“We thought people would be afraid to walk on it, but today it’s simply unbelievable. I’ve never designed anything on which so many people go, as if they were zombies,” says Israeli architect Haim Dotan, about the world’s highest and longest glass bridge, in southern China’s Hunan Province.
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The span of the bridge, which has been the subject of much media coverage since it opened late last month, is 430 meters (1,410 feet). It hovers above a valley with a drop of some 300 meters in Zhangjiajie. It has attracted thousands of visitors every day, far beyond its capacity, and as a result was closed last week for maintenance and cleaning work.
Dotan, 62, notes that the bridge had opened for a dry run only, and its official opening is scheduled for January.
“There were no sketches for the bridge; I just stood at the edge of the canyon,” the architect recalls. “He [the client] didn’t speak English well enough, and I didn’t speak Chinese at his level, so we took branches from the trees,” which were then used to demonstrate how the bridge would be built. “I thought the landscape and nature there were beautiful, so the starting point for designing the bridge was that it should disappear. I said to him, “Invisible form,” and that was the thinking — to design a concealed bridge.”
Over the past six years, Dotan has divided his time between Israel and Shanghai, where he teaches at the university. His love affair with China has strong roots: His mother’s family fled from Russia to China after being persecuted during World War I, and later immigrated to Israel. He was born in Jerusalem and completed his architectural studies at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
He worked in Tokyo during the 1980s, in the firm of renowned architect Kisho Kurokawa. The winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Tadao Ando, was also there (“When nobody knew who he was,” says Dotan).
Dotan says that although he previously designed prominent buildings with unusual shapes, in recent years he has aspired to create architecture that blends into the natural setting. In order to overcome the engineering obstacles, the bridge in China was constructed of large, transparent glass panels. They constitute about 60 percent of the surface area and are set into a walkway that holds the plates and is held in the air by a system of suspension cables. The bridge width is about six meters, and both sides feature a wavy handrail that recalls Dotan’s design language.
In the end, despite your best efforts, the bridge became an icon.
“It has become an incredible tourist attraction, and what makes it this are its surroundings. You can’t foresee these things. You design, but life takes it to a different place. It’s really exciting. The bridge is not actually a bridge — it’s a stage. There will be fashion shows, dance and music events, and concerts there. It’s not a bridge for passing from one side to the other; it’s a place to be. At the end of the bridge, the contractor built an amphitheater with 3,000 seats. At 6 A.M., you can do yoga there.”
Dotan has designed several buildings in Israel with an amorphic shape and less clean lines than his minimalist bridge, including the Performing Arts Center in Ashdod and the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Be’er Sheva.
At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, he designed the Alon Building for High Tech — a building that both blends into the fabric of the campus yet also allows you to detect Dotan’s handiwork in its facades.
He also designed the Israeli Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010: the structure triggered the Foreign Ministry’s decision to reduce the costs of building its pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Milan.
Expo pavilions are usually dismantled and transferred to another place. In this case, too, the pavilion was designed in such a way that, at the end of the fair, it would be transferred to Israel. But that never happened. “We disassembled it within two days with demolition equipment,” recalls Dotan. “It was supposed to go to Israel, but due to statutory problems and tender laws and bureaucracy, that didn’t happen.”
The incident proved to be a turning point in Dotan’s career. Now he finds it easier to fulfill his dreams in China than Israel. The glass bridge in Zhangjiajie probably wouldn’t have been approved by any Israeli accessibility consultant. “Laws are made by human beings, and sometimes they’re draconian. Sometimes, silly rules cause destruction in terms of design,” he says, wistfully. “In Europe, there are also laws, but they don’t go to extremes.”
The laws to which Dotan is referring can lead to absurd situations — like, for example, what is happening around Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. In the southwestern part of the thoroughfare, high-rise construction is permitted, whereas in the area north of Nahmani Street, it is absolutely forbidden to build more than eight stories, and usually less, with the rules changing every few years depending on the developers.
