Farewell to an Israeli architect who crusaded for social justice
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of people – architects, planners, designers, contractors, appraisers, surveyors, realtors, and, above all, government officials – deal with urban and regional planning in Israel… But in reality? If you want to witness the ‘achievements’ of central planning in Israel, you need only open the window of your home or your car and look out.”
These were the words Prof. Hubert Law-Yone, an eminent urban planner, wrote in one of a lengthy series of articles he published on Israeli planning. His tone was equal parts rebuke, warning and concern. Law-Yone’s incisive critical voice has now fallen silent. He died on Independence Day following a long illness.
The date of his death – the country’s 75th Independence Day, amid a particularly fraught atmosphere – seems particularly apt, in that it reflects his ambivalent attitude toward Israel as someone who came from far away, but considered Israel his home. He trenchantly pointed out its weaknesses and missteps where urban and environmental planning, as well as social and political issues, were concerned.
Law-Yone was born in 1935 and arrived in Israel in 1961 from Burma (now Myanmar) at a time of warm friendship between the two countries. He had been studying electronics in the United States and originally planned to continue those studies in Israel, but ultimately, he chose architecture instead.
After graduation, he worked for a short time for an architecture firm in Tel Aviv, but, as he explained in an interview some years later, he discovered that the profession upon which he had pinned such high hopes, in which he aspired “to build a new and beautiful world,” was nothing like what he had pictured. It didn’t take long for him to see that “architecture is basically about building for the rich and powerful, and not what they told us about [building] a new world.”
When Law-Yone went back to school for his doctorate, he decided to specialize in urban planning, to try and understand “how the planning system has become so powerful and controlling that architects keep quiet and the broader public plays along, too.”
Over the years, he was active in the academic world and in alternative social justice groups. He was one of the founders of the Marxist group SHASI (an acronym for “Israeli Socialist Left”); a founder of the Adva Center for Social Equality; and the first to volunteer to aid the Association of Forty, a civic group dedicated to assisting unrecognized villages in northern Israel with institutional support and with planning.
Thanks in large part to his involvement, these communities were able to obtain official recognition and basic infrastructure – a significant achievement for the local inhabitants that also reflected Law-Yone’s critical stance toward the planning establishment.
Law-Yone was also a member of the panel of experts that prepared the “Israel 2020” long-term planning project. In those meetings, he didn’t not shy away from criticism of the occupation, Zionism, and the government’s all-powerful reach in every aspect of national planning. Throughout all his work in academia and various organizations, and in his articles and interviews, Law-Yone was a tireless and scathing critic of state planning. He saw state planning as the source of many housing problems, including soaring costs.
He often repeated that there was no connection between the housing market and the needs and preferences of different groups in the population. He also never failed to point out that the right to housing recognized in the UN’s Universal Charter of Human Rights, adopted by dozens of countries, is not being practiced in Israel.
He held the idealistic belief that in the contemporary situation of planning, which he termed “sporadic,” the public could serve as an alternative to both the government and the free market regarding housing. Evening of roses
When I interviewed Law-Yone at his home in Tivon in 2005, the mood was tense. That year he had retired from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology after years of discontent, and was undergoing a personal reckoning. He complained that discourse about planning, both in academia and on the professional and practical level, had never been critical enough.
He said the Technion prioritized those arriving with a degree from the U.S., and was therefore creating “an imperialism of knowledge that has no connection to the culture and the place, and this enables them to be detached from people – from the Palestinians, from the Mizrahim, from all of the ‘others’ – and to be connected solely to the centers of power.”
One look at the construction landscapes in Israel provides concrete proof of his fears. Perhaps only someone who came from somewhere else could so accurately assess what was happening outside our windows.
Despite his skepticism toward the school, Law-Yone nurtured an impressive group of students, who followed in his footsteps in a similar spirit. These include Prof. Rachel Kallus, Prof. Revital Hatuka, and Prof. Yosef Jabareen, who all continue to take a skeptical stance and raise tough questions about the Israeli landscape and its future.
“Hubert really loved the country and the people, even though he always thought that the planning here was cold and disconnected, and was producing incorrect solutions, that instead of solving problems it was creating new ones,” says Hatuka. Needless to say, planning still has a long way to go until Law-Yone’s teachings produce tangible results and change reality.
Surprisingly, one of the things that drew Law-Yone to Israel was, according to legend, the Dudaim musical duo. While still in Burma, Law-Yone hosted a radio show dedicated to folk ballads; he was an amateur guitarist himself. He happened to come upon a record by the Dudaim and was intrigued.
When he got to the Technion, he started a band called Los Technionos, which included Dudaim songs in its repertoire. The duo’s famous version of “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”), which was one of Law-Yone’s favorites, was played at his funeral.