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The Trials of Rafi Segal | The Nation

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The Trials of Rafi Segal

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In early 2012, the National Library of Israel announced a competition for a new building in Jerusalem. The site was one of special prominence—near the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the Israel Museum—and the project enjoyed enormous national prestige. The competition was sponsored by two entities: the Israel National Library Construction Company and Yad Hanadiv, a foundation funded and controlled by the Rothschild family and the principal funder of the library project.

The track record of the Rothschilds in sponsoring Israeli architectural competitions is somewhat checkered, which isn’t surprising for a rich and powerful organization participating in processes where the outcome is, theoretically, beyond its control. In the case of the Knesset competition (also financed in large measure by Rothschild money), the controversy surrounded the undistinguished composition of the jury and the visibly mediocre quality of the results. When, in the 1980s, Yad Hanadiv got involved in sponsoring the contest for a new Supreme Court building, it was wary of entering a process over which it lacked final say and resolved—once burnt—not to risk the embarrassment of the Knesset affair. Writing in the online business magazine Globes, and drawing on research by architect Yaniv Pardo into the Supreme Court competition, Meirav Moran has explained (quoting Pardo) that Yad Hanadiv tried to protect itself by playing “the game in such a way as to fulfill their interests while appearing to be fair.” It wanted “to control all stages of the project while being the sole authority for planning and implementation and satisfying all bodies…and to make it look as if public conduct was proper.” The manipulation came in the form of an attempt to stack the jury and also to add a clause to the terms of the competition allowing the foundation to cancel the jury award under “an exceptional circumstance.” This was a blatant conflict with national regulations that required an anonymous tendering process from qualified architects, to be judged by a group of professionals. Fortunately, in this case, the jury was able to agree on a winner—Ada Karmi-Melamede—who went on to complete a building of high quality.

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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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When the library competition was announced, it almost immediately became mired in similar issues of power and manipulation. Like many such competitions, it was conducted in two stages: a general call to Israeli architects (which ultimately produced eighty-one entries), with the intention of winnowing the entries down to twelve for more detailed development in the second stage. However, the sponsors also decided to invite four well-known international offices and four leading Israeli firms to proceed directly to the second round. Allowing such a free pass is not entirely unusual, although with the library Yad Hanadiv turned the idea of an “open” competition into a charade: two-thirds of those advanced to the finals skipped the first round, making the odds for the rest of the participants far longer. Almost immediately a storm of criticism arose, including a petition signed by many Israeli architects calling for the contest’s cancellation. Arad Sharon, an architect who helped launch the protest, was quoted in Haaretz saying that “the terms of the competition constitute a death blow for the architectural sector. This…is a colossal humiliation.”

And yet on it went. Four Israeli architects were chosen to compete against the eight “big names,” and all of them developed and submitted projects to a jury composed of three distinguished international personalities in the field (the critic Luis Fernández-Galliano and the architects Rafael Moneo and Craig Dykers), as well as two Israeli architects (former Municipal Engineer of Jerusalem Gaby Schwartz and Elinoar Komissar-Barzacchi, the Jerusalem District planner at the Ministry of Construction and Housing), two members of the Rothschild family and two representatives of the library. And then something remarkable happened: in September 2012, Rafi Segal—a very talented young Israeli architect—became the jury’s enthusiastic choice. His elegant, subtle, site-sensitive scheme was described by the jury as “modest yet original and unique.” And so it was. Organized around a series of courtyards on a challengingly proportioned site, Segal’s building was a highly functional deployment of a complex program, extremely well considered climatically and elegantly expressed in austere, yet striking, tectonics.

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Then the assault began. First came an attack on Segal by Yair Gabbay, an attorney from the Jerusalem Municipality Planning and Building Committee, who threatened to thwart the permit process for the new building unless the National Library Board promised to “cancel the results of the tender and start a new process to choose a worthy planner for the National Library from among the Zionist architects living in Israel.” Gabbay’s beef with Segal had to do with the latter’s authorship a decade ago (with Eyal Weizman) of the fine book A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture, which succinctly examined the spatial specifics of Israeli settlement policy. In a letter to the prime minister, the mayor of Jerusalem and the media, the hyperbolically frustrated Gabbay wrote, without a whit of self-consciousness, that the book “reflects the depths of insanity plumbed by frustrated people who can’t get their way via democratic means” and insisted that no architect should benefit from public funding while “spitting on Israel all over the world.”

This was only the beginning. Accusations began to circulate on the web that Segal had plagiarized his design for the project from one in China done by a colleague at Harvard, where Segal was then teaching. To be sure, the works share a motif—an inclined roof section surrounding a void—but so do half the courtyard buildings built over a millennium or so in Italy (a source cited by Segal in his presentation to the jury) and elsewhere around the world. Segal had also used the motif in earlier work. In scale, use, materiality and expression, his library was altogether different from the Chinese building—itself very beautiful—by his fellow faculty member, who raised no objections of his own. In fact, the abstracted allusion to this widespread traditional form (a common source for many projects) was part of what gave the Jerusalem scheme its special resonance.

But the Harvard Design School can be a treacherous place, and the next attack on Segal—by Bing Wang, a colleague who teaches planning and real estate—provided the pretext that the library used to change course. Wang’s claim was a more serious one: not that Segal had poached from her previous work, but that the library design was as much hers as his. Her aggressive insistence on intellectual property rights as an “equal partner” was quickly—and, it seems, unreservedly—accepted by the client, which decided, scarcely three months after the jury had made its original decision, to dump the winner. This reversal has been greeted with gales of protest from the architectural community, perhaps most strikingly from the Israel Association of United Architects, whose support for Segal represents another reversal: it was the IAUA that had commissioned A Civilian Occupation from Segal and Weizman as the basis for the Israeli exhibition at the 2002 International Union of Architects Congress in Berlin, only to suppress it after finding that the work ultimately produced was contrary to the organization’s political interests. But regarding the library affair, the IAUA has publicly demanded Segal’s reinstatement and called on the architectural community not to collaborate in any new selection process.

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