — one of the more than 1,000 residential buildings destroyed before the disengagement from the 22 Israeli settlements in Gaza was complete.

In the section titled “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?” the show looks past the currently stalled peace negotiations and offers a bricks-and-mortar vision for the evacuated settlements in the West Bank radically different from what happened in Gaza. “The guiding principle,” the architects write in the text that accompanies the exhibition, “is not to eliminate the power of the occupation’s built spaces, nor simply to reuse it in the way it was designed for, but to reorient its logic to other aims.”

The show presents the Israeli settlement of Psagot (population 1,600) as a test case for this kind of transformation. Founded in 1981, Psagot sits on a hilltop east of Ramallah (population 27,000) and south of the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh (population 38,000). First and foremost, the DAAR architects propose that the settlement — which today functions as a gated community for religious Jewish settlers separated from the Palestinian areas around it — be woven into the urban fabric of the Palestinian cities nearby.

“You see, it is suburban in relationship to Jerusalem,” Weizman says of Psagot, in a video on the “Decolonizing Architecture” Web site. The settlement is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, but sits practically adjacent to Al-Bireh and Ramallah. “It’s very close to the Palestinian urban fabric,” Weizman said, “so it’s urban in the context of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, and it’s suburban in the context of Jewish Jerusalem.”

What might actually come of Psagot in a negotiated peace deal for a two-state solution remains unclear, as is true of the entire West Bank. “If you try to make a line around Psagot as a settlement bloc, you’ve got some trouble,” Americans for Peace Now West Coast Regional Director David Pine, who also visited the show, said. “There’s no line that you can draw without cutting communities of Palestinians in half.”

“Decolonizing Architecture” doesn’t attempt to draw any such lines. Instead, it simply assumes that places like Psagot will one day be evacuated and transferred over to Palestinian control, and that the transfer will necessitate some architectural modifications to the houses left behind, if only to turn the settlers’ homes —highly visible representations of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — into something that could better serve Palestinian purposes. (One of the simplest changes they propose is the removal and reconfiguration of the pitched red-tile roofs typical of Israeli settlement residential architecture.)

To be sure, the DAAR architects aren’t the only ones proposing architectural visions for a future Palestinian state. Doug Suisman is a Santa Monica-based urban designer whose infrastructure plan called “The Arc” recently won the “2010 Future Project of the Year” at the World Architecture Festival. Developed over the last six years in partnership with the RAND Corp., Suisman’s plan calls for a mix of railroads, motorways and bus routes to connect the primary Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to one another.

“We assumed that there was a peace accord in place,” Suisman said. By this, he meant that an agreement about borders — including a solution for Jerusalem and for the West Bank settlements — had somehow been reached. “Huge assumption,” Suisman acknowledged.

In creating “The Arc” — an inherently hopeful, self-consciously apolitical vision of a future Palestinian state — Suisman avoided looking at Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “It’s an important question, but it’s not the most important question,” Suisman said.

By contrast, “Decolonizing Architecture,” which looks directly at the settlements, does not make the same assumption of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, as the architects explain in the exhibition brochure, DAAR was launched as a way to entertain “the possibility of significant transformation” in the theoretical realm, despite its being “blocked by the political impasse known as the ‘peace process.’ ” Despite numerous attempts to reach them, none of the architects involved in the show responded to requests for comment.

“Decolonizing Architecture” is on view until Feb. 6 at REDCAT. Architect Alessandro Petti will participate in a panel discussion at the gallery on Wed., Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles. 213-237-2800.

Broad Art Center lifts concrete divide from UCLA

In remodeling UCLA’s old art school building, architects Richard Meier and Michael Palladino have taken a building that was essentially a wall and made it into a window. And the view through the window is good.

Far more than a facelift of a tired facade, the Broad Arts Center is a thorough rethinking of the building, inside and out, particularly the way the building interacts with the campus around it. The architects have taken an uninviting, barrier-like structure and created a see-through building, looking north and south. On sunny days, the glass doors of the bottom two levels disappear behind adjoining walls, and the building literally becomes both a window and a hallway, as well as a much improved locale for arts education.

The wall in our analogy was formerly the facade of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture — a dreary, “functionalist” flop by the late William Pereira, a prominent local architect who had done better things. A seven-story structure with a horizontal orientation, the school building was one of several from the 1960s and 1970s that seemed determined to wall off the university campus from its northern edge along Sunset Boulevard.

Even worse, Pereira’s building, with its uninterrupted facade of concrete sun screens, was an inward-looking, anti-social building that seemed embarrassed by its highly visible setting amid UCLA’s superb Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden, the Ralph Freud Playhouse and the Wight Gallery.

The makeover of the UCLA arts complex could be called a collaboration between two prominent members of the American Jewish community: Meier and donor Eli Broad. Businessman, philanthropist and fixer extraordinaire, Broad is the angel of the story in both the moral and financial senses. Two years ago, Broad, a noted art collector with a taste for architecture, personally hired Getty Center architect Richard Meier and contributed $23.2 million, or roughly half the cost, to remake the grim arts building into something both more useful for students and more cheerful for the public.

The assignment was an unusual one for Meier, the New York-based Meier, who is best known for museum designs (the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills is also his), as well as for Michael Palladino, co-principal of the firm, who runs Meier’s Westwood office and who took an active design role in the UCLA project. Although Meier’s firm is accustomed to stamping its own distinctive modernist style — a kind of classicized version of Franco-Swiss master Le Corbusier — on its projects, the architects put image-making on the back burner at UCLA while focusing on the quality of experience of both students and visitors.

The solution hinged on several straightforward moves: The first was to change the direction along which people walk through the building. By removing a structural wall that ran east and west, Meier and Palladino opened the building from north to south so students and visitors can stroll through the 40-foot depth of the building, rather than being forced to walk its 150-foot length, with its long hallways and creepy blind corridors.

Jack-hammering the east-west wall removed part of the building’s structural support. To replace the lost support, the architects added a new system of horizontal reinforcements on each floor, held in place by massive new concrete “book ends” on either side of the building. “They’re like flying buttresses,” a proud Palladino said of the concrete walls, comparing them to the exterior structural supports that helped prop up Gothic cathedrals.

The removal of the old structural wall essentially also opened much of the building to the sun, providing enough natural light for students to work without turning on lights — a definite plus for a structure built to strict energy-saving and “green building” standards.

Not all aspects of the “base building” were bad. Its orientation was ideal for capturing prevailing breezes and inducing natural cooling. “You have to give Pereira credit for siting the building in a way that would take advantage of those breezes,” Palladino said. With the interiors now largely open from window to window, the cooling air circulates better than ever.
It’s not surprising that one of Palladino’s favorite buildings is the Carpenter Center at Harvard, by Le Corbusier. That building works hard to create pedestrian movement and the mood of a public place at an awkward spot on that campus. Although the UCLA arts complex bears little outward resemblance to the Harvard building, the Broad Arts Center accomplishes an analogous repair job on the UCLA campus. The Broad takes a walled-off, hard-to-get-to corner spot of the campus and connects it to the rest of UCLA with a front entrance that also serves as a public hallway leading from one part of the campus to another.

The formerly inward looking building has now become a confident public building, which is appropriate for a spot on the campus that brings together the Wight Gallery, the Freud Theater and the sculpture gallery, newly adorned with the 42-ton “T.E.U.C.L.A.” (as in torqued ellipse at UCLA) by Richard Serra. Like the Carpenter Center, the Broad Arts Center is an example of architecture as problem solving, and an object lesson in the way a single building can do more than one thing.

Morris Newman has written about architecture and other subjects for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.