Architect Moshe Safdie discusses Jerusalem’s ‘architectural travesties’

Moshe Safdie, who has designed extraordinary building complexes globally, abhors towers in Jerusalem.

An exterior view of the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum (photo credit: TIMOTHY HURSLEY)
An exterior view of the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum
(photo credit: TIMOTHY HURSLEY)
Jerusalemites who have been out of Israel for a decade or more would have trouble finding their way around should they decide to come home.
There are new neighborhoods, roads and tunnels, reconstruction of the entrance to the city, relocation of government offices, gentrification and expansion of the Mahane Yehuda market, plus a light rail service, a new railway station, and the constantly changing city skyline as real estate developers aim ever higher. City landmarks are disappearing as new modern high-rise buildings take their place.
A fairly frequent visitor to Jerusalem is world-renowned Haifa-born architect Moshe Safdie, who grew up in Canada, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and travels the world to leave his architectural imprints.
Safdie has a strong attachment to Jerusalem. He and his Jerusalem-born wife, Michal Ronnen Safdie, own an apartment in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is where they stay whenever they are in Israel. She is a well-known photographer who documents both people and nature, with an emphasis on diversity.
In addition, Safdie has an office in a century-old building in Jerusalem on the seam of what used to be no man’s land.
Other than installing air-conditioning, modern office furniture, painting the walls, and decorating some of them with images of his projects, he has left the premises intact, largely because he has a great respect for history.
There is nothing outside to indicate that this is the office of a famous prize-winning architect who has left his creative mark on many cultural, religious, residential and commercial buildings around the globe.
There is rust on the heavy iron gates that open onto a small courtyard. A steep stone staircase is visible through the glass door. From the outside the place seems narrow, but once inside and up the stairs, there’s a long corridor giving access to several large rooms with arched doorways. It comes as no surprise that arches are almost a signature feature of Safdie’s designs in Jerusalem, though not everywhere else.
There is no elevator in the building, and when in Jerusalem, the 80-year-old Safdie takes the stairs in his stride.
He has been working on projects in Jerusalem ever since the reunification of the city. Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek established a city planning unit in 1967, which he invited Safdie and other architects to join.
Safdie prepared a comprehensive plan for the Old City, a large part of which was adopted, but in the intervening years there has been architectural havoc.
During a recent visit to Israel, Safdie spoke to The Jerusalem Report about what he considers to be some of Jerusalem’s architectural travesties – not only in the Old City, but all over the capital.
Asked his opinion about the frequent changes to the skyline, his reply was: “I think it’s a disaster. It’s a grave mistake to fill Jerusalem primarily with towers. It diminishes its uniqueness and the beautiful qualities in its history and architecture.”
Safdie believes that the Jerusalem district planning authority and the “greedy real estate developers” are blind to precedents set by other historic cities such as Paris, Rome and Florence, where there are no towers. Many build no higher than four stories, and Washington, DC, limits buildings to 11 stories.
“Cities with lesser histories and mightier capitals than Jerusalem have resolved their problems without resorting to towers,” he says.
Given the looming presence of construction cranes all over the city, it would seem that it is too late to save Jerusalem from itself.
“It’s never too late,” declared Safdie. “It’s just 20 years later than it should have been.”
In his perception, towers at the new entrance to the city will damage the image of the city. If people want towers he said, they should build them outside the visual basin.
Jerusalem is fast approaching its maximum population density, and after getting to a certain demographic size should create satellite towns, according to Safdie.
The municipality’s excuse for towers has been scarcity of land. When you can’t build outwards, you build upwards.
Safdie doesn’t buy this. “Jerusalem has to grow westwards. There is no predetermined size for Jerusalem.” While there should be limits he said, they have not been reached “and there is still a lot of space.”
More than a decade ago, Safdie’s construction plan for expanding the city westward met with strong oppositions from environmentalists who claimed that it would spoil the Jerusalem landscape. Their uncompromising campaign against the plan proved to be successful and Safdie’s proposal was rejected by an Interior Ministry committee.
 However, over the years, there was been piecemeal construction in the area, not in accordance with his plan and without the necessary infrastructure.
Safdie had worked on infrastructure plans designed to cause minimal damage to the area, but they have not been implemented.
One of the reasons that real estate development in Israel is so helter skelter is there are no defined rules.
There are countries such as Singapore, where Safdie has worked extensively, where plans have been set down for every part of the land. These plans define exactly what can and can’t be done, and because they exist, there is far less bureaucratic delay in moving from the drawing board to the construction site than there is in Israel.
Whatever plans do exist in Israel are obsolete and new ones are not approved, said Safdie.
