Crazy Houses

Shani Shilo
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Shani Shilo

Most apartment buildings in Israel are hopelessly uninspiring blocks of concrete, with or without an utterly uninteresting tiled or stone facade. Their design is roughly the same, their finishing almost identical. This uniform blah turns neighborhoods into soulless collections of structures, whether in Haifa, Tel Aviv or Ofakim.

Yet occasionally, some edifice stands out in this sea of conformity, thanks to some architect or builder who sought to leave behind a legacy, not only an estate.

One of Israel's first examples of such breaks with convention is the Gaudi-esque "Crazy House" at 181 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv. Erected in 1985, the building was the talk of the town at the time. People loved to hate it, and the ones who loved it were suspected of having no taste.

Today, hardly anybody remembers it's even there. It's there, all right, but if you ask a passing Tel Avivian what "Crazy House" is, you'll probably get an odd look and a shrug.

"Building it involved war," says Shlomith Bollag, the wife of Israel Bollag, who built the Crazy House. "There is an utter absence of awareness for special buildings in Israel. Here, the different is rejected in architecture, too."

Construction started in 1982, the day the first Lebanon War broke out, and ended roughly with that same war three years later. Planned by the French architect Leon Gaignebet, the building has 11 apartments. "People who bought flats in the building did so because of the view, the quality of the construction and the look," Bollag says. She and her husband live in the building's only flat that has no sea view.

Although the building looks like the creation of an architect just looking for attention, Gaignebet was actually trying to create meaning through his design, and to relate to Hayarkon as the boundary between the city and the sea. The western facade, which faces the Mediterranean, uses materials including gravel, shells, sand, and natural wood and plants. The lesser seen eastern facade makes use of industrial materials, such as metal and concrete.

The western facade was supposed to draw from the nouveau-art works of Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi. The design continues in the lobby and elevator, and the furniture looks like it was taken from Paris of the late 1800s. But Tel Aviv is not Barcelona, and the facades look like they were sloppily glued onto a regular apartment building.

Prof. Ze'ev Druckman, the former head of the architecture department at the Bezalel school of art, says of Crazy House: "When an architect builds something like that, it should be making a statement about the city," he says. "But Crazy House is just sheeting wrapped over a building with a regular plan."

It isn't enough for architecture to consist of whims of design, he says. "The academic foundation lies in being able to take something from the edifice and proceed from there. A building should not be a stand-alone creation, but something whose lifetime goes beyond the service the architect provided."

Another oddity is the Spiral House in Ramat Gan, created by architect Zvi Hecker. It also arouses love and hate. Construction started in 1984 and ended in 1990. The building is designed as an extension of a spiral staircase. Sitting on a hillside, it features roof-free porches. Inside, all the apartments look out on the building's courtyard.

The building is made of concrete, with a facade of plaster, pink glass and stone fragments and corrugated tin. The materials were chosen for their association with low-cost housing and the old neighborhoods in the area.

Shmuel Grobstein, who played a part in the Spiral's design, once described it thus: "It looks like a storm passed through Ramat Gan, picking up all the wrecks from the roofs and yards, and created the spiral in one swoop."

Druckman doesn't like it. Buildings like that are the ruination of architecture, he says. Architecture's job is to maintain a relationship between the environment and the culture, with each layer inspiring the next.

"The Spiral House possesses a great deal of pretension, but it's all external aesthetics. You can't base the next layer on it. Buildings like that are like kettles. You put it on the shelf and at most say it's pretty, but that's it. It has no relationship to anything that came before it."

Hecker would describe it as a miniature Tower of Babel, speaking different languages about different subjects such as the situation of mankind, the relationship between material and action, construction and architecture. Spiral House won him the Rechter Prize for architecture in 1999, which he shared with architect Ram Carmi.

Unlike Gaignebet, who is considered a one-house builder in Israel, Hecker is held in high esteem and even has won the Israel Prize.

They arise, they are spattered with virtual mud and flowers, and then, they are forgotten. Yet in many ways, they're better than the monotonous blocks of housing that dull the senses throughout the land. They are unique. Which is better?