An Ouster at the Institute
A scandal erupts within the AIA after the president of its Middle East chapter was removed for organizing a webinar on the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
In May of last year, president of AIA Middle East Ali Lari thought he had done a rather difficult thing: diffused a sensitive political situation without compromising the AIA’s stated commitments to equity and human rights.
The topic at hand was the occupation of Palestine by Israel. That spring, Israel’s (still ongoing) blockade and repression of Palestine had ignited into a major flashpoint that killed more than 240 Palestinians and displaced 52,000. Israel’s conduct has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and other humanitarian organizations. The intensely asymmetrical conflict is often explained in explicitly architectural and urban planning terms. By way of example, the Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp–edited anthology Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope presents the built condition of the Gaza Strip as a harbinger of widening circles of surveillance, provisional adaptive reuse, resource scarcity, and colonial occupation. “The United Nations a few months ago declared that Israel’s practices are tantamount to apartheid,” says Lari. “Apartheid is an urban policy and urban design issue.”
Lari tells NYRA that he reached out to fellow members of the AIA Middle East Board of Directors Executive Committee about issuing a statement on “the conflict’s urban and architectural dimensions, including ethnic cleansing in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem and the destruction in Gaza in perpetuation of the apartheid practices therein.” When the six-member executive committee mentioned this proposal to AIA National in Washington, DC, 2021 AIA president Peter Exley suggested it would be best for AIA Middle East to not get involved in contentious political matters. “The AIA believes that such political matters are not properly the province of neutral professional societies,” Exley wrote to Sherif Anis, cofounder of AIA Middle East (a regional chapter of the AIA) and its volunteer executive director on May 20, 2021. A few days later, in a letter to Lari and Anis, Exley wrote, “any statement on this conflict beyond a call for peace and unity has significant potential to create irreparable political and professional damage to the AIA in the US and the world.” The tone from National struck Lari as inconsistent with the progressive stance on social justice and racial equality the AIA had staked out in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd uprisings. Anis had concerns as well, even though he acknowledged that the AIA Middle East board would likely support a statement of solidarity with Palestine. In text messages to Lari, Anis told him that “ANYTHING having to do with Israel is a HUGE issue and you know that. The pro-Israel lobby in the US is beyond influential and these guys [presumably referring to AIA National leadership] are going to be quite limp in light of this.”
Ultimately, Lari and the rest of the executive committee agreed not to issue a statement and to instead host programming on the history of the occupation of Palestine. But emails and texts from both sides of the brewing conflict within AIA Middle East reveal that this compromise wouldn’t help to sidestep controversy.
IN AUGUST OF 2021, Lari was pleasantly surprised when Ilan Pappé, University of Exeter professor and preeminent historian of Palestine, accepted his invitation to deliver a webinar to AIA Middle East on his 2007 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, an urban history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Lari quickly began coordinating the event with other AIA Middle East board members to schedule it, promote it, create design collateral, and work through AIA continuing education credit approvals.
But on September 6, a few days before the event was to happen, the webinar was deleted from Zoom. Thierry Paret, cofounder with Anis of AIA Middle East and a member of the board, told Lari via email that this was because of the “nature of the content.”
Anis sent Lari and the rest of the AIA Middle East board a subsequent email saying the chapter needs to be “smart about the optics of what we present to the public.” Furthermore, “I am not sure it is an honor to have a speaker [Pappé] who has been publicly condemned by the Knesset, or National Parliament of Israel, for his writings.” Anis wrote that Pappé was a controversial figure and that Exley’s request that statements issued by AIA Middle East stay out of the fray applied to the presentation by Pappé as well. He also criticized Lari for planning the event “covertly.” Paret soon emailed his support of Anis’s letter to a group that included AIA National leadership, members of the AIA Middle East Executive Committee, and Anis and Lari themselves.
Though the event was canceled, members of the AIA Middle East Executive Committee (a subset of the thirty-person board consisting of its top leadership) felt more had to be done to admonish Lari for his perceived transgressions. On September 9, John Robertson, a member of the executive committee, met in person with Lari and handed him a letter signed by Anis informing him that he was no longer AIA Middle East president. The six-member executive committee had voted on Lari’s ouster without him present. Anis accused him of disregarding Exley’s request, presenting “unsanctioned” content without the approval of the AIA Middle East board or its executive committee and “not acting or representing the AIA in the best interests of the Institute at large and its members.” Most ominously, the letter says Lari’s actions have “put the chapter in jeopardy of having its charter suspended by the AIA National Board of Directors.” This threat was repeated by David Franklin, another executive committee member who voted to remove Lari, in an email to him. “Unfortunately our hands were tied by National who strongly suggested that the AIA [Middle East] charter would be revoked,” he wrote.
