An aerial view of Yehud
An aerial view of Yehud. The new urban project is the most ambitious of its kind in the country today. Photo by Simulation
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Last week, the story of Chinese developers who succeeded in building an exact replica of the Austrian village off Hallstatt on the outskirts of Guandong circulated widely in the international media.

Many thousands of kilometers to the west, Israel launched its own project in architectural replication this week: the Bella Lugano quarter in Yehud. Inspired by the the Italian-speaking section of this Swiss city, it is the brainchild of Mayor Yossi Ben David, who became well acquainted with Italy while working in his previous job in textiles.

"European cities have a special magic," he said this week in a telephone interview. "We are going to do something which has never been done anywhere in Israel - it'll be a tourist center, a recreation center, it'll have public plazas with cafes and nice shops, filled with life."

The Lugano project combines the Herodian ambitions of one particular mayor, permissive market conditions, loose architectural discipline and an attempt to brand a sleepy town on the outskirts of metropolitan Tel Aviv. The project has attracted media attention in recent years, first as an object of curiosity and after as a serious endeavor aimed at generating urban renewal in central Yehud (meanwhile renamed Yehud-Monoson ). It would not be far-fetched to call it the biggest and most ambitious project of its kind in Israel today.

The old center of Yehud is built on the ruins of the Arab village of Yehudia and suffers from many of the syndromes that typically afflict downtown areas in Israel. It is outdated and neglected, and hard-pressed to compete with the successful mall that opened a few years ago in nearby Kiryat Savionim. All attempts to resuscitate it, including establishing a pedestrian mall, have failed.

As part of the renewal project that will encompass 200 dunams, the old downtown will be completely demolished except for the spire of a mosque from the old village of Yehudia and a tomb from the Mamluke period. Two apartment towers will be built and between them - the jewel in the crown - the Italian quarter with picturesque four- and five-story residential buildings. The ground floors will contain shops and feature ornamented colonnades and neoclassical columns. The building fronts will be painted in shades of orange, peach and lavender, and combine European motifs with Israeli sun porches.

Lots of fantasies

Residents and visitors will be able to able to relax in big and small squares replete with trees and fountains. "It's a combination of all kinds of things that I like," Ben David says. "There are elements borrowed from all sorts of places in Europe, not just Lugano. These are basic urban elements that have worked well for thousands of years. We are creating something new out of them." The old municipal building in the city center will also get an Italian makeover, budget permitting.

The project will include about 30 buildings, each with anywhere between 10 to 14 apartments (three-, four- and five-room ) designed, according to the mayor, to suit the needs of diverse groups. "Young people will come, adults will come, artists will come," he says. "Our advantage is proximity to the airport. You can sleep here before or after a flight in one of the boutique hotels that will be built. People from Eilat who want to spend a day in the center can fly and visit here instead of the Azrieli Mall."

The Tel Aviv firm of Tishby-Rosio architects is in charge of planning the project. Although it was officially launched this week, architect Israel Rosio declined to answer questions. But in an interview with Miron Rapaport in July 2006, he said that he had reservations about the name "Lugano." "It makes me shiver when people say 'Lugano Project,'" he said then. "I told Yossi not to call it Lugano, because that would draw fire and people will say that we're replanting Switzerland in Yehud. But Yossi has lots of fantasies. He thinks the buildings should look like those in Lugano. The regional committee was thrilled with the plans and the city planner said this should be a model for other cities."

The Lugano project raises questions about the legitimacy of architectural replication. Although it will not be an exact copy of a specific place or building style, there is no doubt that the project is more reminiscent of Europe than the Arab village of Yehudia or contemporary Israeli architecture. Architectural replicas have existed as long as architecture has. Sometimes they help create an environment of fantasy, like the Venetian canals and the sculpture of the Sphinx that were copied by casinos in Las Vegas. Sometimes they express a sense of cultural appreciation, like the full-size replica of the Parthenon in Athens that was created for the 1897 World's Fair in Nashville, Tenn. And sometimes an architectural tribute is meant to be an exact copy, like the Tokyo Tower, planned by Japanese architect Tasu Naito in the 1960s, which is based closely on the architecture and engineering of the Eiffel Tower.

The greatest challenge of architectural replication is maintenance. In creating the replica, the architect must produce the illusion of a different place, a perfect setting that must be maintained flawlessly. So who will preserve the peach-colored stucco in the Yehud project and who will guarantee that the neighbor on the third floor does not install an air-conditioner right across from the most beautiful fountain in the city? The mayor says with much confidence that the site will be maintained with great care and will not suffer the neglect that characterizes the center of Yehud today. "The plan includes instructions at the level of the coating of door handles," he says.

It is easy to write off the Lugano Project as a stylish curiosity or a post-modern real estate fantasy, but with all the criticism,it still holds great promise. It will be the first such urban project of its kind to be built in Israel in years, with shops on the ground floor and residential housing above. Cars will be diverted to parking lots outside the center and underground, so that the public spaces are completely free for pedestrians. With proper management and the right mix of businesses, it has a good chance of succeeded and becoming a major attraction for residents of the city and surrounding areas. Yehud could eventually become a model of a new kind of Israeli urbanity. Ben David, for his part, urges his critics to hold their tongues until they get their first taste of Lugano - sorry, Yehud - when the project is completed. "I am a big man who believes in big things, and whoever says that I'm kitschy, my response is that he is," he says.