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The other Holyland story

A rogues gallery of the capital's worst architectural eyesores, from bland to downright repulsive

Ever since the Holyland story first broke, we have been focused on what those corrupt politicians did to us, to Jerusalem. Though it would surely be wrong to downplay the corruption aspect of the case, it’s high time some attention was paid to another issue that appears to lie well below the media and public-awareness radar. This other Holyland story has to do with us, with what we have done to ourselves. It is a story of grossly degraded Israeli architecture and urban design norms.

The hulking mass on the hilltop that ruptures Jerusalem’s skyline is actually the tip of a very large iceberg. Honestly: how many of the buildings that have gone up in Jerusalem over the last couple of decades are ones that humans can love? How many have been erected that aren’t positively offensive? And how many eyesores are currently in the planning stage?

Here and there, new residential projects do get built that Jerusalemites needn’t feel ashamed of. Structures that are not hypertrophic, that look regionally appropriate, that have some ornamental features, arched windows and the like — buildings that say “Jerusalem.” These kinds of projects are found almost exclusively in the city’s elite areas — the older, traditional neighborhoods that emerged before the era of the automobile and the planning and development practices associated with it. They are, by definition, luxury projects affordable only to a privileged elite:

New residential project in German Colony, Jerusalem
New residential project in fashionable German Colony, designed to resemble older surrounding buildings

More often — generally in the peripheral neighborhoods though sometimes even in upscale areas — you get a soulless tower that offers nothing at street level except the blank walls and shuttered windows of a “parking pedestal:”

holyland 2014 004

The problem is not one of height (not entirely, anyway), but of disrespect for the street. Recent low- and mid-rise residential also feature unsightly front-loading garages:

holyland 2014 011

So deeply has the culture of autocentrism marked our architectural norms that we now have buildings whose front doors strive to be indistinguishable from their garage gates:

holyland 2014 016

Nor is the problem of disrespect for the street restricted to residential construction; it is evident in public and commercial buildings as well. A Jerusalem neighborhood community center might be a windowless bunker …


… or a utilitarian box with “bathroom tile” facing:

holyland 2014 026

Even buildings devoted to the arts are considered unworthy of ornament or attention to context. The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, slated to move from its current Mount Scopus campus to the picturesque Russian Compound downtown, will be a kind of avant-garde “un-building” amid the traditional architecture of its surrounding area. While this kind of minimalism may appeal to some, surely there was room for public debate on the appropriateness of such a departure from the local architectural vernacular:

via Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design
via Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

At least Bezalel’s city-center location was accorded starchitect treatment, resulting in something that, while likely inappropriate, will at least be “distinctive.” In a less favored location, we have a new music conservatory that is part blank wall, part “Jaws.” The horizontal windows give the structure the unmistakable air of an industrial building:


The newly-opened Cinema City, part of an effort to “re-brand” Jerusalem as a secular-cultural mecca, has attracted much derision for its vulgar, kitschy interior; perhaps even more vexing are its self-contained, suburban mall-like character and lack of integration with any kind of urban fabric:

via Wikimedia Commons (פארוק)

A bland, monolithic office complex is planned for the entrance to the city. Designed by a single firm, in a uniform architectural style, it is the antithesis of urban diversity:

via Jerusalem Municipality
via Jerusalem Municipality

But then we’re getting a lot of massive, large-lot office buildings these days in proletarian Talpiot, too. Despite its sleekness and the huge windows meant, presumably, to ensure lively interaction with the street, the overall effect of the building below, which is nearing completion on Pierre Koenig Street, is not engaging but overwhelming and repulsive to pedestrians:

holyland 2014 041Talpiot is also home to malls that cannot be reached on foot without risking one’s life:

holyland 2014 028

A midrise apartment building with ground-level retail space, currently nearing completion in Talpiot, is set back from the street at an awkward distance, behind a fence, due to the perceived necessity of providing a handful of parking spots for the stores (the building is located in a transit-rich area). The building’s potential for enlivening the street is thereby severely compromised:

holyland 2014 045A brand-new commercial/retail complex was recently erected behind a gas station on a major Jerusalem thoroughfare. The ground-level restaurants have an excellent view of the gas pumps. Overall, the structure embodies a prevailing conception that Hebron Road was meant to be a strip mall, rather than an elegant — and pedestrian-safe — urban boulevard:

holyland 2014 059

With only a couple of exceptions, all of the buildings pictured above are of very recent vintage, under construction or in the planning stage. They will be defining the look and feel of our city and affecting our lives at the visceral level for decades to come.


Many have pointed out the dark symbolism inherent in the Holyland project’s super-prominent location — its visibility from many points far across the city. It seems to epitomize the triumph of greed over positive social values. But there is symbolism of this kind all over Jerusalem, even at the farthest recesses of the most peripheral neighborhoods. One might argue that in such cases the damage is even greater: Holyland is viewed by most Jerusalemites at a distance, and — necessarily — with a certain degree of emotional detachment; but the neighborhood eyesores are up close and personal.

An urban design feature that makes for potent symbolism at ground level — as opposed to the skyline — is the “terminating vista.” It is worth looking at how the terminating vista is being treated in Jerusalem these days.

