Tel Aviv's Urban Hole

Keeping Kikar Hamedina a 'green lung' runs contrary to both contemporary urban planning concepts and social justice.

Like an inborn reflex, once again the suggestion is being raised to cancel the building plans for Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv and transfer the building rights elsewhere, leaving this enormous area as a "green lung" or breathing space. Yes, residents of the neighborhood have traditionally supported the green initiative although it will leave them with the shining bald spot that's been there since time immemorial. It is possible to understand the not-in-my-backyard position even if one doesn't agree completely.

Yes, local merchants oppose the project out of concern that a prolonged building process will damage their businesses, and that they will face unfair competition from the commercial spaces the contractor plans to construct.

green grass - Baruch Ben-Yitzhak - 26012012
Baruch Ben-Yitzhak

Yes, Mayor Ron Huldai, like his predecessor Shlomo Lahat, in whose day this saga began, radiates with joy at the possibility of seeing the place "open and empty" as was reported in Haaretz last week. It is possible to understand populism and the electoral survival instinct behind this joy, even if one doesn't agree with it.

At the same time, it is impossible to understand how the Greens faction in the Tel Aviv municipality can be behind this initiative, and impossible to agree with the perception that it is ecological. Somebody is confused about the difference between the green tufts of vegetation scattered here and there on the plaza and durable green planning. A green lung in Kikar Hamedina is not really green, and it is an incomprehensible waste of land resources. In this case it doesn't really matter whether the land is mostly private and a real estate gold mine in an area rich in resources of all kinds. Anyway the area around the plaza has ample public spaces and well-groomed public parks, and the really spacious Yarkon Park within walking distance. A suggestion like this would never be raised for south Tel Aviv, which cries out for open public spaces.

An empty urban hole in the center of a city always seems to contain the promise of a better future; but even though it hosted the March of the Million very well during the social protests last summer, the idea of a green lung here is a mockery. It contradicts contemporary trends in the effective use of urban space as a necessary condition for social and spatial justice. The plaza is an ideal place to apply policies of urban planning that Tel Aviv is good at and has a pretense of advancing in its new master plan, as well as planned projects and buildings in process (although in this matter any connection between words and actions is completely accidental ).

An urban emptiness in Kikar Hamedina is like shooting oneself in the foot.

The history of planning in the plaza began in 1951 and continues tortuously toward an end that is not yet in sight. Various architects have been involved, including the famous Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. His plan from the 1960s for dense construction was of the most urban style to date, but was suspended in light of public opposition after it was approved. At the beginning of the 1980s, the idea of a green lung, simply called a park then, arose for the first time and was rejected following a High Court of Justice decision in a suit brought by the land owners. Many plans have risen and fallen since, each one worse than the previous one.

Despite decades of planning, planning principles were never examined in depth, and defects piled up. All the plans called for lumping the separate plots together. Looking back, this was the main source of the dead end that each plan ran into: Combining the lots caused a sharp rise in building rights that then dictated the planning of towers, and also forced cooperation on the lot owners. The plaza's unique shape and its centrality in the area were apparent advantages that were discovered to be obvious disadvantages. The perfect, utopian geometric circle refused to obey the rules time after time and to function. And so Kikar Hamedina has remained as it is until now.

If we are talking again about moving mountains and the cancellation of yet another building plan involving more and more delays, it is appropriate to make use of this time to redo out-of-date planning principles from the bottom up and set out on a new path, one more relevant to our times. It makes sense to go back and redivide the plots in the plaza into separate ones, and plan a quarter in Tel Aviv style with a mixed urban texture like the neighboring streets, and not another UFO "project" that will simply terrorize the environment. This is also the time to enlarge - not reduce - the building density in the plaza, and an opportunity to combine different types of housing and housing prices for a heterogeneous population. Another missed opportunity will be one too many.

Gevalt!

A "shame," an "injustice," "baseness," "evil," a "disgrace," "infamy," "ugliness," "corruption" and "Israel's apartheid policies trickling into the field of architecture" are what members of the architectural community are saying in Internet posts and e-mails. This frenzy was begun by architect Arad Sharon, responsible for harsher words that cannot be printed here in case small children happen to stumble upon this column by mistake and make full-throated calls for revolution and war, and to "enlist in aid of sane architecture in Israel."

What stirred up this generally sleepy and indifferent community? What made it suddenly stand up on its hind legs? What is the meaning of this cry of "gevalt," this holy anger and flaming wrath?

If it seemed that perhaps its members suddenly discovered their own participation in the injustice of planning and the ugliness of architecture, and decided to hold a public ceremony of self-flagellation and set out on a new path, it quickly became clear that the purging of sin was not their goal. What caused them to enter into such a spin was merely what seemed to them the casting of aspersions on their honor and a blow to their egos. The competition to design a new building for the National Library in Jerusalem included conditions that did not seem perfect to them; its method, they said, "constitutes yet another humiliation of the architecture profession," according to a petition published online that calls for a boycott of the competition "because we've had it up to here," and to hold a new, democratic and "clean" competition in its place.

The competition, attacked by architects with a hammer in order to kill a fly, was divided into two stages. The first was anonymous and open to all architects; in the second stage, winners of the first competed with invited architects who advanced to the higher stage directly. It is true that the competition is not the most perfect thing on earth, but shame and injustice and the real apartheid lay elsewhere: in the distribution of land resources; in the planning and granting of suitable housing to all citizens of Israel, including Arabs and Bedouins; in the violent removal of the homeless from protest tents; in the settlement enterprise in the territories that architects have collaborated on in practice or with thunderous silence - and not in some competition for the planning of another showy building funded by the baron, that is the Rothschild Foundation.

Competitions do not provide a magic solution to architectural and planning injustices, no matter how they are conducted. They and their participants - judges, invitees, decision makers and the architects themselves - do not operate in a vacuum, but loyally reflect the cultural, social and political environment in which they live. This is what makes it possible to act - far from perfectly (which is somewhat because of the architects themselves ).

In order to change direction and the basis in which Israeli design competitions develop, one has to begin much before the competitions themselves (which, even in decent societies, are not necessarily tailored on the model desired by frustrated architects ). The corrections begin in education, awareness, critical thinking and development of a sense of social and spatial justice, as well as professionalism, a sense of proportion and good taste, delving into the small details of daily architectural work, and not only cosmetics and last-minute beautification before the ceremony of choosing the architectural beauty queen in design competitions.

Among the bursts of anger that arose, there was also a call to do away with the architects association that is supporting the competition; it is as if the citizens of Israel sought to destroy the Knesset because of the makeup of the ruling coalition. And these are the people who long for democratic planning competitions.

With regard to the National Library, the architecture profession might have saved a little of its honor if it had come out against the decision to build a fancy new home for the library, rather than protest the method. The library's present home on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Givat Ram campus is a wonderful and handsome building to which not many contemporary buildings compare. The right thing to do is to save it from neglect, to reorganize, enlarge its space as necessary, and refit it to the innovations in librarianship, without harming its character and virtues. It is even possible to announce a planning competition and see if anyone agrees to take on such a modest campaign that could contribute to the strengthening of the architectural profession in Israel.