Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jerusalem's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir: copying the wrong Parisian model

A couple of decades ago, give or take half a decade, I spent an academic year in Paris on an American study abroad program. After 10 months of thumbing my little red Plan de Paris par arrondissement (= old-school GPS) to a pulp, I found myself facing a summer short on cash -- but unwilling to retreat to the States before I could legitimately claim to have spent an entire calendar year in Europe.

Luckily Georges, the heroically non-judgmental and patient program director, was able to arrange temporary work permits for such underfunded students who insisted on remaining abroad.

 Which was how I found myself, over a period of several weeks, shuttling from picturesque central Paris to the futuristic La Défense business district at the city's western outskirts, where I had landed a job heating up frozen croissants and serving "instant" espresso to those employed in the surrounding skyscrapers.

La Défense -- Stairway to Heaven by
Dmitri A. Mottle, via Wikimedia Commons
By "shuttling" I of course mean a Métro ride, but a space-shuttle association would not be far off the mark. Going to La Défense was like rocketing or beaming up to the moon or some kind of space station carved into a forbidding alien landscape that, by dint of hard labor, had been made marginally habitable for humans, but not attractive to them. Considering that I had spent most of a year tirelessly criss-crossing the streets of traditional Paris, it says something that I never spent a moment in La Défense beyond what the timeclock dictated. The fact that I was working -- though technically in Paris! -- in a fast-food joint  à l'américaine, serving up bad imitation French cuisine to Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who, in any other setting, would surely have turned up their noses at such travesties, said it all.

So my question is, why would Jerusalem want to do this to itself?

The Israeli (and international) media have lately been abuzz (in English: here, here and here) over an "ambitious" plan to transform Jerusalem's western entrance area -- referred to in Hebrew as Rova Mevo Ha'Ir -- into a sleek and ultramodern business district, complete with the skyscrapers that are thought necessary to project a municipal image of exuberant money-making. "The city as economic engine."

The plans for Rova Mevo Ha'Ir have actually been in the works for several years (Mayor Nir Barkat, who assumed office in 2009, was the project's primary initiator). When the plans were first publicized, a similarity to Paris' La Défense district was proudly proclaimed. Apparently,  the mere hint of a resemblance to something European was thought sufficient to place the project in a positive light.

La Défense is not normally considered a success from the perspective of urban vitality. One author and lecturer in the urban planning sphere, Alex Marshall, calls the complex "stunningly dead." Charles Siegel , writing recently at Planetizen, points out that there are better models for smart growth than the "stale modernist model of La Défense." In fact, when the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir plans were first publicized in 2009, and hailed as Jerusalem's answer to La Défense, Siegel commented, again at Planetizen, "Virtually everyone agrees that La Défense blighted Paris' skyline and is an anti-urban design. Just what Jerusalem needs to destroy its historical character."

Unfortunately, those charged with planning Rova Mevo Ha'Ir seem unable to differentiate between design elements likely to foster vibrancy and ones liable to create deadness. Much lipservice is paid to designing with the pedestrian in mind, but the plans themselves paint a different picture.

The slideshow prepared by Farhi Zafrir, the architectural firm that won the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir competition, is a frustrating mish-mash of declared aspirations to walkable urbanism and simulation images that give such aspirations the lie.

Not the least annoying feature of the slideshow is its dubious referencing of traditional city design -- its deployment of photos of bustling European streets featuring human-scaled low- and mid-rise architecture -- in order to "prove" the value of the monolithic skyscraper project that it is actually trying to sell.

Farhi Zafrir first make a ploy for audience sympathy by describing, in Slide 2, the current sorry state of the Jerusalem entrance area. That part of town is certainly a mess -- as the architects put it, "sparse and dispersed construction," "separate and isolated compounds," "a roadway rather than a street." The pictures speak for themselves. Yes, almost anything would be better.

In Slide 3 the architects treat the viewer to a warm and fuzzy photo selection featuring narrow, Nathan Lewis-type streets, European version, full of fine-grained architectural detail and hip young city dwellers doing their thing en masse. "Priority to pedestrians" is the slogan here.

