Tuesday, August 2

Hint: Make more Tel Avivs

The fascinating protest cities that have sprung up in the centers of Israeli cities have brought me back to the original intent of this blog: How do we build value in cities? And some new questions: Can we build in too much value? Can the network effect of a dominant city harm its neighbors?

My working hypothesis has been that the sum total of real estate value in a city correlates with the investment in all aspects of that city's development. Build a new opera house? You should be able to see that investment reflected in the prices of houses and apartments. The same goes for a new system of bike paths, a new sewer main, or a commissioned report on future development.

When real estate prices take off, the investors are betting on the rightness and viability of the city, and its future prospects.

This dynamic tends to place cities in either an upward or downward spiral of development and prices. When things are going well, development taxes fill the city coffers and new public facilities are built, and old ones improved. Mayors beam with pride, cut ribbons, and demean the opposition. Young people flock to live there, and the prices rise more. Eventually young people, the lifeblood of the city can't afford to live there. We have seen this cycle in successful cities all over the world.

The downward spiral is less photogenic, but even more pervasive in its momentum. Landlords have trouble filling their buildings at a viable rent, projects are abandoned, leaving highly visible hulks, new development shies away, and whole areas of cities are shunned. Once these areas fall off our mental maps, they can remain under-used for generations.

Yesterday, a new project took me from the bustling center islands of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to the ghostly lower city of Haifa. I parked in the old business district of Haifa and continued on foot. The pedestrian traffic in the area was sparse, and I could easily imagine I was walking around alone at the bases of the huge new buildings for banks and national institutions.

Surrounding this recent attempt at revitalization, there are both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in various states of decline. Prices are low, certainly relatively to similar areas of Tel Aviv, but even at those prices, new residents have to wonder whether their investment can turn around years of momentum.

When the protesters do leave their tents, and in the years they are waiting for the clumsy efforts of city and national government to actually affect prices, it couldn't hurt for them to walk around some of the declining urban neighborhoods in the country and imagine life behind the empty windows.

Tuesday, January 25

The General's House Part 3: From Tzahala to Lashabiyyeh

I'll try to wrap up my thoughts about General Galant's house with today's post. Did I make it clear that its really not fair to judge a person based on the shape of his house? Maybe he had a young, fresh-out- of- school architect eager to carry out a misbegotten theory. Or perhaps an overbearing father-in-law, providing the funds and calling the shots. We don't know.

We do know that our citizen-soldiers in the Israeli Army inhabit an alternative aesthetic universe while they are on duty. Army bases are visually barren spaces, with an amalgam of functional structures more suited to housing equipment than people.

Maintenance of these spaces is either a form of punishment or a duty to be carried out before one is allowed to leave. The temporary nature of a
soldier's inhabitance of the space reflects back to the physical environment, making it hard, ugly, and anonymous. Constant reminders of rank are infused into the space, from the formal shape of review formations, to the classic T shaped table in the officer's headquarters where the ranking commander gets 8 times the desk space of his underlings along the upright of the "T".

No one who has served in these spaces can forget the feeling of distance and separation from their home environment, even when they are physically close and interwoven with the spaces of civilian Israel.

Israel also has a long history of providing homes and even special neighborhoods for its valued officers. These neighborhoods, once they move to the open market, become some of the most sought after and expensive residential areas of the country. Examples include Schunat Haktzinim in the Old North of Tel Aviv, and Tzahala in the New North End.

High ranking officers and former officers were provided with modest houses on half-dunam lots at highly subsidized prices. Architecturally, these houses were in the romantic modern style associated with kibbutz and rural housing.

This simple dwelling, near the city but connected to the land was seen to be the ideal for Israel's officer class, in line with the modesty of the 1950's and 1960's in the new country. While Chiefs of Staff such as Moshe Dayan and Tzvi Tzur lived in these neighborhoods, a new model was being attempted in the South of the country. Perhaps the most famous General's House in Israel is that of Ariel Sharon. His ranch in the Negev is one of the very few private land-holdings in an area that is given over to development towns, kibbutzim, nature preserves, and army bases.

