Surroundings / Paradise Lost

Tel Aviv's multitiered Gan Yaakov was a secret garden nestled into the urban fabric. Now it has been brought low by the need for quicker access between the city's main thoroughfares.

Gan Yaakov in Tel Aviv has been reborn. The lovely park, the only one of its kind, was established in 1964 between the Mann Auditorium, the Habima Theater and the Helena Rubenstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art and has undergone a broad-ranging and ambitious renovation/reconstruction that is just now wrapping up.

As part of the overhaul, the ramp from Dizengoff Street to the park's uppermost terrace, which previously prevented direct access to Symphony Plaza and Rothschild Boulevard from Chen Boulevard, was removed and replaced with a one-level horizontal passageway, a boon to the general public and bicycle riders, but at the price of the park itself.

The new walkway skirting Gan Yaakov

The passageway is a quick and efficient mechanism to get from here to there without obstructions, but it has been planted in a park that is made for lingering and slowing down: a secret garden for those few in the know, romantics and the homeless, offering a momentary respite from the city's bustle and yet still part of the urban fabric. And so the passageway undermines the delicate balance between the various sections of the garden and its different levels, the source of most of its charm.

The new passageway is Gan Yaakov's Trans-Israel Highway, cutting a swath of destruction into the park's flesh. Attempts to disguise the path with landscaping tricks and intersecting pathways - a neatly designed supporting wall, a burbling aqueduct and shoreline vegetation - are just a tiny bandage on a festering wound.

The old sycamore above looks on in amazement and seems to recoil, not believing what it sees. Perhaps the ramp was a congenital planning defect, as architects love to say.

Gan Yaakov never promised to be the shortest way between two points. In return for the inconvenience it caused, a very minor inconvenience, the hidden passage through the park offered a slower pace, refuge, and precise landscape architecture choreography-topography, which has now been disrupted.

Inventing the wheel

Over the years the park fell victim to outrageous neglect, like the nearby Mann Auditorium, and was thus ripe for urban renewal.

The renovation of Gan Yaakov was also a window of opportunity for a revolution that many in the Tel Aviv planning world had fantasized over: connecting central city streets - Rothschild, Chen and Ben Gurion - into a ring road or continuous artery from south Tel Aviv, around the city and back toward the shore further up north. The park was a stick in their wagon wheel. For years they lurked around until they finally found a way to get around it.

One has to admit that there is a healthy logic behind the concept of an arterial road, as well as a desire to please the public. The question is the price and who pays it. For another park the price would not be considered high at all; perhaps the opposite is the case. But Gan Yaakov is not just another park. It is doubtful that any arterial road justifies demanding such a price, even if the park had the bad luck to be in the wrong place.

More bad luck, the passageway that divides Gan Yaakov leads straight to Tel Aviv's ground zero; the Habima Theater area and the new Symphony Plaza (which deserves separate consideration ). And so the park finds itself engaged in a mighty struggle with the monsters of architectural glory that have popped up in its face, without having any suitable means of defense. As paradoxical as it may sound, now more than in the past when there was an ugly asphalt parking lot in the square, we need some kind of blocking ramp that will separate the buildings from each other and avoid direct contact.

In its original form, Gan Yaakov physically barred nearly all contact with the goings on around it with its own body. Its isolation contributed more than a little to its neglect but also saved it from extreme and irreversible changes. Paradoxically, the successful rehabilitation of the park's historic section west of the passageway, fronting on Tarsat Street, which removed previous defects, has now been damaged by building additions and the failed renovations.

Perhaps this is merely romantic, but I was seized by embarrassment when I looked straight at the open-mawed passageway.

Gan Yaakov was planned originally by the architect Yaakov Rechter and the municipal gardener at the time, Avraham Karavan, in cooperation with Mordechai Duchovny, and was inspired by Japanese gardens and the art of bonsai.

To Rechter's credit it must be said that he saved himself from the fetters of bonsai and went his own way. The park was built on three levels with bridges between them in order to enlarge the space, which amounts to only three and a half dunams, and to preserve the venerable sycamores. The bridges were a prominent component and created the effect of a topographical optical illusion. People always ask where they lead to.

Originally the park was much emptier than what has been etched in public memory in recent years. It was more architectural and minimalistic, and suited the Mann Auditorium and the Rubenstein Pavilion perfectly. The same architectural firm, the same period, the same family. Even the old Habima, which was always a different, uneasy story, managed somehow not to destroy the harmony too much.

If you turn your back on the passageway and pretend it doesn't exist, you can feel astonishment at the renovation and preservation work in what is considered the historical section of Gan Yaakov, impressive work by any standard. Landscape architect Lital Smok Fabian of TMA was responsible for the project, backed up by serious research and devoted attention as befits the park's pedigree.

It seems it is possible to do things differently. To a large extent the garden has been returned to its earlier days, and now we have to get used to it once again: the network of reconstructed columns and walls are still naked, as clean-lined and clear as they were in photos from the 1960s. The renewed banisters and pathways bring back the taste and materials of that period and don't yet show signs of wear.

The flowerbeds and plants haven't yet had a chance to spread out cover the ground. The theatrical lighting is a bit much. But you can relax: the Chinese wisteria remain and are waiting patiently to blossom breathtakingly in season, around March and April.

Gan Yaakov's newest state reveals the long way it has to go to reach the condition it deserves. The mural by Ivan Schnabel has barely survived and needs to be saved, and of course the neglect of the Rubenstein Pavilion and Mann Auditorium is even more grating in the face of the park's new fancy dress.

At the end of the day, even with the improved access, there is no avoiding the thought that restoration and a promise of maintenance would have been sufficient without intervention, and yet, in an age of immediate gratification, nobody is in the mood for Gan Yaakov's irregular heartbeat.