Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's The Scale Stupid

A storefront seen in Tel Aviv, Israel after an eighteen hour flight  on 11/13/10. The level of detail established by recessed entry, illuminated sidewalk, street side decor, and lighting, creates a sense of rich and vital texture. The first impression of this city; human-scale and vital intricacy is everywhere present.

In my very first (and as it turned out only) job interview upon graduating from architecture school, the Associate Dean of a college of architecture asked me what I thought of my possible future home, Houston, Texas. This was a trap of a question on many counts. How can one answer it correctly when I had been off the plane for all of two hours? At that point my knowledge of Houston was confined to the view of the City seen from the back seat of a taxi zipping from the airport to a hotel. The question was clearly a trap. In those days, and even today, the view from the freeway is a view of giant billboards, traffic, big steamy sky and a surreal skyline jutting above planes. You never experience anything that remotely resembles a traditional town. This type of urban experience was not and is not what most people strive to create. I certainly had not been taught to appreciate this schema of things in graduate school. However, my first impression was that I liked it. The Associate Dean had a perverse sense of urban humor as well. We ho it off. I got the job and the rest is as they say history.

As a traveler, first impressions are about all you have, and your sense of good and bad is pretty instinctual and pure. You either get it and like the place you have just arrived at or you don't. Part of the adventure of travel is the freedom to form these types of often uninformed and off-the-cuff  judgments. However, there is usually a thread of truth in them. Understanding more clearly this thread provides a richer clue as to why you might return a second time.

In the case of Tel Aviv, I am just hours into my second visit, and this journey started much like the first. I arrived after dark at the airport, was met by a freind, driven to my hotel, took a shower, and then was taken on a long looping night walk (with dinner) about the city. If the first time I marveled at the 1930's architecture, the street life, and the paving details, as well as the cultural sophistication of the place, this time I realized that it was the scale that makes this place so unique. The original planners and designers in the early to mid-twentieth century seem to have stumbled on some magic formula of width, depth, height, massing, bulk, transparency, open space, boulevard versus street, etc. that is just about perfect in generating a joyful sidewalk-oriented and vibrant urbanism.

There are many places in the world where you see this type of organic street life where there is a mysterious fit between the activity of the street and the size and scope of the supporting buildings but few, and none that I can recall off the top of my head, were as consciously planned as Tel Aviv. In the coming days I hope to get out on the streets of this city and experience this scale in a bit more depth and understand it as both impressionistic experience and formula. First impressions matter; here in Tel Aviv its the scale stupid.

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