Surroundings Home, Politically Correct Home

Even though an architect's primary task is to create a shelter, architects do not usually view designing residences as their ultimate creative ambition. This is especially true of housing "for the masses," which requires more effort for less recognition, and usually does not even photograph nicely for the album on the coffee table.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

Even though an architect's primary task is to create a shelter, architects do not usually view designing residences as their ultimate creative ambition. This is especially true of housing "for the masses," which requires more effort for less recognition, and usually does not even photograph nicely for the album on the coffee table.

The new book, "Tsurot Megurim: Adrihalut v'Hevra b'Yisrael" (Forms of Housing: Architecture and Society in Israel), edited by architects Shelley Cohen and Tula Amir and published by Hargol/Am Oved, for the first time aims the spotlight at a less glamorous category of architecture - one usually relegated to the world of construction or real estate. Still, it is the largest, and affects the largest and most varied sectors of the population, at least those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads.

The book is a journey through the mundane Israeli space, common forms of housing inside the Green Line: standard apartment buildings, government-sponsored tenement projects, terraced housing in city suburbs, ornately designed homes in privately built neighborhoods, residential towers and Tuscan style villas, and it offers an architectural, aesthetic and cultural analysis that is yet to be conducted in this manner. The journey is critical and uses architectural research and analysis to discuss social points of view.

The various cityscapes are familiar to all. The book leads readers behind the scenes and reveals the mechanisms that led to their formation.

A bevy of writers, equipped with the best tools of contemporary critical discourse, assault their subjects, breaking consensuses, analyzing phenomena and their impact, posing dilemmas and conflicts and mostly challenging architectural "good taste," until it has to apologize for its existence and hide inside quotation marks. The journey ends with quite a few insights, but without the required conclusion, which is unfortunate - without offering an appropriate shelter that would answer hopes and dreams and also be on the "right" side of the discourse.

Thus, for example, living in a condominium - the most common form of housing in Israel - could turn out to be a trap, as propounded in the article by Prof. Dan Rabinowitz. On the one hand, there is the latent "tragedy of the commons" and the vague proprietary status of the common property. On the other hand, each apartment owner finds himself at the mercy of the disagreeable house committee members, who "have nothing better to with their time, or worse, actually enjoy interfering in their neighbors' lives."

Despite the critical paradox, Rabinowitz writes that the problem is best solved in the luxury residential towers, which have a professional maintenance company instead of the irksome house committee.

After the option of a condominium is dismissed, and since living in a luxury tower is beyond one's means (and a "nightmare" to most of the population, as Prof. Arza Churchman claims in her article), moving to a quiet suburb on the outskirts of the city seems very attractive, until this dream, too, is shattered by architect Vera Treitel, in her article about a successful suburb in Rishon Letzion. Not only is the suburb an ecologically unsound form of housing, writes Treitel, it is also deemed a site of alienation, boredom, homogeny and uniformity, and worst of all - it expresses the unsophisticated bourgeois yearning for "quality of life," "a house with a yard" and "rich technical specifications" (her quotation marks). Who could live with such a stigma stamped above their front door?

Even Bnei Beitcha privately built homes have no redeeming virtues, Dr. Hadas Shadar reveals in her article. Theoretically, nothing is more politically or critically correct these days than a Bnei Beitcha project that upgrades the quality of life of former tenement dwellers, puts the children of immigrants on the map and grants them the power to undermine the status of the architectural elite as the dictators of taste.

But Shadar hastens to cool any enthusiasm, stating there has been no real revolution in such neighborhoods. The "hegemonic" form of housing remains as it used to be, and this alternative option is not what it seemed. And just for architectural kitsch, it is really not worth the effort.

An apartment in a neighborhood housing project could have been an option, were it not for Dr. Haim Yakobi's denunciation of it as the oppressive Ashkenazi "modernist housing machine." After that, every additional word is superfluous. Over the years this housing machine "got ruined," in Yakobi's words, and then "non-standard architectural forms were added by communities that did not 'succeed' on the national modernist route."

Now Yakobi grants it legitimization as the "Mizrahi housing machine," and calls for "alternative modernism." The outmoded modernists, however, are hanging on with all their strength to "good taste," and again find themselves out of the picture.

The light at the end of this dark tunnel is provided by environmental psychologist Amos Rappaport, who is quoted in Shadar's article. "What are the qualities that determine what a good house is?" asked Rappaport, answering simply, "A good house must fulfill the wishes of its residents." Still the answer is not as simple as it seems, because "good" in and of itself does not solve the issue - behind it lie circular dilemmas and conflicts. In a conversation with Cohen and Amir, they stepped out of that enchanted circle for a moment and declared, "The book certainly favors the popular vote, so it's yes to the kitschy Bnei Beitcha houses, yes to the improvised building additions, yes to the faux Tuscany villa" (the subject of Amir's article in the book).

The importance of this book, only a few of whose articles are mentioned here, is the presentation of the dilemmas that exist here, rather than their solutions. In the meantime, the only absolute conclusion is that everyone needs a place to live, whether modern or Middle Eastern, newfangled or traditional, condominium or private house, in the city or the suburbs. We can talk about all the rest later.

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