Yacobi Plumbs Israel's Built Environment in 'Constructing a Sense of Place'

telaviv_levantfairIn Constructing a Sense of Place: Architecture and the Zionist Discourse (Ashgate, 2004), architect and planner Haim Yacobi has compiled a fascinating collection of essays on how the Israeli landscape was born.

The book begins with the 1934 Levant Fair, for which the flying camel logo (right) was developed to represent the growing Jewish community in Palestine – a camel representing the Middle East, the wings showing the Yishuv’s eye to progress.

The fair was Tel Aviv’s version of World’s Fairs going up at the time in Chicago, Paris and New York, and it showcased the Israeli adaptation of European-style Modernist buildings, adapted to give shade and shelter from the strong sun and wind in Palestine.

Contributor Zvi Efrat covers the different planning approaches used in establishing the 29 development towns along Israel’s northern and southern peripheries. These towns, planned on the most up-to-date European concepts, wound up being a terrible mismatch with the local environment, causing one architect to point out that “In Beer Sheva, where one searches longingly for traffic and commotion, for a bit of social gathering – there, in the middle of the desert, we solved the problems of London…but obviously, what is good for five or eight or ten million people – is catastrophic when you have a mere ten thousand in the desert.”

book cover yacobi plumb israelZvi Elyahu addresses the anti-urban bias in early Israeli construction. In the 1950s, the visiting Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer dreamed of creating a vertical kibbutz, which would mean the entire community living in a skyscraper.

He also imagined towers soaring up from Tel Aviv’s present-day Dizengoff Center, and a set of three skyscrapers to occupy the circular park at Kikar Hamedina (plans not so far from today’s debates in Tel Aviv).

Excepting a 31-story tower at Haifa University, the rest of Neimeyer’s plans were vehemently rejected by the Zionist establishment, which sought to mark the land with Jewish construction.

“Zionism, as a national revival movement, sought to distance itself from the historic image of the dense and decrepit European city, seeing agrarian life as the basis for the creation of a modern society in a new-old land.”

One essay focuses on the distinctly kitsch form of contemporary Israeli architecture, in which buildings are constructed to draw “ironic” attention, such as a Tel Aviv performing arts center where the dressing rooms were fitted with large windows facing the street, giving the public an intimate view of the actors inside.

Another investigates Arab attitudes to Jewish environmentalism in Israel, in particular when Jewish ideas of nature preserves entail depriving Arab villages of water, electricity or communications infrastructure.

Other pieces focus on security in Gilo, a neighborhood south of Jerusalem built over the Green Line; on public housing in Israel; on the history of Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus; and on Jaffa’s struggle for identity.

In mining the planning and architectural history of Israel, Yacobi has put forth a portrait of a young country that forged a new building style to match the New Jew emerging from the agricultural communes. There is plenty of criticism of Israel’s choices in building and planning and the effects of public policy on groups like Arabs and Jews of Oriental descent, which diminishes what Israeli architecture actually achieved. However, Yacobi offers an insightful look at the roots of local attitudes to the land, which should be required reading for planners trying to change what’s already here.

(Graphics: Flying Camel logo from Stanford)

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