A Critical Look at Israel's 'Little Boxes on the Hillside'

Exhibit at Venice Biennale of Architecture focuses on the historic blandness of construction in Israel.

Gil Cohen-Magen

Ugly, boring Israeli buildings lacking any soul or special features are the basis of the Israeli exhibit at the upcoming Biennale of Architecture in Venice, which opens June 7. The exhibition, entitled “The URBURB: Contemporary Lifestyles,” will deal with the dominant mass of Israeli living quarters, with its research based on a sober look at the dominant architecture in Israel − banal, identical high-rises and cookie-cutter cities. According to the exhibition’s curators, Dr. Roy Brand, artist Keren Yeala-Golan, and architects Uri Scialom and Edith Kofsky, this construction is excluded from the architectural discourse in Israel or is addressed only minimally, although in practice it constitutes 80 percent of the country’s housing stock.

The “urburb,” a linguistic neologism coined by the curators, describes the hybrid Israeli creation that results from the encounter between the city and suburb. The urburb can describe entire cities, like Modi’in, or new neighborhoods that were built on the land reserves of older cities to replace their historic core.

“This situation is possible almost exclusively in Israel, because the state owns the land, and the Israel Land Administration is the entity privatizing the lands and promoting this type of planning,” says Scialom. Thus, instead of increasing density in a natural fashion based on expanding on an existing tradition, what emerged is just the opposite: an incessant construction boom of new neighborhoods, isolated from each other and from the urban fabric, based on outdated construction principles.

The focus on such anonymous architecture dovetails with the decision by the curator of this year’s Biennale, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to take the national exhibits in a different direction. Rather than focusing on contemporary architecture, he demanded that the curators of the national exhibits look backward, at the past 100 years of construction in their countries under the slogan “Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014,” and document how that construction evolved into that country’s contemporary architecture. Similarly, the Biennale’s central pavilion will hold an exhibit called “Elements of Architecture,” which will display a series of fundamental components of construction like doors, porches and facades from around the world, with an aim toward facilitating a comparative discussion.

On the face of it, choosing the ambitious framework of 100 years of construction leaves Israel, whose starting point is one-third into that period, at a bit of a disadvantage. However, the research was able to find a common thread that runs from the Zionist vision of establishing a state, through the ideologies that delineated its public sphere, all the way to the country’s contemporary construction.

“All construction in Israel took place during the past hundred years,” says Scialom, “and along the historic continuum we’re speaking of modernism − something that didn’t evolve here, but was imported in pockets, to create what emerged as a modern patchwork quilt.”

“In practice,” he adds, “It’s always the same modern principles operating in the same way on any scale: It’s always comprehensive planning of the entire area, it’s always a blank slate, it never matters what’s there − if there’s topography or no topography, if there was something there before − because in any case you don’t see it, it’s something to which you are totally blind. Moreover, it’s always something that when you finish planning it, you have to start it all over again.”

During the second half of the 20th century, modernism was waning and the design principles accompanying it, in the form of towers planted in a garden (the “radiant city” planning vision of Le Corbusier) were being abandoned, but Israel, the curators say, implemented those principles in an endless cycle.

In contrast to the catalogue created for Israel’s exhibit, which contains research, literature and photos from around the country, the only items at the booth will be four machines drawing building plans on a base of sand. The precision mechanism, at the end of which is a thin knife, unendingly carves line after line on the smooth surface, working precisely to produce layer after layer. And then, just when it seems close to a final result − chaotic though it may be − the outstretched mechanical arm flattens the sand and erases the image, and the process begins again.

On the ground floor of the pavilion the largest printer, two meters by five meters, will sketch out the country’s cities as dots on the national map, first in 1949 and then two years later, in accordance with the Sharon Master Plan. Architect Arieh Sharon’s plan − unprecedented and unparalleled in other countries − was aimed at distributing the population all over the country and blocking the natural tendency of residents to settle in the major cities along the coast. His plan was the first to use the figure of 80 percent as the expected but undesirable ratio of urban residents to rural ones.

The next layer, the National Master Plan approved in 2005 (Tama 35), illustrates the failure of the Sharon plan, which did not succeed in fending off the state’s residents from returning to settle in the center of the country, abandoning the towns that had been established in other regions.

At the end the machine sketches out the current state of settlement construction in Judea and Samaria and presents, with no textual interpretation, the known fact that the strategic distribution outlined by Sharon was revived, albeit later, over the Green Line.

“The reaction of people who see this is incredible, because there’s something mesmerizing about watching the machine, and then it feels as if the Zionist enterprise is being erased,” says Yeala-Golan. The other printers will present the development of the urburb on different scales, with a video projection and sound “playing” the plans and serving as the exhibit’s sound track.

Until now, the prevailing voices have been mostly dismissive or contemptuous of this homogeneous and insular construction of wasteful bedroom communities seemingly designed for cars and not for people. This is an old discussion, and the curators’ significant achievement is the way they address the complexity of Israel’s dominant building style and the way it came to be, while deliberately avoiding populist statements and one-dimensional criticism.

Moreover, say the curators, those architects trying to push existing plans aside in an effort to create something new and better actually continue to build the same thing.

“It was very interesting to hear the responses of the architects we spoke to. Everyone thinks he is doing something different, but without realizing it, they say that they are actually doing the same thing,” says Kofsky, who described plans that went through several renderings in an effort to improve them, but in the end further fixed the same principles. “Maybe we also think we can change things and in practice we don’t,” she speculates.

“We are a society that started anew, and each time it tries to rebuild itself it tends to forget what was or doesn’t exactly relate to the past,” says Brand. “It’s somewhat instinctive to think that the next thing will be better.”

Adds Yeala-Golan: “A lot of architects sneer at it, and people who live in the city look at this construction askance, but for most Israelis it is some kind of a dream to realize because it produces a sense of homogeneity, of quiet, with everything new and clean. As if this can protect us from the chaos we live in.”

Despite the homogeneity of the construction, “the population there is much more heterogeneous than commonly thought,” she says. “It will intrigue me to see if this exhibition which change something for someone; that someone will say, ‘Wow! We plan too much, and the tools we use haven’t changed in decades.’”