When Israel began building a wall along the West Bank in 2003—called the “separation fence” by some, the “Apartheid wall” by others—Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai were about to graduate from architecture school at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. As aspiring architects studying and living “in the shadow of a territorial conflict,” as Greenfield-Gilat says, they were shocked to see that architects were involved in only the most superficial conversations about the aesthetics of the wall—there were no bigger-picture architectural discussions about how the wall would change its surroundings. “It was insulting that architects were not considered by themselves as people who have something to say about the most significant spatial fact that [was] being built in Israel,” Greenfield-Gilat says now.
Bar-Sinai and Greenfield-Gilat, now 36 and 37, believed architecture and architects had a place in the conversation about conflict resolution. For their Technion thesis project, they designed a transportation hub that, after a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement, could serve as both a border and a functional structure within Jerusalem, strengthening the city rather than fragmenting it. The project raised all kinds of big questions, as Greenfield-Gilat recalls: “How can we use architectural tools and insights in order to enhance…territorial peace agreements? How do you create a border within a city that does not really destroy the city?” And so, in 2006, they formed SAYA, a firm focused on “resolution planning,” or the idea that design and architecture can be tools for peace. The firm’s name is short for “Studio Aya,” in memory of Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai’s friend and fellow architect Aya Shapira.
Many of the firm’s current projects are thought-driven, paid for by think tanks, universities, or international agencies and governments. Most often, the architects come up with ideas based on needs they see in the world and pitch them to relevant organizations, though sometimes it’s the other way around. It’s prebuilding rather than rebuilding. The idea, as Bar-Sinai explained in a talk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design last year, is to “be in the prime minister’s head,” to get policymakers to think, as much as possible, like architects.