Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Woman's touch?

Elana Sztokman's recent Sisterhood blog post, "Breaking the Drywall Ceiling," inspired me to reflect on the degree to which the planning and architectural issues that preoccupy me have a gender component.

Dr. Sztokman's post celebrates the election of a woman, Ofira Golomev (גולומב) as chair of the Rishon LeZion branch of the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel. Given the gender disparities in the construction sector to which Dr. Sztokman calls attention, one would have to agree that this is, indeed, a positive development, from a women's-status point of view.

What I'm wondering is whether Ms. Golomev's election has any meaning from an urban-planning and architectural point of view.

Are women, once in positions of influence, better equipped than men to push for well-designed neighborhoods and residential projects?

On the face of it, the answer would appear to be, yes. Women, particularly mothers, spend more time in the neighborhood and in the home and, it stands to reason, are more likely to be deeply affected by poor planning and construction. They also tend to be more aware of their children's needs and whether these needs are or aren't being served. If the nearest library is not within walking distance, if the street environment is unsafe due a lack of visibility from building windows and entrances, if the local playgrounds are shadeless and unusable from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, the moms will know -- after the fact.

The question is, do they notice these details beforehand?

It is tempting to connect the kind of wall-and-garage-dominated streetscape exemplified by the photo at left with a male design perspective. If we are to be guided by stereotypes, then we will affirm that men like their cars and want them to be well-housed. Men aren't around all day and might not realize that the lack of a semi-public space between the building and the street leaves residents, and particularly children, with no place to be except in the house, the school, or the formal after-school activity.

But is the converse true? Do Israeli women, when they are in the process of buying a home, place a premium on street-friendly features? Do they care if the building has no entrance except through a garage? Do they notice if local playgrounds have been built with no trees anywhere in the vicinity of the play equipment?

Based on my own observation -- and, I must say, on my own past experience as a homebuyer completely ignorant of planning issues -- the answer is no.

Without trying to blame either men or women, I think it's fair to say that the Israeli home-buying public has almost no awareness of what makes a place pleasant to live in -- no awareness of neighborhood design. As Gerard Heumann pointed out last year after the Holyland scandal broke, "[t]hose who paid good money for apartments in Holyland, blind to its destructive impacts, could not imagine the present scenario."

Regarding the election of a woman to chair the Association of Contractors and Builders' Rishon branch: Sztokman points out that Golomev "has been influential in advancing many building projects." I would love to know what these projects are, what they look like, to what degree they embody urbanist values. Do they reflect a "woman's touch," or was Golomev's gender irrelevant to their design?

Sztokman quotes Golomev on the Association's "[...]social and communal agenda. For years the organization has produced the annual ceremony for granting scholarships to students with lesser abilities from Reshon Lezion. This is a continuing, respected tradition that the organization is very proud of.” This all sounds very nice, but what does it have to do with planning and architecture? Do these scholarships reflect a desire on the Association's part to create safe, healthy, walkable, livable communities, or are they a fig leaf for construction that is unfriendly to the community?

I would be very grateful for some feedback from readers in the Rishon LeZion area regarding the actual nature of Ms. Golomev's activity.

Photo credit:

Young Construction Worker :

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gerard Heumann articles on architecture and urban planning

Gerard Heumann is the exception to my rule that the local English-language media have little that is intelligent to say about urban planning in Jerusalem. I do not know Mr. Heumann personally, nor am I familiar with his actual work as an architect/town planner. But the articles that he occasionally publishes in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz are as remarkable for their precise delineation of the issues as for their eloquence.

Of course, these articles (so far as I know) are not the work of a professional journalist on his regular architecture beat. They are op-ed pieces by a non-journalist.

Regular, in-depth architecture criticism would be a welcome addition to the Israeli newspapers that I am most familiar with (the Jerusalem Post and Makor Rishon). These papers have columns devoted to interior design ("Homes" in the Jerusalem Post's Friday magazine section; interviews with women designers in Makor Rishon's "Nashim" supplement). However, the exterior sphere is almost uniformly neglected, and that is unfortunate.

Until these newspapers begin to take architecture and urban planning seriously, I'll content myself with following Gerard Heumann's occasional pieces.

Enjoy these links:

Recent Heumann articles in Haaretz

Global Architecture in Israel (Jerusalem Post, 2 April 2013)
While hiring star-architects is not necessarily harmful, serious problems arise when foreign architects are ignorant of, or oblivious to, the history, the physical environmental context, the contingencies of climate and the special qualities of local light, imposing their personal style – advertisements to themselves – on surroundings of which they have little understanding.

