From prosperity to decay and back again

Architectural historian David Kroyanker chronicles the rise, fall and return of the Mamilla neighborhood.

mamila  (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'Writing a book on Mamilla was not something I had planned to do," says renowned architect and author David Kroyanker, "but I can tell you two things: I'm glad I wrote that book, and I think that the Alrov amilla Center is not only a real success, but it has also, and perhaps first and foremost, created a new standard of urban architecture in Jerusalem, something we should all be grateful for." Kroyanker has written several books documenting the architectural development of the city, but his latest, Mamilla: Prosperity, Decay and Renewal - the Alrov Mamilla Quarter, published this week in Hebrew by Keter Books, is different from the previous ones. It is more about the history of the neighborhood and much less an analysis of its architectural aspects. "The book," says Kroyanker, in an interview with In Jerusalem to mark its release, "closes a circle in my life." He explains that the Mamilla renewal project began 40 years ago when Teddy Kollek was the mayor of the city and Kroyanker was in charge of the planning and architectural department at the municipality. "In 1969 or so, Teddy asked architect Moshe Safdie, who by then was becoming famous in the United States, to present a plan for a renewal project for the Mamilla neighborhood. The neighborhood had deteriorated after it became a part of the no-man's-land close to the border with the Jordanians, during the years between 1948 and 1967. Safdie came back with a very presumptuous plan, and while Teddy was enthusiastic about it - he loved the idea of razing all the old buildings of the main street and the somewhat gigantesque plan proposed - I thought, as did Meron Benvenisti, who was then Teddy's deputy, that it was megalomanic and totally unfit for Jerusalem and its character." Kroyanker began then, under Benvenisti's direction, to work on an alternative plan, an initiative Kollek didn't like, to put it mildly. Safdie had made a presentation of the highest level, the likes of which had never been seen before in Jerusalem. But, recalls Kroyanker, while Safdie's presentation highly impressed his audience at city hall, in the end its sophistication was the plan's undoing. "It's too highbrow and sophisticated for us," then Likud councillor Yehoshua Matza said after the presentation. "It doesn't suit us, and it doesn't suit Jerusalem." Ultimately, Safdie came back with a more appropriate and more modest plan, and the work began. The Mamilla project includes the luxury David's Village residential project, the David Citadel hotel, the Karta parking lot and the Alrov Mamilla Center, beginning right under the city's walls and the David Citadel and ending at the newly opened Mamilla Hotel. The complex is a bridge between the Old City and the modern western part extending from King David Street up to Independence Park and into the city center. Kroyanker was personally asked by real-estate mogul Alfred Akirov, who is behind the development of the Mamilla project, to write the book. Kroyanker says he has no problem with the fact that the book was funded by the developer, as all his caveats were accepted by Akirov. Akirov himself only came on to the scene in 2003, and his contribution takes up 40 pages in a book of 420 pages - nothing that can be considered as disproportionate. "I brought up various aspects of Akirov's involvement and other events during that period, which are quite critical, and no one asked me to remove them," says Kroyanker. "The book deals with the history of this neighborhood, from the Ottoman period, circa 1850, till our days. It covers three periods: prosperity, decay and renewal. The first includes the Ottoman period until 1918, followed by the British Mandate. The second covers the period from Independence until the Six Day War. And, finally, the period after unification of the city until the recent completion of the Alrov Center and the launching of the Mamilla Hotel. During the Ottoman period and the British Mandate, Mamilla was a successful financial district, but in the 19 years between the War of Independence and the Six Day War, Mamilla fell into decay. Most of the neighborhood's houses were in ruins. They were inhabited by new immigrants, mainly Kurds, who had nowhere else to go. They lived under the threat of Jordanian snipers. As historical photos in the book show, their living conditions were almost unbearable. For many residents of the city, the stigma of Mamilla as a neglected neighborhood or as a suspended construction project still lingers. "True" says Kroyanker, "it's a long saga, explained and detailed at length in the book, for which I undertook extensive research. After the revisited Safdie plan was accepted, an auxiliary company was created - Karta - in order to complete the project. The number of problems, obstacles and setbacks that followed is hard to believe, most of them due to the strong opposition of the haredi members of Karta's board to approve some of the project's components, such as cinemas and the like, for fear of Shabbat desecration," he says. It was only in 2003 that Uzi Wexler, the chairman of The Jerusalem Development Authority, succeeded in convincing Akirov to come on board. But even he almost gave up on the project after coming up against the same obstacles. In the end, though, Akirov managed to complete the project and to gain the approval of Jerusalem's most esteemed architectural historian. "I believe that this center is good for the city's economy. And above all, in my eyes, it preserves with a lot of respect the historical heritage of this place. Mamilla is an impressive example of how we should combine old and new, ancient and modern, in the most aesthetic and successful way," says Kroyanker. The author is known for his criticism of radical preservationists and holds with his line in his critique of the Mamilla project: "I don't like some of the architectural aspects of the Alrov Center," he says. "Some buildings are too high, and things like that. But on the other hand, real efforts have been made here to preserve what really should be preserved - like the Stern House (where Theodor Herzl stayed during his short visit to Jerusalem). The whole building was dismantled, each stone numbered, kept in storage for a decade and finally reconstructed exactly as it was before. The national preservation council refused to consider it as a real preservation, and the issue reached the High Court, which rejected their claim. And the result, in my eyes, is close to perfection: it's aesthetic, it works - people come here in large numbers. It's alive and it is a very successful combination of old and new, of restoring this place to its former function - an economic center with leisure and entertainment," he says. "Regarding its high level of quality, I'd say that the Alrov Mamilla Center has created a totally new - and very high - standard of quality in urban construction, and anything coming from now on will have to meet these standards, and that's good news for Jerusalem." A short while after Kroyanker answered IJ's questions, Mayor Nir Barkat was the guest of honor at the glitzy launch of Israel's first branch of GAP in the Mamilla Center. The huge crowds that flocked to the store were proof of Kroyanker's assertion: "This center means, above all, one thing - that Jerusalem is going through some kind of economic rehabilitation, otherwise they would never have opened it here." According to sources, the monthly rent for an average store at the Alrov center is believed to average, in addition to the maintenance and management cost, NIS 180,000, which definitely ranks this place as one of the most profitable. A beaming Akirov told IJ at the launch that financing the book was the most natural thing for him to do. "This center is the most important thing I have done. It's a part of me, so how could I not do my part to tell its story?"