Ram Karmi, Is the Holyland Project Jerusalem's Worst Atrocity?

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

Ram Karmi, the Israel Prize laureate for architecture, did not plan the Holyland project in Jerusalem. For some reason, his name is still connected with the development even though Karmi left the Holyland over a decade ago, more than seven years before construction was begun. A comparison of Karmi's plan and that which was eventually carried out does not show even a coincidental connection, according to him.

Do you think that the Holyland building project is Jerusalem's greatest architectural atrocity?

I think it is a very ugly project, an eyesore. I think that those who carried it out murdered my concept and the buildings I planned.

Who murdered it?

The architects that ended up planing it. Tishbi-Rozin, who built the residences, and we have heard that Moshe Tzur was also involved - he built the towers. When I say that they spoiled the project, I'm not merely talking about how it looks from the outside, which is horrible, and if you examine my plan and compare it with the existing plan you will see the difference in every detail. I mean also the way in which the project is built, from the inside. People live in the city because they want to be together, not separate. When people want to be together, the buildings also want to be together. That is to say, it is important not only how every building looks, and how the buildings themselves look, but also how they fit into the place where they are built. When building rights are granted, then the city gives the land and it is the city's prerogative that the building or project should give the city something in return, and what the project gives the city in return is that the building has a public standard of living from the inside and the outside. In every project that I plan, I like to have large public spaces. The entrepreneurs of course don't like that so much. The entrepreneurs earn money from selling the private part of the project, the apartments. The public part of the project costs them a lot of money and doesn't earn anything for them. Therefore, what they do, in many cases, is that when the project has gone through all the committees and gotten all the permits, the first thing they do is to throw away the public part of the project. Usually when they throw away the public part, they also get rid of me.

Is that what happened at the Holyland?

Yes. The owner of the land was Hillel Charney, who inherited the area and the hotel that was built on it that belonged to his parents. Charney wanted to build a residential project as well as three hotels, one of which he wanted to keep for himself. That started already in 1995.

And then, when he was looking for an architect, he chose you because you are well known as an excellent architect and an Israel Prize-winner and because the committees tend to accept your projects?

No, not because of that. He took as an adviser a "mover and shaker" by the name of Shmuel Dachner who advised him to take me. But because the Jerusalem architects always claim that the Tel Avivians destroy Jerusalem, he also took a Jerusalem architectural firm, Spector-Amishar. We planned the project and we went through three committees. I appeared in front of all the committees. I know how to convince committees. I convince them that it will do the public good. Generally they approve me because I plan relatively large public spaces.

So you went to the committees and convinced them that your project would be good for the public and what did you talk to them about - that what would be built at Holyland would look like a piazza in Siena?

I always speak about that. But at that time, I spoke about other things. About the connection between the project and the surroundings and the neighboring area, about its height facing inward as opposed to its height toward the city. In my plan, the height toward the city was supposed to be much lower than what was built. But I always mention the piazza in Siena because if architecture is good then it gives you feeling that you feel at home there. The aim of every good architect is to build a project where the people that enter feel at home. When you go to Siena, you see people lying on the floor and feeling at home. Siena is a place that works when it is empty and works also when there are 10,000 people there. So that place, Holyland, as I planned it, was supposed to give the people who live in the neighborhood or go there, a feeling of home.

And is that what convinced the committees?

It wasn't so simple. There were something like 800 objections. There were people who were disturbed by the idea that there would be construction on the hill at all. There were green organizations. There were neighborhood committees. All those with objections also got ahold of professional advisers and wrote documents. So we too collected a series of advisers and we wrote a 300-page book in which there was a response to every objection, and I think that eventually they understood that the project was for the good of the entire public.

Did Charney therefore use you because you know how to convince committees and then get rid of you and build something ugly but that pays him a great deal more?

It was not like that exactly. Charney was very pleased with our plan that answered the program he asked for very well. But then, after the permit, he needed an entrepreneur who would invest money and he found the Kardan company. Then he was told that since the new entrepreneur had his own architects; I would not be able to continue with the project. Of course they told me that, because the first step of the construction was the residential issue and I was responsible for the residences and of course because I was responsible for the public spaces that they wanted to reduce, and which were indeed reduced a great deal later on. [Arthur] Spector remained with the project and afterward also submitted the building plan about the change of designation, from hotels to residences, and a great many other changes like the change in the height of the buildings, the reduction of the public and commercial spaces and all the things that were important to me. And only after there was a permit for this plan also, in November 2005, he was also dismissed and eventually it was Tishbi-Rozin who planned this ugly thing you can see today. It was Tishbi and Rozin's plan that was approved in April 2006 and Moshe Tzur who built the towers.

What do you feel when you see this catastrophe?

I don't see it. From the moment they fired me, I left, and since then I did not return to see what they had done there. That is what I do every time that happens to me. This problem with the entrepreneurs exists in all the projects that I build. I had the same problem at Sea and Sun [in Tel Aviv]. What did I do at Sea and Sun? I planned a public axis that runs through the building and makes the descent to sea fun - not only for those who live there but for anyone who is interested in going to the beach. But when it was approved, they fired me, and what they built there is a project that stands like a stone wall between the neighborhood and the sea.

Will they also fire you from Habima?

They won't send me packing from Habima. Those who asked me to do the planning and the municipality and the city engineer are all satisfied.

And what is the story with those glittering walls? Is it supposed to look like a box of sequins?

In theory, public buildings of that kind are covered with stone. But there was no money for stone so we had to make do with plaster. Tel Aviv, the white city, is built of plaster. But since they said the building was too heavy and since I'm an expert at heavyweights, I added the sparkles that are supposed to make it look lighter.



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