Where Beit Shemesh Went Wrong (Haaretz, 6 April 2012)
Today, the minister of housing - Ariel Attias, whose ministry initiates large new neighborhood plans; the interior minister - Eli Yishai, whose ministry controls all national and district planning and building committees; and the Haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh - Moshe Abutbul, all belong to the Shas party. One needs little political acumen to understand that Shas has Beit Shemesh locked up. They already have their eyes set on the enormous swath of invaluable state-owned land north of the Ha'ela Valley, to the city's south, for the development of tens of thousands of new residential units. If they succeed in this mission, it will be a clear sign for others, including the founding families of the original Beit Shemesh, to simply pick up and move elsewhere. Such a scenario should be prevented at all costs.

A Home-Grown Delicate Balance (Haaretz, 24 February 2012)
The low-rise, high-density housing alternative can offer real hope for restoring the delicate balance between tradition and modernity so very desperately needed in Israel today. Strangely, in spite of its being superbly appropriate to our climate and social context, almost no courtyard housing on an urban scale has been built in Israel for many years. Developers need to be convinced that this building typology can be built economically and will be well-accepted by the public, and easy to market. For courtyard housing to flourish here, the political, social and economic climate, must of course, be supportive.

Waiting in Vain (Haaretz, 3 February 2012)
Clearly, the most central and primary goal of public transportation, that of serving the public, is not being met. People are right in demanding to reach their destinations in the most direct way possible. While obviously the option of changing the tramway's route won't be considered, revising bus lines, while ensuring the continuity of the system and relocating bus stations so as to ease the necessary additional transfers - can and must happen. Bus frequencies must be increased, and bus and tram schedules coordinated. The traveling public of Jerusalem is on the platform - waiting anxiously for these revisions.

Toward Kinder, Gentler Housing (Haaretz)(updated September 2011)
By providing a full range of housing types and workplaces within close proximity to each other, age and class distinctions are reduced and the bonds of authentic communities formed. A variety of street types would serve pedestrians, not just vehicles. A community spirit is born in well-defined squares and parks. Well-placed civic buildings can serve as symbols of community identity.

Buses Trump Trams Any Day (Haaretz)(updated July 2011)The absurdity is apparent. Jerusalem's entire transport system has forcibly been reconstructed to support a single line for a luxurious and fashionable but entirely inappropriate transport technology, while commuters' real needs and concerns have been totally ignored. After years of planning and a full decade of construction, it's mainly tourists and those who don't own cars - captives of the new system - who will be served by the light-rail line.

Saving Safra Square (Haaretz)(updated May 2011)Public places need meaning beyond their mere existence. Plazas are successful when life goes on around them as well as within, when they invite participation and are well-proportioned, when they offer a variety of uses and activities. A place where people meet informally, talk, stroll, make music together.
Planning for the Haredi Community (Jerusalem Post) (updated March 2011)The low-rise, high-density alternative, sometimes referred to as courtyard housing, oriented toward families with children – never properly tested here – appears to be the most appropriate.
Crime Deterrence through Urban Design (Jerusalem Post)
"Deterring crime without having to wall off projects can be achieved by a variety of means. Clearly articulating the transition points between public, semipublic and private areas is essential. In place of anonymity, project a strong identity. Architects can position dwelling units, openings and entries, and set paths of movement and areas of activity – signs of life – so as to provide inhabitants with continuous natural surveillance of bordering streets and project grounds. The street comes under surveillance from the building entries and lobbies. "
Lessons from Holyland (Haaretz)
“The Holyland reminds us that our natural and built environment is deteriorating rapidly and that the public must develop a new and deeper understanding of urban planning. What, for example, constitutes good or bad design? How is it possible for construction to satisfy the needs of the collective as well as the individual? How can community values be translated into architecture, urban design and planning? How does design affect interpersonal and social relations? To be able to answer these questions, along with many others, education, of course, is the key.”
Israeli Architecture: an Ethical Crisis (Jerusalem Post)
“A substantial part of the environment is shaped by people who have little or no visual training and who are simply unaware of the aesthetic and social consequences of their decisions – including mayors, lawyers, real-estate men and developers, businessmen and engineers. The public at large has little understanding of design, not to mention many people who do not differentiate between an architect and a contractor.”
The Growing Gap between Architecture and Urban Planning (Jerusalem Post)
“Every architectural concept has an equivalent urbanistic one. Spaces exterior with respect to buildings are interior with respect to the city. The real life of any city takes place on the ground plane, at the level of the street, the plaza and the park.”
Who Designs Jerusalem? (Jerusalem Post)
“At Malha, a shopping center, sports stadium, technology park and residential neighborhood were designed as if each existed on separate planets. Not a single building in the technology park bounds adjacent roads, not even opposite the shopping center, where a golden opportunity existed for the design of valuable commercial space at ground level.”
Billion Dollar Baby (Jerusalem Post)
“The long-awaited inauguration of the Jerusalem Light Rail line, the first of its type in the country, is scheduled, barring further delays, for April. Already five years behind schedule due to bureaucratic bungling, a total lack of experience with this mode of transportation and horrendous project management, construction has wreaked havoc in the life of the city over most of the last decade.”

