The crime of over-repetition in housing design

Imagine a new neighborhood in which deserted streets and tens of residential towers all look alike, where open spaces and even parking lots are identical, where the view from your terrace is another, directly opposite, the mirror image of your own. This isn’t some Kafkaesque film script. Neighborhoods such as these are going up daily. Unlike the public housing built in the early days of the state, today’s new neighborhoods, sterile and inhumane, are privately built, their plans dictated by real-estate economics.

Architects, needless to say, have a giant share in this disaster. Their standard excuses for collaborating are related to problems of stability and security. Practices built exclusively on return clients are few, a relatively low number of commissions the rule. Low standard fees such as those set by the housing ministry have led many to reach for the copy/paste key on their computers. Most of the housing designs built today have been ordered mechanically. Rack ’em, pack ’em, stack ’em — thoughtless, speedy production of plan documents. Too many architects have abdicated their responsibilities, becoming mere servants of the economic order.

Environmental psychologists have long warned that large groups of identical buildings that stand out, dense and anonymous, projecting a negative image, will be stigmatized. No man’s lands of this kind are also likely to invite criminal activity, Ill-informed politicians from whom all we hear are the numbers of dwelling units they approved for construction but whose actual construction is years away, have brought us to the point where we accept these deadly designs blanketing the country as inevitable. It isn’t at all by chance that our Minister of Finance is today the country’s housing czar. Israel has long since become Nadlanland.

Diversity stimulates creativity while repetition anaesthetizes it. Homogeneity makes it difficult for inhabitants to add anything of their own, so that the rich resource of popular creativity which can transform a neighborhood into a vital urban organ is lost.

How can we advance life-giving diversity in housing design? The main points:

  • Fully exploit the variety inherent in the physical constraints and context of the specific site in question.
  • Avoid segregating rich and poor, young and old. Provide a full range of housing types within reasonable proximity to one another.
  • The present decision making process in urban planning is technocratic and top-down, like the bureaucratic system it mirrors, essentially undemocratic. Our decision makers are too remote, too ignorant and worse. The virtual parade of mayors and heads of municipal planning and building committees, for example, who have been investigated by the police, indicted or sentenced to prison, speaks for itself. We must encourage true public participation in the planning process. Residents know their neighborhoods. Their constructive ideas and insights will enrich any building project.
  • Preserve historical references. Continuity, history and memory are important human needs which can only be met when old and new coexist side by side.
  • Utilize industrial knowhow to provide the means for an organic architecture.
  • Adapt the computer to ensure diversity.
  • Enable future changes and extensions.
  • Minimize over-centralized management.

Lacking a comprehensive approach and treating individual buildings cosmetically without at all understanding how to transform their anonymity into a strong and healthy identity, 30 years of “Project Renewal,” albeit with the best of intentions, failed in eliminating the stigma of the “shikunim” whose negative image was so devastating in the eyes of their residents. In many cases, the project even reinforced this central problem, the main reason for its coming into being. “Fixing” the mess we are presently creating on a far greater scale will be a thousand times tougher. A great many of the residential towers being constructed today will deteriorate physically in time as the cost of their maintenance is extremely high. What will we do then?

In a period where short-term economic acumen, not to say outright greed, has become an end in itself, we must begin to understand the profound psychological and social implications of our built environment and learn how to plan truly livable communities. Continuing to act as though the economic sector were hermetically sealed off from social and psychological factors which are at the very heart of urban planning and design is sure to have the most serious long-term consequences for Israeli society as a whole. The banal over-repetition in Israeli housing design we have been witnessing over the last several decades is a moral and ethical crime.

Responsible architecture, urban design and planning, especially at the large scale, must strive for the right measure of a life-giving, organic yet organized and coherent complexity. Nothing less will ever succeed.

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