The Trials of Rafi Segal

The Trials of Rafi Segal

In Israel, an architectural competition and its winner have been sabotaged by the bad faith of its sponsors.


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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Having attempted to be reasonable with all concerned, Segal has been forced to go to the courts to counter both the manifest injustice he has suffered and the sponsor’s own retreat into the narrowest (and phoniest) legalism, and to demand that he be reinstated as the winner and offered a contract. I’ve been sorting through the claims and counterclaims and have spoken with Segal, corresponded with Wang (as well as the library and several of the jurors), and read the legal submissions to the sponsors and the courts. What is clear is that Wang supported the project with funds and office space, and that one of her employees—Yonatan Cohen, an Israeli friend of Segal’s, who does seem to have done much of the heavy lifting to produce the final drawings—was shifted to reduced pay and worked on the scheme in Wang’s office. Wang also provided a variety of other office services, including the hiring of a freelance computer renderer. Finally, Wang asserts that Segal failed to inform her that the competition was open only to Israeli architects and that, in effect, her contribution was secured under false pretenses. 

Wang’s central claim is that Segal had promised her equal credit as one of four authors: herself, Segal, Cohen and Matan Mayer (another young Israeli architect, who provided substantial assistance and, along with Cohen, has signed a document relinquishing any claim to rights for the project). Cohen has also written a letter to the library stating in part that “it was perfectly clear to all persons involved in the planning that the work was the creation of Rafi, who is the architect of this project and who is the superior authority in anything related to planning, from small to large details. Rafi was the one who presented the initial concept of the planning by way of a set of sketches that were very clear, and any decision related to planning derived from that set of sketches.” To be sure, it appears that Wang’s firm, the HyperBina Design Group, was not properly cited in the initial press release of the results—though on its website, HyperBina takes credit for the project and lists Segal as a collaborator, somewhat undermining Wang’s claims of interest in equity. But beyond the question of being credited for her support, Wang insists that she played an important personal role in the creation of the design, not merely in helping to enable its documentation. Segal, for his part, continues to assert that he was the author of the scheme (and contractual documents pertaining to Wang’s involvement clearly establish his ultimate authority over it); that the requirement for an Israeli license (which only Segal possessed) was clear to Wang and a matter of public knowledge; and that he was always prepared to recognize the contributions made by all the members of the team.

Rafi Segal is a friend, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that he was the intellectual and creative author of the scheme. His submission to the court includes reams of drawings that show his painstaking development of the project. Even as specified in her legal brief, Wang’s claims of design participation are almost negligible. Moreover, I’ve seen no graphic or other evidence to bear them out: while her assistance in facilitating the entry is clear, it is equally clear that this was not in the form of a contribution to the actual design of the project. This view is shared by Preston Scott Cohen, the chair of Harvard’s architecture department and himself a distinguished practitioner. In a letter to the director of Yad Hanadiv, he wrote: “Ms. Bing Wang does not teach and has not taught architecture at the Architecture Department and to the best of my knowledge is not a practicing designer. Her expertise is urban planning and real estate development.” He goes on to explain that Segal’s

winning competition proposal clearly bears the marks of his previous work and thus represents his design authorship. It is very consistent with his sensitivity to the urban context, both in terms of the site and the larger historical context, his use of simple geometric patterns, the inclined plane and ‘cut out’ strategy, the abstracted and restrained exterior and several other architectural features which are reoccurring elements in his work.
   Furthermore, conceiving of and resolving a project of this complexity requires years of experience and active design practice. In short, Wang’s claim to authorship, which would mean that she personally served in a collaborative role, acting jointly as a principal designer, is clearly unfounded.

Cohen also explains what those of us with experience in competitions of this type know all too well: they are always somewhat frantic, collaborative, midnight-oil undertakings with strong affinities to barn-raisings or to spontaneous performance pieces. A team is gathered in a cooperative spirit and works flat-out to get the thing done against high expectations and low odds of success. People come and go according to the time they have available and their particular abilities and resources, pitching in to help meet the usually impossible deadline. Nearly all architectural work is collaborative, and it is surely always right to credit those who participate for the help they’ve given; any failure by Segal to adequately acknowledge such contributions must be corrected. However, while it is clear that Wang made an administrative and financial contribution to the project, the question of authorship is not opaque: it belongs to Segal, the instigator of the project, the organizer of the team, and the obvious sensibility—and hand—behind the design. 

Did the sponsors of the competition accept Wang’s argument because they were looking for a way to get rid of Segal because of his politics, or because they were cowed by her legal claims? It’s hard to say, but their punctilious insistence that the commission be rescinded because Segal could not reach a legal agreement with Wang is not merely disingenuous but vicious. According to Segal and to documents submitted to the court, there were lengthy negotiations with Wang during which he offered her appropriate credit, a generous financial settlement, and his apologies for any aspect of the competition project he failed to clearly disclose. Throughout, Wang apparently remained unyielding (a document from her lawyer attests that she flatly declined Segal’s settlement offer), preferring to pull the temple down around all concerned rather than find an amicable resolution. Wang should remember her prior friendship with Segal, swallow her injured pride, forgive any perceived affront, reach an agreement and allow the project to go ahead. Enough of relying on the law to be the ass it too often is. 

* * *

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.

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.

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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