The Mexican's Magic Hat

On Thursday, there will be a hearing in Jerusalem for objections to the redesign plan for Davidka Square.

In Israel, The term "urban square" serves for the most part as a euphemism used to describe a desolate, unnecessary and ugly space that is light years away from such warm and inviting public spaces as Piazza San Marco in Venice, which Napoleon described as "Europe's salon."

Jerusalem's Davidka Square, one of the only commercial squares in the city, is not a desolate place; it bustles with people and businesses. But still, its ugliness and neglect are known far and wide. So we can welcome the Jerusalem municipality's initiative to renovate the square and the effort to include it in the family of urban salons.

The renewal of the square, one of a series along the length of Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem is being done as part of the light rail project and was assigned to a top-notch internationally renowned architect, Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico. There are high hopes that Legorreta's plan will transform the square into "an entertainment venue" and "an impressive architectural element," according to the project's managers. And yet, from the images and plans for the future square, it seems that the match between it and the well-known architect was not made in heaven. Perhaps this is because Legorreta was invited here not as an urban planner whose job is to solve prosaic problems at eye level and in accordance with the dimensions of the location and its residents, but rather as an architectural magician.

As part of the plan, on which the Jerusalem firm of Rosenfeld Arens is collaborating, the area of the square designated for pedestrians and greenery was indeed enlarged, but there were also some surrealist props pulled out of the Mexican's magic hat, including an arcade of arches and angled walls of giant dimensions, a huge reddish sculpture of terra-cotta stones as tall as a five-story building, a row of transparent alabaster lights and "a water element."

The redesign of Davidka Square is controversial. Residents of the area have expressed concern that the terra-cotta sculpture will affect their quality of life, and merchants argue that the arched arcade will impair accessibility and visibility of the shops that face the street, a problem for a square whose lifeblood is its shops.

The Jerusalem branch of Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has raised its own objections to the plan. The gist of it is this: The construction in the square requires a new municipal master plan and public notice, not just a request for a building permit, which has been the extent of the proposal to date. The society will officially present its objections to the plan to the local planning and construction committee this Thursday, the last day for submitting objections, in the hope that it will still be possible to have an impact.

Davidka Square, known officially as Kikar Haherut (Freedom Square), is situated at the intersection of Jaffa, Hanevi'im and Kiah roads. It covers some seven dunams and as part of the renewal project, the area designated for pedestrians would be enlarged by the diversion of Hanevi'im Street. The square commemorates the historic Davidka mortar, which played an important role in the War of Independence, and which sits at the foot of the stone monument designed by architect Asher Hiram in 1956.

Davidka is one of three squares along Jaffa Road whose design enlisted the services of internationally renowned architects, the other two being the "entrance square" at the western end of the street, below the Bridge of Strings, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and Tzahal Square at its eastern end, designed by Canadian-American-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. The Jerusalem light-rail project, which demanded the redesign of the spaces, also prompts some tough questions.