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The Architectural Conspiracy of Silence

Esther Zandburg  - Haaretz - 16 February 2007

Apart from any other implications, the affair of the new Mugrabi bridge is an extreme example of the dark and covert way in which Israel's professional and political planning world conducts itself. This case is neither an exception nor a surprise. This is how the sector has conducted matters for years - as if it were the government's secret service. It is no secret that planning is conducted under a veil of total secrecy. Very few things filter out to the general public in an orderly fashion - and when they become known, it is often too late to do anything. The difference is that this time the affair did not merely leak out, it burst out with a resounding blast.

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski's decision this week to "complete" the legislative process on the bridge's construction is merely proof of the general rule. This is a hasty and tardy decision that should have been made in the first place, as a matter of course. This is true not merely for a project of this nature, a few meters away from the time-bomb known as the Temple Mount, but for more standard works.

Not just a bridge

The decision to draw up an urban development plan for the walkway, to bring it to the planning authorities for approval, and to allow the general public to submit objections - as allowed by law - is a post factum indication of the project's nature and scope. It is not "merely a bridge," as was reported in the media, nor is it some minor, insignificant reconstruction as interested parties in the government described it. It is a real project. The new bridge is three times larger than the original, and it is to stretch from the Dung Gate to the Mugrabi Gate. That is why the original claim - that a project of this kind does not have to pass through the regular planning channels - is scandalous.

Every citizen who has encountered the newspaper announcements on potential projects knows something about the secrecy of the process. True, the building and planning law requires the announcement of building proposals that would affect the environment or the neighbors, but this old-fashioned and anachronistic law does not enable complete transparency. The authorities take full advantage of this lacuna, and sometimes seem to be acting behind the public's back.

Announcements about building plans are published, but almost clandestinely - on the back pages, in small fonts with strange text that even professionals can barely decipher. This is the case even when the projects are of great public importance and hold serious implications. It goes without saying that there is barely any information or illustrations. These are provided, if at all, only after the approval has been granted and when debate is no longer relevant.

The list of building plans approved under a veil of secrecy and guile is lengthy, and it suffices to mention a few. Most prominent is the Museum of Tolerance, set for central Jerusalem and planned by Frank Gehry. Not merely was this plan approved before being presented in full to the Israeli public, but those involved refused to reveal it even after it had been published in foreign architectural magazines.

The plans were finally made public at a festive cocktail party, once they were already a fait accompli. But the punishment was not slow in coming, like in the case of the Mugrabi bridge. The cornerstone for the museum was indeed laid about a year and a half ago, but construction was frozen a short while later, after civilian and religious Muslim bodies argued that it would harm a Muslim cemetery.

Another plan that was kept well under wraps until it was approved is the train bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem, planned by Santiago Calatrava. In the approved plan, the bridge was marked merely as a thin line. But then, area residents learned by chance that this was to be a tremendous, 360-meter-long structure, 30 stories high. The general public, for its part, discovered a billion-dollar project of dubious necessity.

The stars system

In civilized countries, information about proposals is published freely in the media, enabling professional and public debate. One example is the proposals for Ground Zero in New York, which were published worldwide.

A popular method for handling controversial plans here is hiring a top-notch international or local architect in the hope that their very name will neutralize criticism and shorten approval processes. In the case of the Mugrabi bridge, local star Ada Karmi-Melamede drafted the plans.

The secrecy with which planning is carried out in Israel would not have been possible were it not for the close cooperation among various private and public bodies, including the community of planners and architects. It is indeed not fair to demand that architects involved in problematic plans voice criticism, thus jeopardizing their income. But in the case of a crisis such as the Mugrabi ascent, one could have expected there would be some violation of the conspiracy of silence.

The Muslim protest over the Mugrabi ascent affair can serve as a lesson to the Israeli planning authorities and the public as a whole: Beyond the affair's political and theological issues, real or imagined, their behavior as civilians is actually worth emulating.