Picture a situation where a major statutory plan for a new urban quarter created from thousands of dwelling units is brought before the minister for his signature and he does not understand what he is signing. Neither does the senior official who has brought the plan documents to his desk. Then multiply by the number of large-scale plans Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has signed into law. That is precisely where we are now.
Kahlon is Israel’s housing czar. Following the 2015 elections, he was granted unprecedented political power to deal with the housing crisis. In addition to being the minister of finance, he heads the Planning Administration, the Israel Lands Administration and the housing cabinet. Our minister of housing, Yoav Galant, is of his Kulanu party. Nothing in Kahlon’s prior experience prepared him for this role. His choice of key assistants, who, in turn, select architects and town planners, is extremely problematic.
One of the largest and most important plans Kahlon has signed and advanced is for the construction of two new urban quarters to be built on the site of the centrally located Tel Hashomer Israel Defense Force base near Tel Aviv, which is to be vacated. The plan includes no less than 11,500 (!) dwelling units to be built in 175 (!) towers of identical plans, and varying in height between 9 to 15 stories. A section of the plan calls for an unbroken double row of 24 residential towers, one right up against the other, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China.
Were such a plan to be presented in a design studio at any one of our schools of architecture, it would be cut down in seconds. Which brings us to the architects who help create these atrocities. One would like to think that their main concern would be for the society and the environment. Unfortunately, most care only for themselves. There is big money to be made here and professional ethics in these cynical times are long gone. Too many have become “yes men.”
Kahlon’s thoughtless, short-term expediency, providing not homes and communities but housing “solutions,” is a classic example of solving one problem while creating thousands of others. Kahlon has given us the tower “shicun.” The public housing — “shicunim” — built in the early days of the state were better in many respects.
Some of the key questions that remain unasked and unanswered by Kahlon and his poorly chosen associates are the following: How is it possible to build at economic density while providing for 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? Financial mechanisms such as his per occupant price, etc., are the least part of the problem, the easiest part by far.
Kahlon’s mad run toward providing an enormous amount of housing is clearly a colossal nationwide failure, when measured by quality design criteria, urban planning that knows nothing of diversity, identity, and human-scale. The social and environmental consequences of his tenure as housing czar are sure to be most severe. Succeeding generations will pay a heavy price.
Large-scale physical planning is a professional challenge of the highest order carrying enormous responsibility. If we are ever to get beyond the present “Nadlanland” mindset, it is imperative that our political leaders who are involved in matters of design be well-informed. Quality design must be desired before it can come into being. The first and last part of politics must be education. A formal framework for educating elected officials in urban design must be initiated as soon as possible.
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner, in Jerusalem.