Adding Cultural Value to Israel's Pricey Real Estate

A new Israeli organization seeks to incorporate exhibitions and cultural events in construction projects. Does this mean catering to art patrons?

“Today culture is created through money,” argues photographer Yehuda Altmann, who has joined forces with architect Tzur Barak to found the WWWW organization whose goal is to advance “cultural value” in the construction world in Israel.

“We are here to prove that structures with a high cultural value give a higher economic value to the entrepreneur, to the city and to the occupant,” they declare.

Their project, launched last month, studies various ways for providing real-estate properties with added value, as well as higher economic worth. They are interested in participating in the planning of preservation projects and suburban residential areas, and want to incorporate in such projects works of art, to curate cultural events around the projects and to make historical information and interesting facts about the projects easily accessible.

Their first project is a merging of the romantic spirit with entrepreneurial interests: the lobby of 96 Hayarkon St. in Tel Aviv, an apartment building in the International Style that has been preserved and transformed into a luxury, stylized structure. The U-shaped unique structure was built in 1935 by architect Pinhas Bijonsky. It was surrounded by a large front courtyard; today, in the context of planning being carried out by architects Amnon Bar-Or (preservation) and Gidi Bar Orian (additional stories), the building is being restored and will have an additional black block in the center of its roof.

The ground floor, which is partially below ground level, was originally meant to serve as a broad lobby but instead has become a large exhibition area in which Altmann and Barak are presenting the works of a dozen artists (Nir Adoni, Roni Aloni, Michal Bar-Or, Altmann, Barak and others). Thus the building’s occupants are now able to enjoy a semi-private art exhibition right underneath their apartments. Visits to the exhibition must be coordinated in advance, with no more than five visitors at a time.

The result is more an eclectic accumulation of works of art rather than a polished exhibition, thanks to the nostalgic sitting corner that contains a variety of foppish retro-style objects such as a tea cart, decorated vases and an old radio that no longer works. According to Barak, these objects represent the project’s spirit of “taking you back and forth in time while trying to show you how people once lived in this building.”

Alongside the exhibition is a wall with documents related to the building’s history, including old photos and original blueprints.

In Europe the government provides the budget

Altmann, who worked for over 20 years in Paris and Berlin as an artist and cultural scholar, was exposed to the European model in which the state, rather than real-estate entrepreneurs, participates in the cultural activities surrounding construction projects. This was the case when Germany’s government buildings were transferred to Berlin, following its declaration as the capital of a reunified Germany in 1990. At the time, the German government allocated two to three percent of the construction budget for the incorporation of works of art. For example, in the lobby of the building housing the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG – Berlin Transport Services) hangs a work created by Inges Idee, a group of artists in Berlin who work on art projects in public spaces. Another famous example is the Fünf Höfe (Five Courts) compound in Munich, a shopping mall that includes residential quarters and offices planned by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron. It is located inside a typical medieval block in the city and includes works by famous artists such as Olafur Eliasson.

Altmann and Barak harbor no illusions that the Israeli government will budget or initiate such projects. “In Israel today, in order to push culture the way we are trying to push it, we have to understand real-estate developers and we also have to understand the real-estate market. If we try to push for Knesset legislation or demand that the municipalities get involved, nothing will move. Real-estate entrepreneurs must see that their investment in cultural value will also increase the value of the property; otherwise, they will never participate in these projects.”

According to Altmann and Barak, the cash return will soon surface because of the emotional connection that these projects create with customers, something akin to the emotional bond one feels toward a brand name.

In one building earmarked for preservation in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin quarter, they are promoting such a project with architect Yoav Messer. Altmann and Barak have already been allocated a broad space adjacent to the building’s façade; Barak plans to set up an installation that he is developing around the subject of light, material and space. “We want to believe we are turning architects into important players in this process. We are encouraging real-estate promoters to commission something more complex than just a bunch of boxes,” says Barak.

Behind the entrepreneurial twist that they are encouraging lies the serious problem faced by a generation of Israeli artists who cannot make a living from their art and who, without adequate state support, are forced to be dependent on the rich and powerful and cater to their wishes.

Barak: “We are aiming high, but have to speak to the masses and not just to the small group of people who know about art and go to museums. Although this looks like pop art, the process is marvelous. If we find a way of arousing an appetite for this kind of thing, we will be able to open up the market.”

“We want to bring the revolution to the bourgeoisie,” Altmann states, with surprising candor. “If you just start throwing tomatoes you will make the headlines, but after a couple of years you will simply vanish. We prefer working slowly.”

Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart