Israel is no Dubai, Cairo, or Istanbul when comes to its urban buildings. It is something all of its own. Located in the Levant, the western edge of the Middle East, and sandwiched between Lebanon and Egypt, Israel fancies itself as somewhere between London and New York. It looks to the west despite being firmly planted in the east. And this is also despite the climate, culture and mood being undeniably Middle Eastern.
The same is true in Israel’s modern architecture starting with the Bauhaus movement in Tel Aviv in the 1920s. Shunning the Ottoman style of Turkish rulers before them – remnants can be seen in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Acre, and even the ramshackle city of Lod – the new Jewish nation wanted to build something new. Something of its own. One hundred years later what has resulted is a hodgepodge of architecture styles without any clear vision, and one which for the most part denies its Middle Eastern location and Arabian influence.
Unlike the rich Gulf countries and even Beirut today, Israel relies more on market demands than the whims of rich construction magnates – and their architects – when designing the modern city. People here are less concerned about aesthetics, and more about practicality.
If you look hard enough you will find architects in Israel like Moshe Safdie, romancing the Middle Eastern styles, winning contracts to gentrify old buildings like Mamilla in Jerusalem. But this is not the norm. Most building projects in Israel resemble some generic high-rise suburb from Anywhere and Nowhere, with apartments built to sell to young families. Kids in some towns draw construction cranes as part of the skyline instead of birds.
Over the last ten years in Israel the wealthier have been in the mood to move from their mansions in Caesarea, where the randomness of city life is lacking, to buy into luxury towers, like the Yoo Buildings built by Philippe Starck in Tel Aviv. They are in the city, but protected from it.
I had the unfortunate experience of living beside one of these towers as it was being built in Zedek Neve, a historic neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. With no regard to the existing neighbourhood’s character or flavour, this monstrous building rose up into the sky; apartments were sold to foreigners mostly looking to spend a month or two in Tel Aviv. Living in a Templar building smack dab beside the construction zone I had workers pee on my windows, steal my morning newspaper, peek through the curtains. There was a thick layer of dust in my home every day no matter how hard I cleaned. A crane accident killed three workers, and sounded like an earthquake when it was coming down. Another day flying debris like a 4m 2×4 speared my backyard shed as it launched from the top of the 30-storey tower. More people could have been killed, myself even. And complaints to the construction company were futile.
I’ve seen Arab construction workers hired to rip apart historic buildings and the asbestos roofs on them with no safety equipment (boots or hats), masks or regard for the safety’s wellbeing.
There is no accountability in Israel when you have claims to make against builders, and there is no one to speak to when you call the police. I’ve seen piles of asbestos waste in my hometown Jaffa, piled beside the roads where kids play. I’ve seen asbestos board in fact littered throughout the entire country. You can find it everywhere. I’ve found historical graffiti from WW2 English soldiers started in Tel Aviv and no one from the city seemed to care when I mentioned the idea of preserving it.
When you are caught between the east and the west, survival and leaping forward, lower middle income families and the nouveau riche, there are bound to be growing pains. We feel them in the built environment in Israel, as towers explode on the skylines, and smaller neighbourhoods fight to preserve their recent and sometimes ancient past.
Karin Kloosterman is the founder and editor of Green Prophet, the only sustainable news source covering the Middle East region. Green Prophet often features green design news from the Arab world, highlighting ancient practices and techniques that can promote energy efficiency and smart design for the future.