Ultra-Orthodox Jews look towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit (of Holyland fame), who liked rubbing shoulders with famous architects, that brought Santiago Calatrava of Spain here to design “The Bridge of Strings.” So that when the Jerusalem Municipality undertook the redesign of Davidka Square within the framework of the major street improvement program tied to the building of the light rail line, it was only natural that he would invite world-renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta here to lead the project. The municipality hired Legorreta in 2009. At that time Davidka Square, so-called, was little more than a desolate traffic island with a modest War of Independence monument at its center.
Beginnings, we know, are all-important.
Legorreta’s stated intention early on was to create a restful urban oasis, shielded from traffic. He canceled an existing road to the east, simplifying the vehicular movement system, thereby enlarging the square. “Starchitects” generally wish to leave their mark.
Early versions of Legorreta’s design proposal displayed an enormous blood-red slab faced in terracotta, five stories in height, perpendicular to Jaffa Road, which would have been seen from afar and changed the character of the entire surrounding area. Following protests by a citizens’ watch group this most problematic element was rejected.
Legorreta had to confront the difficult problem of dealing with the dilapidated facades of the existing building to the east, especially its street-level shops, now for the first time to be physically connected to the square. Protected tenants in the building hadn’t the money to renovate and even if they had, would need the landlord’s consent for any changes. Landlords refused to invest. To get around this problem rather than face it head-on, Legorreta erected a new, free-standing arcaded stone façade parallel to the existing one, bounding the square and Jaffa Road and thus screening the building’s street-level commercial arcade, effectively cutting it off from the square. For how would it look if the new billion-dollar streamlined tram cars were to be seen against the backdrop of these hole-in-the-wall shops? The peripheral seating he designed, all along Kiach and Hanevi’im streets, created additional barriers, severing pedestrian access to the square from the lively surrounding area. This being the case, the seating and shade trees, pleasant as they are, fail to draw people in. Little wonder that today, Legorreta’s well-proportioned and finely detailed project stands deserted. Not a soul.
Urban public spaces come alive only when they interact with the life around them. Reinforcing the tie between the square and the existing building’s street-level commercial arcade should have been one of Legorreta’s major goals. In the long run, appropriate uses such as cafes and their outdoor seating on the square would have carried the day.
Enabling excellent pedestrian access to the square from Hanevi’im and Kiach streets was called for. Blind to the opportunities that were there, Legorreta’s urban oasis concept was doomed from the start.
As for the existing building, the municipality paying for part or all of the renovation of its façades, including new signing for the street-level shops, would have been a far less costly solution than our now being stuck permanently with yet another lifeless urban square.
This wasn’t the first or last time a foreign architect, unfamiliar with, ignorant of or oblivious to the physical environmental context, not to mention the social and cultural one, has imposed his personal style on surroundings of which he has little understanding.
Architect Daniel Libeskind’s pyramid tower, to be constructed on the former Eden Cinema site and which he tells us will be taller than the pyramid at Giza in Egypt (who cares?) is but the latest example.
Painfully obvious too, is that architects, however gifted they may be, need serious public space training, without which exorbitant public funds will continue to go down the municipal drain, not only in Jerusalem, where Zion Square after numerous attempts (and today the subject of yet another redesign effort, an architectural competition sponsored by the municipality), remains a mere corridor and Safra Square is dead as a doornail.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.