Streets Behind: Why Israeli Buildings Are So Ugly

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The Holyland complex in Jerusalem. The city's municipal engineer thinks the city's doing just fine without Frank Gehry.
The Holyland complex in Jerusalem. The city's municipal engineer thinks the city's doing just fine without Frank Gehry.Credit: Rafi Kotz
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Why are Israeli buildings so ugly? Unlike in, for example, Europe, the buildings on the country’s streets are never uniform: All manner of structures are scattered in seemingly random fashion, some balconies sticking out more than others.

While in Europe the shape of the building is planned first, with apartments and offices then designed based on that outer form, in Israel the interiors are planned initially and then stacked one atop one the other to create a tower.

Even worse, the real estate market dictates the design of most residential buildings constructed here. Architects may have signed off on every tower, but their influence on the actual buildings themselves remains minimal. Indeed, many architects are, in reality, nothing more than construction engineers. The role of architects in Israel has diminished to that of generating increased profits for the developer. The money is more important than the aesthetic.

The New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. Credit: David Bachar

The annual conference of the Israel Association of Municipal Engineers is being held in Eilat this week, on the topic of “Architectural Quality as a Public Interest.” Suitably inspired, Haaretz discussed the problem with a number of leading Israeli architects.

Belgian-born architect Dr. Els Verbakel, head of the urban design program at Jerusalem’s Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, believes architectural aesthetics are a result of culture and history. She says even European cities have seen a noticeable drop in aesthetics the further you get from the city center, and “only in the past 20 years has change begun in the suburbs.” Nevertheless, Verbakel warns against overregulation, warning of “a situation of planning fascism.There are places that even dictate the height of the grass – and I don’t think that’s good.”

Verbakel is referring here to policy documents on architectural quality. The first country to issue such documentation was France in 1977, where the matter was enshrined in legislation. In The Netherlands, meanwhile, the subject was addressed in the early 1990s, and since then has been updated every few years.

A housing block in Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. Israeli buildings with four storeys or fewer don't need to be designed by architects.Credit: Moti Milrod

Less costs more

Architect Daniel Zarhy, a partner in the Israeli-Swiss Studio PEZ that plans projects in both Israel and Europe, agrees that it is a cultural matter, not just a regulatory one. “I rarely encounter discussions of whether I like the facade or not, but mostly it’s in public meetings where residents come too and discuss how the building will affect the city, etc.,” he says.

Zarhy suggests that Israeli buildings suffer because of attempts to cut costs. “In Europe, it is less common among professionals to submit a proposal that is a third of the [standard] price, because then it’s clear the work will be worse,” he explains. “There is a pricing policy set by architectural organizations, and it’s hard to find someone who will agree to work for a lower fee. This is the same in the construction sector, so the quality of construction work is high. Maybe the construction will be more expensive, but it will last for years. Both the public and clients recognize that it’s [ultimately] cheaper to pay more,” Zarhy adds.

A building on Ehud Manor Street in Netanya.Credit: Nimrod Gluckman

The people with the power to change matters are the city engineers. But Shlomo Eshkol, municipal engineer for Jerusalem, doesn’t think the situation is so serious. The buildings in Jerusalem need to show restraint, he says. “The new state comptroller’s building, for example, is an exceptional building. I don’t think we need buildings from [master architect] Frank Gehry here, and all that nonsense. The new Van Leer Institute building is definitely special,” he says.

But the main problem in the city is the construction of new neighborhoods, since the process of examining every building is conducted mostly by licensing officials. “This is a problematic city for a million reasons, but the existing processes are definitely reasonable,” states Eshkol. “There are better and worse architects. I regret that a large number of the buildings are not even designed by architects but by [construction] engineers, because the law allows them to do that.”

A neighborhood in Netivot, southern Israel.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Hava Ehrlich recently started her position as municipal engineer in Petah Tikva, located east of Tel Aviv. She agrees that a planning problem exists with the city’s new buildings. “It’s a city that was undergoing rapid growth and we were completely swamped and busy,” she admits. “The pace of construction still exists, but now we can allow ourselves to think also about the quality of the architecture,” she adds.

She offers an example of the new style of thinking: “We work today in a slightly different manner and think about the relationship between the building and the street, so that there won’t just be copies of the floors from zero to 27. That way, the buildings will be less alienating.”

Neve Tzedek Tower in Tel Aviv.Credit: Dan Keinan

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