Cubism of a Different Sort

Throwing tiled roofs aside, a new neighborhood in Rishon Letzion offers boxy Bauhaus dwellings instead.

New cottage neighborhoods in west Rishon Letzion symbolize the suburbanization of Israel. The process can be found in stretches between Hadera and Ashdod, where middle-class residents chase their dream of a high quality of life near cities. The most visible traits of this phenomenon are conformism and uniformity: the same furnishings, the same anonymous grass lawns. The mix of middle-class comforts, strong public institutions and shopping centers is supposed to guarantee a high standard of living. This part of the country is based on a rigid geographic principle: Each site must be identical.

Rishon Letzion Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol

In this context, Rishon Letzion's Villa Nobel neighborhood, designed by architect Ilan Pivko with 72 houses, offers a critique of Israeli suburbanization and the typical "build-your-own-house" neighborhood. The new neighborhood offers white, boxy Bauhaus dwellings instead of tiled roofs. The neighborhood's design implicitly criticizes the mess that characterizes private-home architecture in Israel.

"The build-your-own-house method was always ridiculous because it represented the first time an Israeli could fantasize about a private house," says Pivko. "The idea of expressing yourself is fantastic, but the result was grotesque. People didn't have any discipline; they completely indulged. They added to their homes anything they thought could be put on a house."

Villa Noble was born like any other suburban neighborhood. A developer, Reuven Cohen, bought typical 300-meter lots and looked for ways to maximize profit. He explained to Pivko that the average price for a lot with a house was $400,000, but he wanted to sell homes for $600,000.

"I told him that based on my experience, not much could be done with such a plan," Pivko says. "Up to that point, it was customary in Israel to price houses and apartments according to the number of rooms. Quality or fine architectural design didn't provide any added value. People looked at cottages as an on-the-shelf product with a fixed size and a set price that couldn't be altered."

At Cohen's request, Pivko prepared two proposals. The first, in Tuscany style, the second, modernist. Villas designed with Tuscany features (or imitations ) were a design trend in Israel at the time, but when the two designs were shown to customers, along with a few other proposals by other architects, there was a clear preference for the modernist, white-cube houses. This preference seemed surprising, representing a shift in taste, or at least in what builders and marketers believed to be homebuyers' taste.

"This helped me understand that architecture is not limited today to a small milieu," Pivko says. "Israelis tour overseas, everyone reads magazines and watches television and is exposed to what's happening in the world of design. This modernist architecture looked sexy to them and caught their eye."

The choice of modernist architecture raised real estate prices in the area by 25 percent on average. The houses are a two-family duplex model, but the way they are placed on each lot gives each a greater sense of privacy.

They are divided into three types, depending on the size of the lot; each has three floors, including a basement designed for bedrooms. A key feature is a high 3.2-meter ceiling. The design tries to create links between the inside and outside using floor-to-ceiling windows and a large pergola. Pivko's new neighborhood can be appreciated for its contrast to other parts of Rishon Letzion.

Nearby Ne'ot Shikma for instance, exemplifies the generic suburban neighborhood of central Israel. The architect Vera Treitel surveyed the Israeli dream to buy a private house in her article "Happiness awaits in the garden" in the Hebrew volume "Types of Residence, Architecture and Society in Israel."

Ne'ot Shikma, her analysis shows, was built during a rapid suburbanization trend in the late 1980s. Since people started moving into the area in 1996, the neighborhood (its residents claim ) can be considered a paradise. But despite the real estate success, Ne'ot Shikma exemplifies the style of dozens of neighborhoods built in Rishon Letzion and other towns in the greater Tel Aviv area.

What's the difference between the tiled rooftops of Ne'ot Shikma and Pivko's modernist cube homes? Is Villa Nobel merely a design gimmick? Pivko claims that his white box-houses are the authentic expression of local taste, compared to fads like the Tuscany style. "I think these cubes represent something very important in Israeli taste," he says.

But overall it appears that the neighborhood is not much different from Ne'ot Shikma or any other suburb. Each dwelling has five rooms, a front and back garden, a parking lot and a family with two or three children. This is a sophisticated on-the-shelf product, but it's affordable to the middle class and Pivko's name probably added luster to the project. He disagrees with the comparison to other suburbs.

The neighborhood, he says, "proves that Israelis are looking for something more sophisticated. People were willing to pay another $200,000 for the architectural added value, and not because they got another few square meters and another bathroom."

"I don't think Israelis are suckers," Pivko says. "If this were poor architectural design, they simply wouldn't buy these homes."