Residential towers and the public realm

As our society has become more and more privatized, the all-important public and social component in our lives is gradually vanishing. The residential tower phenomenon in Israel over the last twenty-five years offers one of the the clearest signs of this trend. These towers stand apart, above it all; it’s every man for himself.

Is this, as developers would have us believe, the only way to build? Are all of our cities to be condemned to look alike? Three in a row, five in a semi-circle? Are all of our well-to-do to sit on their terraces, only to be seen by their neighbors sitting on terraces identical to their own, just several meters away?

Free-standing residential towers ignore the two primary life-giving elements of public urban space — the street and the square, precious meeting places that make possible a sense of community. Both of these elements are defined by buildings forming a more or less continuous edge. Imagine Rome without its piazzas, London without its squares, Paris sans boulevards. Public spaces enable public life.

Every new building must provide a formal response to pre-existing spatial conditions, show sensitivity to place and consideration for the architectural legacy of the past. All building, need we add, must be respectful of the scale of man.

Needless to say, the vast majority of residential towers that have been constructed in Israel fail to meet any of the above criteria. Their verticality and mandatory setbacks from streets preclude spatial definition ability, the activity-less streets they create, lifeless and dangerous, subsequently killing neighborhoods, the interior open spaces they create, little better. They are, of course, hugely unrelated to their physical environmental context.

Making matters worse, an increasing number of tower projects are today planned as exclusive closed enclaves such as Holyland Park in Jerusalem. In every one of these cases, rich and poor, young and old, are segregated, destroying the social fabric. Former Jerusalem mayors, Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, who supported this project weren’t just corrupt. They were also irresponsibly ignorant of its most injurious social implications.

As it is highly unlikely that the present fashion has run its course, aren’t there far better ways to build residential towers without sacrificing the all-important public realm?

There are, in fact, at least two ways this can be accomplished, both dependent on the architectural treatment of a building’s lower levels, at least up to tree height, in order to relate to human scale, but most especially at the level of the street, which is where the real life of any living neighborhood and city takes place.

The first alternative is to combine high and low-rise, designing towers that are physically tied to low or medium height structures, thereby facilitating a respectful relationship with adjacent existing buildings while at the same time creating well-defined and meaningful public and private open space. The most successful Israeli example of this design strategy is the Lev Hair project in central Tel Aviv designed by architect and Israel Prize laureate Ada Karmi-Melamede. A second alternative is to set one or more towers atop a building of medium height, say four to six stories, meeting the street or square. Where appropriate, ground-level commercial uses would help enliven the critical ground plane.

The present housing crisis offers a rare opportunity for positive change, provided, of course, the quality of the new or improved housing and not just financial mechanisms, is the prime consideration.

Architecture plays a major role in creating the public realm. At the very least, the destructive nation-wide hi-rise residential trend of the last two and a half decades needs to be responsibly modified. Residential towers must be successfully integrated into the urban fabric of our cities while protecting and fostering public life.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.