RIBA’s anti-Israel posturing: built on shaky foundations

Michael Owens

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Topics Politics

In March 2014, the Royal Institute for British Architects (RIBA) called for its Israeli counterpart organisation, the Israeli Association of United Architects, to be suspended from the International Union of Architects. This bureaucratic stance, far from advancing a principled political position, would actually have closed down dialogue between the international architectural community and practicing Israeli architects.

RIBA has now changed its position. Stephen Hodder, president of RIBA, said ‘we got it wrong’. The vote is a defeat for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which had promoted the original motion back in March as part of a protest at the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

However, the recent volte-face by RIBA does not suggest a mature reflection on the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Rather, the original vote, promoted by a former RIBA president and only narrowly won, proved incendiary for RIBA’s relationships within the British establishment. The vote was passed days after UK prime minister David Cameron had visited Israel. RIBA’s adopted policy called into question its charitable status and its Royal Charter. Pro-Palestinian lobbyists attacked RIBA for its continuing engagements in Israel.

Moreover, RIBA’s anti-Israel position brought charges that RIBA was singling out Israel, and ignoring other undemocratic and repressive regimes where British architects make lucrative returns. After all, since the recession called time on growth and development in the UK, RIBA’s members have sought refuge in international markets, trading in places like China, Russia, Qatar and Libya. Indeed, if the logic of disengagement from regimes with distasteful politics were to hold, then it would be reasonable for UK architects to be critical of Britain’s often armed interventions overseas. Bringing the British establishment to account for its own role in assorted global conflicts is surely the most progressive contribution British citizens in all walks of life can make to the international struggle for democracy and rights.

Leaving RIBA’s woes aside, there are clear principles at stake. Architects and built-environment professionals should be free from the moralising of their professional bodies when deciding where to work, how to build relationships with international colleagues, and how to participate in politics at home and abroad. Bans and boycotts reduce the opportunity for movement and engagement across borders and between people: a precondition for political dialogue.

Two key points are lost in this affair. First, the distinctive political contribution of architects should be to produce great architecture. Second, political solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict lie with the people of the region: they will not be crafted in wood-panelled halls in London.

Michael Owens is commercial director of Bow Arts Trust, and owner of London Urban Visits.

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