The Rise and Fall of the Red Roof: Israel's White Picket Fence

Once a symbol of the ideal Israeli home, slanting red tile roofs are gradually being supplanted by clean modern flat contours, although they still make a statement in the West Bank.

Oren Eldar
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Oren Eldar

Encouraged by its astoundingly successful branding of cottage cheese under the slogan of “the cheese with the house,” the Tnuva food concern decided in 2004 to use the same image for all of its dairy products. The image of the familiar Jewish Agency-issue house with the red tile roof was imprinted on all Tnuva yogurt containers and milk cartons, and the advertisements that promoted the products also featured such houses.

But in the end, Tnuva paid heavily for the brilliant marketing campaign, when its quintessential Israeli house served as the visual “bridge” between last year’s cottage-cheese protest and the larger-scale social and housing protests, and led to a significant decline in the food giant’s revenues.

Time has passed and the real-life, red-tile-roof house is no longer the same. Following many decades during which such roofs held absolute sway in the single-family housing market in Israel (and even before that, constituted an impressive element in the apartment-building sector, as well), the latest data indicate a major shift: The familiar tiled tops are giving way to flat roofs. Is it the contention of Israeli architects that the tile roof is in fact “not local” and should be abandoned in favor of construction better suited to the Mediterranean environment finally being accepted?

Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist and historian of Israeli society, is now engaged in a research study of construction styles in the country. More than anything else, he says, the disappearance of the tile roof is indicative of the refinement of local taste, since “the houses are becoming quieter, more architecturally balanced.” Almog’s comment is in line with the viewpoint of architect Pitsou Kedem, who is in the vanguard of the flat-roof construction wave and says “people are seeking to return to formative quiet.”

Countering them is architect Eran Tamir-Tawil, the curator of the gallery at Architects House in Jaffa, who in recent few years has been researching local single-family-house construction. “What is happening now is nothing more than a change in style. We’re in a sort of neo-Bauhaus period, and the construction nowadays can be characterized mainly as a Disneyland of styles,” he says.

From the start, local architecture has carried on a love-hate relationship with the tile roofs. Even if they are fully integrated into the Israeli landscape, over the years they have met with sweeping indifference from many architects. Stories abound about professionals who were asked to design tile roofs and refused. Similarly, in local architectural schools, there is barely a trace of the red roofs.

“I don’t understand why people say it’s like Switzerland, that it’s not local,” says Tamir-Tawil. “The tile roof has always been here, even before the Swiss knew they were Swiss. The Greeks built tile roofs here 2,000 years ago. It is completely legitimate in our setting. True, then you aren’t considering Arab construction styles, from which we can learn a lot, but this, too, is part of our culture.”

Evidence of local roofing with tiles can be traced to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, as can be seen, for instance, in mosaics that represent the city of Jerusalem, complete with red tile roofs. But along with the decline of the European empires’ hold on this region, the roofs also began to disappear.

In an extensive paper about the roof-tile industry in Israel, which appeared in the history journal Zmanim, architect Dr. Gil Gordon of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology refers to the year 1874 as the turning point. Following the harsh winter that afflicted the country that year, demand for the product increased. At the time, roof tiles were considered technologically progressive; without going to great expense, people could use them to fix problems of leaks and sagging.

One of the first communities to use them here was the German Templers, who were then at work constructing their colonies in Palestine. High import costs led to the opening of local roof-tile manufacturing facilities. In 1879, the Montefiore Endowment opened one, as did the Templers at a factory in the Schneller Orphanage in Jerusalem. The Steinberg factory in Motza, outside the city, supplied tiles between 1925 and 1948 (the factory in Motza, along with its original tile roof, was recently torn down, as Nir Hasson wrote in Haaretz in January 2011).

Tile roofs were also adopted in the Hebrew agricultural colonies from the very first Aliyah (1881-1904), where the newly arrived immigrants saw them as a reflection of the landscapes of their Eastern European homelands.

But they were also found in the homes of well-to-do residents of Arab villages, for whom they were a status symbol. Since then, the red tiles proliferated, appearing everywhere from the kibbutzim to the immigrant tenement buildings (where the tile-roof model was supplanted by the now-familiar Amidar flat-roofed apartment construction in the late 1950s) to urban apartment buildings.

