Safdie: The man against the plan
The architect behind the controversial plan for expanding Jerusalem westward says he would prefer to see that area undeveloped.
"I have no problem with the West Jerusalem plan being postponed and canceled," says the man behind the plan, architect Moshe Safdie, "on one condition - that they don't build at all in this area. If they leave the area open and green, then that's fine with me.
"I have no interest in the plan in and of itself, but in the welfare of Jerusalem. If there is a decision not to build west of the city at all, I would consider that a brave political decision and would come to terms with it and accept it. But it seems this is not about to happen. That is why I haven't come out to defend and advocate for the plan."
Safdie said this to Haaretz in a rare telephone interview on the subject.
The building plan for West Jerusalem, drafted by and named after Safdie, is essentially a plan for a new city cut off from the parent, on the ridges and open spaces to its west. It calls for the construction of some 20,000 densely-constructed housing units at two separate sites, Mount Heret and the Lavan Ridge; half a million square meters of commercial and industrial space; an infrastructure network; and roads and bridges. All of these are to be built on tough terrain that spans some 26 square kilometers of natural and planted forests.
The National Planning and Building Council was to have made a decision on the plan Tuesday, but after lengthy discussions the panel decided to postpone it for two months. The plan has sparked the largest environmental fight and the stormiest public debate out of all the construction plans in Israel. Green organizations submitted 16,000 objections (all were rejected), warning it would damage the environment and weaken central Jerusalem. Also on the agenda was the original sin of reunifying the city and annexing parts to the east, which led to concerns about the "demographic demon" and construction gone amok on the mountains and hills surrounding the city, in order to maintain the Jewish majority there. Planners, architects, academics and public figures joined the battle, and Knesset members from the left and the right recently entered the fray. Even the media was moved from its indifference.
I decided not to defend it
Safdie himself - who is usually not passive, but an involved and connected individual - did not publicly speak out about this weighty issue. During the hearing at the National Planning and Building Council, Safdie was at the Jerusalem branch of his architecture firm (it has offices in Boston and Toronto as well). And nevertheless, he is careful to stress, "I came here for work reasons and not because of the National Council hearing. After all, in any case, I don't attend the hearings."
How is it that you of all people, who at every opportunity stresses the planner's responsibility and context, and speaks of the "power of architecture" (the name of a recently produced documentary about his life), did not deem it appropriate to voice your opinion?
"As far as the matter itself, I decided I would not get involved in the decision-making process, that I would not defend the plan or respond to the attacks on it. The attacks and public discourse contain several relevant points, but also some demagoguery. I feel there was a lot of unfairness in the public hearing."
Unfairness in what respect? After all, this was the most legitimate public hearing possible.
"When they approached me 10 years ago to design the plan, there were in the background dozens of construction plans for projects there including kibbutzim and moshavim. And the great fear was that they would materialize. I said I was willing to accept the job on three conditions: that all the previous plans be canceled, that I would determine the nature of the plan and the density rate, and that I would work with all the relevant green organizations. And I really did work with them. I had dozens of meetings and site tours with them. And only after they agreed did we submit the plan. Afterward they changed their minds, and demagoguery is rampant."
It's not demagoguery but an accepted planning worldview. Perhaps there is no need to expand Jerusalem at all?
"It is possible the city does not need to grow. But I don't believe the Israeli government is capable of deciding, from an ideological perspective, that the city will not grow. In light of the great sensitivity to the balance between the groups that make up the pluralist urban mosaic of Jerusalem - the secular, ultra-Orthodox, religious, Jews and Arabs - it's hard to imagine a decision being made to freeze the expansion of the city. The significance of such a decision would be that the balance would be upset. Even now, none of my friends remain in Jerusalem. The objective of the plan is to preserve the balance."
Is it possible to conclude that the plan is essentially a reflection of the demographic phobia and behind the word "balance" racist inclinations are concealed?
"You call it that. And it may be that some people are leaving Jerusalem due to such considerations. I myself hope and want Jerusalem to be a mixed and cosmopolitan city of ultra-Orthodox and Palestinians, religious and secular. If the city becomes a center of Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox only, I will be very sad. Because if the imbalance is accepted, then the urban social fabric will be affected."
In other parts of the Western world, would it be possible to even think about an expansion plan like this into new open areas, without first having utilized options inside the city?
"I don't know of any other city in the world as one-directional as Jerusalem as far as development is concerned. The only direction to expand is westward. To the south and north it is impossible. And to the east is not possible, either. At least that's what I hope. I'm against building in the E-1 corridor and connecting to Ma'aleh Adumim.
"So we are back to the issue of expanding the city again. Florence decided it would not expand, and that was that. If we have the faith and ability - in that order - to allow the center of the city to maintain its uniqueness, fine. But I don't believe that will happen. The center of the city has already lost some of its uniqueness. Look at the towers they're building there, at the Holyland project, it's shocking. But about that - not a word. No one is going out to demonstrate."
Safdie is an Israeli-Canadian architect who has designed works all over the world, from Canada and the United States to India. In Israel he has an almost Herodian presence. He is responsible for some colossal urban debacles that will be rued for years - the Mamilla complex in Jerusalem, which has transformed part of the city into an urban desert, and the "city" of Modi'in, a suburb without a city that destroyed Ramle's and Lod's chances of extricating themselves from their distress for generations, and also drew away many of Jerusalem's economically stronger residents. In light of all this, it is surprising he was commissioned for another urban project. It would be fitting to adopt the position of Safdie himself and shelve the Safdie plan.