The Trials of Rafi Segal | The Nation


The Trials of Rafi Segal

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In depriving Segal of the commission, the sponsors acted in the worst of faith. Their anodyne assertion that “Segal’s proposal was disqualified in light of deficiencies discovered in it” neither addresses the public’s interest in the construction of what had been hailed as the best design mere weeks before nor the flimsy core of Wang’s charges against Segal. No genuine investigation could have been undertaken in the brief time between the award and the dismissal, and I find it unbelievable that a sponsor—and an immensely powerful one at that—committed to the architect and design it had chosen was incapable of intervening to smooth any ruffled feathers and arrive at an understanding that would have allowed the project to proceed. I find it equally impossible to believe that the sponsors were so clueless about the creative character of the competition process.

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Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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Segal, a man of gentle demeanor, has been deeply hurt and humiliated by the affair and has lost the opportunity of a lifetime. Alas, the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slow, and his case will not be heard until May. Taking advantage of this lag, the sponsors have rapidly initiated a do-over and have already released a call for another “competition”—structured much differently and more controllably than the first—which clearly seeks to establish immovable “facts on the ground” before the thing works its way through the courts. 

In this new round, the call is not for a design but for a statement of qualifications from experienced Israeli firms (who can presumably partner with the appropriately luminous intergalactic starchitect). They are obliged to demonstrate that they’ve recently constructed a large public building with a substantial budget, and also to employ a minimum number of architects in Israel. The jury has been reduced to the key Rothschild, the chair of the Yad Hanadiv, Komissar-Barzacchi and Fernández-Galliano (whose collusion I find both surprising and disappointing). And it must be observed that a particular segment of the Israeli population—and, presumably, of the readership of the library—has been excluded, as usual, from any participation in the process.

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Among the many ironies of this story is that one of the jurors who strongly supported Segal—Craig Dykers of the firm Snøhetta, recently the subject of flattering profiles in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker—was himself catapulted to global prominence at a young age precisely on the strength of having won a competition for a major Middle Eastern library: the Alexandria Library in Egypt. The newly configured arrangement—with its dependence on credentials rather than design and the absence of any distinguished practitioner on the jury—cannot by any stretch be legitimately described as a competition, and it will also ensure that youthful or non-mainstream designers do not participate. Indeed, the sponsors have, with calculation, dashed the hope that dances behind every architectural competition: that a brilliant and unexpected design will emerge from an imagination that has not taken the easy path through established styles in order to get to the top.

Esther Zandberg, long the leading architectural writer in Israel, has called what has happened to Segal a “targeted assassination.” I strongly urge architects of conscience to refuse to profit from Rafi Segal’s misfortune by participating in this grotesque process. I especially urge those architects who were beaten fair and square in the original competition to have the courage to speak up about this affront to both architecture and justice.

In last week’s issue, Alexandra Lange surveyed the life of the first architecture critic for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable.

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