Beauty Is Making a Come Back in Architecture – but Not in Jerusalem

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The Therme Vals hotel and spa, a project by architect Peter Zumthor in Vals, Switzerland.
Beauty in architecture: The spa at the Therme Vals hotel, a project by architect Peter Zumthor in Vals, Switzerland. Credit: Anke Thomass / ullstein bild via
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell

The concept of beauty, which had ostensibly been disdainfully erased from 20th century architectural theory, reverberates again in international discourse, and the results are already visible on the ground.

We can assume that some Israeli architects, particularly veteran professionals, most of whom were educated at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at a time when the dominant ideal, which has played such a central role in shaping Israel, was rigid practical functionalism, will find it difficult to deal with the news.

But the recognition of the important social role played by the aesthetic aspect of architecture will not only help improve the appearance of the urban landscape – and preserve architectural values in historic cities – but also improve the quality of life in areas with inexpensive construction, as well as outlying areas.

The return of beauty: A close-up on the Theme Pavilion at Expo Yeosu, South Korea, which was completed in 2012.Credit: Aiena Zahira Daim

Human beings have had a desire for aesthetic experiences since the dawn of history; an excellent proof is the use of jewelry and the decoration of tools. And that’s even without considering the functional significance of beauty in the natural world. Contemporary scientific research is currently attempting to use new technology to map the aesthetic experience in the human brain, and the subject, including its architectural expressions, has preoccupied philosophers throughout history.

Even when modernist, avant-garde architects in the early 20th century tried to disassociate themselves from history and prior aesthetic rules, including ornamentation, they assumed that adopting the aesthetic of what became known as the machine age would not only make construction more efficient, but also help people experience the modern reality through the beauty of abstract architectural language.

A future Jerusalem? A vision of the city towering over Ein Karem.Credit: Julia Grincrug

Therefore, even if the beauty of architecture is related above all to the architect’s creative talent – and despite the validity of the eternal argument that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – few people would deny the tremendous aesthetic disparity between the appearance of poor neighborhoods, where no effort has been made to provide residents with aesthetic pleasure, and well-kept neighborhoods that are purportedly meant for those who attribute importance to beauty as a part of their quality of life – and are also willing to pay for it.

The fact that some cities and monuments attract millions of tourists from all over the world also back universal aesthetic values.

Contemporary art museum 'The Broad' in Downtown Los Angeles. The building was designed by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and structural engineering firm Leslie E. Robertson Associates.Credit: joey zanotti

Good news for Israel

For these and other reasons, the very fact that the concept of beauty has once again attained importance in international architecture is good news for the Israeli urban landscape. Indeed, the rise in the standard of living has contributed to an improvement in Israeli design in every field, including architecture.

The influence of international architecture can be seen mainly in investment, more or less successfully, in the design of the facades of buildings, as reflected in complex compositions of architectural elements, the use of bright color and even the addition of ornamental motifs on the facades – something the modernist ethos would consider criminal. Even skyscrapers have recently become sculptural in design, under the influence of international trends.

But these new trends won’t make a genuine contribution until they also influence inexpensive construction and outlying areas. All one has to do is visit the new neighborhoods that even now are being built hastily and to boring standards to meet economic and political needs to see the disdain in Israel for the aesthetic aspects of architecture.

Local and national government is at the root of the problem. The entire planning system in Israel ignores aesthetic aspects. The role of architects is omitted from the decision-making process. At most, they serve as a kind of “window dressing” at working meetings. The situation is most obvious in Jerusalem

The Sarona tower, dwarfing the colonial constructions below, Tel AvivCredit: Moshe Tzur

The sorry state of affairs was apparent in an interview that the outgoing Jerusalem city engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, gave to Haaretz’s Hebrew business daily, TheMarker, and which revealed how planning is carried out in Israel.

It is no coincidence that this veteran architect, a product of the Technion, avoided interviews during his 12 years on the job as city engineer and has never spoken about the cultural and aesthetic aspects of a city whose architectural history is of international importance.

While he complains that the Jerusalem planning department lacks senior architects, one can conclude that he is responsible for the city’s design and the overt disdain for important historical sites such as Ein Karem and Lifta. The amazing fact is that the city has no master plan or a historic preservation plan, making it easy for him to establish facts on the ground.

He didn’t hesitate to boast that he “invented the cable car” to the Western Wall and scornfully dismissed the sweeping opposition to the project from leading architects in Israel and abroad.

Since from his standpoint a functional-benefit analysis is the only relevant criterion, his statement that he has prepared a “plan bank” for the future that will shape the image of the city for the coming decades should horrify anyone who holds Jerusalem dear. The aggressive functional planning that he believes in might make the city denser and higher, but in the process, it will destroy its aesthetic dimension, which contributes to the quality of life of its entire population – and will of course destroy the city’s unique appearance.

But it is even possible that Eshkol himself has provided inspiration to the Jerusalem municipality, which recently decided to appoint an engineer rather than an architect to replace him. It appears that in the capital, which is being managed as if it were some remote provincial town, the concept of beauty doesn’t even exist.

A typical new residential building in Israel.Credit: Michael Jacobson