Beyond the Dunes and the Desert (2 of 2)

Tall, crowded and succinct

The proposal by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s to build a Negev city with 40 skyscrapers of 30 to 40 stories for tens of thousands of residents is the complete opposite of the settlement project for the Halutza dunes. While Nitzanit, Shlomit and other Halutza communities are planned to be built close to the ground, with low density and spread over a relatively large area per number of residents, Niemeyer's utopian city was to be vertical, tall, crowded and succinct.

Niemeyer planned the Negev city during a visit to Israel in 1964, upon the invitation of businessman Yekutiel Federman. Niemeyer stayed in Israel for about six months and during this time was involved in planning a number of private and public initiatives, including Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv and Haifa University. He planned the Negev city at the invitation of Yosef Almogi, who served then as minister of housing and development.

Niemeyer planned two cities during his long career: Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil (which, despite its failures in many areas, is considered an icon of modern architecture and has even been inscribed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites), and the Negev city that was never built but remains a fascinating chapter in the history of Israeli and international architecture.

Niemeyer's work in Israel is the subject of historical research conducted by the architect Zvi Elhayani for his master's degree in architecture at the Technion. Among the central issues in the study, which Elhayani concluded last year, is an analysis of Niemeyer's critical assessment of planning concepts in Israel. In Niemeyer's proposal for the Negev city, Elhayani sees a clear expression of this critical outlook. According to the study, Niemeyer already identified the low and sparse construction in new cities and multitude of small communities as a mistake that Israel would pay for in the future with a loss of open spaces.

During his stay in Israel, which is described in detail in Elhayani's study, Niemeyer toured the newly constructed cities in the Negev: Yeruham, Dimona, Kiryat Gat, Eilat and the new neighborhoods of Be'er Sheva. According to Elhayani, Niemeyer was impressed by the desert vistas and construction boom, but expressed his disappointment "from the spatial spread and wastefulness that characterized the new cities, and he began to formulate a completely different urban concept."

The sketches for the new Negev city, as presented in Elhayani's study, show that the city was planned as a compact and crowded community, where the residents could take a short walk of no more than 500 meters to get from their homes to their jobs, schools and places of entertainment. Covered and shaded walkways were planned along the roadways, with pedestrian traffic separated from vehicular traffic. Niemeyer declared that he was seeking "to create optimal conditions for people to communicate and appropriate environments for work, culture and recreation, with the help of technological advances."

Niemeyer, who was a declared communist, was excited about the socialist settlements in Israel and described the Negev city, undoubtedly with a certain amount of naivete, as "a new type of metropolitan kibbutz that grew, became broader and more up-to-date without losing its human values - enthusiasm, solidarity and idealism."

From the outset, Niemeyer was aware of the radical nature of his concept of the Negev city and the controversy it would stir in Israel. Still, he hoped that his plan would not be summarily rejected, "but rather would be stored for a time on the shelf and reexamined after a number of years ... then I'm sure that the reasons we cite today will be accepted and it will be proven that this city is the inevitable result of progress, of technology and of the life force itself."

Niemeyer's plan envisioned a new city somewhere in the heart of the Negev, but no specific site was selected. A model of the plan, as presented at the time, was photographed on the Tel Aviv beach opposite the Dan Hotel, where Niemeyer stayed. Like most of his work in Israel, the Negev city was never built. Elhayani believes that its construction was unfeasible at the time for technological, cultural, social and economic reasons, and that even today it can only serve as an idea for critical review.

Nonetheless, Elhayani writes, the issues Niemeyer raised nearly 40 years ago are at the center of the debate on national planning in Israel today. The question of whether the Negev missed out on - or was saved from - Niemeyer's ideas remains open.

Esther Zandberg