Bridge to Somewhere

The real innovation in the Technion's new graduate housing lies in the bridges connecting the dorms, helping create communities of thinkers.

The bridges of the new Graduate Students Village on the Technion campus in Haifa are bringing together a community of young researchers and scientists.

The village's seven residential buildings are connected to each other by a system of wood and steel bridges that stand about eight meters above ground. Every afternoon these fill up with hundreds of parents and children who come down from their apartments to meet, talk and play. At the connecting points between the bridges and the buildings there are generous public spaces, equipped with wooden benches and wireless Internet. Parents can easily keep an eye on their children as they play in one of the playgrounds nearby.

student housing - Amit Garon - November 17 2011
Amit Garon

The Graduate Students Village is part of the Technion's broad plan for attracting young minds, master's and doctoral students who may become the next Nobel Prize winners. The model is simple: affordable housing, around NIS 1,700 per apartment including utilities, which enables students to concentrate on their research while assimilating into a cohesive community, and encourages them to settle down in the future at the Technion and in Haifa.

About eight years ago the Technion announced an architecture competition for a contemporary and appealing student village. Out of some 70 submissions to the competition, five architects made it to the final round, and the panel of judges ultimately chose the design submitted jointly by the architects Gaby Schwartz and Gidi Bar Orian.

The pair had studied architecture together at the Technion in the 1980s, so the project was a sort of homecoming. Bar Orian is known for his involvement in the design and preservation of residential buildings in Tel Aviv. Schwartz (of Schwartz Besnosoff Architects ) made his name with outstanding public buildings such as the new library at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee.

The village is located on the southwestern side of the campus, far away from the academic department buildings, and overlooks a natural and built landscape. The first decision that the architects made was to keep the natural forest in place far as was possible.

"Initially we thought of building low attached units, what is called a carpet, but the neighbors on the hill opposite always had a green landscape here and we didn't want to spoil it for them," Schwartz says. "Another decision was to avoid building huge support walls of the kind familiar in Haifa and to let the buildings become absorbed inward into the landscape."

The chosen solution was a group of seven buildings, each five-stories high, that stand perpendicular to the mountain, with playgrounds and lawns between them. In the future, a community center will go up south of the residential buildings, and is set to include a kindergarten, clubhouse, and lecture hall.

Each building has some 30 apartments (218 in the housing complex overall ), which are arranged around three stairwells. Apartment sizes range from 60 to 100 square meters, with some having the option of "shifting" a room from one apartment to another to make it bigger or smaller.

The most important and innovative design component is a system of bridges that link up the interim levels of all the buildings and allow tenants to move around freely without needing to cross roads.

The experience of walking among the treetops is thrilling, and is reminiscent of works by the Japanese artist Tetsu Kondu, who deals with examining the relationship between man and heaven and earth. The buildings themselves look like giant masses that have had chunks "bitten" off.

"It's meant to bring the landscape into the apartments," Schwartz explains.

The seven buildings were intended for intensive use and wear and tear, so durable materials were selected - plaster for the facades, exposed concrete, suspended metal blinds, brick wall cover in the stairwells, and wooden lattices that create a separation between public- and semi-public spaces.

The entire village echoes the architecture of public housing complexes from the 1950s and 60s, particularly the bridge buildings designed by the architects Munio Gitai-Weinraub and Al Mansfeld in the Ramat Hadar neighborhood of Haifa. There too, the buildings are divided at mid-point by a public level that contains various usages for the benefit of the tenants, such as storage rooms and even a grocery store.

Schwartz and Bar Orian agree with the comparison, but say their version takes the idea a step forward. "The public housing complexes in Israel were designed without any connection to the site. They were positioned at random without any link to the ground conditions. We tried to converse with the environment and with nature. The buildings in the village are 'deformed' in order to adjust to the landscape."

The architects Liran Chechik and Nitzan Kalush have been living in the village for the past nine months. They moved there from junior faculty housing after their family grew. They deem the village a successful project, with "a whiff of colleges in Europe," that enables community life and cooperation and makes you feel like sticking around for a long time.

"The public spaces have had a lot put into them, and generate a pretty lively community life - all relative to the Technion of course," they say with a grin. "The bridge that spans the buildings serves as a pleasurable route for walks, and opens onto playgrounds that are suited to a range of ages. The spaces in between the apartments constitute alternative ground, which is important because the topography in this area of the Technion is really extreme."

Chechik mentions favorably the way that the village blends into the natural forest.

"There is a sense that the buildings are well integrated into the forest. Old trees stayed put and the buildings kind of squeeze between them. More than once we have come upon wild boars and jackals," he adds.

However, it would seem that the very spirit of cooperation and intimacy among the tenants could sometimes be problematic. The balconies are rarely used because they can be observed by anyone who happens to walk across the bridge. The same problem also exists in the apartments adjacent to the bridge.

The Graduate Student Village is one of the most important projects unveiled in Israel this year, if not the most important. It is a tremendous gesture toward the human scale as well as the natural scale of the Carmel, and it provides a healthy platform for the formation of a vibrant community and for the exchange of knowledge and opinions.

The success of the village is especially striking in view of the social protests of the summer and the demand for quality and affordable housing. It presents a realistic model for mass housing but succeeds in preserving a high level of architecture and design.