The golden age of the slanting tile roof began with the “build-your-own-home” wave that followed the late 1970s political upheaval. “People wanted to get out of the apartment block, and the definitive symbol of having made it, of owning a private home, was the tile roof,” says Prof. Almog. “Just like in a child’s drawing.”
Tamar Berger, an architecture researcher and author of the book “Dionysus at Dizengoff Center,” points out that the adoption of the tile roofs reflects the influence of the colonies and kibbutzim in those days.

“The kibbutz was given more respect, and the suburbs warmly adopted it,” she says. “The homeowners were imagining a village and wanted to look like one, even if they didn’t have cows or any of the other trappings of kibbutz.” Berger notes that the trend was also reinforced by the increased American influence on Israeli society in those years, which contributed to the proliferation of tile roofs which reflected typical American bedroom communities.

Imitating others

According to Almog, however, the attempt to imitate other tastes eventually fixed in the local mindset a negative attitude toward tile roofs. In the end, everything took on a very nouveau riche appearance: in the late 70s, wealthy locals saw houses in Europe and wanted to buy themselves a bit of little Europe in Israel. In many instances, this was rather pathetic: Sometimes tiles were used on columns, and they sprouted on pergolas, windows indeed, almost anywhere.

The architect Pitsou Kedem sums it up: “It was a style that had no style; everything was permitted. A tile roof together with stone columns together with stucco-plastered walls.”

A 1988 survey found that 60 percent of residential homes constructed up until that time in the “build-your-own-home” project and 38 percent of townhouses were topped off by a slanting tile roof. The major construction wave that began with the mass immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to a resurgence of this type of construction; indeed, new neighborhoods in many towns and cities were constructed in accordance with urban master plans that actually made use of the red tiles compulsory.

A sign of prosperity

Two decades later, the data indicate that construction with tile roofs is now in decline. Ackerstein, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of such tiles, reports a 30 percent decline in sales in recent years.

“In the past five years, it has been very noticeable,” says David Biton, manager of the company’s roof tile operations.

Then again, some observers see the shift as a sign of greater prosperity. “The economic improvement [among certain sectors] has led to an expansion of the architectural means at the builders’ disposal,” says Tamir-Tawil.

“There was a time when the people who lived in the build-your-own-home projects didn’t have money for an architect or an interior designer,” adds Almog. “Over time, Israeli society grew wealthier and changed, and now the people who have the money to build a free-standing house also have the money to invest in an architect.”

“The local nouveaux riches are getting more refined,” says Almog. “The Israeli that didn’t understand a thing about aesthetics traveled abroad, became more educated, and this refinement was expressed in numerous areas, including food and clothing. Once there were monsters with tile roofs everywhere, but when you engage a more knowledgeable architect, he or she also restrains you.”

This is also expressed in the declining status of the color red, which has given way to gray or green roof tiles, he adds.

“What I’m trying to foster is some sort of restraint,” says Kedem. “There is a sort of general chaos that stems from capitalism and the need to sell. So you, as an architect, look for ‘cleanness.’”

Nevertheless, construction with roof tiles has not entirely
disappeared. Tamir-Tawil says that this is in part due to the regulations mandating such architecture that still exist in some regional councils. Many architects talk about attempts to bypass the law, including angling the tile roofs in a different way, toward the rear of the building.

One place where roof-tile construction remains constant is in the settlements and illegal outposts in the West Bank, where numerous local bylaws call for such building. During the past few months, the country’s attention has been riveted to the evacuation of the Migron outpost with its slanting red-tile roofs, and on the temporary housing built for the residents by the state, at record speed. The interim site, where Migron people are meant to live until their permanent homes are built, features prefabricated housing units that were chosen from a Ha’argaz Building Works catalog, complete with tin roofs painted red in an effort to mimic the real thing.

‘Us’ vs. ‘them’

In 2002, architect and scholar Eyal Weizman curated, together with Rafi Segal, an exhibition entitled “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” about construction in the territories. The exhibition was supposed to represent Israel at an architectural conference in Berlin, but was ultimately barred at home and abroad, and only an unofficial catalog was printed in the end, by the Israel Association of United Architects and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Weizman says the tile roof was meant to set apart the Jewish settlements in the territories from Palestinian construction, to distinguish “us” from “them.”

Nevertheless, it seems that the trend toward flat roofs within the Green Line is beginning to cross the 1967 border as well. Shachar Godinger, the architect of the Mateh Binyamin regional council, where Migron is located, says that flat tops are indeed starting to gain popularity there: “In more conservative places, let’s put it that way, they like the normal and the familiar, and they build tile roofs. But in more prestigious communities, people prefer modern construction.” He mentions the settlement of Nofei Prat as an example.

