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Eyal Weizman on understanding politics through architecture, settlements and refuseniks

November 24, 2014 at 11:37 am

Professor Eyal Weizman, British-Israeli architect [David Ausserhofer / Robert Bosch Academy]

“We need to remember that some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture, that we all love and we all travel to see, have been military fortifications and sites of battles and execution, or beautiful castles that had a repressive social, political and military use. Architecture cannot be “tainted” by its use, because its use is part of what it is, what it does. Architecture has always been a means to create hierarchies in space to produce and represent inequality, and to exercise control.”

Eyal Weizman – architect, writer, activist and professor of visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London – is explaining how architecture and power are inextricably linked, even within structures that appear largely to serve an aesthetic purpose. Buildings or cityscapes that a tourist crosses the world to see were often conceived with the intent to oversee their populations.

“Even the beautiful boulevards of Paris have been partly conceived in order to generate an environment of control over the riots and urban rebellions of the nineteenth century,” he continues. “We need to understand that in architecture, beauty and horror are intrinsically linked and that accounts for the fascination we have in architecture. That its beauty is not separated from its horror but that it is part of it.”

Weizman says that architecture offers a different means to understanding politics than journalism or political science does, but he is still on a “trajectory of understanding” using a series of publications and exhibitions to explore exactly how. A distinct example of the intersection of architecture and politics, and a subject the architect has dedicated much of his work to, is Israeli control of the physical space of Palestinians.

As Weizman pointed out in a recent Al-Jazeera documentary the Architecture of Violence, settlements are built on the tops of hillsides, looking down on Palestinian villages so as to dominate their surroundings and protect themselves. Their roofs are painted red, which is mandated by planning regulations of most settlements, and this helps the military navigate the landscape and identify the settlements.

It seems fitting then that inside one of these illegal housing projects, the Ariel University inside the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, is an architecture school. Yet despite the overtly political backdrop of the institute, according to Weizman, there is the willing adoption of a certain “political naivety” when it comes to studying the discipline.

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“They would never discuss issues of repression or land grab directly. There is a certain pact of silence around the political dimension of architecture there. Schools of architecture depoliticise the profession, they put it very much within the domain of aesthetic experimentation,” he says.

“Architects want to believe, and even the architects in the settlements, that they are serving an individual family whose home they built.”

“The more they say it is not political, the more that enables the political manipulation of the use of architecture for political means,” he reflects. Architects in denial become prey to those who want to manipulate their profession for political gain. “The problem really is not so much the right wing architects, because they would support this idea anyway, it’s centre or centre-left, which is really most architects in Israel. They are actually those that need that process of denial.”

On the one hand, says Weizman, you have military structures like watchtowers and walls that are designed within the Ministry of Defence and built according to the brute, utilitarian logic of military control. Then you have the “civilian occupation”, that is civilian planners working for the government who may assign a hilltop for settlement.

Whether such designs are realised in the Ministry of Defence or in the civilian planning department within the government, it is Palestinians who are paying the physical, territorial and psychological price for having their external space controlled so aggressively. “We see the eruptive violence now in Jerusalem; it’s a direct response to the next wave of the settlement project,” says Weizman.

This newest wave in the settlement project has seen the illegal blocs move from being “a project of separation in space”, where settlements are built on hilltops, to them entering the centres of Palestinian neighbourhoods and cities. In Silwan in East Jerusalem, for example, you see compounds made up of 45 houses built right in the heart of Palestinian homes. “There would be security on its roof, it would operate as a kind of a mini settlement within the urban fabric and that increases friction exponentially. You see the eruptive violence of protests revolting against this new phase in the settlement project,” he says.

One of the strengths of the Israeli system, believes Weizman, is that you cannot draw a clear border between the Israeli economy, Israeli society and Israeli politics. All members of Israeli society, all major companies and corporations are invested in buying and selling to the occupation. “It is not as if there is a project beyond the green line and then you cross the green line into ’48 Palestine and there it just simply doesn’t exist. The level of connections and the network of the settlement project is not in the West Bank alone, it is in ’48 Palestine, in Israel, in the Israeli government, in Israeli society, in Israeli corporations and economy.”

Whether or not its intertwined nature makes the occupation irreversible or not, Weizman is unsure. But to uproot it, he says, would require a complete transformation of the state. “The state as it is would not enable a project of separation and withdrawal without a huge, internal, violent conflict in Israel, tearing Israeli society apart.

“I do not see a two-state solution as a practical or achievable way in the near future,” he adds.

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Resistance to Israeli hegemony, for Weizman, needs to operate on all levels. “The boycott is part of that and I think being a non-violent means of transformation, a non-armed means of transformation, a civil practice, it’s part of the civil toolbox of citizens all over the world. It’s a very effective way to convey to Israelis that their actions are beyond the pale; that this is not acceptable. And, of course, pushing the boycott to the field of architecture might wake architects up to understand the full political implications of the work, the implications that they still deny.”

Earlier Weizman pointed out that a few cases of architectural refuseniks do exist, where architects have turned down a commission that could support their office and provide a livelihood for them and their families. “What we need is an architectural refusal to participate in that, like the soldiers who are refuseniks or like the soldiers who are committed to “breaking the silence”. Architecture also needs its process of breaking the silence, of confronting the denial and understanding the political framework within which their work is located.”

Whilst the mechanism of control in a capitalist society, says Weizman, can lead us to believe that we have freedom, the structures of debt and economical consideration means that to refuse we need to be strong, perhaps even stronger than a soldier who disobeys a command and refuses to carry out military service.

“An architect that is running an office, who is in debt and pays salaries, has all the economic incentives to take it [a commission], but must resist it. The punishment is obviously not in going to a military prison, as in the case of soldier refuseniks, but on the livelihood of these people. So that’s a way of controlling people, of course. When the economy is organised in a particular way it’s very difficult not to participate in hegemony, so hegemony works. It organises the economy, it organises the structure of debt in a way that you might conform to power.”

Most of the world has been colonised, says Weizman, and therefore it is colonial architecture that has set the precedent for controlling populations across the world. “Patterns of settler colonialism have always sought to isolate and protect the coloniser,” he says, “and exclude the colonised.” But contemporary tools of economic and capitalist separation that can be seen, for example, in corporate high rises or gated communities also play their part.

Weizman has just returned from a trip to the US. Like Israel, highways in Los Angeles serve more affluent communities and bypass the poorer areas. In the Gulf, he says, the labour force is contained, separated and supervised. Such capitalist tools of separation, seen across the world, “are all part of the growing toolbox of architecture and planning in the West Bank – it’s composed, I mean it has a sort of colonial history, but it’s contemporary vocabulary exists overall, everywhere you look, everywhere you go you have the politics of surveillance, separation, supervision and sometimes even oppression. Palestine is to a certain extent, a laboratory for the application of the most extreme means.”

The Architecture of Violence will be screened at SOAS Khalili Lecture Theatre at 7.15pm on 5 December as part of the London Palestine Film Festival. After the documentary, Weizman will be speaking on Architecture and Violence after Gaza.

Weizman’s recent books include: