The Beauty of Israel's Cookie-cutter Buildings

Some people complain about the sameness within Israel's city neighborhoods. They don't realize that's the whole point - just as in London or Paris.

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Many readers will know the song "Little Boxes," the anti-conformist anthem popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1960s. That tune may very well be ringing in your ears: The cookie-cutter designs dominating Israel's urban landscapes often lack creativity.

But something can be said for standardization. In city planning, uniformity can be essential - not just for Israel.

"Rules are necessary in urban planning to split the space between the mass of buildings," says Rachel Wiener of Wiener-Singer, a landscape architecture firm. She says cities' master plans contain rigid rules for buildings but are less clear about the courtyards, parks and roads in between.

The main conflict over this space pits pedestrians versus cars, which, backed by development funds, usually win out, Wiener says.

"Over the past decade heavily-budgeted transportation projects have transformed the layout of roads. This, for instance, occurred with Haifa's Ha'atzmaut and Keren Hayesod streets, and Jerusalem's Hebron Road. These streets have limited space, with room needed for both traffic and pedestrians - and transportation always has more clout," she says.

"For example, sidewalks along Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem were four to five meters wide until they were narrowed by nearly half. It's hard to define with the same clarity the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and street cafes. The improvement in transportation has facilitated movement between places but has destroyed the fabric of street life. There's now a need to create clear guidelines to protect urban activity."

Handy guide

In an effort to rectify this, the housing and transportation ministries put out a 150-page guide for street planning in 2009. The guide divides streets into strips for purposes such as underground infrastructure or trees.

"One example is Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv, where all the lampposts, traffic signals and benches are laid out along the same lines to provide ample uninterrupted space for walking," Wiener says.

The guide, which also leaves room for flexibility at the architect's discretion, is followed most closely in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Wiener, who adapted the guide for Jerusalem, says the city is anything but uniform, creating a conflict between the desire to impose order and the uniqueness of each area.

"The drawback is that standards could wipe out local identities if the architect copy-pastes them without understanding that these are just tools," Wiener says.

"The design needs to be flexible. While there is no flexibility in how sidewalks are paved in Tel Aviv, we've allowed more choices in Jerusalem. Jerusalem used to have more than 100 different types of lampposts, but the choice has been narrowed to 30, according to various needs."

Buildings in Petah Tikva's Em Hamoshavot neighborhood don't vary much, except perhaps in height, and the area looks like many being built all over Israel.

"This is a philosophical question: How do we want the area we live in to look?" says Sharon Ben Shem, vice president at project management firm Waxman Govrin Geva.

"There's something in similar living environments that creates visual tranquility from which a feeling of identity and security is derived, a feeling that enhances our sense of orientation," says Ben Shem. "What do we enjoy on our trips abroad? The whitewashed Greek houses with their windows painted blue, and Paris' homogeneous alleyways."

London's Notting Hill neighborhood, meanwhile, is known for its colorful buildings. But they're almost identical in terms of window lines, doorframes, balconies and height.

"Ramat Aviv Gimmel is a very successful neighborhood, with all its buildings constructed the same way, and the same is true for Bavli and Lamed," adds Ben Shem. "All these Tel Aviv neighborhoods differ from one another in construction and height, but actually they're uniform and very successful."

Room for creativity

Dror Toren, deputy CEO at America Israel Investments, says the first thing a developer looks at when designing a building is the city's master plan. This already guarantees a certain degree of standardization but still allows room for creativity.

"The developer decides how far he's willing to go in being creative and how much he's ready to invest in this - because creativity costs money," he says.

In areas where land values don't permit much creative freedom, municipalities are less cooperative. And we have to admit that buyers don't necessarily like living in a work of art.

In places like these, compromises can be struck at tolerable prices. For instance, Toren says America Israel and Luzon A. Assets & Investments built two projects in Em Hamoshavot in white stone, which costs twice as much as standard yellowish stone.

But it's not just the municipality, developers and financial considerations that dictate the standard. People in general may be reluctant to defy convention.

While consumers like to think of themselves as unique and original, they might be a factor in imposing standards. When was the last time you entered a home where the kitchen was blue and the living-room furniture yellow? The common design scheme is replicated in most Israeli apartments, where the local authority or developers have no say.

A building in Or Yehuda’s Neveh Savyon neighborhood. It could be almost anywhere. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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