Monday, May 16, 2011

Walls and values

My basic assumption is that architecture and neighborhood design reflect values.

What values are embodied in the buildings pictured at left -- a residential project in one of Jerusalem's newer, peripheral neighborhoods?

More precisely, what prominent feature of the project reflects values that are skewed -- from an urbanist point of view, at least?

Imagine that the wall surrounding the project weren't there. I'm not a real estate marketer, so I don't have simulation software handy. But let's try to envision what the project -- or rather, the semi-public area fronting the project -- would look like in the absence of that wall.

What you would end up with is something not too dissimilar to this older building in Jerusalem's prestigious Katamon area:

Both buildings, the one in the newer neighborhood and the older Katamon one, have parking at ground level. But in Katamon a passerby can see the cars. This may not be an attractive sight in and of itself; however, that is not the whole picture. The area in front of the Katamon building is open; one has an unobstructed view of the building entrance, as well as of human traffic into and out of the building. (Of course I don't mean this in a voyeuristic sense, but rather in the sense of a passerby's peripheral awareness -- at once reassuring and stimulating -- of human activity in and around the building.) An ambience of sociability prevails; the building communicates, as it were, with the street. This sense of human activity goes a long way toward mitigating the aesthetic "blemish" of the cars parked under and around the building.

Moreover, the communication is two-way: anyone exiting the building (whether to get into their car or to continue on foot) will have an immediate view of the street scene before them. They can greet neighbors, assess the weather and the overall mood of the street; they will be influenced, in the most natural way, by the street atmosphere as they encounter it on their emergence from the building. Perhaps a group of laughing schoolchildren will raise a smile on their lips; maybe they'll see someone trip over a section of broken pavement and make a mental note to call the municipality about it. Whatever they see or hear, they will have interacted in some way with the street.

By contrast, the wall fronting the project in the newer neighborhood simply hides all signs of life, both from passersby and from the building residents. What could be more depressing than to walk out of one's building and be confronted by a sterile stone wall? And what could be more alienating to a passerby on the sidewalk, than a wall such as the one pictured at right?

The buildings in this project are by no means unattractive. When we leave the external wall out of the equation, they even compare favorably with the one in Katamon pictured above. What a pity that the project designers felt the need to deface their own handiwork with this nonsensical wall -- a wall that serves no structural purpose, whose sole raison d'etre is to ensure that the building residents see as little as possible of their neighbors, and vice versa.

Superfluous walls are a recurring motif in this newer Jerusalem neighborhood. The neighborhood's name has the Hebrew word for "wall" in it, and one feels as though the metaphor has been taken to an insane extreme. In my last post I described the crypt-like atmosphere of a playground surrounded by a wall (where a simple metal railing ought to have sufficed). There are many other examples. Here, for instance, one finds a wall placed directly in front of a building entrance, for no apparent purpose other than that of concealing the entrance from passersby:

This is the view from behind the wall (the mailboxes could, obviously, have been placed elsewhere, e.g., next to the building door):

Apparently, the project architect felt that only the building residents should be entitled to see the tiny patch of shrubbery near the entrance. Should a passerby on the sidewalk happen to catch a glimpse of it, that would be tantamount to an invasion of the residents' privacy.

The architect also seems to have felt that the building residents would prefer to see a wall as they exit the building, rather than the sidewalk, as in most normal Jerusalem architecture of the previous century.

This architectural style constitutes a clear departure from the past -- aesthetically and morally.

Why this fear of seeing one's neighbors? Of being seen? Why the obsession with privacy, at the expense of any normal, natural concern for the public sphere? From where did we get the idea that it is okay to dishonor the street?

I get it that Israelis want more luxurious living conditions than those offered by the typical apartment building of 30 or 40 years ago. The exposure to Western standards -- to the glimpses of suburban home decor that abound on American television -- has likely changed everyone's outlook, and driven demand for larger apartments and for a "mifrat techni ashir" -- the "high-caliber" specifications that are always being touted by new residential projects and which are supposed to make buyers feel that they are getting something exceptional.

I can understand that Israelis want a reprieve from the tiny apartments and modest conditions of past decades. But I fail to understand why one's privacy and quality of life are "hurt" when a passerby gets to see the outside of one's building. Why do we have to feel that our standard of living in the private sphere can be ensured only by showing contempt for the public sphere, or by doing away with it entirely?

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