Diplomacy by Design

A new generation of architects is using rail lines, shopping centers, and football fields to keep the peace from Belfast to Baghdad.

Mahud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Mahud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Mahud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

On a single day in July, when ambient tensions escalated, Palestinian militants fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, and the Israelis launched airstrikes against towns throughout the Gaza Strip. Dozens of Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed. The order of daily urban life was disrupted, yet again, by warfare.   

On a single day in July, when ambient tensions escalated, Palestinian militants fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, and the Israelis launched airstrikes against towns throughout the Gaza Strip. Dozens of Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed. The order of daily urban life was disrupted, yet again, by warfare.   

Karen Lee Bar-Sinai knows the psychic toll of this conflict all too well. For four years, she endured missile attacks, sometimes daily, on a kibbutz two miles from central Gaza. But this July, her focus was on the more granular details that underscored war’s impact in Jerusalem.  

The 37-year-old Israeli architect was frustrated to see how Palestinians had fixated on a rail line that runs along the city’s Israel-Palestine border. As the fighting carried on, they responded by ripping tracks out of the ground, smashing traffic signals, and reportedly damaging or completely destroying a number of rail stations. What Israel had seen as a unifying infrastructure project just three years prior, some Palestinians had come to view as another arm of the occupation.

The railway “wasn’t designed to really serve two capitals connected together,” Bar-Sinai says. “This entity separates, whereas it’s such a tremendous opportunity to actually connect.” This latest phase of conflict revealed many things, including the limitations of designing for peace — in Israel-Palestine and elsewhere.

The geographies of human settlement have become the modern theaters of conflict. “The search for national security is today a source for urban insecurity,” writes sociologist Saskia Sassen — an insecurity that becomes part of the environment, writ large, in upturned neighborhoods and toppled buildings. In terrorist attacks alone, cities were subject to more than 12,000 incidents and suffered more than 73,000 casualties between 1968 and 2008, according to urban-affairs scholar Hank Savitch in his book Cities in a Time of Terror. “Approximately three out of every four attacks and four out of five casualties occur in a city,” he writes.

But though these numbers are indeed staggering, urban warfare and deliberate attacks on architecture are hardly new phenomena. From the widespread destruction of cities during World War II to the bombing of Hanoi to the 9/11 attacks to the invasion of Baghdad, the toll of war is both human and urban.

Nevertheless, architecture has rarely been made a priority in the early, post-traumatic triage of reconstruction. Historically in war’s aftermath, governments, militaries, intergovernmental associations, and aid agencies have come together to respond to immediate human needs and develop paths for physical recovery and stabilization. Governments engage militaries to establish order and security. Groups within the United Nations and European Union, for example, round up experts to plot the political reorganization of cities torn apart. Aid agencies fly in to provide shelter and food. And though the city itself is the setting for these interventions, rarely is its architecture the focal point.

At times, such as in planning efforts for the Bosnian city of Mostar and the redevelopment of Beirut’s city center in the 1990s, architects and planners have been brought into the process. But largely, they have been absent from early decisions, meaning recovery strategies and projects set in cities have been developed with little or no input from the very professionals who best understand how to control the form and function of cities. Consequently, post-conflict response often disregards the potential of shared spaces to foster reconciliation, the importance of urban plans in managing turbulent population dynamics, and the need for a public realm that enables normal life to continue. “The absence of any architect or planner or designer in the negotiating room is something that has to change,” Bar-Sinai says.

She isn’t alone in her thinking. Today, as cities build walls to separate hostile populations, as refugees spill across borders, and as informal shantytowns rise in the shadow of bombed-out neighborhoods, architects and city planners are slowly approaching the legacies of conflict as urban problems demanding design solutions.

Tweaking or reimagining physical spaces, their thinking goes, can help build long-term civic harmony by creating the buildings and places where normal life can resume. When a city is built to separate conflicting groups or to fortify buildings against bombings — something that can be seen from Belfast to Baghdad — those separations are tacitly encouraged and the bombings expected. Allowing designers into the discussions earlier provides an understanding of the dynamics of urban spaces, and it can lead to the development of precise interventions to instill stability, functionality, and, eventually, peace.


On a winter day in early 2010, Bar-Sinai and Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat opened the doors to SAYA, their architecture firm, then located in Tel Aviv’s trendy, bohemian Florentin district — a welcome move to formality after five years of working from their apartments. It was a quiet opening day, to say the least, but that was to be expected, given their mission statement. Their business wasn’t founded simply to design contemporary architecture, and they had little interest in projects that would reinforce or ignore divisions between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, they wanted to develop policy-focused urban-design projects that anticipated a future peace agreement.

