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Worst Jerusalem streetscapes, 2014

It's time to stop looking at individual buildings as isolated works unto themselves

As the turn of the civil year approached, the media presented us with their usual summations — picks and pans from 2014’s offerings in various spheres, including the arts. While the appeal of an article about the year’s best movies may be more obvious, architectural roundups have their attractions as well. Architecture is an area that may even be gaining in popular interest, as starchitects redefine our urban skylines and as we all grapple in everyday life with issues of housing quality/affordability and with the state of the public realm that surrounds us.

Among the newspapers that published best and worst building lists for 2014 were the Boston Globe, the Toronto Star, and the Chicago Tribune. Some Israeli papers likewise ended the year with lists of notable projects — though they did not in all cases restrict themselves to architecture of the past year. Ynet, for instance, put out a “best construction project” list for 2014 — but the paper had primed its readers earlier in December with two other, non-year-specific, lists: the ugliest buildings of Tel Aviv and of Jerusalem.

Personally, I don’t see much difference between Ynet‘s good-building and bad-building lists; they’re pretty interchangeable. By what criteria is the Netanya luxury tower on Ynet’s best-building list deemed attractive, as opposed to the Tel Aviv Opera House on the paper’s bad-building list? Why is this structure on Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Street singled out for weirdness:

2 Trumpeldor St., Tel Aviv -- singled out for weirdness by Ynet
2 Trumpeldor St., Tel Aviv — singled out for weirdness by Ynet

… while the “cube tower” in Holon’s Het 300 neighborhood  is cried up as an architectural success?

Cube Tower, Holon -- on Ynet's best-of-2014 list
“Cube tower,” Holon — on Ynet’s best-of-2014 list

What is common to the various Ynet lists is an approach that looks at individual buildings or projects as works unto themselves, rather than in context — as component parts of the whole that is the street.

Projects — especially new ones — are presented as objects of contemplation, in the form of simulation images or idealized photographs. Why not look at how they function in their urban surroundings?

Take, for instance, the Ganei Zion residential project in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood, which made Ynet‘s best-of-2014 list. The birds-eye view in the simulation image used by Ynet shows a cluster of bland apartment buildings surrounding a lawn — innocuous enough, if uninspired:

Ganei Zion -- street-level view
Ganei Zion — simulation (bird’s-eye view)

But what does the project look like at street level? How does the Katamonim resident feel as he or she passes along the outside of this high-walled, inward-turning complex? Does a small open plaza in front of the tower make up for a lengthy stretch of the following:

Ganei Zion -- street-level view
Ganei Zion — street-level view

At street-level, Ganei Zion is by no means a success. In fact I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the worst Jerusalem streetscapes of 2014.

Ynet is similarly impressed by a new residential project in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo — Ahuzat Yaniv, which in some ways is more aesthetically pleasing than Ganei Zion. The courtyard view provided by Ynet is stately and sanitized:

Ahuzat  Yaniv, Gilo -- courtyard view
Ahuzat Yaniv, Gilo — courtyard view

The courtyard is open on one side to the street, providing neighbors and passersby with a bit of eye candy — but it is not permeable; you can’t cut through it:


Essentially the project is a big obstacle for pedestrians, who have to walk around it if they don’t actually live in it. The project has undeveloped land on two sides of it; when those parcels are built up, Ahuzat Yaniv’s impermeability will be more of a problem.

On another side, the project turns its back to the street with a high wall and unsightly garage entrance/windows. Anyone who happens by here on foot will experience a sense of deadness and isolation — and quite possibly fear: there is no human presence, no “eyes on the street” to provide the informal surveillance that one expects of a functioning city environment:



Another new residential project that is low on street connectivity and informal surveillance is Chalomot Ramat Rachel (“Ramat Rachel Dreams”), in that hazy area where Armon Hanatziv tries to pretend that it is really Arnona. Chalomot Ramat Rachel has not, to my knowledge, appeared on anyone’s good or bad list; I’m going to trash it here.

Rather than bringing the buildings right up to the sidewalk, to create a pleasant sense of enclosure for pedestrians — the “outdoor room” that makes for a successful streetscape — the developers saw fit to surround this project with walls, fences, and a “moat” of surface parking (in addition to the indoor garage), making the complex about as car-oriented as it could possibly be, and altogether hostile to pedestrians.

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The developer’s promotional video presents an idealized picture of interior luxury and exterior greenery. But would anyone feel safe or comfortable walking around this desolate (but specially-designed!) park?

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In a city, safety, interest and comfort come from human presence, not from decorative “Green Space.”

Listen up, Israeli real estate developers and politicians: there is huge pent-up demand for real urban living — meaning streets that are welcoming, pedestrian-oriented, lively and diverse. Abstract talk of quantities of housing “units” will not provide people with homes they can love — or afford; and a continued emphasis on disconnected, self-contained, gated or quasi-gated “complexes” will only spoil whatever is left of our precious urban landscape.

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