Having been thus buttered up, the viewer is then meant to be duly impressed by slides 4-11, which show us how Farhi Zafrir are going to rescue us from the dreaded stroad situation that currently exists, by building an architecturally monotonous, dedicated business, government-office and hotel district (the Israeli planning echelon's idea of "mixed-use development").

via Jerusalem Municipality

Yes, there is an emphasis on transit-oriented development here -- the project's much-touted connectivity to the Jerusalem light rail and the (future) high-speed Tel Aviv -Jerusalem train. Yet it is disturbing that all this accessibility is meant, ultimately, to keep people out of Jerusalem's historic downtown -- to artificially, and in a sense even dictatorially, concentrate certain activities -- and the people engaged in them -- in this one particular area.

For instance, the idea of transferring government ministry offices from their current locations in historic downtown buildings to the sterile office park of Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, and of turning the historic buildings into boutique hotels, may seem, at first glance, to have a certain poetic justice -- relegate the dry government paper-shufflers to dull modernist edifices! Save the pretty buildings for hunky and babalicious vacationers who can appreciate them! -- but it flies in the face of everything the New Urbanists have been telling us about real mixed-use development and the vibrancy it produces.

Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon has been quoted as saying, "Anyone who doesn't have to enter the city shouldn't do so. Leave the historic city to culture and tourism."  That is one of the most disturbing statements I've heard/read in a long time. Kahlon feels that by diverting jobs and government offices to the Jerusalem entrance, the "historic city" will be spared traffic congestion and "parking shortages." Unfortunately, it may also become depleted of anything resembling real life, and turn into a giant museum. I'm reminded of Alan Davies' (The Urbanist) recent description of Venice
In a physical sense Venice is pedestrian nirvana, but in my opinion it’s also a one dimensional city. The throngs of people along the canals are almost all tourists. The businesses only provide lodgings, food and fodder for tourists.
Is that what we want Jerusalem's historic downtown to become?

 My special bugbear: the Farhi Zafrir slideshow references La Défense (slide 12), in a manner that can only reflect ignorance or disingenuousness on the part of the designers.

I can't seem to copy the slides into the blog, but here is a La Défense plaza photo very similar to that used by Farhi Zafrir in slide 12 of their presentation:

David Monniaux via Wikipedia
The above photo (that is, its counterpart in slide 12 of the architects' presentation) is grouped together with a couple of photos of traditional European public squares, including an open-air market scene that looks something like this:

Street market at the bottom of  rue Mouffetard -- David Monniaux, via Wikimedia Commons

Farhi Zafrir's aim is to entice the viewer with street scenes that most people would be happy to see in their own city, and which the viewer is meant to understand that the architects are going deliver via their proposed Jerusalem entrance project. Yet one can see at a glance that the La Défense scene (the one that most closely resembles Farhi Zafrir's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir simulation) has little in common with a traditional street market scene.

In the La Défense photo, people scuttle like insects across an exceptionally uninviting, oversized plaza, dwarfed by brutal-looking buildings that do not work together as any sort of defined streetscape or provide the sense of enclosure that human beings generally require if they are to feel comfortable in a given built environment.

In the traditional-Paris street market photo, you've got it all: lovely and varied architecture on a human scale, enclosure, "intimate anonymity."

I humbly submit that this grouping of a photo of the La Défense plaza together with photos of traditional European public squares is a cheap ploy intended to persuade the public that a relatively isolated, limited-use high-rise complex can offer the pleasing urban ambience of a more traditionally-designed quarter. In my view, this reflects questionable ethics on the part of Farhi Zafrir.

It is too bad that the local planning echelon, and the architectural firm that it chose to design Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, couldn't have mustered up a bit more ambition, and devised a plan that would have increased Jerusalem's office-space supply in a style that respected the city's architectural traditions -- as in the Le Plessis-Robinson model described so compellingly by Charles Siegel. As Siegel points out, neo-traditional development can be "dense enough for smart growth" and can deliver its density "in a more attractive and livable environment than the typical modernist development."

But very likely there are no templates for neo-traditional design in the software used by Farhi Zafrir -- so they settled for a stark modernist office park, hoping to pass it off as successful urbanism.

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