The “terrifying” case of Lord Richard Rogers, New York politics and the architecture of fear

A censorship scandal erupted in 2002 when the Israel Association of United Architects (IAUA) commissioned “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” and ended up cancelling the exhibition and banning the catalog when they didn’t like the results.

It was an all too honest depiction by Israeli architects and designers about the ways in which they played an essential role in the machinery of Israel’s occupation, helping in myriad ways to deny the Palestinians their human rights. In fact, the controversy inside the Green Line is no less intense over the role of mapmakers and urban planners in the deliberate erasure of Palestinian villages and history.

All this was brought to mind when I read Ken Auletta’s “The Fixer” in the February 12 edition of the New Yorker. Though the article is not online, one of our commenters thankfully posted a copy of the relevant portion.

Last year Lord Rogers, who was slated for the 1.7 billion dollar taxpayer-funded re-design of the Javits Center in NY, became engulfed in controversy when he allowed his UK office to be used for the inaugural meeting of a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. This group dared to discuss the possibility of sanctions against those profiting from occupation and “the exposure of those construction industry professionals who accept commissions from schemes that appropriate Palestinian land and resources.”

It’s not hard to guess what happened to Rogers as soon as this was made known. David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote then:

Clearly, the agenda of this group reflects very deep seated anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views.

Rogers was made to publicly cut ties with the Architects’ group, which committed the apparently unpardonable crime of considering nonviolent initiatives long-employed by human rights and faith-based groups.

“The Fixer” is about PR macher Howard Rubenstein’s role in Rogers public “redemption.” It offers a sad, cautionary tale about muzzling.

George Arzt, who was a political reporter for the New York Post and press secretary to Mayor Edward I. Koch and now runs his own P.R. firm, recently watched Rubenstein come to the rescue of someone’s good name — in this case, that of Lord Richard Rogers, the British architect who had contracts for a number of New York projects, including the redesign of the Javits Center and the expansion of Silvercup Studios, in Queens. Last February, Rogers lent his London office to a group called Architects and Planners tor Justice in Palestine, who discussed the possibility of boycotting architects and construction firms building Israel’s separation barrier and West Bank settlements, saying in a statement that they were “complicit in social, political, and economic oppression.” The British press reported these statements, and when New York officials like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Representative Anthony Weiner learned about them they demanded that Rogers’s New York government contracts be cancelled; other Jewish leaders chimed in, and editorials followed.

Rogers, who had billions of dollars’ worth of projects at stake, said that he had nothing to do with the group and had left the office before the discussion took place. “I can’t begin to tell you how terrifying this was,” he told me. Frantic, he called friends in America asking for advice, and they uniformly recommended that he hire Rubenstein, whom he had never heard of. When the two spoke, Rubenstein said, “I don’t think I will be able to get you out of this mess,” but they agreed nevertheless to meet that Sunday at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel.

At the hotel, Rogers told Rubenstein that his wife was Jewish, that his grandparents were Jewish, that he had completed projects in Israel — and that he was dumbfounded by the whole affair, because he disagreed with the resolution.

Rubenstein pointed out that the controversy had been building in the British press for two weeks and that Rogers had remained silent. Rogers explained that he had been in the hospital recuperating from a serious operation, and was unaware of the controversy.

“I believed him,” Rubenstein says. He began to make calls to anyone who could help, including the leaders of an umbrella group called the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Rubenstein is not a member, but he is an adviser to the Jewish Community Relations Council and as such attends conference meetings. He told them that he had just had a cathartic session with Rogers, and put Rogers on the line. “Whenever he phoned anybody, they all answered,” Rogers recalled.

A meeting was arranged. Friends warned Rubenstein that it would be tough for Rogers, and Rubenstein advised Rogers to denounce the resolution passed by the architects, which he did. He arranged for Rogers to be interviewed by the Post, where Rogers was quoted as saying, “Hamas must renounce terrorism.” Next, Rogers went to the headquarters of the Jewish Communitv Relations Council, to a meeting attended by Silver, Weiner and representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. For more than an hour, Rogers fielded questions; Rogers left when they debated what to do, but Rubenstein was invited to stay. The group decided that Rogers was “naive,” not mendacious. Rubenstein helped to organize a press conference to announce their decision. The News, which was set to run a piece by Ed Koch denouncing Rogers, cancelled the column.

“I have no doubt it was worked out by Rubenstein,” Koch says, admiringly, although he still doesn’t believe that Rogers absolved himself. Silver says that no one but Rubenstein could have orchestrated that meeting.

George Arzt, reflecting on the event, says, “P.R. in this town is nothing more than connecting the dots to the right people. You’re paid for your experience.” Rubenstein, looking back, abandoned his customary modesty and said of Rogers, “In a matter of a week, I helped reverse a disaster for him.” Of Rubenstein, Rogers said, “He’s just like a magician. He makes things disappear.”

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