“We see ourselves — and it’s a strange place to be as a designer — not as shaping the space directly, but as indirectly influencing how better decisions can be made about that space,” Bar-Sinai says. “It’s not about realizing the design; it’s about making that gap smaller between what we believe can happen today and the peaceful reality we envision in our minds.”

Their business was conceived in 2004, the year Israel broke ground on the ambitious 422-mile wall of concrete and metal that continues to be built in the West Bank and winds around and into Jerusalem, separating some Palestinian enclaves from the rest of the city; border crossings between the two sides of the wall feature steel gates and metal detectors. Bar-Sinai and Greenfield-Gilat were students at the time, enrolled in the architecture program at the Technion — the Israel Institute of Technology — and they saw the wall as nothing more than a monument to separation. “It was so depressing,” Bar-Sinai says. “There was no debate about it. Nobody offered any kind of other vision that would be optimistic. Nothing. The architectural community remained so impotently silent.”

By contrast, the pair was inspired. They identified a plot of land then situated on the border — though the planned wall ultimately would put it on the Israeli side — that was not being meaningfully used by any group. There they proposed a speculative design for a more fluid border crossing between West and East Jerusalem, one that not only would serve both parts, but would accommodate two scenarios: one before and one after a peace agreement. Unlike the railway line that was destroyed this July, which served mostly the Israeli side with a few stations in Palestinian neighborhoods, their project would feature equal accessibility for both populations.

It would work like this: Two separate train lines — one serving East Jerusalem, the other West Jerusalem — would run parallel along the border and lead to the same two-in-one transit hub straddling a border destination. The hub in East Jerusalem would mirror the one in West Jerusalem, both featuring elevated train platforms, market areas, and parks. Before integration, the train station would serve the populations separately: The lines would bring riders from the two populations close, but they would still be separated by a transparent border device between the two train platforms. The catch would be to design and build the terminal in such a way that, upon a peace agreement, the wall could be removed and the markets, parks, and train platforms could be desegregated almost instantly.

SAYA envisions a dual-purpose border crossing along Jerusalem’s Road 60 that could both separate and connect the Palestinian and Israeli parts of the city. (Click to enlarge)

Although the idea might seem simple — people being able to see each other through the border — it isn’t the reality today, and Bar-Sinai says that this small refinement could have a powerful psychological impact. “A relationship can begin to be built around that new arrangement of space. That is something that’s so important, and you cannot achieve that without paying a lot of attention to what the design of the actual border is,” she says. Such spaces, she and Greenfield-Gilat argue, would show people what peace would look like physically, making the concept tangible and therefore more realistic to achieve.

A novel idea, for sure, but one that wasn’t quickly embraced by the pair’s peers upon presentation. Many of their professors told them that architecture shouldn’t be used to solve political problems. At an academic review, the city of Jerusalem’s top engineer at the time, Uri Sheetrit, laughed them off the stage. But the school awarded their project a prize, and the two saw enough interest in their work from academics and fellow students that they decided to create a business around it. They have since undertaken a series of similarly border-blurring projects, such as a proposal for the Palestinian reuse of evacuated Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with Israeli partners Chen Farkas and Lian Idan-Saga.

SAYA’s designs have found their way up to the highest levels. Renderings for another of its proposed border-crossing projects came up in 2008 discussions with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and erstwhile Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In the years since, SAYA has presented other designs to leading officials on the Israeli side, but none has been implemented.

Although Bar-Sinai hopes SAYA’s border designs will someday help reshape Israel on a grand scale, for now the team is taking a more deliberate approach. With interest from regional officials in Israel and Palestine, plans are gradually moving forward on a community peace park on the border between the Gilboa Regional Council, north of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian city of Jenin. The green area is designed as a shared space along a polluted river. A water treatment facility would be built to clean the river before it reaches the park, a space that aims to emphasize the importance of dealing collectively with a shared resource. Working with a team of Palestinian architects from Ramallah and political leaders from both Israel and Palestine, SAYA is carefully building support by working to ensure the park’s security and equal access points for the two populations. Even though there’s no formal agreement on the park yet, the fact that a joint project is even being considered is an incremental step forward for SAYA.

“When we look at Jerusalem, at the spine of the future border, we see a spine of operation and urban opportunity,” Bar-Sinai says. “A border is not only a separation; it’s a connection.… How do we reframe the micro-challenges that a boundary produces into really meaningful opportunities?”


