Sunday, November 14, 2010

Good City Form Versus The Daily News

Khán-i-'Avámid, also known as the Inn of the Columns was built in 1784 when Akko, Israel was under the rule by  of the Ottoman Empire. Does this architecture bear the moral failings of its political times or is it an artifact of typology that transcends temporal concerns?

I am lucky enough to be attending, as a "resource team" member, the second Israeli Mayor's Institute on City Revitalization. Based upon a similar program developed two decades ago in the United States by the National Endowment for the Arts, the program brings together Mayors who have a design, development, or environmental design challenge, with experts in a broad range of environmental design fields, from real estate economics, to affordable housing, to urban design and architecture.

During the conference, each Mayor is given approximately an hour and one-half to present their challenge and receive immediate input and response from both the experts and their fellow mayors. One could think of it as a type of city design "pecha kucha" with feedback. I have attended three of these sessions in the United States and always been impressed with how seriously the Mayor's present their cases, listen, and much work is accomplished.

In the United States their is a long tradition of presenting and listening and considering in the course of the city design process. This planning tradition, while not unique in the United States, and not always perfect for sure, is at this point an export service that people in other lands, including Israel, are curious about. Does it translate? How does it need to be modified to meet a different culture with different constraints and opportunities and expectations? One of my main interests in participating in this conference here is Zefat is to garner some insights into these questions. Our first session here in Zefat certainly made me think.

When you put nine mayors of Israeli city's in a room and ask them to each briefly introduce and present the vision of their city, they, like mayor's in the United States, with great pride tell you about the growth patterns, the beautiful settings and opportunities, the reasons their towns are attractive to business, etc. I certainly learn a lot about places I have either never been to or only have spent an afternoon in. For instance, on our drive to Zefat, my hosts were kind enough to take me to four of the eight cities that are the subject of this conference and show me first hand the settings that are the subjects of our session. While touching and feeling a place is priceless when you are about to make recommendations, hearing a city described by it's mayor has no equal when you are trying to appreciate the context.

Through the first eight presentations here in Zefat, all was quite familiar, at least as regards the form of the conversation. Each Mayor would present their materials, typically with more emphasis on the opportunities they were developing than the challenges they were facing. Then, in our case, the mayor of our host city was given the opportunity to both welcome fellow mayors and tell us all a bit about the town we are ensconced in on a mountain top.

Zefat, is a religious city where Rabbi's, mystics, and the faithful have come for centuries. It is also a tourist town set in the mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Pre-1948, the town contained a large Arab population which fled during bitter fighting upon the declaration of Israeli independence.

The Mayor of this city was describing some of its challenges, which include moving a growing university. He also described how he spent much of his time trying to calm tensions between Jewish and Arab students and stresses between the religious people who live in the city and these same students. I am being purposely vague here because I heard all of this through translation and know I do not know the beginnings of what is a very complex situation with cultural and social dimensions beyond my present understandings.

Instead, what I can describe is what I observed, a quick shift in the conversation from the dynamics of city design to its nexus with spatial politics. Should the University be placed outside of town as a means to remove the tensions? Should Israeli Mayor's get more support from the regional and national governments to address these types of contestable issues? Is the national government paying too much attention to addressing these issues at the international level and not attending to the facts on the ground? The conversation quickly heated up, ever sharper points of view were exchanged, and a discussion about city design was all of a sudden a discussion, from this American's point of view, about the Middle East - in real time, in real place, in reality.

Our facilitator, Dror Gershon, the director of the Israeli Movement for Urbanism, did a wonderful job trying to keep everybody on topic. But still, social and ethnic tensions are ever present just beneath the surface. At one point towards the end of he conversation he turned to me, and said John, "do you have anything to say?" Talk about being put on the spot. I suggested that good city form has been created throughout history by both the most democratic societies and the most oppressive societies. I further stated that while there would always be a clear nexus between the form of the city and discussions of equality, morality, and politics, it was possible to discuss means of improving cities and good city form independent of politics. Or is it I wondered, even as I spoke.

While speaking I was reminding myself of two mentors; one from books and one a teacher. Aldo Rossi, in the "Architecture of the City", discusses cities as built artifacts through which uses, memories, and lives flow across time. One day a building is a prison, the next it is a school. Everyday it is a building, and in that sense at least has a type of autonomy that transcends the present, embodies memories, and teaches lessons the architect must learn from. My teacher, the architectural historian Vincent Scully, in response to my youthful insistence that architecture had a moral dimension, gently chided me saying that people are guilty, architecture is innocent. From both of these points of view one can separate the political and moral dilemmas of a Mayor in Israel from essential principles of good city form.

Still, a part of me believes that a city is also the accumulation of thousands of individual decisions, and each of these do have moral dimensions. Clearly, mayor's in Israel, indeed mayor's everywhere, can not and do not make decisions about the design of the environment in social and political vacuums. Here in Israel, the liquid surface of environmental urban design is immediately rippled by the currents of the daily news, and creating cities is not easily separated from the tensions of nation building.

1 comment:

Nachman Shelef said...

so... can urban design promote the human interaction needed to develop tolerance? Are great cities places where there is more tolerance - whether they were developed in oppressive or democratic societies?