From Criticism To Advocacy

From Criticism To Advocacy:A new approach in architecture exhibition in the Architect’s House Gallery.

The “Urban Space” (1) exhibitions at The Architect’s House Gallery usually display a series of structures designed and erected around the date of the exhibit, presenting a picture of new architecture in Israel. For “Urban Space 2011 Stepping Out,” however, architects were invited to submit projects that manifest social responsibility. Thus, for the first time, the exhibition centers around the social aspect of architecture.

By focusing on social issues, “Urban Space 2011” follows in the footsteps of previous exhibitions at The Architect’s House Gallery, and in particular the “Local” series I have curated over the past decade. “Local” has dealt with the ways in which architecture shapes reality, and influences the everyday life of its users, while at the same time revealing how architecture is constrained by the seats of power in society. In their finest moments, the exhibitions have offered a critical view of several features of Israeli architecture that have social implications, including separation, gentrification, and the restriction and neglect of certain national and ethnic groups. “Urban Space 2011” goes in a very different direction: Rather than voicing social criticism of architectural phenomena, it highlights projects that seek, whether expressly or indirectly, to achieve worthy social goals by means of their planning and design.

The return to the broad definition of architecture which includes social objectives, after years in which the profession appeared to be bound by market forces, is linked to external processes operating in socioeconomic reality both Locally and globally. This subject warrants separate discussion. Here, however, I will limit myself to a brief survey of the interrelations between the social emphasis in the current exhibition, curated by the architects Vered Fluk and Shira Noy Goren, and works by Vered Fluk in two previous exhibitions at The Architect’s House Gallery: “The Feminine Presence in Israeli Architecture” (2) and “Curbstone.”(3)

In “The Feminine Presence in Israeli Architecture,” Fluk presented the video “A Skirt of Concrete and Cement,” in which the women architects participating in the exhibition speak of their profession as more than simply a matter of aesthetics. In the segment “Parallel Language,” the landscape architect Prof. Yael Moriah and Tula Amir each maintain, separately, that architecture does not merely mean creating a new self-contained space out of nothing; it must first contend with “organizing and cleaning up” the existing, changing space. Batia Svirsky-Melloul, Perla Kaufman, and Yael Moriah relate to architecture as not only “composition” or the design of “objects” or “a two-dimensional picture.” So what is architecture if not the design of aesthetic objects? Tulu Amitai claims that its job is not to deal with “shapes that can be drawn on a computer,” but with “the people who use buildings.”

The voices of all the participants in “The Feminine Presence in Israeli Architecture “were heard in the video “A Skirt of Concrete and Cement,” which became an emotional high point of the exhibition. I believe it was this experience which paved the way for Fluk’s decision to examine the concept of socially responsible architecture. Rather than reflecting an accepted trend, the earlier exhibit created among the female architects a new shared awareness that arose out of questions and differences of opinion .

“Urban Space 2011 Stepping Out” also poses questions. Just as some of the participants in “The Feminine Presence” objected to the genderized categorization, so in some of the projects in the current exhibition the social aspect is not definitive, but rather lends itself to interpretation by the curators or the designers themselves. For this very reason, this exhibition similarly enables architects to arrive at a new awareness, to reexamine their work and, perhaps for the first time, characterize certain professional decisions as decisions taken on behalf of the public, the users, or the city, thereby endowing them with new value.

The concept of responsibility also appears in the video installation “Curbstone” exhibited in 2009 as part of the series “Lpcal.” Created by Vered Fluk and her brother Ido Fluk, it depicts the renovations and infrastructure improvements carried out on Ibn Gvirol St. in Tel Aviv, as planned by Moriah-Sekely Landscape Architects. In interviews Fluk and I conducted with Prof. Yael Moriah before and after the exhibition, she characterized designers as agents of the public who must constantly ask themselves which public they are serving and which sectors of the population should be invited to participate in the project of renewal or development.

In this definition of the social involvement, architects are called upon to conduct a critical analysis of the balance of power in the space, and to actively seek out groups that use it now, or may use it in the future, but are lacking in influence or are not allied with the relevant interest groups or those commissioning the design. In the renewal project for Ibn Gvirol St., a major artery in the geographical heart of the city as well as in the citizens’ consciousness, Moriah-Sekely sought to provide a response for the different users and uses of the street: its residents, homeless people, pedestrians, cyclers, passengers on public transportation, patrons of the cafés, shoppers in the stores. As this was not a distinctly social project demanding explicit intervention to benefit weaker populations, it raises an important question: Are architects and planners not obliged to be agents of the public in each and every project? This obligation may have been forgotten in an age when public planning has to pay homage to those who hold the purse strings.

I have demonstrated here how the concepts of social architecture and social responsibility were raised in previous exhibitions at the Architect’s House Gallery. It is therefore neither random nor a one-time occurrence that social issues have crossed over from the Local exhibitions into the Urban Space series, which presents the mainstream of architectural activity in Israel. It is my sincere hope that the move from a critical stance to an attitude that enables and encourages social responsibility reflects a return to social discourse in mainstream Israeli architecture.

1. The Urban Space exhibitions (also known as the Israeli biennale of architecture) were created and curated by the architect Shlomo Shafrir as regular biannual arena for presenting architectural projects to the general public. Urban Space 2011 is the sixth in the series.
2. The Feminine Presence in Israeli Architecture was mounted in winter 2007, at the Architect’s House Gallery. Curators: architects Sigal Davidi and Sergio Lerman.
3. Architect Vered Fluk and Ido Fluk’s exhibition Curbstone, appeared in 2009 at the Architect’s House Gallery as part of the series Local. Curator: Shelly Cohen.