Every Sunday at noon, the team members of the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design at Tel Aviv University convene for their weekly meeting. This time there is a lively discussion about preparations for a new study of residential areas in Israel. The founder and director of the center, Dr. Tali Hatuka, would like the study to cover neighborhoods in all different parts of the country, from Taibeh to Netanya and Bnei Brak, so as to get an updated and comparative picture of places that have developed and "in which no one knows what is happening," as she defines it.
A member of the team, 31-year-old architect and masters degree student Roni Bar, describes the research method and the way the findings will be gathered. There will be a 90-minute tour of the site (visits to apartments, examination of accessibility, the public spaces ), 60 minutes for interviewing residents and 30 minutes for summing up.
Another young architect and team member, Michael Jacobson, 32, (who also writes the architectural blog "Back Window" ) presents the geographic dispersion of the target neighborhoods, and he reads a short extract to those present from the book by the French writer Georges Perec, "Species of Spaces and Other Pieces."
Jacobson hopes the text will persuade the participants to look at the surroundings in the simplest way possible - by studying the graffiti, the atmosphere created by the residents, and even the cracks in their tiles. The debate heats up and finally all agree there is still a great deal of work to be done and another meeting should be held the following week.
A short while later, in her office on the third floor of the Geography Department building, Hatuka adds her thoughts about Israeli residential neighborhoods. "In the 1950s and 1960s, they built housing projects for the public here in Israel. What we are building today is exactly the same shikunim but just in an egotistical manner and with better finishing work. The contemporary residential areas in Israel are copies of one another. You can see it for example in the town of Modi'in. The inside structure of a house built on the ground, of a small apartment bloc of three floors, and of a tower, are completely identical. The kitchen opens onto the living room and a passage leads to two or three bedrooms. The same unity can be seen in the way the landscape is designed."
The repetitive nature of the residential areas takes away choice, she says. "We constantly hear that in contemporary times, in the 21st century, we can choose any component in our lives. Everything is individualistic. But if we look at the living space, it is clear that it is an illusion."
Hatuka says diversity in forms is needed in Israeli architecture. "We need variety. If you create the same type of apartment and structure, without variety in the mix of the neighborhood, you in fact produce homogenous social environments. The interaction with 'the other' is completely lost."
The Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design was set up in 2010 and deals with the tension between urban planning and design, a very hot topic these days.
"There is no body in Israel that does research about subjects such as urban renewal, crowding and public spaces," Hatuka explains. "Our aim is not merely to speak but also to influence and to mediate between the theory and the practice. Therefore we promote projects with a practical orientation."
The laboratory has seven members, two of them architects and the remainder participants in the university's outstanding students program who come from different fields of research such as philosophy and political science. Every one of them is in charge of an independent research project, usually as part of a master's degree program, and together they are responsible for a number of large research projects.
The interdisciplinary nature of the lab makes it possible to break through the recognized boundaries of urban planning and to study the manner in which technology, for example, has changed our concept of space.
Carmel Hanany, 23, is studying the influence of smart-phones on the cognitive concept of public space. Dr. Eran Toch of the Engineering faculty is helping her to build an application that will monitor the users and the locations in the space through a connection with the social networks.
"The assumption is that the use of smart-phones expands the dimensions of the urban experience but lessens its depth," she explains.
Another project, which is being carried out in cooperation with Naama Malis' architecture firm, deals with alternatives to the destructive "pinui binui" projects that tear down old neighborhoods to put new ones in their place.
In many places in Israel, especially in outlying areas, the value of real estate is not high enough to justify projects of that kind. The lab is examining other models such as strengthening existing buildings.
"The architect who goes to his office every day, busy with his everyday problems, lives in a homogenous environment and sends his children to a kindergarten with children that look the same as his children," Hatuka says. "They are educated to be individualists, to develop personally and become creative but not to know about or take an interest in the weak, in groups. I respect that. Not everyone has to live in Neveh Sha'anan. People speak a great deal about being different but not everyone is capable of living with the differences. It's difficult. Therefore, for these architects, who are the majority, methodological alternatives and new models must be built so that they can be assimilated into their practical work."
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