Several days later, Lari was allowed to make his case at a “ratification” meeting, but the executive committee again voted to remove him. AIA Middle East bylaws allow the executive committee to remove officers for cause when there is a quorum of a majority at the meeting where the vote is taken. His tenure as AIA Middle East president was over.
Lari felt he had been unfairly targeted and reached out to AIA president Exley for help. At that point, Exley’s attitude changed noticeably. Whereas he had strongly urged AIA Middle East to not issue a statement on Israel and Palestine, in an October 14 letter to Lari, he seemed to distance AIA National from any supervisory role over AIA chapters and their governance. “With regard to AIA Middle East, as with all AIA chapters, your organization has both legal and operational independence from the AIA,” he wrote. “As such, AIA National avoids involving itself in governance matters specific to AIA chapters.” Exley did, however, suggest that Lari file an ethics complaint with the AIA National Ethics Council (NEC).
Two days later, some members of AIA Middle East board sent a letter to its executive committee in support of Lari. They were alarmed that the executive committee didn’t tell rest of the board about plans to remove Lari as president, that he got no chance to respond to his removal, and that the causes for removal were vague and unfounded. The letter also mentioned an incident in January 2021, when a board member objected to proposed programming. In that case, the proposal was openly debated, instead of being automatically canceled and its sponsor removed from office.
Former AIA Middle East board member Faisal Alhassani, who supported the letter, says Anis and Paret “didn’t confront [Lari] about any of this. They just removed him without even a board meeting.” This duo act as though “they are the presidents,” Alhassani says. “They want to make all of the decisions and they want Ali to [just] be there.” Alhassani says he left the AIA Middle East Board in early 2022 in part because of the way this incident was handled.
Similarly, Lari says Anis and Paret have little support from the broader AIA Middle East membership. “Had they had any more confidence in their voices,” Lari says of Anis and Paret, “they would have had a democratic process.” In an October 28 letter to Anis, Lari wrote that if corrective action was not taken, he would take Exley’s advice and file an ethics complaint. The next month, he did file such a complaint. Normally, the AIA Office of General Council manages and administers ethnics complaints, which are decided by the NEC, a body of AIA architect-members appointed by the AIA National Board. But because of a potential unspecified conflict of interest within the Office of General Council, the AIA engaged Nisha Thakker of the Tenenbaum Law Group as outside council to work with the NEC. In February 2022, Thakker emailed Lari to tell him that the chair of the NEC, Justin Crane, had dismissed the ethics complaint. According to Thakker, Lari’s complaints were entirely beyond the scope of the AIA Code of Ethics, drawing a sharp distinction between the professional activities in the practice of architecture and the governance and administrative processes of AIA chapters. Thakker wrote: “The Code is intended to apply to the professional activities of all members. Therefore, as the Complaint is related to the administrative and governance activities and disputes of an AIA Chapter, it falls outside of the purview of the NEC.”
Lari says the looming threat of AIA National dissolving AIA Middle East was key to galvanizing support for his removal, and Alhassani says this threat was repeated by Anis and Paret (neither of whom have a vote on the executive committee). While AIA National leadership (including Exley) and the AIA Middle East Executive Committee declined interviews with NYRA, AIA National did issue a statement on behalf of both groups, stating that no one at AIA National leadership suggested that AIA Middle East would be dissolved if Lari remained president:
AIA Middle East posed the question to AIA National whether it could remove a component president. AIA National does not have that authority, and only AIA components and chapters may determine their leadership, which includes removal of an officer. Also discussed was what general authority AIA National has over an AIA component that acts contrary to the AIA’s bylaws, policies, or directives, and it was shared that AIA’s bylaws only grant AIA National the power to suspend or revoke an AIA component’s charter. Such action would require action by the AIA National Board of directors. With respect to AIA Middle East, this option, while discussed, was never presented to the AIA Board.
