Gerard Heumann

Why so ugly?

Before the founding of the State and for years afterward, a thriving architectural culture existed here, a strong European influence, mainly Bauhaus, in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. A master of world architecture, Eric Mendelsohn, designed several important buildings on the highest level. Richard Kaufmann, brought here by Arthur Ruppin, became the chief planner of the Zionist enterprise. There were many other fine architects.

Yet today most of our urban landscape has become unsightly, our public spaces, streets and squares, lifeless. How did we get to this point? A regretful summary of some of the key factors:

Decision makers, mainly Mayors, who are de facto, the chief urban designers of their cities, and those that serve them, have long ago abandoned quality design to the dash for cash and short-term profit of entrepreneurs and building developers and too often for their own profit as well.

Public involvement in planning is a transparent farce. Building committees make most of their decisions before we enter the meeting room. Destroy/Build – ‘Urban Renewal” is turning gentrified public housing apartment owners into millionaires (before having to pay the high maintenance costs of the residential towers built in their place). Above it all, with their view of the sea, the rich care little about their neighbor landlocked behind. It’s every man for himself.

Comprehensive three-dimensional planning is rare. Building projects are on an ever larger scale, a professional challenge of the highest order which few architects, world-wide, are capable of.

Over the last generation building design in Israel has been of an incredible conformity, as if anti-urban and anti-social free-standing towers-point blocks, were the only building type in the history of architecture. Homogenous, repetitive and thoughtless designs lacking any aesthetic sensibility have become the norm. Copy-paste architecture has been the unfortunate result of computer-assisted design. Three of these, ten of those. All of our cities are beginning to look alike.

We are seeing many more anti-social segregated projects, fenced off. There has been no attempt to create a local architecture, well-related to our climate for example, little play of mass, shade and shadow, attention to details.

And although we still have the historic buildings of Jerusalem and Jaffa, their physical environmental context is gradually being encroached upon. The visual basin of Jerusalem’s Old City is already surrounded by towers, more on their way.

Restoring a viable architectural culture in Israel today is possible only if local government decision-makers, mainly our Mayors, well-advised, become aware that architectural design and urban design of quality exists and want it.

The grave loss of values we are witness to, will undoubtedly have severe implications for Israeli society. The term “community” is becoming unknown.

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