Zion Square store
The new Zion Square store. A decision was made to reference the original structures by embedding certain stone elements in the facade. Photo by Aviad Bar-Nes
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In mid-October Hamashbir Lazarchan is slated to open its new flagship store at Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem. This will be Israel's largest department store, with about 5,000 square meters of space. While some locals consider department store chains to be a remnant of an outdated consumer culture, they are an inalienable part of the urban fabric in other countries. Strolling down Oxford Street in London, arguably the most crowded shopping street in Europe, shows just how much consumer shrines like Selfridges or Debenhams contribute to the city experience and attract pedestrian traffic.

Hamashbir's new branch, planned by Jerusalemite architect Amazia Aaronson, is located on the southeastern corner of Zion Square, and boasts a facade facing the square and Jaffa Road. It replaced two 2-story buildings (Nos. 39 and 41 Jaffa Road ) with "no architectural uniqueness," in Aaronson's words. They did, however, have historical importance for the city: One was home to the first branch of what became the Steimatzky bookstore chain up until a few years ago. In the other, the city's first music conservatory opened in the 1930s.

Aaronson began formulating his design in the late 1990s. Initially there was talk of preserving the two historical structures, but the municipal engineer at the time, Uri Shetrit, wanted to leverage the planned light rail and the downtown area's renewal to build a more massive building with mixed use.

After much discussion on preservation, which reached the interior minister, it was decided to "quote" or "reference" the original structures by embedding certain stone elements in the facade of the new building. For instance, the recognizable wooden balcony above the entrance to Steimatzky has morphed into a metal balcony at the entrance to the new store.

The result of the architectural referencing is odd here. It seems detached - both from the old building, and from the character of the new building - and it resembles a fossilized souvenir that does not particularly contribute to the understanding of the space. However, Aaronson believes this was the way to preserve the original buildings in the collective urban memory.

"Both the old buildings had stone elements that merited preservation because otherwise they might become extinct," he says. "There is no reason for them not to continue to exist for another 100 years. Jerusalem is full of layers. Wherever you dig you find something, and this is yet another layer in the city."

The owner of the building, British-Israel Investments Ltd., has undertaken to hang a permanent exhibition describing the history of the site along the pedestrian walkway leading to Nahalat Shiva.

New urban landmark

Beyond the debate over the architectural quotation, Aaronson has created a new urban landmark in the capital's most central spot. The massive new six-story building echoes the city's construction and planning style from the British Mandate era, but has a current, elegant design. The most outstanding exterior and interior feature is a rotunda, which affords a handsome finish and functions like a kind of lighthouse visible from Jaffa Road and the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. The rotunda is actually the space that connects all the commercial floors inside, and contains two glass elevators. Aaronson says he's desiging the elevators as a "kinetic sculpture" that will radiate light outward and add to the general experience of passersby.

The interior design of the department store was entrusted to the Austrian company Umdasch, which specializes in designing retail spaces. As compared to the spacious department stores in the United States and Europe, the five sales floors in this new building are all quite small, only 800 square meters. However, since Hamashbir stores are naturally split up into departments and brands, this did not pose a problem for the designers.

In addition to sales space, the department store will also have a floor of offices and a cafe that opens onto a balcony, affording a view of the city - a classical characteristic of department stores elsewhere. Currently, the building facade is open and empty, with its huge rectangular windows. It will be interesting to see how the inside and outside relate after the clothing racks are installed.

The new branch of Hamashbir is an inseparable part of the renewal process in downtown Jerusalem. After many long and depressing years of work on the light rail and renovating Jaffa Road and the surrounding streets, things are looking different. Downtown vehicular traffic has been substantially reduced; Jaffa Road has become a pedestrian mall; and merchants who have managed to survive all the excavations now have to rely on the train as their main source of customers. Standing outside his souvenir shop last week, one merchant watched the train go by longingly. "They have screwed over my business, but it is so nice to see the light rail cars," he said with a bitter smile.

Zion Square is one of the legs of "the Jerusalem triangle," the Mandatory business center of the city, bounded by Ben-Yehuda Street, Jaffa Road and King George Street. In its glory days from the 1920s to the 1940s, it had many movie houses, fancy restaurants, bohemian cafes and shops; today it is mostly characterized by fast-food places and souvenir shops. Years of renovation and security tensions have left their mark. For that reason, Hamashbir's decision to invest in such an expensive building there reflects the chain's confidence in the renewal of downtown Jerusalem and its potential to become a focal point of commerce and entertainment in the city once again.

Nissim Hassan, deputy CEO of Hamashbir, says the choice of Zion Square "sprang from the desire to build a department store of the kind that exists in important European capitals like Berlin and Rome. We looked for a location in the throbbing heart of the city and Zion Square suited this requirement perfectly: a central place, humming with people."

For his part, Aaronson hopes the light rail and urban renewal in general will meet all the expectations - of Hamashbir, other chains and local merchants alike.

"The municipality has put all its eggs in one basket," he says, "and it is very likely that this basket will be a success."