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How One Israeli Firm Thinks Architecture Can Make Peace

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When Israel began building a wall along the West Bank in 2003—called the "separation fence" by some, the "Apartheid wall" by others—Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai were about to graduate from architecture school at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. As aspiring architects studying and living "in the shadow of a territorial conflict," as Greenfield-Gilat says, they were shocked to see that architects were involved in only the most superficial conversations about the aesthetics of the wall—there were no bigger-picture architectural discussions about how the wall would change its surroundings. "It was insulting that architects were not considered by themselves as people who have something to say about the most significant spatial fact that [was] being built in Israel," Greenfield-Gilat says now.

Bar-Sinai and Greenfield-Gilat, now 36 and 37, believed architecture and architects had a place in the conversation about conflict resolution. For their Technion thesis project, they designed a transportation hub that, after a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement, could serve as both a border and a functional structure within Jerusalem, strengthening the city rather than fragmenting it. The project raised all kinds of big questions, as Greenfield-Gilat recalls: "How can we use architectural tools and insights in order to enhance…territorial peace agreements? How do you create a border within a city that does not really destroy the city?" And so, in 2006, they formed SAYA, a firm focused on "resolution planning," or the idea that design and architecture can be tools for peace. The firm's name is short for "Studio Aya," in memory of Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai's friend and fellow architect Aya Shapira.

Many of the firm's current projects are thought-driven, paid for by think tanks, universities, or international agencies and governments. Most often, the architects come up with ideas based on needs they see in the world and pitch them to relevant organizations, though sometimes it's the other way around. It's prebuilding rather than rebuilding. The idea, as Bar-Sinai explained in a talk at Harvard's Graduate School of Design last year, is to "be in the prime minister's head," to get policymakers to think, as much as possible, like architects.


[A proposed Jenin-Gaboa peace park. Rendering courtesy of SAYA with landscape architects Rachael F. Cleveland and Mia Schaphie. The managing architect on the project is SAYA's Lian Saga.]

magining peace after a long and complicated territorial conflict requires, as Greenfield-Gilat puts it, a "leap of faith," and a large part of SAYA's work is to help decision-makers and members of the public make that leap. The first challenge is just to convince politicians that the architects deserve a seat at the table, that "things that got messed up in space need people who are experts in space to solve it."

The next challenge is to visualize what peace could look like. The partners of SAYA aren't the only ones to tackle that question—there are a handful of other architects who have focused on what the profession can do in the shadow of major conflicts, and competitions, like the Just Jerusalem competition that grew out of MIT's Jerusalem 2050 project in 2007, are another way to generate ideas for the future of a contested region.

Here are a few of SAYA's own visualizations for a peaceful Jerusalem: Is Peace Possible?, an interactive map designed in collaboration with the Abraham Center for Middle East Peace; an idea for how the gates of Jerusalem's Old City could integrate security; and a proposal, funded by the Peres Center for Peace, for an "alternative tourism experience" in Jerusalem created collaboratively by Israelis and Palestinians. SAYA's architects view that collaboration as another important aspect of the firm's peacemaking work. "Once you bring professionals of both sides to any conflict," says architect Chen Farkas, who has been with SAYA since 2007 and is one of the firm's staff of four architects, "you're one step ahead of the game….That opens the discussion and creates the atmosphere for peace." While Israelis and Palestinians have connections already in the security world and through NGOs, it is those professional, civil-world links that will both pave the way for peace and be essential once peace happens.


[The birdwatching park at the Jenin-Gilboa project, rendering courtesy of SAYA with landscape architects Rachael F. Cleveland and Mia Schaphie.]

SAYA also has some projects already at the shovels-in-the-ground stage, and those projects, too, deal with issues of public space and collaboration, though on a smaller scale. SAYA worked up a proposal for the revamp of the public space at Kibbutz Be'eri, one of Israel's kibbutzim, a sort of utopian community. Also on SAYA's to-do list is a peace park situated between the Palestinian city of Jenin and Israel's Gaboa Regional Council. The park centers on a river, and since that river carries mostly sewage, the park would include a mechanism for recycling water and using it as the foundation for the story the park will tell. Once SAYA finishes the initial design phase, which is likely to take until March, the project will go out for contractor bids. Also this spring, some of the firm's work is likely to be exhibited in Washington, D.C..


[A rendering for the public space at Kibbutz Be'eri. Image courtesy of SAYA with architect Maya Levy.]

hile the politicians are busy thinking a little more like architects, the SAYA team members hope that their fellow architects will begin to think a little more like policymakers. Over the past century, says Greenfield-Gilat, architects "have been moving away from the idea that they have a broad responsibility towards society." And peacemaking architecture is, he admits, "not a good business plan" if the goal is large profits. But SAYA wants to "reclaim the public role of architects as those who are taking responsibility over global situations." In that sense, SAYA has a similar overarching philosophy to organizations like Architects Without Borders or Architecture for Humanity—architecture for the public good. But there are no other architecture firms that focus on the profession as a tool for conflict resolution. Instead, people underestimate the challenges of building for peacetime, says Greenfield-Gilat. "The science of peace is at least as complicated as the science of war."

Among the complications is the fact that "the ground is so contentious in Jerusalem," says Diane Davis, professor of urbanism and development at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, who co-directed MIT's Jerusalem 2050 project. Many of the submissions to the Just Jerusalem competition, which ended that project, involved structures that were either below the ground or in the air—one submission suggested houses on robotic legs. "Obviously, when you're a firm like SAYA, you have to deal with the ground," Davis says. "That's why the work they do is so important, but that's also why it's so hard," leaving less room for radical ideas than competitions do. "No one is going to build a city where every house is on robotic legs….You have to think, who's going to buy your solution?"

"The science of peace is at least as complicated as the science of war."—Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat, co-founder of SAYA

SAYA hopes that its reach will be global. Greenfield-Gilat, Bar-Sinai, and their team have worked primarily in Israel so far, but SAYA has also had projects in Cyprus and the Balkans. Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, is divided between the Greeks and the Turks (the divide labeled, as it was in the case of the 1949 Israeli demarcation agreements, the Green Line), and Greenfield-Gilat saw some analogies in Nicosia to the situation in Israel. After Greenfield-Gilat wrote a letter critiquing former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal for Cyprus, which would have divided the island into two states, SAYA became involved in a United Nations Development Program project analyzing the common spaces along the green line. The project raised more big questions -- how, for example, can we create "a common narrative that helps revive these areas and put them back into the use of both sides." But, Greenfield-Gilat says, tensions between Israel and Turkey have stalled the project.

In the Balkans, another SAYA project that has been in progress for nearly a year is a request from the Balkans Forum for Regional Cooperation for a strategy to deal with regional energy use. There, the central question is how to convince the Balkans countries to work together on energy goals rather than going it alone. And SAYA's challenge isn't the difficult architect-politician mind-meld but the fact that the best strategy will ultimately come from members of the community who know their own needs, rather than from outsiders.

And, in the end, the source of the solutions is less important than the fact that architects are involved, bringing their expertise to bear on complex situations, from territorial conflicts to—one possibility Chen Farkas says SAYA is interested in exploring—smaller-scale disputes within cities. "Israel is very well known for its security industry and exports," Farkas says. "Hopefully one day we'll do the same with peace."

·Official website: SAYA [sayarch.com]