Monday, December 27, 2010

Jerusalem snout houses, part 2: simulation versus reality

This isn’t an ad for an apartment in the project "simulated" above.

The simulation, taken from the website of a construction company active in Jerusalem and elsewhere, typifies the promotional material by which new buildings in the Israeli capital are marketed. People make fateful home-buying decisions based, at least in part, on just this kind of image.

What I want to do is to point out the differences between a residential-project simulation as seen on a computer screen or in the pages of a newspaper or brochure, and the actual experience of living with the buildings themselves. That such differences exist may seem self-evident, and indeed it ought to be. Regrettably, however, the various elements of the Israeli real estate community − planners, architects, contractors, and buyers - behave as though these differences do not exist.

The simulation - from a "distance"

When we look at a simulation, we are essentially looking from a distance that has been pre-determined by the simulation designer. And from this distance, a project such as the one featured above may seem rather nice. The overall symmetry − identical buildings rising above a garage “platform” − confers elegance, while the light-colored Jerusalem-stone facing neutralizes what might otherwise be perceived as a hulking massivity. The simulation designers have thoughtfully placed some humanoid figures on the sidewalk around the project and (if you look closely) on the balconies. One does not notice the tininess of these figures compared with the project colossus, because, after all, one is looking from a "distance." The designers have planted gardens on the lowest residential level and allowed some virtual flowers to spill over the stone wall of the garage, like glaze dripping from the top of a bundt cake. That these flowers are too high up for the diminutive humanoids on the sidewalk to see is not something that the simulation viewer is likely to notice. After all, one is looking from a "distance."

The reality - from up close

This is a “snout-project” par excellence.

The project’s entire ground level consists of a garage that protrudes considerably beyond the residential space. In the contractor's simulation, from the artificial "distance" created by the computer program, one sees this garage as a "platform" for the residential units that rise out of it. At ground-level, from a human perspective, one sees a bare stone wall with windows and driveways revealing ... the grim and dusty interior of a garage.

At ground level, you don't see an "icing" of greenery or flowers at the top of the wall. You don't see potted geraniums on the balconies. You don't have any sense of life -- whether plant, animal or human -- emanating from the project. Not a very pleasant reality, IMHO.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jerusalem snout houses

My first "post-introductory" post will be devoted to the snout house, a phenomenon that has become distressingly prevalent in Jerusalem (and, perhaps, throughout Israel) over recent years.

The snout house has been banned by cities as diverse as Portland, Oregan and Gainesville, Florida -- but in Jerusalem it is still the big thing. The photo above shows a snout house built, I believe, in the mid-1990s on a lovely street in Old Katamon. It stands out like a sore thumb against the human-scaled buildings that surround it.

Still, an established and generally attractive neighborhood like Katamon can absorb a few of these monstrosities. What is shocking is the way the snout house has taken over Jerusalem's newer neighborhoods, Har Homa in particular. A concern for adequate parking has overshadowed all other considerations, with dire consequences for the fabric of urban life.

The term snouthouse features in the sprawl vocabulary compiled by influential architect, scholar and poet Delores Hayden. For present purposes, I think it will be helpful to quote briefly from urban planner Dom Nozzi's discussion of the concept:

Snout House
A house with the garage thrust to the front of the main body of the building. The garage size often overwhelms the size of the house, and usually projects out closer to the street than the house façade. Such a projecting, dominating garage creates an impression that the house has a large "snout" protruding from its "face." […]
A street lined with snout houses sends a powerful message to a person that walks on its sidewalks: "Cars live here." Or, the structure is a "garage with an attached house."
The snout house de-emphasizes architectural interest on the street, and reduces the level of citizen surveillance-neighbors looking out their windows who thereby reduce crime activity by looking out for their collective security.

Now, in the US the snout house is primarily a suburban phenomenon, related to the “McMansion.” The large, dominant, front-facing garages do create an alienating street environment – but in the American suburb there is at least a buffer zone of lawn and greenery:

(photo: John Delano of Hammond, Indiana -- via Wikipedia)

What has been created in Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood over the past decade is something very, very different:

This is a high-density urban neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, planned during the late 1990s-early 2000s. Note the total lack of anything like a “front-stoop” where children might play or adults might congregate or stop to talk, tie a shoelace, drink a cup of coffee. There is no buffer at all between the building and the street – the almighty GARAGE juts out from the building and takes up all available space, leaving, in many places, just the merest strip of sidewalk.

When buildings, streets, and neighborhoods are constructed in this manner, there are many consequences for residents in terms of street aesthetics, street life, security/safety, and resident behavior/attitudes. I hope, G-d willing, to take up these issues in later posts.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Blog Introduction

What I hope to accomplish via this blog:

On a practical level, I hope to promote an awareness of urban planning and design issues as they relate to Jerusalem. I am not seeking to address the professional planning community, to which I do not by any means belong. My target audience is, rather, that subset of the general public that has the dignity of Jerusalem, and the well-being of its residents, at heart. In particular I hope, G-d willing, to advance a New Urbanism agenda − to the extent that that movement’s tenets may be applicable to Jerusalem.

It is a sad fact that in Israel security issues and the “conflict” trump quality of life issues. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be aware of the latter, or strive for optimal conditions under difficult circumstances. Also, it seems to me that a preoccupation with security in no way justifies abandoning the urban sphere to the ignorant or the greedy.

On a philosophical/ethical level, I hope to persuade my readers that the way in which Jerusalem is built and developed reflects on those who do the building and developing (for purposes of this blog, the Israeli Jewish community), and has consequences for our future here. I would like to see a climate of reverence emerge, such that anyone involved in the planning, construction, landscaping, or design of even the most seemingly trivial feature of Jerusalem existence, will approach his/her task with חרדת קודש − deep respect and awe. Yes, even a mid-range apartment complex in one of the city’s peripheral neighborhoods should be designed with something more in mind than ease of parking.

A few technical remarks:

-- I am willing to consider guest postings that are relevant to the blog. I live in southern Jerusalem and do not necessarily see what’s going on in other parts of the city. If someone wants to report on an aesthetic/safety/ethical issue related to planning or construction in Jerusalem, I am willing to consider publishing it as a guest post. Ditto regarding reports on other places in Israel. I don’t want this blog to be just my own rant -- I would like it be a public service.

-- Ideally, perhaps, this blog would be in Hebrew. Theoretically I could post in Hebrew, but time constraints (demanding young children, etc.) dictate that, for now, I write in my native tongue. If this blog takes off, G-d willing, perhaps I will move it in a more multilingual direction – both in terms of my own posts, and those contributed by others.