Israel's Desire to Build High Comes With a Price

An obsession with skyscrapers means that planning authorities are giving short shrift to the street level.

The headlines declared Givatayim's new skyscraper as the tallest building in Israel, but that quickly turned out to be exaggerated newspaper reports. Dry facts spoiled the nice fantasy. In fact, the "bad guys" at the district planning committee that approved the plan lopped off a few meters from the Eurocom building and Givatayim, alas, was left with just another tower the same height as the Moshe Aviv Tower in the Diamond Exchange complex in neighboring Ramat Gan. The two buildings now share the desired title.

It really is unfortunate and entails a loss of prestige, as well as considerably eating into the yields. The prestige of and price per meter in the "tallest" building are different from those of a building that does not possess this title. There is a reason why there have always been huge fights between countries and cities, corporations, developers and local council heads over who has the tallest building, infantile as it may sound. Sometimes just the antenna on the building is what makes the difference.

Eurocom building -  Amav Architects - 09022012
Amav Architects

The desire to build high goes back to ancient times - and the fact that the Tower of Babel was built in an empty, post-deluge world indicates that the underlying motive is not the need to crowd together in cities. The competition to be the tallest is also not new. In the early 20th century the popular sport moved from Europe with its church spires, the San Gimignano and the Eiffel Tower, to the United States with its commercial skyscrapers, the symbol of the capitalist economy. At the end of the millennium the competition moved to the Asian arena. One such proud Asian tower, the Aviv Tower itself, several years ago appeared briefly in one of the important international ratings lists, but since then has been pushed out and has quietly slipped off the international stage.

The skylines of high-rise cities are amazing, not just in Manhattan but even in Tel Aviv's YOO complex and the Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange, and they also spark the same kind of primeval fear that surfaces when facing the power of nature, which can perhaps partially explain the public's instinctive opposition to any high-rise construction.

The beauty of high-rise skylines is also a fig leaf concealing the political significance of skyscrapers, which stems from the power of the corporations that built them - according to architectural historian Spiro Kostof - and forces us to love the beautiful towers belonging to the corporations we hate.

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No guiding hand

The skyline was also mentioned by the district planning committee when it explained that the "tallest tower" title was taken from Givatayim because the committee wanted to maintain a "uniform skyline" - a surprising explanation given the clearly nonuniform skyline in the area of construction, (the border of Givatayim, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv ) and in Israel in general.

A random, nonuniform skyline reflects one thing only - the economic logic that dictates how it is built. More than in strongholds of global capitalism, high-rise construction in Israel is the result of random economic pressures, with no guiding hand, and it reflects inequality in the distribution of building rights. Someone who has money always receives a lot more building rights and can make even more money.

The missing meters from the Givatayim high-rise are not going to change the situation. Oversensitivity to the skyline diverts attention from street-level, which is what really makes a city. This is no coincidence. The skyline makes money, the street costs money. The skyline yields profits for the developer, while the street is given to the public for nothing. Therefore what happens at the foot of the high-rise is of less, or no, interest to those involved in urban development. Therefore most public space is less developed than the tower above it, and sometimes is even miserable and neglected. That is why high-rises do everything to dominate the skyline from a distance but ignore their immediate surroundings. The planning authorities are partners in the situation because they are counting meters instead of creating conditions for the existence of street life.

There is currently no justification for Givatayim's existence as a separate city but over the past few years this municipal entity has redesigned itself, and now its street life is in much greater danger than its skyline. Despite its sleepy, suburban and homogeneous reputation, Givatayim is graced with quite a few urban assets and a diversity that would not embarrass a big city - old and new together, an abundance of residential options, areas with villas and old money and every kind of housing project from communal living to those for the well-to-do, mixed residential and commercial streets in the city center. There is also one urban miracle in the city's wild south - a crafts, shopping and services center with a spontaneous and authentic mix of uses that even Tel Aviv Port could envy.

Givatayim's planning and construction spurt does not bode well for most of these properties. Large parts of this diverse mix are likely to deteriorate and die or make room for new projects to be built in their place. The only logic behind it is the developers' profits, and it assures one-dimensional and bland corporate complexes that are not part of the city in which they are located, homogeneous neighborhoods for a homogeneous population and urban desolation with a lot of skyline but no street life.

Urban renewal, without quotation marks, is adrenaline in the veins of every city when it is done with more sensitivity and a little less steamrollering. It could have been Givatayim's opportunity of a lifetime to strengthen the existing urbanity there, to work with it and not against it, even in the less urban areas that are considered the tiny city's outskirts. This path does not travel along the skyline. Transform roads into streets. Develop means of traveling and public transportation that would reduce the use of private vehicles. This minuscule city is trapped by traffic jams and a parking shortage. It is inconceivable that there is not another option.

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