The Meier on Rothschild tower will reach a height of 42 stories, while adjacent high-rises have been limited to 28 stories or less. Dotan encountered the inconsistent laws on a project he designed for 65 Rothschild Boulevard.
At present, the final touches are being put to the 65 Hotel, which was designed by Dotan and Moshe Vered. The hotel spaces are in a circular building that was situated on the boulevard and had two stories added. The facade was wrapped in glass sheets, which are broken at the upper edge with rounded lines. The proportions of the hotel look squashed. As opposed to the bridge, with which Dotan is pleased, he has reservations about the new hotel. “It’s a kind of hybrid: it has eight stories, and we would have liked it to have 40.”
Dotan didn’t want the building to soar skyward for entrepreneurial reasons, but for design ones. He would have preferred the building to be thin and elegant. “When you visit New York today, you see skinny skyscrapers [the tall and thin towers that have become commonplace in Manhattan], and it’s impossible to do that here. We don’t think about urban planning and how buildings should converse with one another. We don’t plan as in Europe, nor do we build freely as in Tokyo. We’re kind of half-and-half,” says Dotan.
He’s referring to the fact that European city centers have strict conservation and height restrictions, while Tokyo has complete dissonance. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, they’re trying to benefit from the best of all worlds, as witnessed on Rothschild Boulevard or in Sarona.
Should we be more like Tokyo or Europe?
“Everything here is unstable. There’s no real conservation, not in [Tel Aviv’s] White City and not in Jerusalem — where we destroyed a city in 50 years. There’s no precedent for that in history, that a city was destroyed so quickly.
“We have to decide what we are,” he continues. “Modern Israeli architecture is, for the most part, a culture of imitation and assimilation, without a proper and close connection with Jewish and Israeli history and roots — and without any real research into the Israeli city, the streets and buildings, in connection to history and culture.”
Although he often builds public buildings that are divorced from the urban fabric, Dotan speaks passionately about cities. “Throughout history, 95 percent of the buildings related to the street — and it makes no difference whether it was in Italy or Iran. There was a way to build cities, and the only icons were the marketplace and the religious buildings. Today, every architect wants to design icons — and you see that when you go to Tokyo. We’ve started to live not in cities but inside museums consisting of buildings. The city once provided security and quiet, but today living in a city is a cacophony. There’s not a single place to relax.”
Tending the flowers
Dotan believes that architecture as a profession is going to disappear. “The architect used to be in charge of construction. Now, a designer sits in front of a computer and he knows nothing about construction, and those engaged in building are engineers and project managers. All the love for construction has disappeared — and that’s what’s most painful. In the future, all construction will be done by machines.”
You won’t find many members of Dotan’s generation speaking this way. Most still sneer at computerization and the penetration of technology into our lives, and design using old-fashioned methods. Consequently, their architecture remains traditional. Dotan’s view, though, is integrated into his teaching methods. “Today, an 18-year-old student has far more advanced knowledge than his teacher. My message is that I’m a gardener: I just water the plants to make every flower grow.”
What’s the role of architects in all the present crises — housing, transportation, air pollution?
“That’s one of the most important areas, and if architects don’t engage in research and deal with the future, they become victims and trail behind. Once, an architect was at the forefront because he did research. We have forsaken that and are busy creating things that aren’t good and earning money, and not thinking about how to connect to nature and the universe. We have a responsibility. We can’t say we’re not the father and the mother; we’re responsible for the upbringing.”
One of the subjects that attracts Dotan nowadays is mobility. “I’m opening a new course in which students will research the subject of how to transport people around. The entire field of cars and highways is corrupt. The gas and oil industries control the world, and we’re strangling the planet because the highways cause pollution.
“Everyone is traveling at the height of the rush hour in the morning, and that’s not right. We have to stop talking about transportation and start talking about mobility. We have already begun to talk about devices that hover above the ground, using magnets, and I’m researching, in terms of design, how people can be transported.
“What led to the construction of high-rises?” he asks. “The elevator! Imagine an invention to replace the highways. Just as the elevator made it possible to build high-rises, we’re only dependent on someone who will invent that — and then the transportation problem will be solved.”