Preservation, With Reservations

The demolition and reconstruction along Jerusalem's Jaffa Road has been received by residents and planners with understanding - albeit not with love.

David Kroyanker
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David Kroyanker

Intensive work is now underway on the route of the first line of the light railway in Jerusalem. On this line, which stretches 14 kilometers from the neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev in the north to Mount Herzl in the west, they are widening the road and moving water, electricity, telephone and sewage infrastructures.

One of the most problematic segments from the point of view of planning and implementation is on Jaffa Road between Liberty Plaza (the "Davidka," near the Clal Building) and Nordau Square, near the new central bus station. In this stretch there are a number of historic neighborhoods and buildings that were erected in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, which reflect the centrality of Jaffa Road in the development of Jerusalem outside the walls.

The expansion of this segment of Jaffa Road exemplifies the change, slow but sure, in the planning conception regarding preservation in Jerusalem over the past 30 years. Today the Jerusalem population has a better understanding of the meaning of planning "give and take," and of the need to take action to prevent continuing urban decay. There is now awareness of the need for development, which is essential for the adoption of modern transportation technology to allow for the renewal and revival of the city center.

The transportation planners and the architects in charge of the project examined various alternatives to ensure that the route of the light railway would serve the needs of the city, but not harm historic buildings. The efforts proved successful and buildings like the Mahane Yehuda police station (the former residence of the British consul Noel Temple Moore), the building that houses the government health offices (the Turkish Hospital, formerly the "Baladiya") and the wall in front of it, as well as the sun-dial building and the Saidoff houses will not be harmed.

In order to ensure the complete preservation of these structures, the planners had to find solutions for three other groups of buildings on Jaffa Road, which could not be preserved in their original state. Opposite the Israel Broadcast Authority (the old Shaare Zedek Hospital), there are two Jewish courtyard complexes from the end of the 19th century: Sha'are Yerushalayim (also known as the Abu Bassel quarter) and Ohel Shlomo. These neighborhoods bordered Jaffa Road, in a long strip of single-story or two-story row-houses. The houses decayed over the years and their poor condition did not justify renovation and preservation. However, the Jerusalem planning authorities decided to preserve certain parts of the buildings.

The stones in the facades that have been designated for preservation and reconstruction have been numbered, one by one, and reassembled as a physical memento of an urban-architectural past that is no longer extant. In some of the reconstructed facades (the work of architects Nahum Meltzer, Guy Igra and Ari Cohen), sections of colored plaster - in shades of light blue, terra cotta and ocher - have been integrated to stress their picturesqueness. In the damaged areas of the road that were exposed during the demolition process, new structures will be built in the future that will be designed in accordance with the historic buildings in the courtyards behind them, and also in accordance with the new, modern character intended for Jaffa Road.

A similar solution will be implemented in the two-story building of shops, which is about 65 meters long, in the facade of the Etz Haim Yeshiva adjacent to the Mahane Yehuda market on Jaffa Road. The building has been demolished, but the front facade, which includes a number of interesting plaques from the religious trust, has been dismantled and rebuilt along the expanded span of Jaffa Road.

The gate structure of the Mahane Yehuda police station, which included two stone pillars topped with statues of lions, has been dismantled and moved to the expanded stretch, along with the building's fence. All the detail work involved in the job of planning, marking, dismantling and reconstruction was pursued in coordination with the Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites. The complicated process of relocating dozens of businesses and residences, due to the demolition of the structures, was accomplished in a relatively short time, with little opposition - thanks to the comprehensive neighborhood public relations campaign conducted by the project management. The solution of demolition and reconstruction along Jaffa Road was received with understanding (albeit not with love) because of the exigencies of reality and the recognition of the city's changing needs.

The Talitha Kumi case

The project brings to mind a similar one 30 years ago that involved a fierce public fight around the development plan for a large area along King George Street in downtown Jerusalem, which was named after the German orphanage situated there, Talitha Kumi.

The plan to demolish the beautiful courtyard of Talitha Kumi, a building that was erected in 1868 and had great architectural and historical value, received statutory approval before the city was reunited in 1967, at a time when there was no public awareness of preservation. In the middle of the 1970s, this awareness had awakened and many efforts were made to prevent the approved demolition. It emerged that there is no legal and economic possibility of changing a decision by the statutory planning commission.

Then the idea was proposed to dismantle three architecturally important elements of the building that was slated for demolition, and to reconstruct them in a sculptural, three-dimensional way in a large open public area on King George Street. On an elevated base in this plaza, near the site of the historical building that had been demolished, a "documentary" structure was erected in 1980 that is made up of the upper part of the facade of the main entrance to the building, including the original clock and plaque, as well as the building's chimney and a window typical of the Neo-Gothic style.

This surrealistic composition stood out in the conservative urban landscape and gave rise to bitter debates. The main objection derived from the fear that the erection of a three-dimensional documentary site could encourage entrepreneurs to think that in the future, too, the planning authorities would be content with the preservation of a few architectural elements instead of demanding the comprehensive preservation of buildings.

Some people argued that the reconstruction of remnants of buildings and moving them from their original location are acts of forgery and a deception of those who attribute an aura of sanctity to the ruins of the past. Those who constructed the site (among them the writer of these lines) believed that it was an exceptional case, the role of which was to document and commemorate but also to serve as a warning, and not as the fruit of a new planning policy or a precedent. This solution was a constraint that derived from a situation that could not have been changed. Over the years, the Talitha Kumi site became an important landmark in the city and a vibrant social meeting place.

Preservation has more than one hue. In Jerusalem outside the walls, there are hundreds of buildings that are in extremely poor physical condition, but have various degrees of historical, architectural, ethnographic or environmental importance and interest. There are buildings that are deserving of "net" preservation and rehabilitation, in their original form; there are other buildings that are of value, for which it is appropriate to build additions beside them or on top of them - something that could serve as an economic motivation for their refurbishment. There are buildings that are of lesser importance and in a state that justifies their demolition. For such buildings it is possible to reconstruct a dominant element from the architectural facade and thus both prevent urban decay and combat forgetfulness.

The fear of changes in the urban status quo has guided the Jerusalem public, in general, and the "green" organizations, in particular, for many years. Any deviation from the (net) existing situation is perceived as a negative change and as an action propelled by politicians who are aiding the real-estate sharks. The Jerusalem public is beginning to realize that it is necessary to overcome the fear of change that could contribute to the urban decay downtown.

At the same time, it is necessary to ensure, with the help of restraining criticism, that the planning flexibility will not create an opening for mistaken planning decisions.



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