Gerard Heumann
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The deadly conformity of Israeli housing

Architects must start designing residential towers that are about community and environment, not just money

Israel’s housing crisis has caused prices for renting and buying apartments to reach astronomical levels. We do not clear slums or rehabilitate existing housing fast enough; we are not building home units fast or cheaply enough.

A major factor, the scarcity of available land, as our new Minister of Finance, Moshe Kahlon, among others, has pointed out, is a direct result of the Israel Land Authority’s policies, operating for many years as if it were a private corporation. Our obese, ever-growing bureaucracy has helped to exacerbate the situation which our newly formed government will finally have to face. Major government intervention in the housing market seems certain. Decisions put off for years are now going to be decided in a hurry. One can only pray that a humane and desirable environment will not be sacrificed as a result.

Just as importantly, there are grave doubts as to the suitability and quality of what we do construct. Strongly supported by building and planning committees throughout the country, Israel’s present high-rise mania, a tidal wave, drowning every major Israel city in its path, shows no signs of receding, and is, if anything, only gaining in power, quashing all reasonable urban design in its wake. Although all can agree with the need for higher economic urban densities, there can be little doubt that these boring, homogenous residential towers of a deadly conformity, often situated in closed antisocial enclaves, lacking diversity and opportunities for social interaction and grouped around lifeless open space, are little more than blatant symbols of social and economic inequality. As if they were the only way to build, the same point blocks, albeit dressed a bit differently, at times absurdly topped by red tile roofs, are equally at home on steeply sloping topography as they are on our seashore or even in the desert, blind to the specifics of site, climate and culture. Communal areas, if they exist at all, are generally poorly maintained, landscaping an afterthought. Driven exclusively by economic priorities, this phenomenon will surely in the future exact a very high social price.

Architects have of course cooperated to produce this situation, rather than meet their responsibility to create diverse, innovative and exciting environments, where each project is unique and responsive to the requirements of the site in its local context, as well as to tradition, climate and technologies.

If we must have high-rise housing, at the very least the full potential of this building type should be examined and researched in depth. Were this to be done, we would quickly discover that a handful of innovative architectural firms have over the last decade begun design explorations thoughtfully related to a social agenda rather than to a solely economic one, focusing their efforts on the internal spatial and social systems essential for fostering community.

One of the most impressive of these is WOHA Architects, a multidisciplinary firm based in Singapore, directed by Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, that has won global recognition for its work, including several outstanding high-density housing projects. Their residential tower — “The Met” in Bangkok, Thailand for example, is a 69 story condominium completed in 2009. It was conceived of as a model for high-rise residential towers situated in a low-wind tropical climate with year-round warm weather, and is composed mainly of three staggered blocks connected by sky bridges containing communal pools and gardens. The gaps between the towers allow for cross-ventilation, enhancing gentle breezes, as well as views of the city. Apartments interact with the outside. Common areas are interspersed throughout.

The Met, Bangkok (photo: Patrick Bingham)

Most striking is the extensive use of landscaping as an architectural surface treatment. Walls of greenery provide sun-shading that converts heat into oxygen, improving local air quality.

While the urban density problems and the subtropical climate of Israeli cities cannot at all be compared with those of cities in the Asia Pacific region (Singapore with a population of five million inhabitants is there considered a small city), WOHA’s design philosophy — community and privacy, livable home units, sustainability and variety, is valid anywhere, their ground-breaking residential high-rise buildings a significant step forward. Why haven’t we similarly seriously investigated programmatic and climate-related innovations here?

Israeli decision makers, both public and private, together with their architects would do well to embrace values and goals leading to a far more responsible and humane urbanism. Given the challenges we face, economic strategies are obviously necessary, social priorities critical.

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