A Home-grown Delicate Balance

The low-rise, high-density housing alternative can offer real hope for restoring the delicate balance between tradition and modernity so very desperately needed in Israel today.

The plague of anti-urban and anti-social residential towers presently dominating new construction in all of our major cities must be arrested. The tower phenomenon stands on two crutches, both of which need to be snapped. The first, of course, is money - more money for the developers. Snob appeal is the second. Those poor souls who paid hard-earned cash for apartments with an exclusive view of Jerusalem, from within an even more exclusive closed compound called Holyland, will certainly understand the meaning of this.

Apart from their innate narcissistic character, bearing little relation to anything but themselves, residential towers have many important disadvantages, among them high construction, maintenance and other occupancy costs, poor access to outdoors and considerably less privacy than can be provided by low-rise construction. They are, needless to say, terribly ill-suited to families with young children. The space around or enclosed by them is most often a depressing no-man's land.

Urgently needed, then, are alternatives that can be justified not just socially and culturally, but mainly in economic terms. Modern, low-rise, high-density housing at urban scale - sometimes referred to as courtyard housing - is one such alternative. Low-rise construction is always considerably less costly than high-rise. And because it is not necessary to set them back from the street line, as with high-rise, one can reach similar densities.

Two outstanding contemporary examples of this building typology are Penn's Landing Square in Philadelphia, designed by architect Louis Sauer (1972 ), and the Donnybrook Quarter in London by Peter Barber Architects (2006 ). Land values in London and in Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood, where Sauer's project stands, are most certainly greater than they are here.

Essentially, such housing consists of one or more units wrapped around a private open space. Although historically found in many diverse regions in the world, such design is traditionally associated with the Middle East, where the climate and culture of the Mediterranean area have given it shape. In our area, for example, it was first introduced by the Romans in the Galilee. The courtyard is its basic organizing element - serving as the circulation hub unifying all living spaces - a safe, comfortable and calm place with a sustainable, controlled microclimate.

In sharp contrast to residential towers, modern, low-rise, high-density housing can reach adequate economic densities suited to an urban setting through blocks that are not more than four to five stories in height, without at all disrupting the scale of existing traditional neighborhoods. It is compact. Economic densities are achieved by eliminating spaces without a precise territorial connotation (with everything clearly delineated as either public or private ). Most of the outdoor spaces are privatized by relating them directly to the home units.

Density can be further achieved by creating a continuity of construction through a system of overlapping units. Each one is given a strong sense of individuality through the provision of separate elements of access, to the extent possible, directly from ground level - ensuring visual privacy between apartments as well as within them. Standardizing building dimensions and building elements cuts construction costs, while still allowing diversity. The site is seen as a compact whole in which streets, buildings, gardens and paved areas all interact, while respecting the urban context. Community and privacy are the keys.

The low-rise, high-density housing alternative can offer real hope for restoring the delicate balance between tradition and modernity so very desperately needed in Israel today. Strangely, in spite of its being superbly appropriate to our climate and social context, almost no courtyard housing on an urban scale has been built in Israel for many years. Developers need to be convinced that this building typology can be built economically and will be well-accepted by the public, and easy to market. For courtyard housing to flourish here, the political, social and economic climate, must of course, be supportive.

Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.