How to Sever a City From the Sea

Seven experts convened to crown the worst-planned projects ever erected in Israel. This week: Haifa's Carmel Beach Towers.

Shani Shilo
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Shani Shilo

"Would you like to live in Migdalei Hof Hacarmel (Carmel Beach Towers), at the southern entrance to Haifa, right on the beach?" a run-of-the-mill Haifa dweller is asked. "Sure," he responds. "Then at least I couldn't see them."

That local joke refers to an edifice, also known as "the monster" and "the wall," that exemplifies what happens when an architect ignores the environs. Carmel Beach Towers is also a great example of "what the hell were they thinking?"

Carmel Beach Towers simply severs the city of Haifa, as it cascades down Mt. Carmel, from the Mediterranean Sea. There is a "window" several stories high slashed through the center of one of the towers, but who did the architects think would be peeping through it, and at what? You can't see the sea through it.

Despite - or perhaps by virtue of - the ugliness and location of Carmel Beach Towers, they do mark a milestone in Israel's planning policy. The trauma they caused ended the frenzied "development" of the coast and expedited the 2004 Beaches Law. True, even before that, Master Plan 13, a national plan for all Israel's Mediterranean coastline, was approved, but developers had taken advantage of opacity regarding the coastline to bypass its spirit.

In 2001 the Supreme Court ruled on a motion submitted by the Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din), agreeing that the beach should serve the public, and ruling that only endeavors requiring proximity to the sea could use the beach. That ended the battle the Union had waged against building the Carmel Beach Towers. The ruling stopped construction of a third tower out of the six planned.

Carmel Beach Towers was planned by the offices of Y. Goldenberg - M. Buchman Architects and City Planners, which is owned by Yitzhak Tshuva, Moshe Bar-Ner, Uri Finkelstein and attorney Yossi Segev. The project, occupied in 1997, has come to symbolize the battle over Israel's beaches, though projects such as Sea & Sun in Tel Aviv or Kfar Hayam in Hadera have caused no less environmental damage.

Carmel Beach Towers consists of two high-rises, one a hotel and the other defined as an "apartment-hotel," though in practice most of the apartments have been sold as private residences. The hotel consists of several rectangular blocks. It is the apartment-hotel that has attained iconic status: it is a very broad structure topped by triangular forms, with a large opening at its center. Both towers are shades of brown, with patios facing the sea, which is less than 100 meters away.

Prof. Michael (Micha) Levin, an art historian and contemporary modern architect, curated the "White City" exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum in the summer of 1984. "The beach belongs to everyone, and building right on it to promote tourism has been done in the past, in Tel Aviv. Haifa had the opportunity to learn (from Tel Aviv's experience). Nobody had to go abroad to do that," he says.

Even in Malibu, opposite the homes of the millionaires, the beach belongs to everyone. Any citizen or tourist can go there and it's obvious, Levin continues. "The building of Carmel Beach Towers is disproportionate, and it blocks off the sea - it's just wrong. For years Haifa preserved the Carmel slopes as a landscape asset. Until this project."

Worst is the fact that the project blocks off the neighborhood Neve David's view of the sea. Neve David is one of Haifa's poorest neighborhoods, located on the lower south slopes of Mt. Carmel. The view had been one of its main upsides.

Prof. Zvi Efrat heads the architecture department at the Bezalel art college, and is a partner in Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. He curated the "Israeli Project" exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum. "Carmel Beach Towers blocks access to and the view of the sea. It's a monument to obtuseness," he says.

Architect Osnat Rosen-Kremer studied the image of the city and the project, and says Haifa's image is based on the meeting of mountain and city. And at that meeting point, something perceived as a wedge arose, which is why the Carmel Beach project became a symbol of the battle over the beaches.

If so, how did the project ever win approval? The local plan that allocated building rights to the Towers came into effect in 1978, years before Master Plan 13 (which would have thwarted the developers) was approved. Rosen-Kremer says the tower's plan was every developer's dream. "I worked at the Licensing and Construction department of the Kfar Sava municipality, and hundreds of plans passed through my hands, but I never encountered one so flexible as this one. The charter allowed building rights to be transferred between the towers, their location to be changed, the location of parking lots to be changed, and so on," she says.

During the 1970s, building on the beach was perceived as legitimate, Rosen-Kremer says, and was identified with developing Haifa and improving its image. The mayor at the time the plan was approved was Yeruham Zeisel. The construction permits for the first tower were granted during Arie Gur'el's term, and Amram Mitzna was the one who approved construction of the second tower. When subsequently running for Knesset on Labor's list, says Rosen-Kremer, some political elements associated him with the erection of Haifa's Carmel Beach Towers, though he was actually just one of a chain of mayors who allowed it to go up.

Rosen-Kremer says the architects hoped the edifice would embody a gateway to the sea, connecting Haifa's images. But that embodiment is only evident from the side of the sea. From the land, the impression is otherwise.

The frustration over the towers intensifies because that the situation is irreparable. It's hard to see how they could be made part of the city fabric. Haifa's popular southern boardwalk and beach are next door, yet the towers remain remote, unconnected.

Architect Naama Malis, owner of Naama Malis Architecture and City Planning, says that under today's laws, Carmel Beach Towers couldn't have gone up. "Its main contribution is that it clarified there was no choice but to make laws that would block building on the beach. At the time similar projects were going up around the world, based on the concept that the beach was a resource that could be maximally exploited to draw tourism," she explains.

"The project's placing is miserable. The building is near the highway and the city doesn't benefit from it. It's stuck between the highway and sea because somebody had the land and the ability to get the plan through," Malis says. She does, however, think the situation can be rectified without demolishing the towers. "Carmel Beach Towers is not pretty or pleasant to pass," she says. "I'd make the bottom two stories transparent and house them with activities about the sea, leisure and fun. I'd connect the project to the city through the boardwalk."

Architect Ganit Mayslits Kassif, partner at Mayslits Kassif Architects, the firm that planned the Tel Aviv port, doesn't share Malis' optimism. She feels that of all the bad projects chosen for this series of articles, Carmel Beach Towers is the most useless and annoying. "The towers are a sad example of Haifa's amateurish, arrogant and negligent planning culture. Instead of blaming just the project's entrepreneurs, we must remember that the approvers are the ones responsible for the project ruining Haifa's southern beach.

The last time she dropped by the place, it looked neglected and failing. "I see it as a sort of tremendous monument meant to remind everyone that to succeed economically, you have to think about the surroundings, too," Mayslits Kassif adds.

Yet Rosen-Kremer thinks that the Carmel Beach Towers story isn't over yet. The third tower might be completed one day. Its foundation has been laid. Construction has been halted, but there are pressures to develop the area further, she says. "Remember that nobody's canceled the plan or compensated the developers yet. The future isn't clear."

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