The Paradox: Haaretz article on Rehavia

In my last post, I criticized the Jerusalem Post for its failure to cover Jerusalem's peripheral neighborhoods in depth -- despite admitting that I turn to the JP regularly for my local Israeli/Jerusalem English-language news.

There are, of course, other options. There is the Hebrew press -- for me, that generally means Makor Rishon. Regarding other English options, the natural choice for someone seeking a New York Times imitation would be Haaretz. However, I try to avoid reading Haaretz, as I find the paper problematic from a Zionist point of view. I will turn to it only if referred there for an article particularly relevant to my areas of interest.

Recently I did follow such a link. The Ginot Ha'Ir (greater Rehavia community council) website referred its readers to a Haaretz article dealing with Rehavia planning and architectural issues.

Rehavia is an upscale central-Jerusalem neighborhood with a large activist population -- people knowledgable about environmental and urbanist issues who are willing to make a fuss when things are not to their liking. Not only does the Rehavia community council have a nuanced understanding of urban design, but it also possesses the ability to mobilize neighborhood residents and to generate publicity for its efforts vis-a-vis the planning authorities.

Although it is frustrating to see yet another newspaper article devoted to a part of town whose architectural and planning features are already receiving a great deal of media attention, I have to admit that the Haaretz article itself is absolutely terrific, and could serve as a model for the kind of writing that is desperately needed for other Jerusalem neighborhoods.

The article, for which an English translation does not appear to exist, was written by Nir Hasson and published about a month and a half ago, on 24 December 2010. It is entitled, רחביה נאבקת למען הנוף האהוב - עצים במקום אבן -- "Rehavia Fighting for Its Beloved Landscape -- Trees Instead of Stone."

The article has several features that I have rarely seen in an Israeli newspaper article dealing with the physical character of a specific neighborhood.

-- The article juxtaposes two photos in a way that is highly edifying for the reader. One photo shows the high stone wall surrounding a new residential project; an adult human is walking along the sidewalk outside the wall and is dwarfed by it. The other photo shows the low wall surrounding a classic old-style Rehavia building, with the residents' common green area fully visible to passers-by. This kind of "urbanist" photo-journalism gives the reader a basis for comparison and a sense of perspective. One might contrast this with the simulated images used by local real estate developers to market their projects -- an issue that I have taken up in a previous post.

-- The article quotes, at length, people who are both knowledgeable and passionate about urban planning. For example, Hasson quotes Ginot Ha'Ir neighborhood planner Zeev Arad about the all-important "tavech" (תווך) -- the semi-public spaces between buildings that make the Rehavia landscape what it is. It is clear that Arad has strong feelings about the ideal of "semi-public space," and that these feelings are rooted in his professional ethic as an architect.

-- The article deals in specifics. Where a Jerusalem Post article about Rehavia, its master plan, and the struggle to preserve the neighborhood's traditional character would have talked vaguely about greenery and old houses, the Haaretz article presents an in-depth analysis of what really makes Rehavia "green." It points out that a per-capita breakdown of Rehavia's actual park space (less than one sq.m. per resident, a tenth of the national standard) actually makes it one of Jerusalem's least green neighborhoods; it then goes on to explain -- or rather to let the expert, Arad, explain -- that the neighborhood's green image is actually due to the "intermediate" -- semi-public -- gardens that surround its old-style buildings.

-- The article relates architectural style and urban design features to community values. Arad is quoted at length about the modest lifestyle led by Rehavia's original residents -- pre- and post-state Zionist leaders and Hebrew University professors. This was a population that attached importance to public spaces. The apartments were small, but the shared spaces were developed with love and care -- belying the area's "elitist" reputation. These shared spaces, which were demarcated from each other and from the street by trees and low walls that permitted both visibility and passability, made up for the lack of planned park space, and gave the neighborhood's children an "infinite" number of semi-public green areas in which to play.

I loved this article, and was deeply frustrated by it.

1) Why do I have to go to a left-leaning Israeli newspaper, one of whose recent editors-in-chief publicly exhorted the US to "rape" Israel , in order to read about how Zionist and communal values may be embodied in the urban sphere? Where is Makor Rishon (a newspaper that has never, to my knowledge, addressed issues of this kind)? Where is the Jerusalem Post (a paper with strong Zionist credentials and both a nominal and physical connection to Jerusalem)?

2) Why is this kind of intelligent, in-depth reporting being applied only to Jerusalem's elite and established neighborhoods? Why do the Israeli media, Hebrew and English, systematically ignore the way in which the city's newer neighborhoods are being built? It is the newer, more affordable parts of town that constitute Jerusalem's future. These are the places that are attracting -- or failing to attract -- young families, working people, olim.

This article has several other features that I hope, G-d willing, to take up in future posts.

Photo credit: Adiel lo (Wikipedia)