Ashdod exemplifies everything that is problematic in architecture and urban design in Israel today. A compendium of many unintegrated large and extremely costly projects that have been built in recent years, the city is completely fragmented, cut off even from its own port. Having long said goodbye to the first principles of human scale, urban continuity and unity, Ashdod, if it continues in this way, may wake up one day to find it is not a city at all.
Twenty years on, Ashdod’s Blue Marina “zone” on Israel’s precious Mediterranean shoreline, a gargantuan project for a luxurious urban quarter and marina, intended to put Ashdod on Israel’s tourism map, built at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, remains lifeless, barren and bare, the victim of, to put it politely, a severe case of megalomania and the avarice of its developers.
While most of the housing, some 900 luxury apartments (initially bought up by French foreign residents and immigrants) and the marina with its 550 berths are up and occupied, its all-important public realm — an immense artificial lake 17 dunams in area and 150 meters in diameter planned to be surrounded by a promenade, bars, restaurants, offices, hotels and tourist facilities, the heart of the project, has not been built at all. The marina has been fenced off for years. Between the housing and the marina, you guessed it, lies an enormous no man’s land.
Motivated by the usual transparent short-term goals, interests and objectives, in this case mainly obtaining building permits for the highly profitable residential towers, the most expensive in the city of Ashdod today, the developers, it appears, bit off far more than they could chew. By the time the housing and the marina were constructed, market demands for commercial and office facilities hit the floor. Although the final outcome of the project is still unclear, they have attempted to cancel the planned artificial lake with all of its accoutrements they had been contracted to build, providing in its stead far less costly public open space. Unsurprisingly, they wish also to convert much of the commercial and office space, part of the original design proposal, to 35 percent more luxury housing. Voracity knows no bounds.
Its back to the city, isolated and self-contained, the project’s pompous and hollow monumentality is dominated by those very same identical residential towers set back from deserted streets we have seen a thousand times before. The enormous central open space is ill-defined and unshaded, its axis terminating uneventfully at the rear of the marina control building. Nature has been conquered absolutely. Symmetrical and religiously formal, inappropriate to leisure, even were the project to be completed as originally planned, highly doubtful is that it would succeed. If Ashdod wished to get on our tourism map, this bombastic and unimaginative project which can be taken in at a glance was most certainly not the way to go.
A wiser and thoughtful approach would have been to design this project as a controlled, staged development, well-tied to the city and considerate of those landlocked behind, flexible, open-ended and adaptable to change over time. An asymmetrical design of organic, coherent complexity uniquely suited to this particular site, would have been far more amenable to the atmosphere of tourism and leisure activities.
Who are those brilliant members of the local, district and national planning and building committees who saw fit to approve this catastrophe? How much longer will it take for basic education in urban design to be a prerequisite for sitting on those powerful committees?
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner, based in Jerusalem.