The Price to Pay for Israel's Year of Real Estate

In years to come, Israel will have to contend with the consequences its lack of planning has brought.

This year was the year of real estate, but not of planning, long-term thinking or vision. The market is lively, and an invisible hand seems to be stirring its activity. Speculation is rife. Where to buy this morning; where would be a waste of money? What does Tel Aviv have in store; will Hadera be the next Petah Tikva, or the opposite? Is the periphery responsible for prices, or are successive Israeli governments responsible for the neglect of the periphery once its residential areas were established in the 1950s for political, demographic, nationalist and security reasons?

As interested parties make their claims, and land speculation lusts swell, promises and declarations are made about more land being zoned for construction projects and ingenious ways of artificially stimulating interest in the periphery. The potential for expansion in the crowded center seems exhausted, never mind that everyone wants to live there. In years to come, Israeli will pay the price of the lack of planning.

architecture - Tomer Appelbaum - December 30 2010
Tomer Appelbaum

The crowded roads, train tracks, toll roads and parking lots will not be able to serve the center's sprawl, as the Israel 2020 master plan warned at the end of the last millennium. This past year, Tel Aviv's light rail project stalled, after infrastructure work made life intolerable in Jaffa. Nor is Jerusalem's light rail running, even though its tracks have destroyed stretches of the city. An experienced, wise architect once told me that a project which gets bogged down in endless delays is probably one that should not have been started in the first place.

A noble distance from the real estate bubble and the public transport fiascos, there is the renovated Israel Museum - the year's main architectural feat. The museum that Al Mansfeld and Dora Gad designed in 1965 is an exemplary symbol of modern architecture in Israel. Its campus upgrade was the work of James Carpenter Design Associates of New York and of Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv; a complex, demanding project involved redesigning the entrance and the exhibition halls.

In our architectural ethos, the Israel Museum is not "just another building" and so expectations were high. Despite concerns and anxieties, the result met all expectations. The museum wiped away some dust, gave itself a facelift and returned to Israel's cultural, artistic and tourist map. However, quite a few worries were vindicated.

Mansfeld-Gad's original architectural work lost some of luster, though the taxing experience of entering the facility was reduced, and a relatively comfortable corridor and moving walkway came into being.

The architectural year also belonged largely to the city of Holon, which last January dedicated Israel's first design museum, planned by the Israeli-British designer Ron Arad. Its gimmick is to make the museum look like a child's toy in a locale trying to brand itself as Israel's child capital, joining an array of attractions and boosting Holon's bid to become the country's design capital. The museum created buzz and proved a feather in the city's cap, though it's unlikely a new museum can help Holon realize its ambition of being regarded as a first-rank city.

The Holon Design Museum's location, in an urban wasteland, between speedy highways and residential neighborhoods and outside of the visual field of the town's center, is curious. Holon's heart is the city center; and perhaps no one at city hall has bothered to listen to what may be its final beats. Following the trail of the museum, Holon intends to move its municipal offices and risks losing its last urban vestiges.

The Holon Design Museum, designed by Ron Arad, opened in 2010.
Yuval Tebol

Booby prize

The architectural booby prize for the past year goes, with a heavy heart, to Tel Aviv's "culture compound." The Habima theater building (never an architectural point of pride ) became the black hole of Israeli architecture. The Gan Yaakov garden, a unique feature of the urban landscape that perfectly calibrated city architecture and nature, intimacy and public openness, lost its charm. Instead of posing an architectural "solution," Gan Yaakov now poses a problem of a sort that never existed before. It is heartbreaking.

The Tel Aviv Culture Square is the compound's lunar crater; filled with unidentifiable objects, it mocks the adjoining cultural hall, the area's last bastion of sanity (and as things now stand with the renovation schedule, this hall will be eulogized in next year's architectural wrap-up ). How all this happened provides food for thought for years to come.

The government announced in 2010 that it will invest hundreds of millions of shekels in the renovation and preservation of national heritage sites, including Independence Hall, where statehood was declared; Jerusalem's historic train station; Masada; and elsewhere. These sites symbolize the Jewish-Israeli national narrative, the story of Zionism's striving to create a state, settlement endeavors and Israel's wars; their preservation is designed to make them available to future generations. This list of heritage sites does not contain a trace of anything representing Arab-Palestinian culture, the heritage valued by a fifth of the citizenry. The demonstrations in Bat Yam, the rabbis' letter, the wave of hatred and racism - this is the year's inheritance.

2010 was a fine year for architectural exhibitions, a stimulating alternative to museums and galleries. True, nothing came close to the dimensions and quality of the "Israeli Project" the Tel Aviv Museum displayed in 2000, but two biennales and two museum exhibitions in one year is quite a harvest. Bat Yam's second international biennale for urban architecture this past fall lived up to the prestige and impact of the 2008 biennale and raised the question of whether Bat Yam is following in Tel Aviv's footsteps.

The exhibition "Kibbutz Architecture without Precedent" at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale was a distinguished tribute for the 100th anniversary of the the first kibbutz. To a certain extent, it was also a post-mortem, and an initial step toward gaining world heritage recognition for the kibbutz.

garden - Haaretz - December 30 2010

The Dov Carmi exhibition at Tel Aviv's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion spotlighted the history of modern architecture in Israel. The year's most important exhibition was a small-scale production, "This is the Center," last September at the Zezeze Gallery, in the Tel Aviv Port. It was ground-breaking, with even-featured structures designed for those with physical disabilities and displaying strategies for integrating them into society. It also featured structures the public does not see or does not want to see - some are disturbing to many. The goal was to put the buildings, and their residents, at center stage.

Kohlhaas, Libeskind, and Calatrava were among those alluded to in an anonymous PowerPoint presentation that made the rounds in emails at the end of 2010. The file contains images of their distinguished works, along with unknown buildings whose common denominator is captured by the file's subtitle, "strange houses." This is just one of several such productions that mysteriously surfaced this year and displayed acute insight into aspects of architecture. Such top people as Kohlhaas and the Libeskind in the architectural milieu are extremely self-involved. Each meter of their work is more expensive than items at the center of our real estate bubble. They win the glory awards from their profession and from society, so their much admired work stirs a cottage industry of interpretation and critiques, always phrased in the latest jargon. This clever and learned presentation strips the pretense from this sort of architectural snobbery, pricking the balloon of ego by showing the architects' works as bizarre curiosities, just as 19th-century fairs showcased the world's smallest man and two-headed cows.