Architecture by the People, for the People

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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The commercial center in Holon's Jesse Cohen neighborhood which will house the galleryCredit: David Bachar
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The city of Holon invested $17 million of its own funds in the Design Museum. But for the Jesse Cohen project a biennial program of community-based art and architecture in its most run-down neighborhood it budgeted only NIS 800,000. That covers only half the cost of the project, which the city itself initiated.

So, the rest of the funds will have to be raised by its partner, the Israeli Center for Digital Art, which effectively runs the project.

The continuation of this project is not guaranteed, and two years is too short an amount of time to change a situation created over 60 troubled years. But it provides a good case study of municipal priorities and social justice, especially given the huge efforts and energies Holon has invested in making itself a brand name.

It also provides the background to the inauguration this week of the new exhibition space in the Jesse Cohen neighborhood, “Digital-Jesse’s branch,” and its first exhibit: “Outside the Box.” The exhibit was created by the community architecture workshop organized by the the Tel Aviv-based Avni Institute of Art and Design as part of this joint community art project.

The workshop was established two years ago at the initiative of artist and social activist Gil Doron. Last year, he was invited by the Israeli Center for Digital Art to a joint planning workshop with community residents to try to help improve their living conditions. Doron and architect Assaf Asherov led 15 students who worked with five neighborhood families.

They formulated plans to enlarge and renovate tiny, crowded apartments, most of them in 50-year-old prefabricated buildings. Most were not planned properly from the start, but it was clear that small improvements could go a long way. Several alternatives were planned for each apartment, based on the needs and wants of the families. The blueprints of these plans and before-and-after photos are exhibited in the show. Films documenting the process are also on view.

Beyond practical help most of the tenants lack the resources to execute the plans devised in the joint workshop, exciting as they may be the project is meant to empower people, nurture their aspirations and broaden their horizons. The workshop enabled neighborhood residents who participated to step out of their daily routines, develop skills and dream, the organizers say. For the students, it provided an extraordinary opportunity to work in the field not likely to recur in their professional lives or even in their studies. Next semester, the focus will be on store design. All that can be hoped is that this unusual experience stays inscribed their memories, as well as in their personal and professional DNA.

The Jesse Cohen neighborhood, established in the 1950s for new immigrants, has a long history of poverty and crime. It was one of the first neighborhoods to undergo renovation in the 1970s as part of nationwide community rehabilitation projects, but little came of these efforts. Eyal Danon, director of the Israeli Center for Digital Arts, says that when he was invited to work in the neighborhood, “We asked ourselves what art could accomplish that rehabilitation, urban welfare and neighborhood institutions could not. What we saw as our mandate was not to turn the neighborhood into something different, but rather to work from within, to get people out of their crowded homes and improve their daily lives, and together with them, to create a feeling of belonging and involvement. That, in my mind, is a type of success.”

Rediscovering the ‘hood

The Jesse Cohen project was launched over the past year. It encompasses a wide variety of artistic and other activities, such as working with local residents on telling their life stories, their place in public spaces, leveraging local knowledge for purposes of empowerment and livelihood, and rediscovering the neighborhood through tours.

Over the summer, a popular series of art and music events a community version of the Bat Yam International Biennale was organized with the help of local artists. The community architecture workshop is another key element that provides the project with a practical angle, at least theoretically.

The name of the workshop is taken from the British community architecture movement of the 1960s and 70s, whose principles it embraced. That movement arose as a reaction to Britain’s policy of evicting tenants from poor neighborhoods in order to make way for new construction in the decade after World War II. The policy failed as it not only compounded existing problems, but the new construction destroyed longstanding communities. The movement called for social action, minimum demolition, preserving the social fabric of communities, and including local residents in planning and renovation processes principles applied in the Jesse Cohen project as well.

The cooperation between students and residents began long before the planning stage, in meetings, conversations, shared meals, and the construction of model dream homes. The students learned important life lessons about conflicting needs and desires, about planning on drastically restricted budgets, and about how families of six manage in apartments slightly bigger than one room. The residents, for their part, learned more about their apartments, their limits and potential, and what dreams they might realize.

Beyond generating planning ideas, the project reveals the problems created by bureaucracy, planning systems, and tax and building regulations, which are obviously not unique to Holon, but which can prevent residents from making even slight improvements in their living conditions. For example, tenants who want to add a room to their apartments, according to zoning regulations, must either construct a reinforced room as well or renovate the bomb shelter in their building. These requirements involve expenses beyond the capabilities of most of neighborhood’s residents.

The workshop was a vote of confidence in the Jesse Cohen community, in the potential of existing neighborhood buildings and in the quality of public spaces. It also provided an alternative to the eviction-demolition model. The gallery where the exhibition is on display is a small space that was once a store downtown. The downtown itself, which once boasted a cinema, is a remnant of the pre-mall era, it’s value to the city clearly evident, despite years of physical neglect and commercial failure. No architect today could design a nicer public space than the one created here seemingly by accident. Perhaps the gallery will protect the downtown from plans to demolish it and that way speed up its renewal.

Waiting to win the lottery

Yoni and Metika Polet, who participated in the project, joined the workshop leaders and the students in a discussion at the exhibit’s opening. They are young parents of four “and a half” children and live in a 33 square meter apartment in the neighborhood.
He’s a native of Jesse Cohen and feels home here among family members and friends. She was born in Ramle and thinks of returning to her parents’ home there, where at least they would have their own bedroom, she says.

Along with student Mirit Nidam, they formulated a plan to enlarge their apartment to 40 square meters, but with a separate master bedroom, and with a kitchen and dining area in the center more suitable to the family’s lifestyle. The cost of the renovations is roughly estimated at NIS 150,000, even though the planning is free.

“All we can do now is wait to win the lottery,” Yoni says, putting everything into all-too-frustrating proportion. He and Metika actually enjoyed the project, they say, they met nice students and have no regrets.

Toward the end of the evening, Yoni thought he overheard someone say that the exhibit would be displayed at the Design Museum. His eyes lit up for a moment. But it turned out to be an unfortunate misunderstanding, a dream more distant, apparently, than winning the lottery. Another way to bring the community architecture workshop to the doors of the Design Museum might be to organize a demonstration there, at the foot of the acclaimed, curved strips of iron, and call for a revolution, for social justice in the neighborhood, and for a better future. Tahrir Square is here.

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