Seismic Retrofitting: A Shaky Solution to Urban Renewal

In Israel, responsibility for seismic retrofitting is often left in the hands of private developers. A new exhibition at the Architects House in Jaffa dissects a national plan designed to boost urban renewal that may leave some citizens at risk.

When National Master Plan 38 was announced in 2005, the program was regarded as a godsend.  It was seen as a sort of magical solution to the issue of seismic readiness that would strengthen buildings without financial investment by the state or tenants because contractors would cover the costs.

In short, it promised nothing less than win-win urban renewal.

The program is a homegrown initiative that, in addition to retrofitting apartments to be more earthquake resistant, would also increase development in the private sector and aid the expansion and upgrading of residential buildings. It is the only comprehensive solution Israel currently offers for hundreds of thousands of old apartment buildings built before 1980.

Over the years, some of NMP 38's limitations and failures have been exposed, as well as the difficulties of putting theory into practice. The initial interest in the plan was gradually supplanted by criticism, though no one has cast doubt on the idea's inherent potential.

Now the Architect's House gallery in Jaffa is taking a deeper look at the program with the exhibition NMP 38: Opinions and Works.  It is curated by architect Eran Tamir Tawil and accompanied by a critical report by Nir Shalev, a researcher for the Bimkom organization that advocates for building rights.

At its core, the exhibition criticizes the state's very notion of privatizing earthquake readiness. It points out that buildings in the desirable center of Israel – where the probability of quakes is lower – are more likely to be reinforced while those outside the center, closer to the Great Rift Valley where seismic risk is high, will remain in their shaky condition.

Indeed, the bulk of the requests for building approval under NMP 38 in the past four years – 170 out of 190 – have been in Tel Aviv and the center of the country. Not a single request was submitted from the high-risk areas in the north.

In short, the exhibition suggests that you cant rely on a private sector contractor to strengthen buildings in poor areas.

This privatized model does not earmark any resources to reinforce public housing not owned by private tenants or offer any financial incentive for a private contractor to take on such a project.

This plan is purely an Israeli invention. In many other countries, including the United States, the government and local authorities provide aid and subsidized loans for the upkeep for privately owned buildings. Absurdly, in Israel, the publics safety is placed in the hands of the real estate developers.

The architects greatest hour?

Despite struggling to fulfill its original function, NMP 38 has found itself used as a tool – sometimes even the primary tool – of urban renewal, but without the resources to complete the task.

Urban renewal is an architectural and planning mission, which must be individually tailored to a particular place. In contrast, NMP 38 is a homogenous, all-encompassing technical program that doesnt take difference into account.

One must consider whether existing infrastructure can absorb the expected building expansions. In addition, special attention should be given to the preservation of historical, architecturally significant buildings, which risk losing their unique value because of the standardized reinforcement methods that NMP 38 proposes. The Bimkom report recommends alternative reinforcement methods, used elsewhere in the world, which would be more appropriate when dealing with these buildings.

NMP 38 puts forth extraordinary challenges for architects and planners, both as a system for urban renewal and as a project for structural reinforcement. The exhibition at the Architects House proposes a variety of solutions for both tasks, exploring the magnitude of the task as well as the problems inherent in each potential solution.

In an age where both architects and planners are increasingly required to work around the existing defects of buildings, their creativity will be determined not just by original architecture but also by their creative solutions within existing structures of the tangled urban fabric.

Re-conceptualizing residential buildings, whether expanded through NMP 38 or another program, without turning them into a chaotic mix of dark rooms and corridors, is a task no less complex than designing a museum and as important, if not more so. This could be the professionals greatest hour.

"Its a shame."

The human element in all of this is visible in Operation Naftali, the excellent film by Vered Yeruham and Oren Reich being screened at the gallery as part of the exhibition.The film, originally produced and screened by the Yes Docu channel, is an ironic, compassionate and frustrating look at a development on Naftali Street, in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood that fell from high hopes to bitter disappointment.

The film, which has an almost surreal quality, deals with themes of protection and renewal in a neighborhood where 56 lower-income families live in a tangle of concrete and stone.  As illustrated in the film, urban renewal is an impossible task unless it includes real community spirit and a process of collaboration that goes beyond the mere signing of agreements and contracts.

Naftali Street had been selected by the Jerusalem municipality as a test case for NMP 38. The experiment has since become a cautionary tale. It begins with a collective, albeit somewhat tentative, plan to realize the fantasy of a more spacious, beautifully renovated apartment block. But the story ends with suspicion, separation, seclusion and bitter disappointment.

Its a shame, a real shame, says one of the tenants after the project collapsed. All of the fuss we made amounted to nothing."

Naftali Old
Yotam Reich
Yotam Reich