From where he stands, this is a ploy by politicians to give them more power and to take power away from the technocrats.
There should be zoned-in plans that will eliminate bureaucratic hassles and challenges by developers, he said.
He is particularly upset over the lack of control on construction in the eastern part of the city.
“What’s going on verges on the criminal,” he charges.
“I as a resident of Jerusalem’s Old City lament that as long as Jerusalem has been on our watch it has been damaged. The Jordanians were kinder. The British were much kinder and the Ottomans did nothing. On our watch the city has been seriously damaged.”
Because of the significance of Jerusalem to people of different faiths, Safdie predicts that “the world will wake up and hold us to account. We love Jerusalem in words, but not in deeds. We are the most reckless city owners. We can’t even keep it clean.”
Safdie suggests that city planners go to Dubrovnik to see how history is respected. “Croatia is not richer than Israel, but they care about their city more.”
He characterizes declarations of love for Jerusalem in relation to what is done to the city as “outrageous hypocrisy.”
What he would love the new Jerusalem City Council to do is to convene an international summit on Jerusalem with the participation of architects, urban planners, conservationists, politicians, and mayors of cities whose historic identity has been preserved.
“Jerusalem needs to rethink the tall building policy,” he insists. “It’s a national priority.”
He would also like to see a newly created Old City Development Corporation with local and international funding.
One of the things he would introduce himself if he had a say in Old City regulations would be the introduction of a subsidized television cable service so as to get rid of all the antennae and satellite dishes on the roofs of buildings, which he considers to be detrimental to the skyline of the Old City.
He would also introduce the restoration of old façades.
He doesn’t like the fact that so little attention is paid to east Jerusalem in comparison to west Jerusalem. “If it’s a united city, we should act united.”
In company with several other highly reputed architects, Safdie is adamantly opposed to the introduction of a cable car to the Old City to replace the crowded bus routes.
The joint brainchild of Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the cable car in Safdie’s view is “totally inappropriate.”
To the best of his knowledge, there is no other historic city in the world that has permitted construction of a cable car system within its visual historic heritage basin.
Because Jerusalem is a very special city, he is convinced that a cable car system running all the way to the Western Wall will generate much international criticism.
All efforts towards the establishment of a cable car system should cease immediately, he said.
In addition to designing a neighborhood in the Old City, Safdie is best known in Jerusalem for all that he has done in Mamilla, particularly the David Citadel Hotel and the Mamilla promenade and mall.
He started working on the Mamilla project with Karta, a joint municipal and government company, drawing up the master plan in 1972, and then worked on its implementation with the British Ladbroke Group, which also controls the Hilton Hotels.
In December, 1996, Ladbroke sold out to businessman and real estate developer Alfred Akirov who was wise enough to continue with Safdie where Ladbroke left off.
“It’s been an amazing partnership,” says Safdie. “Akirov is a perfectionist who cares about quality, and he maintains it.”
The sentiment is probably mutual. In 2008, at the grand opening of the Mamilla Mall whose promenade links the new and old sections of the city, Akirov wept, and said it was the most meaningful project that he had ever undertaken.
In both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and possibly elsewhere in Israel, Safdie envisages that in future people will not own their cars, but will have zip cars or other on-demand vehicles, to take them from one destination to the next in the same manner that they can hire bicycles today in Tel Aviv.
When the cities were built, there was no provision for so much traffic or for parking bays. The streets are already heavily congested, and it will get worse before it gets better. Safdie noted that the Ayalon highway is already up to capacity.
Although architects of Safdie’s caliber are proud of almost everything they do, it goes without saying that each has a favorite project.
When asked to name his, Safdie had to pause for a moment to think. It would have taken him much longer had he been asked to include projects outside of Israel. But within Israel, the most significant is the Holocaust history museum at Yad Vashem. The one with the greatest impact on people’s lives is the city of Modi’in, together with Ben-Gurion International Airport. “It’s something I’m very proud of. It’s not just like any airport. You feel it’s Israel when you arrive or depart.”
He’s also very proud of Mamilla, which he says changed life in Jerusalem.
He is somewhat frustrated by the fact that construction of the Israel Antiquities Campus, which should have been completed by now, has been stalled for lack of funds.
Is there something he hasn’t done that he’d like to do? He had done an original master plan for the Western Wall plaza in 1972. Since then, he had done two more master plans.
Now he wants to do another master plan, which he wants to see implemented. It would have to be sacred, but worthy of both religious and secular visitors with a series of public spaces and designed in such a manner as to satisfy political, religious, secular, archaeological and municipal elements.
It’s a tall order, but he is confident that he might be able to navigate it.