Unlike SAYA’s team, not all peace-minded architects work in their home countries. Many parachute into complicated urban landscapes as conflicts are winding down or after a truce has been established. This can present some drawbacks, such as limited experience in that environment and unfamiliarity with the way architecture and public spaces are used there. But unlike aid organizations, which often come into post-conflict places with a short-term agenda, architects tend to land with a more nuanced view of the future, focusing on functionality and ensuring that a population experiences the simple interactions and chance encounters of normal urban life.

Too often an international aid organization managing the direct aftermath of a crisis views urban reconstruction through the lens of political science, says Scott Bollens, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies urban planning and policy in conflict areas. They risk leaving behind built projects with little lasting impact, he adds — constructing an oversized school in an Afghan village as part of an education campaign, for example, without looking at the area’s downward growth trends and shifting populations. These post-conflict responses pay insufficient attention to local needs and conditions. “You can’t throw a park down and think everybody’s going to mix and be happy and share picnic tables and sing songs together,” Bollens argues.

By studying and understanding the micro-scale details of how neighborhoods function, recovery groups, even those without local ties, can tailor their interventions to provide what was lost or what is needed now. These cities, Bollens says, are “filled with history and they’re filled with memory and they’re filled with tension. And we have to be very careful how we intervene.”

Bollens has studied a wide range of post-conflict cities over the past two decades and points to Nicosia, the divided capital city of Cyprus, as an example of how a long-term urban-planning process can build a pathway to peace. A wall still separates the city’s Greek and Turkish communities, but the United Nations Development Program sent in experts to help locals plan a sewer system that serves both populations. Mundane, perhaps, but exactly the type of critical infrastructure development that unites people in service of shared needs.

The key, Bollens says, is to work with locals and organizations, especially those with deep roots in the community, to determine intervention strategies. In 2009 in Rwanda, a congested country that has suffered genocide and decades of conflict, the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity was tasked with designing a shared public space for the nation’s two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Commissioned by a local organization, the architects designed their project for children from both groups, building a football pitch and community center in one of the poorest parts of Kigali, the capital.

This project, as well as many like it in other post-conflict areas, was designed by outsiders — but with local stakeholders as guides. Established in 1999, Architecture for Humanity began its work in post-conflict Kosovo and has pursued it in dozens of other places around the world that are recovering from wars or internal strife. More recently, government leaders and development agencies began to turn to the organization for help with planning efforts after natural disasters; now the group is working in earthquake-damaged Haiti and post-tsunami Japan, among other regions. While war and nature may leave different kinds of scars on a city, they “do a similar amount of damage in the sense that they destroy physical structures, but they also destroy economic infrastructure, they destroy cultural heritage, they destroy social cohesion,” says Eric Cesal, executive director of the organization. And all of these, he adds, are best addressed together.

Australian architect Esther Charlesworth says that too many interventions in post-conflict areas, even those by architects, fail to consider the fact that survivors need more than shelter to rebuild a resilient society. As co-founder of Architects Without Frontiers, she has worked on designs in Kosovo, Beirut, and Nicosia, and she argues that architecture should be used to replace the destroyed elements of the economy. As an example, she points to the Boston-based MASS Design Group, which has been particularly focused on designing health-care facilities in places such as Haiti and Rwanda and which trains and employs locals to actually build those projects, leaving a legacy of skills. Charlesworth’s new book, Humanitarian Architecture, profiles MASS and 14 other architects and organizations that have developed this type of approach. Among development agencies, “there has been a sort of shift in terms of thinking of the long term upfront, rather than just thinking about the emergency phase,” she says.

But Charlesworth knows that creating lasting change is a devilish challenge. She points to the work of architect Shigeru Ban, winner of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize and famed for his elegant cardboard-based structures built in the aftermath of calamities in Haiti and Japan. Featured in sleek magazine spreads, his designs exhibit well, she says, but in reality, some have quickly lost their neatness, revealing the fragility of cardboard as a material for buildings needing to withstand day-to-day use. She likened a project in Japan to an average 1950s trailer park of temporary housing, with neither green space nor areas for communal gathering. She stresses that while the wounds of conflict or disaster must be bandaged, temporary solutions are insufficient. One problem, she says, is that funding is often earmarked for specific provisions — emergency housing, for example — with too little regard for sustainable solutions.


