Jerusalem of Concrete and Steel

A principled city engineer is needed to defend the capital, which is threatened by construction plans that in the coming years may totally alter its special identity.

View of the city of Jerusalem.
Michal Fattal

Very quietly, hoping not to attract too much notice, a tender is being prepared for one of the most important jobs in the country’s urban establishment – Jerusalem’s city engineer. As in every city, the pressure that will be brought to bear on whoever gets the job will make it difficult for him to perform.

But the familiar tendency to choose someone anonymous, whose primary advantage is a flexible backbone, could largely decide the fate of the city. This city, which draws considerable international attention and embodies all the problems of Israeli society in their most extreme form, is being threatened by construction plans that in the coming years may totally alter its special identity.

First and foremost, we’re talking about the final obliteration of the building scale that had typified the city and that until recently had preserved the central status of the Old City. Restraint has been thrown off and huge high-rises are going to spring up in every corner in the coming years. A bloc of such towers planned near the International Convention Center that will eventually greet those entering the city is only the start of this process.

A dramatic decision made by the local planning and construction committee, and reported on by TheMarker last month, gives exceptional building rights along the route of Jerusalem’s light rail. Anywhere an empty plot can be found, someone will build a tower of up to 30 stories in an effort to create new residential, hotel and business centers. This sweeping decision illustrates more than anything not just the “legacy” being left by outgoing city engineer Shlomo Eshkol, but the professional level of the entire Jerusalem planning apparatus.

Mayor Nir Barkat and the chairman of the local planning committee, Meir Turgeman, proudly declared that the plan would include the development of advanced transportation infrastructure that would serve as a stimulus for economic prosperity. Perhaps we could expect no more than empty slogans about urban renewal from Barkat, who is preoccupied with advancing politically, or Turgeman, who is primarily known for his aggressive management of planning committee meetings.

But it’s shocking to note that among the professional ranks no one warned of the dangers inherent in the plan. Its realization will increase the decentralization of the city, which lacks a significant urban center; the high-rises that will spring up on every corner will change the skyline and overshadow some of the last remaining historic areas of the city, like Ein Karem; and most important, will leave the Old City as a negligible tourist site among huge blocs of construction.

Even without mentioning the city’s international status and symbolic significance, the root of the problem lies in treating Jerusalem – Israel’s most important tourist site – as just another place meant to provide standard, immediate solutions to the housing and employment crises. High-rises are perceived as the only option, even though it’s clear they won’t resolve the problem of housing for the weaker populations.

The cities of the Far East, representing global capitalism, which at the end of the 20th century excited architects and theorists, are still a revered model in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, nothing has been learned from densely populated historic cities, like Paris and Barcelona, which even in the early 21st century have managed to preserve their unique character and their residents’ quality of life.

The low level of the local and district planning bodies is also evident when one examines the approval of individual projects that wound the landscape, particularly around the Old City. A striking example is the plan for a visitors’ center initiated by the right-wing Elad organization only 20 meters from the Old City walls, near the village of Silwan. This plan got through the city engineer, the local planning committee and the district planning committee without anyone being deterred by the symbolic political significance of the project, or by how its huge mass – some 15,000 square meters (over 161,000 square feet) built on 3.7 dunams (less than one acre) – would dominate the Arab rural landscape and compete with the walls.

The systemic professional failure, resulting from limited spatial vision, a lack of basic aesthetic sense and the inability to cope with planning in a historic city, can also be seen in small projects, even if they are less outrageous. Take, for example, the new Micha Center building that was recently erected on the slopes of the Abu Tor neighborhood, facing Mount Zion. In this attractive modernist building, vital work is being done with both Arab and Jewish children who are hard of hearing. It was built to be environmentally friendly and from its glass façade one sees a lovely view of the Old City.

But from the top of the hill, in a spot where there had been breathtaking vantage points, it looks like a rigid rectangular block that doesn’t fit its surroundings. It is a serious visual mishap that totally disrupts the ancient landscape, one of the last that remain in the city.

These examples, and many others, illustrate why the choice of a city engineer is a fateful one for Jerusalem. The combination of political and economic pressures, along with the flaccidity of the planning system, has led to the adoption of simplified plans for resolving economic distress that circumvent the limits the British Mandate planners imposed on building height, while ignoring the rules of preservation in the area surrounding the Old City.

If a first-class professional who will know how to fight for his principles isn’t chosen, the city’s unique character will be destroyed, and sooner or later the Jerusalem municipality and Tourism Ministry will need Photoshop artists to “sell” Jerusalem to visitors and tourists.