The terminating vista is defined by Wikipedia as “a building or monument that stands at the end or in the middle of a road, so that when one is looking up the street the view ends with the site.”

You don’t need to be an architect or urban planner to understand that a terminating vista is an opportunity for the placement of a distinguished building — whether a monument, a governmental facility, a community center, a house of worship, or even just an exceptionally attractive commercial structure that confers dignity on the public realm. Terminating vistas are found in all sorts of large and small places where human beings settle — places as diverse as low-rise Burlington, Vermont …

via Wikimedia Commons (Jared and Corin)

… and high-rise downtown Toronto:

via Wikimedia Commons (Mark Watmough)

An example of the terminating vista in Jerusalem would be the Generali Building at the intersection of Jaffa Road and Shlomzion HaMalka Street. The Generali Building is no ornate monument but rather an office building that was constructed in the 1930s and has housed various commercial and governmental functions over the years. Its overall effect is one of subdued elegance — except for its most distinctive feature, the winged lion on its roof that is visible from afar and rather bold than subdued:

holyland 2014 078

The Jerusalem Development Authority quite understandably, and rightly, plans to create a public plaza with distinctive and colorful outdoor seating in front of the Generali Building. This plaza will serve as a focal point and gathering place for those who come to Jerusalem’s “historic downtown.”

The JDA recognizes the value of a handsome building situated dramatically at an intersection, and will be capitalizing on it in order to attract tourists, students and other “preferred” visitors to the revitalized downtown scene.

What of terminating vistas in those parts of the city that are not oriented toward tourism?

Here is one that was created just recently, in one of Jerusalem’s newest neighborhoods, at the end of the neighborhood’s main shopping strip:

holyland 2014 013

A community center is slated for construction on an undeveloped lot that lies a short distance from this characterless residential tower. One can well imagine that in another era an attractively-designed community center — or synagogue — might have been situated at the termination of the vista, perhaps with a lively pedestrian plaza or commons in front of it, rather than the traffic circle that is currently in place there.


High-profile eyesores, like high-profile political corruption cases, do not emerge from a vacuum. Both are rooted in disdain for the public realm. Both say: the “I” is more important than the “we.” Or even: there is no “we.”

Architecture and city planning reflect communal values. It is sad that in Israel, a society bound by strong religious, cultural and historical ties, where people regularly lay down their lives on behalf of shared values, we can’t come up with a contemporary architecture that honors our history and our common civic life. Not even in our beloved capital.

Architectural abominations can be endlessly cataloged, just as political corruption can be covered “wall-to-wall.” We can identify and lament each individual eyesore or all of them taken together; but it won’t get us any closer to what we really want: a built environment that is sustainable, humane, and pleasing to the eye.

We’re very good at identifying what we don’t like when it is foisted upon us; we’re also good at identifying what we do like when it has been built by past generations and all we have to do is preserve it, or imitate it in its immediate surroundings. What we aren’t good at is creating new places that are congenial to people.

We appear not to like bland modernist boxes where all the ornament is on the inside and none on the outside, or streets that are designed around the needs of King Car. What we do seem to like are traditional architecture and walkable streets. This preference is clearly reflected in real estate values: Jerusalem’s older, more traditional neighborhoods are, as noted, beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest residents.

Traditional architecture and walkable streets used to be available to everyone; they weren’t always luxury commodities. Since the advent of the private car and the zoning practices that arose to accommodate it, it has become a challenge – in Israel as in the West – to produce what once came naturally. But it can be done. An entire movement — the New Urbanism movement — has emerged in the Western world in reaction to the unsustainable banalities of autocentrism and suburban sprawl, and it has redefined good planning.

There is a wealth of information on the Internet about New Urbanism, smart growth, sustainable development, walkable streets, and related concepts. One online article by Robert Steuteville and Philip Langdon that provides a clear and concise introduction to New Urbanism can be found on the Better! Cities and Towns website. The precepts formulated by Steuteville and Langdon — touching on such issues as mixed-use development, street connectivity, and diversity of transportation options — are too numerous to take up here. However, given the sense of outrage that Holyland has elicited in so many Jerusalemites, and a widespread dissatisfaction with the housing and living options currently available to working people in the city, I think it is worth quoting in full two of the New Urbanism precepts that Steuteville and Langdon set forth:

–Human scale [should set] the standard for proportion in buildings. Buildings must be disciplined in how they relate to their lots if public space is to be successfully demarcated. Because the street is the preeminent form of public space, buildings are generally expected to honor and embellish the street.

–Civic buildings (town halls, churches, schools, libraries, museums) belong on preferred sites such as squares or neighborhood centers, or where the view down a street terminates. Such placement helps turn civic buildings into landmarks and reinforces their symbolic and cultural importance.

Clearly, were we to embrace New Urbanism (walkability, smart growth, etc.) on a societal scale, grotesqueries like Holyland would be much less likely to blight our landscape. We would be too busy making attractive buildings, pleasant streetscapes, vibrant public spaces, and functioning neighborhoods to even think about perpetrating such outrages. Moreover, we would institute NU-associated mechanisms — such as the form-based code — to ensure that we get the architectural and urban design features we want, in all parts of the city, leaving no area exposed to the caprice of corrupt officials.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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