Making the case for sustainability is part of the larger challenge of convincing governments, militaries, and aid agencies to prioritize architecture and urban planning in their strategies in conflict and post-conflict areas. Until that complete approach is taken, even cities with the best of intentions will continue to fall short.

Beirut is an example of this very thing. There, the government tried to use urban development — specifically, a neighborhood-wide demolition and reconstruction — to help heal the wounds of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. In the 1990s it contracted a private real estate company to redevelop the capital city’s heavily damaged central business district. Half-built towers and shrapnel-riddled buildings stood like decaying tombstones in the aftermath of the war, and the neighborhood was a large-scale reminder of the conflict’s toll.

Now known as the Beirut Central District, the area has been rebuilt with wide streets and buildings intended to mimic the Ottoman- and French colonial-style structures that once stood there. It’s clean and orderly, but criticized for its historical revisionism; it’s a Disneyfied version of what the downtown used to be. Bollens says it comes off as fake and sterile and bears little relation to the ordered chaos of the rest of the city. Creating neutral spaces — areas where Christians and Muslims may be strolling or shopping or dining in each other’s presence, but not necessarily together in a way that results in direct attempts at conflict resolution — can help ease tensions, Bollens says. In Beirut, however, “by removing sectarianism and many of the memories of the war, it’s almost created this artificial place that has no memory and no essence.”

Architects and planners tend to prefer a more bottom-up approach to urban recovery. But even when the community is engaged, particularly in cities stuck in a long limbo between war and recovery, the building proposals themselves can lead to disputes.

The nationalist-unionist clashes in Northern Ireland, known as “the Troubles,” lasted for decades. Tensions peaked in the early to mid-1970s, when more than 1,000 people were killed. Belfast was long the center of these violent clashes, and still today murals and painted curbstones mark out territories across the city, starkly reinforcing sectarian lines. Although the killings are mostly over, the city is far from peaceful. Tension often peaks on July 12, the traditional unionist marching day. Ahead of the 2014 anniversary, three stabbings were reported in the city, which qualified it as a relatively tame year.

The government’s approach to healing Belfast is a new effort to create shared areas for the two groups. The grounds of the city hall are periodically opened up for street markets free of the trappings of sectarian ownership common throughout the city, and a redevelopment of the waterfront is creating new nonpartisan public spaces. But progress is sluggish. “If you were to really look for major shared spaces in Belfast, I think you’d find it quite problematic to locate them,” says Frank Gaffikin, a planning professor at Queen’s University Belfast who studies urban conflicts. The city is not completely segregated, he says — there are shops and theaters where the two groups may mingle. “But it’s not usually an opportunity for them to openly, deliberately engage across the divide in that candid way that you hope can happen as part of a peace process.” The downtown and the waterfront are currently best described as neutral spaces, which are a step toward that goal, he adds, albeit a passive one.

The old divisions have failed to melt away partly because so much of Belfast retains the physical traces of the conflict’s most violent events. The remains of an army base occupied by the British for around 35 years haunts the rough northern section of the city. Known as Girdwood, the site sits at the center of four neighborhoods — two nationalist, two unionist. Since the British left the base in 2005, both sides have been arguing about reusing the land. The nationalists want more housing for nationalists; the unionists reject this idea. The government, which took ownership of the land, compromised, and they broke ground this spring on a “hub” featuring sports fields and a community center surrounded by housing space for both factions.

Yet neither side is fully satisfied with the plan, according to Gerry Millar, director of the city’s Property and Projects Department. Girdwood is an especially challenging area, he says, with deep divisions and many former paramilitary members still active in their communities. He has received some pushback over the locations of access points to the hub. “We’re trying to get them to paint a 10-year scenario,” Millar says. “Your kid is 5 years old, 6 years old. What’s he going to be doing when he’s 15, 16? Is he going to be getting arrested, throwing bricks and bottles? Or do you want to try to build something here?”

For Millar and the City Council, integrating the communities is a distant goal. “We’re just not there yet,” he says.


Getting there will require patience. Urban planning for peace is a slow, political process that relies on far more than clever design solutions. But without it, the future of a city’s recovery will mean little more than refugee camps and food aid. The urban settings of conflicts are more than just dots on a map, and any effort to help them recover will need to consider the complex relationship between human culture and space.

Back in Jerusalem, where fury can simmer for years only to boil over into violence, the architects at SAYA know intimately what’s on the line. “It’s imaginary design, in many ways, but it is for the day after,” says Bar-Sinai. “We need to prepare for it now.”

Nate Berg is a journalist focusing on urban design and architecture.

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