“A lot of this has to do with following the fashion, but the idea of local construction is also beginning to take root. Construction here is very much ‘non-local’: The tile roofs are not something that comes from this region,” Godinger notes. He points out that one of the reasons for preferring a flat roof is the option of enlarging a house in the future; a flat roof facilitates the addition of more floors to a building, similar to the traditional construction in Arab society in which the home grows upward as the family expands. Surprisingly, the reverse trend can be seen among the Palestinians; Weizman says that in villages near the Israeli settlements, one sees increasingly more homes with red rooftops.

Aside from the cultural and political implications of this style of building, the question of its suitability to the local climate remains unresolved. Although the tiles were adopted in the 19th century as an inexpensive and quick solution to roofing homes, the ensuing development of reinforced concrete at the end of that century eliminated that advantage.

Best room in the house

The precepts of modern architecture called for using a flat concrete roof and presented the concept of the roof garden. In his study, the Technion’s Gordon notes that even the designer of Tel Aviv’s master plan, Sir Patrick Geddes, was quoted as being opposed to the tile roofs, saying that the buildings in Palestine should indeed be built flat in order not to lose the “best room” of all: the roof. Indeed, the first buildings constructed in the International style here were built with a “common space” on the rooftop, but they almost never served this purpose in reality, and over the years private apartments were built on them.

Over time, the liabilities of the flat roof were also revealed. It was incapable of handling the pelting rain and required much maintenance, both of the roof itself and of the drainage system, with the need to reseal every few years. In fact, this is why some say that the slanted tile roof is suited to the Mediterranean climate, and as proof, these critics cite its widespread use in Spain and Italy.

“Fashion is faulty,” says Ackerstein’s David Biton. “The tile roof is, in point of fact, the ‘green,’ energy-saving roof.” Biton adds that local architects are being led by the caprices of their clients. “They are captives of the public; they are not bringing any new ideas. They simply have to earn a living,” he says.

The architect Michaela Melin, who builds with tiled roofs, admits that their insulation capacity is not, in fact, a reason for building with them. “The tile roof is not at all suited to Israel,” she says. “It makes no difference how much you insulate if you have to contend with temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius, you need concrete.”

Still, Melin enumerates several advantages of the tile roof that led her to choose it. Citing a house she recently planned on a moshav in the north, she explains that “consideration for the neighbors” and “conforming to the community’s character” are not inappropriate motivations. “Most of the roofs on the moshav where we were building were tile roofs, and you want to somewhat fit in with the landscape. You don’t want to be an outcast,” she says. She adds that there is no denying the fact that buildings with slanted roofs are seen all around the country and instead of ignoring this fact, it should be exploited.

For instance, in many older buildings, a low ceiling hides the inside of the roof from sight. At her own home in Givatayim, for instance, Melin removed this ceiling, renovated the tile roof and exposed the wooden beams in each room of the house.

Maybe because the slanted tile roof is so deeply rooted in the Israeli landscape, it became taken for granted, and thus has not been a major subject over the years in local architectural discourse and research. But one group that has related to the phenomenon has been artists, as seen in everything from the paintings of Reuven

Rubin and Dan Reisman to the work of Gal Weinstein, who represented Israel 10 years ago at the art biennial in Sao Paolo. Weinstein, who frequently inserts images from the local environment in his work, built an entire tile roof inside the modernist museum designed by Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s an image you see all the time and has therefore become transparent, but as soon as you make a contextual change in it, you notice its physicality,” he says. In the exhibit, the tile roof was placed directly on the ground, without any house underneath.

For her part, researcher Tamar Berger explains that the issue of locality is now obsolete and that the time has come to accept the slanting roof for what it is. “I grew up in a house with a red roof and I didn’t feel that I was a foreigner, or that it would start snowing any minute,” she says. “Even if this roof is not from here and was not here before Zionism, I have no interest in denouncing it. Clearly, Zionism brought things in from outside the country; indeed, that is the case for Zionism itself. It’s like with the vegetation. Ninety percent of what grows here is imported, but so what? It has been acclimatized and accepted.

“Even our Hebrew has a lilt of foreign languages in the background. As far as I’m concerned, as soon as they arrived here,” Berger adds, “the tile roofs became citizens with equal rights.”

Israeli homes in the settlement of Matan. Behind them, the West Bank Palestinian village of Hableh.Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO
The Ashkelon skyline. Local nouveaux riches' tastes are getting more refined.Credit: GPO



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