Suburban Socialism

Kibbutzim are expanding and building new neighborhoods on their outskirts; but do buyers get a rural community and great schools, or just a garden and a longer commute?

Shanee Shiloh
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Shanee Shiloh

As the years pass, the kibbutzim have been changing. First to disappear were the collective living arrangements for children. Then the collective dining room began to charge for meals. Among the last things to go was the equal pay for all. But the biggest physical change for the collective farms are the new neighborhoods for outsiders going up on their outskirts.

These new neighborhoods consist largely of single-family houses with a parking space and garden, which stand in stark contrast to the modest homes of the kibbutz members themselves.

The expansion neighborhood of Kibbutz Kfar Haruv. The new neighborhoods feature single family homes with gardens attached.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

The names given to these new burbs are a wonder of marketing pretension - "Van Gogh Neighborhood" at Kibbutz Ayalon, "Hill of Dreams," at Kibbutz Hukkuk and "Dreams at Alumot" at Kibbutz Alumot.

The fact that these new neighborhoods are expansions of kibbutzim is supposed to make purchasers think they are buying into a community and quality education. But in many cases all homeowners are getting is a garden and a longer commute.

Architect Yuval Yaski, head of the architecture school at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, thinks the kibbutzim are making a mistake by adopting the suburban model. Kibbutzim are a hybrid beast, he says: they are rural in location, but urban in function. Kibbutzim were built as whole units in and of themselves, self-sufficient in everything from the food supply to education, culture, work and all other services.

Suburbs depend on a nearby urban or regional center for all that, he says. Yet today, kibbutzim are leaning toward creating neighborhoods based on the models of suburbs when building new neighborhoods.

"Even the collective kibbutzim building new neighborhoods for their own members are planning them with the idea of future expansion in mind," he says.

The kibbutzim have faced terrific bureaucratic hurdles in their efforts to build residential expansions. The members by and large treat the newcomers not as new blood in the collective, but as tenants seeking a rural lifestyle, Yaski says.

Together with Galia Bar-Or, Yaski curated an exhibition "Kibbutz / Architecture without Precedent", which represented Israel at the 12th Architecture Biennale in Venice a year ago.

These days he's taking part in an effort to design a new model at a number of kibbutzim, including Cramim, Gesher Haziv and Ein Harod (Ihud ). At Gesher Haziv, situated north of Nahariya, which Yaski describes as being "surrounded by a suburban envelope of neighborhoods", there is one last area earmarked for development.

Towering over the cow-shed

The initiative to create something different for that last area began with a number of the kibbutz's own members, Yaski says.

"We suggested a highly radical idea - a 40-story tower that would bring a solution for everybody on an area of just 800 square meters, preserving the surrounding greenery."

As one might expect, the kibbutz was nonplussed, but Yaski hasn't lost hope of finding another idea that would combine high-density building and the kibbutz lifestyle of public spaces and narrow, shaded paths.

One way to add homes to kibbutzim is to expand existing buildings, or renovate old, abandoned ones such as the former children's dorms. That way the character of the kibbutz is preserved, says architect Efrat Meiri, who owns an office specializing in planning expansions for kibbutzim and other rural villages - but a new difficulty arises.

"Having returning children upgrade the buildings or adding new ones inside the kibbutz is becoming more and more common," she says. "The disadvantage is that you can't get a mortgage for that sort of thing."

The kibbutzim need to resolve these problems for a number of reasons, says Meiri, who grew up on Kibbutz Yagur and left the community. One is to help the returning children. Another is to avoid becoming a collective of senior citizens and a third is purely financial - as younger people come in, they add to the collective kitty.

Michael Chyutin - who stresses that he doesn't plan for kibbutzim - concurs that solving the issue of common space at a kibbutz will take daring.

"Nobody has had the guts to get up and say, let's demolish the common dining room and build housing," says Chyutin, who wrote a book together with Bracha Chyutin called "Architecture and Utopia: the Israeli experiment", which studied the impact of idealism on architecture in the kibbutz movement.

Back in the day, the kibbutz was simply a collective home for its members, Chyutin explains: there was no designation of land, just a lot of shared space and buildings scattered here and there, without any particular plan of building a neighborhood."

Today, kibbutzim find themselves contending with two main problems, says Chyutin. One is dealing with the center of the kibbutz, which includes common areas such as the dining hall. The other is ownership of land. From the beginning there was a tendency to regard the land on which a home was built as a sort of small private territory, but today they must formally divide the land into lots as part of the great kibbutz privatization drive.

This division into lots has involved endless red tape and planning conundrums. It isn't a matter of simply registering a bit of land in the name of the person whose house has sat on it for years.

Also, over the years, the kibbutz center - once literally the center of kibbutz life - has hollowed out, with no solution in sight. But Yaski says at Kibbutz Gaaton in the north, member Rafi Beer filled that hole by forming the Galilee Dance Village. It uses various buildings in the kibbutz and has created quite a lively scene.

That's just one solution for just one kibbutz. But perhaps it could inspire the others as they seek a way to bring in new life.



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