His acquisition of the land is mysterious, but is accepted as the due of a well loved and heroic soldier. The architecture of the house, while idiosyncratic, remains rural and informal with a jump in scale and floor area commensurate with Sharon's outsized presence and proportions. High lookout rooms projecting above the main mass of the house recall both farm silos and army guard towers, while reminding us of Sharon's vaunted abilities to see the strategic and tactical potential of terrain with a single glance. The actual guarding is done, appropriately, from an ugly prefab caravan glommed on to the outside perimeter wall.

Returning north to Galant's house, we can write the next chapter of "Housing for Generals". His house includes elements of formality and rank taken from the military reviewing stand. The proportions and bastioned solidity elevate this house above its neighbors, and the needlessly winding approach road adds to the suspense of approaching the house.

But what about those pointed arch windows? Why the reversion to a local Palestinian style? One answer may be found in another Israeli Army environment, the artificial Palestinian villages built to serve as training grounds for urban warfare. These installations are known collectively as "Lashabiyyeh" a name comprised of the Hebrew initials for urban warfare, and the "iyyeh" suffix common to many Palestinian small towns. The simulacra include winding alleys, market streets, houses, squares, and often the house of the mukhtar or village elder, complete with the characteristic formal second floor reception room. Successful infantry maneuvers within the Lashabiyyeh conclude with the capture of this elevated and commanding house.

Monday, January 24

The General's House Part 2: Fortification

It has always been difficult to pick out the advances in architectural style from the advances in structures built for military defense. When people say that General Galant's house looks like a castle or a fortress, they are probably reacting to the way the corner masses of the house project outwards from the connecting wings. These structures, known as bastions, were an important advance in the defensibility of walled cities about 2000 years ago. With a bastion, a defender along the top of the wall could step out from the perimeter and shoot an arrow at the back of an attacker trying to breach the wall. The shape of bastions has changed over the years, from the simple square bastions of the ancient Middle East through to the rounded ones of Scotland and the Loire Valley, and, with the development of accurate gunfire, on to the star-shaped fortresses of Renaissance Italy. The walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, as rebuilt with square bastions by Sulieman between 1537 and 1540, were obsolete at the time of their construction, due to the vulnerability of square bastions to battering rams.

The vast resources used in times of war to construct adequate fortifications were free in times of peace to produce the houses of the rich and powerful. Not coincidentally, these powerful individuals were often the same leaders who had commissioned the fortifications, and their architects freely and poetically used the architectural language of war to create their glorious homes.

To be continued...

Sunday, January 23

The General's House

The dominant image in Israel's weekend newspapers is an unusual house that belongs to Israel's next Chief of Staff, Yoav Galant. Finally, instead of judging a man's fitness for high military office on the basis of his heroism, his political maneuvering, or his honesty, we can judge based on his taste in architecture.

Yes, its an unusual house for Israel, and one that arouses some emotion in those who see it. It is larger than most people's houses and the lot is a comfortable exurban 5 dunams (1-1/4 acre), 10 times the size of the standard Israeli residential lot. General Galant reminds us that he acquired the land when he was a lowly Lieutenant Colonel, dismissing any suspicions of undue influence.

But that's not what people are upset about. The case against him revolves around adjoining lots that he seems to have fenced off and, um, occupied. One of these is a large extension to his garden, and another is described as an "escape route". A neighbor's dispute is being played out at national political levels.

All of this seemed pretty dry to the average reader until the moment that aerial photos of the
house were published. Suddenly, the picture locked into place. This was a grandiose man, concerned with appearances, status, dominance. One could imagine General Galant conducting a "Sound of Music" style roll call for his children in the formal courtyard. The pointed arch openings recall Palestinian mukhtar houses, but the square, rigid formalism of the house is reminiscent of the British military fortresses that staked out the land during the Mandate.

As elements of style, both arched windows and formal symmetry are out of the mainstream in Israeli architecture. If they appear at all, they are associated with public buildings of a certain age, or nouveau riche or kitsch. When these styles adorn the house of a young striving officer, they raise questions of appropriateness in the minds of the public.

To be continued...