Playing With Different Spaces

An abandoned municipal area, alongside a neglected backyard in Bat Yam, has been turned into a blossoming garden over the past three weeks, serving dozens of the city's residents: pensioners, new immigrants, solitary people and families.

"We decided to do some recycling in an unused area of the city, to expand the concept of the shared living space and to enable residents to enjoy resources that actually belong to them," explains the garden's architect, Kerem Halbrecht, 29. The project, which was also planned by Halbrecht's father, industrial designer Zvi Halbrecht, was included in the first International Biennale for Landscape Urbanism, which will open next Sunday in Bat Yam.

As part of the installation, "A Piece of Paradise," the neglected area on Katznelson Street was cleaned up, and neighbors were asked to choose their favorite plants. Afterward a planting day was held, during which the plants were planted in 30 flowerbeds, and the residents received basic guidance as to how to grow them. In addition, there is a grove with fruit trees and a shaded area that enables visitors to rest and enjoy the flora. The residents for their part promised to come regularly and tend their plots.

Last Friday, one could see lively movement of the residents on the site. School children came in order to check whether their tree in the grove had received enough water; alongside them a female pensioner with a watering can wandered around, tending her plot.

"This is an unusual activity for a family," says Yoash Peretz, 41, a father of two, who lives in an adjacent building and is tending a plot. "We come in the evening with the children, clean and prune leaves. In our building the yard is neglected, and after Passover maybe there will be a gardening project. Until then we are enjoying this garden."

Shmuel Tamama, 42, surveys the plot he is tending with his wife and four children. "We are growing herbs and vegetables," he says, proudly displaying his crops. Tamama, who works for the municipal welfare services counseling new immigrants, came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984.

"I grew up in a village and my family earned a living from agriculture," he says. "Working on the land after years takes me back to my childhood. For me the plot is a kind of game, because I'm used to expanses of agricultural produce, but it's an opportunity to allow my children to understand their Ethiopian roots and to connect them to my cultural experience."

"It's a smart ecological idea," says Boris Cohen, who works as a guard at the site. "I see children dragging parents here, and adults who come here instead of sitting alone in the house in front of the television."

"The purpose was to enable the community to produce for itself some of the food it consumes, using available resources," explains Kerem Halbrecht.

"In fact, exciting things have happened: People with neighboring flowerbeds discovered that they live in the same building and began to talk for the first time; immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and veteran Israelis share land and crops and are flooded with childhood memories, and the connection of the residents to their nearby surroundings and to the land has become stronger."

For the sake of the community

The "A Piece of Paradise" project typifies social architecture, which works for the sake of the community rather than the entrepreneur. Halbrecht, a graduate of the architecture department in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, says that in his work he focuses on the attempt to turn the alienated urban space into a shared space.

About a year ago he planned a project on 70 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, a shared space where cultural events take place, artists and creators work, and which is even partially residential.

The complex on Hayarkon Street includes two floors and a roof. In the central space of the first floor, cultural events take place (book launches, literary evenings, lectures and exhibits); in addition, there are nine small spaces there, which serve as studios for artists. On the top floor there are three residential apartments. Performances and parties are held on the roof.

On Friday at 5 P.M., the door of the complex was open, and on the roof a rock concert was taking place. About 60 people were walking around, some of them unfamiliar to Halbrecht. "It definitely challenges the concept of residences," he laughs. "Each of us has a desire to find a private spot and to create a personal territory, but we are social creatures as well. In my opinion, as an architect, finding the balance between the private and the public is an ongoing game."

Halbrecht explains that an architect's role involves considerable arrogance and a lot of responsibility, since his work remains for generations. "It's a question as to whether the architect should be God - should build a closed and absolute world - or should enable people to create life and to design the space by themselves.

"I try to forget the Divine omniscient viewpoint, look from the point of view of the pedestrian and the individual, and to allow for change and development, so that people will improve their space on their own," he says, emphasizing: "In my opinion, to get up in the morning, to leave your concrete cubicle, to get into the car, to go up in the elevator, to get to work, to spend the entire day in this space, and to return in the evening to the concrete cubicle, is a type of death."

In the context of his Bezalel studies, Halbrecht directed a short 13-minute documentary about the market for split-level apartments in Tel Aviv. The film Mefutzelet ("Split") observes entrepreneurs, architects and renters of apartments. "The space project is a continuation of my preoccupation with splitting apartments," he says. "We took an apartment in a building that was outwardly neglected, split the area into living and work spaces, and created a vibrant and dynamic space that actually lives within the real estate market, but challenges and improves it."

At present the administration in charge of activities for the 100th anniversary of the Tel Aviv municipality is examining another project by Halbrecht, which he designed with artist Shelly Federman and architect Ofir Zanathy. As part of the project, which was displayed at an exhibition dedicated to the Yarkon River at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2006, an industrial swimming pool will be built in a raft on the banks of the Yarkon.

"The idea exists in Berlin and Paris," explains Halbrecht. "The pool will be collapsible and mobile like a wandering circus. The purpose is to use the waters of the Yarkon - to desalinate them, channel them into the pool and then to clean them and return them to the river.

"That will be a real repair for a river that suffers mainly from an image problem since the Maccabiah disaster," he says (during the 1997 games, three people died and dozens were wounded after a bridge over the Yarkon river collapsed and they fell into the polluted waters). "It will be a great honor to enable the residents to swim in the Yarkon once again."