THE DIVIDING LINE between Exley’s successful efforts to dissuade AIA Middle East from issuing a statement on Palestine and the laissez-faire tact AIA National took on Ilan Pappé’s webinar and Lari’s removal could be explained by the difference between what AIA chapters themselves say and what they give others a platform to say. Certainly, the AIA has not shied away from inviting controversial political figures into the architectural discourse and hearing from partisans taking dramatic action in the quagmire of geopolitical affairs. Just this year, President Obama, who in 2016 signed an agreement to give Israel $38 billion in military aid over ten years, took center stage at the AIA Convention in Chicago. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the AIA posted on its website an article titled “Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Global Architecture Community Responds” by William Richards wherein Ruta Leitanaite, president of the Architects Association of Lithuania, describes how Lithuanian architects are assisting Ukraine in the war effort. One method she mentions is sending quasi-military hardware to the front lines: “A ‘drone-catcher,’ or what’s called Sky-Wiper—an electronic drone mitigation system. We are sending this equipment today and will collect the money for it during the upcoming month, asking architects to donate.” Anti-drone technology would likely save thousands of Palestinian lives. But would the AIA, nationally or locally, make space to repeat a call for its donation?
This is not the only time that the AIA has gotten explicitly political. In fact, for a brief moment, it seemed that the AIA understood that architecture is indelibly tied to systems of exploitation and repression that the powerful use to exert control over the powerless. In the summer of 2020, when the murder of Black people by state security forces prompted perhaps the largest uprising of protest in American history, the AIA admitted that:
We were wrong not to address and work to correct the built world’s role in perpetuating systemic racial injustice, including the use of slave and forced labor, designing housing that marginalized communities of color, helping to design communities that excluded people of color, and participating in municipal projects that destroyed or weakened thriving African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities.
In his appeal of the AIA NEC’s decision, which was rejected in April of this year, Lari quoted more of the AIA’s statement on systemic racial injustice: “We ask our community to join us and hold us accountable in the coming months and years to ensure that our deeds match our words. Our goal is to finally live up to [Whitney] Young’s words ‘to speak up’ and to learn so that the talent and the expertise of the architect and the built world only work to advance justice, equity and opportunity.” Lari didn’t quote the following part of the AIA statement, which could well be referring to Israel:
To be clear, the American Institute of Architects supports the protests to stop systemic, state-sanctioned violence against people of color. Period. We support and are committed to efforts to ensure that our profession is part of the solution that finally dismantles systemic racial injustice and violence.
In isolation, this statement reads like a declaration of solidarity with Palestine, perhaps not far off what from Lari considered issuing from AIA Middle East letterhead in May of 2021. The fact that Lari’s statement wasn’t welcomed and the ensuing conflict forced him from his office puts a spotlight on the gap between the AIA’s words and deeds and on the double standard that often leads to the condoning of violence by Israel on Palestinians.
Only recently have Americans started to see Israel as the belligerent force in Palestine. The AIA’s hands-off approach reflects the ability of Israel and the United States’ foreign policy apparatus to set the narrative of what’s occurred in Gaza, obscuring the radical imbalance of power and control Israel holds over the Palestine. For example, Israel often escalates violent retaliation by Hamas with acts of collective punishment against people in the Gaza Strip, often targeting their built infrastructure and depriving them of food, clean water, and access to natural resources. In fact, Israel has an explicit understanding of the role the built environment plays in the conflict. The continual reconstruction of Gaza is managed by the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, a database that’s updated in real time to track every length of rebar, every sack of cement, every building component that flows into the territory, along with what it’s to be used for and who will receive it, with the ostensible goal of keeping potential weapon components out of Hamas’s hands. However, this powerful surveillance tool has mostly put rebuilding in the Gaza Strip in a stranglehold. This asymmetrical relationship is evidenced by the number of deaths of Israelis versus Palestinians (since 2008, 273 and 6,063, respectively). Seventy percent of Gazans are refugees, the unemployment rate is about fifty percent, half of people are food insecure, there are only a few hours of electricity available a day, and hundreds of thousands lack access to clean water. These acts of aggression are supported by members of Congress who approve arms deals with Israel and then fill their campaign coffers with PAC donations from the AIA. Political entanglement is not, as Exley claims, something the AIA avoids. It is, rather, the rule of the day.
Zach Mortice was trained as a journalist and takes diligent notes on what buildings look like and what people say. He worked at AIA National from 2007 to 2014.