Pyramid Scheme

Much thought was given to experimental housing projects in Be'er Sheva, but they didn't all pan out.

Before green construction became a buzz word with architects declaiming the virtues of solar collectors and styled louvers, Israeli architects had already experienced planning for an extreme climate. In the golden age of public construction - the 1950s and 1960s - the Housing Ministry initiated experimental residential projects focused on the sun, wind and rain, or rather protection from them, mostly in desert towns or locales with dramatic topography. Planners were instructed to think outside the box and challenge the familiar and repetitive canon of housing projects.

The "Pyramid" in Be'er Sheva's Dalet neighborhood is a fascinating example. It was built in the mid-'60s by architects Moshe Lofenfeld and Giora Gamerman, not far from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, then under construction.

Be'er Sheva's pyramid building (Yuval Tebol)
Yuval Tebol

Be'er Sheva had already established a reputation, even internationally, as an architectural laboratory of Modernism and Brutalism in the huge, empty slate of the Negev - an extraordinary action space just when the Zionist narrative of making the desert bloom served as an ideological catalyst.

The project relies on the simple principle of a protected patio courtyard: Two stepped blocs of construction shut in the courtyard on its two sides, protecting it from the burning sun and the winds. The public parts of the apartments - the living rooms and the balconies - face out, while the "wet" areas - the kitchens and the bathrooms - face inward to control the level of privacy and clear the external facade of undesirable pipes and cables.

The courtyard was planned as half private and half public, consisting of a sophisticated system of staircases and hanging bridges. The original sketches indicate the community life the architects imagined for the tenants - children playing in sand, mothers in dainty frocks conversing leisurely. Who remembers there's desert out there.

The detailed planning shows. Two light concrete roofs cover the staircases, an Israeli version of the famous concrete rooflets Le Corbusier placed on government buildings in India's Chandigarh. The concrete rain gutters, the horizontal supporting pillars, the stone fences and the entryways to the apartments were also planned with attention.

A welfare case

In those days, the government and planners attributed importance to public housing. Fifty years later, it's hard to recognize the Pyramid were it not for the sign on the building: The Pyramid Building, Avraham Avinu 33 (with a spelling mistake in the original ). Everything is broken, patched, dirty and neglected. Both legal and pirate additions have overwhelmed the triangular shape, and the inner courtyard, empty of people, smells of urine.

A building that was supposed to be a model of climate-conscious construction has became a welfare case in need of rehabilitation. Its first residents of teachers and social workers gave way to a poorer population, new immigrants from North Africa and, in the 1990s, from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

The tenants, and not the experimental architecture, are responsible for the appalling lack of maintenance, says Hadas Sheder, an expert on public building here. "It is, of course, possible to understand them. The Dalet neighborhood is characterized by an underprivileged population that prefers to invest its resources in other things. There are housing projects in Be'er Sheva and in Ramat Aviv, but they look different and are priced differently." Location and maintenance tell the story, she says.

Sheder wrote a dissertation on public housing in Be'er Sheva. The Housing Ministry was the city's master planner and the master contractor and thus had scope for experimentation. The most famous experiment is the so-called Model Housing Project (Heh Neighborhood ), built at the initiative of the then head of the Housing Administration, Zeev Tenne. Its unique urban fabric displays patio homes that create a dense carpet of houses and small courtyards, with huge, flat, multi-entrance apartment blocs offering protection from the strong winds.

Lofenfeld and Gamerman are also responsible for another climate experiment in Be'er Sheva - the multistory "drawers" building at the city's entrance, which for years served as one of its distinctive symbols. The protuberant "drawers" were intended to be balconies protected from the sun and the wind for potted plants and greenery. Most of them were eventually closed and became living rooms. Perhaps because of the apartments' ability to expand, the building has been kept in pretty good condition.

"The Pyramid and the drawers building were daring attempts to provide an answer for building in the desert," says Sheder. "Think of the Pyramid, for example, as a type of building that allows urban movement within it, a kind of arcade. This is a brilliant idea for the desert. Lofenfeld and Gamerman, incidentally, intended to link the Pyramid and the drawers by means of an urban axis on the western side of the road entering Be'er Sheva and to build several more buildings of that type. The axis was never built, and therefore the continuity also faded away."

The experimental nature of the buildings and the constructions themselves faded. Not one is listed for preservation. Be'er Sheva's preservation list stops at 1948 and includes mainly the Ottoman architecture in the Old City - without the Modernist housing projects and public buildings that are milestones of Israeli architecture.

Decads ago, green architecture was practiced here. Why is there no experimental building in Israel today? asks Sheder and answers herself: "The nation, the state, has stopped planning and building, and the Housing Ministry has moved into the area of initiating. There is privatization, and nowadays private contractors are building the apartments. As a contractor, you need to stick to the standard, the lowest common denominator." Does the Pyramid have a place in the contemporary residential culture?

"The pyramid was appropriate to the 1960s but experimental construction most certainly does have a place. Today the apartments offered on the market are an expression of the privatization - bring me an open American kitchen, a luxurious lobby and a gym I will never use. We have forgotten how to make avant-garde buildings with added value for the tenants and the environment."