Back to the Future / A Giant Beehive Abuzz With Controversy

From innovative to bizarre, Ramot Polin was called many things when it was built in the eighties. Today the Jerusalem neighborhood is still the subject of debate.

It was one of the most fascinating modern architectural experiments ever attempted in Jerusalem: an avant-garde public housing project for the ultra-Orthodox population. A short while after the end of the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel was coping with the new territory it took control of, the Housing Ministry began to advance the construction of new Jewish neighborhoods ringing Jerusalem. In Ramot Polin north of the city, architect Zvi Hecker was asked to plan a grouping of 700 apartments for the ultra-Orthodox.

In response to the anonymous, monotone neighborhoods built all around the country, and as a result of intriguing studies of new geometries, Hecker suggested a system composed of buildings whose outer walls were dodecahedrons (a three-dimensional shape with 12 equal pentagonal faces ) that contained porches that served as sukkahs for the Sukkot holiday. The neighborhood, which from afar looks like a giant beehive or a set of crystalline rocks, was widely publicized almost immediately around the world in both prestigious magazines and lists of peculiar buildings.

The Ramot Polin housing project today - Baruch Ben Yitzhak
Baruch Ben Yitzhak

Decades after it was built, the neighborhood is still undergoing change. The pentagons are nearly swamped now by improvised building additions of rooms and porches, air conditioners and so on, and it appears that the residents will do anything to round off the corners. The buildings' original character is being lost; not one building remains in its original condition.

A free hand to architects

The Ramot Polin neighborhood, which is part of the bigger neighborhood of Ramot, was part of an exceptional attempt to create local architecture on a large scale in the territories conquered during the Six Day War. The Housing Ministry gave a free hand to leading architects such as Ram Carmi, Abraham Yaski, and Aryeh and Eldar Sharon, to plan the capital's new neighborhoods. It requested that they create innovative new housing models expressive of their time and place and challenge familiar models.

Hecker, who had earlier designed the Bat Yam municipal building and the army officers' school at training camp 1 (both in cooperation with Eldar Sharon and Alfred Neumann ), was given a promising site at the top of an eastern ridge in Ramot. He placed the buildings within the framework of the shape of a five-fingered hand with the palm facing down, so that they contained a series of inner courtyards. The buildings were made of industrial materials: concrete covered with cut stone. The interior design of the apartments does not differ significantly from those in other neighborhoods built at the same time, except that some of the outer walls slant outward.

The buildings at Ramot Polin were unusual for the Israeli landscape, especially that of Jerusalem's new neighborhoods. In contrast with the architecture of Gilo, for example, which is characterized by a post-modernism utilizing local symbols such as archways and typical Jerusalem porches, Hecker chose an independent language based on the repetition of solid geometrical figures. Even the stone cladding, made on the diagonal, was significantly different from the rest of the new building in the city.

Advanced construction

The economic changes the country was undergoing at that time also had an impact. If at the beginning of the process the Housing Ministry advanced industrial construction, the cheap labor that began to flood Israel from the territories caused this method to lose is economic advantage. After several buildings were erected in Ramat Polin using industrial technology, the ministry replaced the building contractor and the rest of the buildings were erected by traditional methods.

The neighborhood took a decade to build and was completed only at the beginning of the 1980s. It is considered popular among the ultra-Orthodox because of its low prices, but residents say that the quality of building is inferior, and that the additions were meant to answer dire local needs (the original apartments contained only two or three bedrooms ).

Innovative or pretentious?

According to architect and historian David Kroyanker, the building additions reflect "creative coping" by residents with the rigid architecture forced upon them. In his book, "Architecture in Jerusalem: modern construction outside the walls, 1948-1990" (Keter Press, 1991, in Hebrew ), the building of Ramot Polin is surveyed at length as an unusual liberal experiment of the Housing Ministry. "From the very start, the project aroused a lot of interest and extreme responses," Kroyanker writes. "The architect explained the planning principles and its advantages in terms of 'homogenous growth' from the ground up, privacy, large expanses and cheap construction. Supporters of these principles claimed that the solution was the fruit and expression of a personal tone and innovative effort.

"The complainers, in contrast, attacked the plans which they saw as a gaudy wrapping around small and uncomfortable, box-like apartments with a lot of architectural pretensions." In addition, Kroyanker writes, it was argued "that the ribbed protrusions, suitable for fashionable professional journals, were nothing but sculpture, a formal curiosity that was interesting from a geometrical point of view, whose shape was surprising but that lacked real content: a visual solution proof of a superficial and foolish approach to abstract exercises in aesthetics. Some of the criticism was directed at the Housing Ministry for permitting and enabling the erection of an experimental project of this type on such a prominent and sensitive site, and on such a large scale."

Kroyanker is disturbed by Ramot Polin's current condition and says that the city of Jerusalem must protect its unique architecture. "Complete planning anarchy reigns there. It is extra-territorial from the city's point of view. No one bothers to enforce the building laws," he says.

The municipality responds that "In cases where building violations are located in the wake of complaints, or follow-ups made by city inspectors, the violations are taken care of by the building inspection division in cooperation with the legal office."

'Add-on' architecture '

Some people see building additions as a fascinating phenomenon of contemporary Israeli architecture. The neighborhood was one of the stars of the Israeli exhibition, "Additions: architecture over time," at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2008. Exhibit curators, Nitzan Kalush Chechik and Michal Cedarbaum, said then that such building additions are especially likely to develop against a particular political, social, economic or architectural background. Then "additions take over the landscape and the original character of buildings disappears."

Despite its innovative architectural qualities, even more prominent now decades after it was built, the Ramot Polin neighborhood has not been officially slated for preservation by the Jerusalem municipality. Only a few buildings constructed after the state was founded are so designated by the city. This is surprising since Jerusalem became the focus of intense architectural activity as soon as the state was declared. Alongside familiar icons such as the government center and the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, city streets are strewn with fabulous buildings that have not received their due; among them are Beit Elisheva (Shlomit and Michael Nadler, 1962 ), the Central European Parents Home (Yehuda Lavie, end of the 50s ), and the Solel Boneh building on King George Street (Reuven Rudolf Trostler, 1957 ).

The municipality argues that it continues to work on its urban preservation list, which surveys historic structures erected until the state was founded. "There is a plan to survey buildings worthy of preservation that were built in later periods. The Ramot Polin neighborhood will be examined in the second stage, and if it is deemed suitable it will be added to the list." The municipality has not set dates for the carrying out of this future survey, which could take place in a year or a decade. It isn't certain there will be anything left to preserve at that time.