Designing urban spaces for social change

The Onya collective at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station seeks to improve the neighborhood with architecture, common spaces and garden radishes.

By FRANZISKA KNUPPER
June 1, 2017 17:02
Onya

Robert Ungar, one of Onya’s founders. (photo credit: FRANZISKA KNUPPER)

Toqod Omer frowns and looks around the room. He points to the wall behind him.

“Here, we still need acoustic pads,” he says to the bearded man next to him, Robert Ungar.

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Omer is planning the studio room for his next community project – a TV channel solely for news from Sudan.

“For all Sudanese immigrants in Tel Aviv,” he explains. They often do not have access to news from their home country, he adds, and lose touch with Sudan.

The Rampa Urban Garden at the Central Bus Station, run by the Onya collective, is the ideal space to achieve such a goal.

“Whoever needs a space to create something for the community is welcome here,” says Ungar, one of the founders of Onya.

The collective consists of 13 architects, designers, teachers and social workers, who are trying to improve urban structures in the south of Tel Aviv. One of the main entrances to the Central Bus Station has already been taken over by flowerpots, flourishing vegetable gardens, a noisy wood workshop and light installations.



“We call it social architecture,” explains Ungar, who finished his degree in architecture with a project of vertical gardening at the Central Bus Station.

Social architecture seeks to alter human behavior by improving the immediate environment.

The entrance to the project’s new space. Credit: Franziska Knupper

Instead of looking for purely social solutions, Onya is first of all trying to influence the city’s basic infrastructure with small means. It regards the bus station as one of the biggest failures in Tel Aviv’s urban planning, one that ripped apart a neighborhood and boosts crime and air pollution in the heart of the city. The gray cement giant is a foster home for traffic jams, poverty and car emissions.

“This building literally kills the people who are forced to live around it,” the architect stresses, frowning while looking at the dark solid bridges leading up to the higher floors of the station.

From an architectural point of view, the multilevel bus station seems to ask for crime and drug abuse. Many spaces are hidden, poorly lit, not supervised.

They are “places of dread,” as they are called in architectural terminology.

“There are 120,000 square meters of unused space on the bottom floor,” Ungar says, and unlocks the back door of the room the Onya collective has been allowed to use.

Dark and thick air swirls through the door frame. A janitor quietly pushes a cart with cleaning materials through the dark, a fluorescent light attached to his head. Rubble and trash cover the floor beside a motionless escalator and broken windows from shops that have never been opened. An empty monster, Ungar whispers into the dark.

THE EMPTY, six-story monster was designed by Ram Karmi and opened in 1993. Karmi, a well-known advocate of the Brutalist building style that merges pragmatism and ruggedness, sought to combine travel, shopping and gastronomy in one huge concrete building. It was a test, and it failed. Or as Haim Avigal, the CEO of the station from 2005, said: “If I caught the architect who designed this building, I’d beat him up.”

Nowadays the surrounding neighborhood, Naveh Sha’anan, has become one big transportation hub and home to most foreign workers in Tel Aviv. Local churches, community centers and street workers try to engage inhabitants of this quarter in numerous activities in order to change the area’s social climate.

“But we want them to actively create their living environment out of their own will,” Ungar explains. “We refrain from top-down solutions and do not impose ideas upon our participants.

Usually, the communities in question know exactly what they need. There is no need for us to be in control of the change.”

The Rampa opens its doors once a week; every second month the members organize special events to raise funds for the further development of the project.

The lack of funding constricts them in their advancement, but at the same time it allows a much greater freedom.

They decide upon their own guidelines and welcome whoever they feel is fitting for the group.

Omer approached Onya with his idea for a TV channel when he got tired of airing the news from his apartment. He met members of the collective while volunteering in the open garden library located in Levinsky Park.

“I have been active in community work already back in Sudan,” he adds. Six years ago he arrived in Israel; now he studies sociology at Tel Aviv University – “even though I actually have finished a degree in textile design back home,” he says, pointing laughingly at his colorful shirt.

Next to Omer’s future studio space, three people are busy cutting a thin piece of glass. In the back, Ungar works on his computer. Outside, people are having coffee and cigarette breaks in between the flowerpots.

One volunteer pulls out a fresh pair of garden radishes.

At Rampa, design becomes a tool for positive change, yet the collective refrains from initiating projects that are not beneficial for the immediate neighborhood. A new creative corner for the bohemians of Tel Aviv would just speed up gentrification, Ungar points out, as Haim Avigal, the CEO of the station from 2005, said: “If I caught the architect who designed this building, I’d beat him up.”

Nowadays the surrounding neighborhood, Naveh Sha’anan, has become one big transportation hub and home to most foreign workers in Tel Aviv. Local churches, community centers and street workers try to engage inhabitants of this quarter in numerous activities in order to change the area’s social climate.

“But we want them to actively create their living environment out of their own will,” Ungar explains. “We refrain from top-down solutions and do not impose ideas upon our participants. Usually, the communities in question know exactly what they need. There is no need for us to be in control of the change.”

The Rampa opens its doors once a week; every second month the members organize special events to raise funds for the further development of the project.

The lack of funding constricts them in their advancement, but at the same time it allows a much greater freedom.

They decide upon their own guidelines and welcome whoever they feel is fitting for the group.

Omer approached Onya with his idea for a TV channel when he got tired of airing the news from his apartment. He met members of the collective while volunteering in the open garden library located in Levinsky Park.

“I have been active in community work already back in Sudan,” he adds. Six years ago he arrived in Israel; now he studies sociology at Tel Aviv University – “even though I actually have finished a degree in textile design back home,” he says, pointing laughingly at his colorful shirt.

Next to Omer’s future studio space, three people are busy cutting a thin piece of glass. In the back, Ungar works on his computer. Outside, people are having coffee and cigarette breaks in between the flowerpots.

One volunteer pulls out a fresh pair of garden radishes.

At Rampa, design becomes a tool for positive change, yet the collective refrains from initiating projects that are not beneficial for the immediate neighborhood. A new creative corner for the bohemians of Tel Aviv would just speed up gentrification, Ungar points out.

As in every other metropolitan city, Tel Aviv’s various neighborhoods appeal to very different social layers of society, each one neatly separated from the others. But despite its cosmopolitan character, Tel Aviv is a small city, and the invisible walls can appear in the course of one short street or around the next block.

People seem to have adapted their behavior according to the city’s architecture.

“This is why we seek to address urban planning first of all and then encourage social initiatives,” concludes Ungar.


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