A shady business

Former Israel Museum director Martin Weyl presents a new photographic exhibit exploring the dangers of sun exposure in Israel.

Habima Square (photo credit: BENNY GAM ZU LETOVA)
Habima Square
(photo credit: BENNY GAM ZU LETOVA)
There can’t be many more quintessentially British lyrics than John Lennon’s line from the delightfully nonsensical Beatles number I Am the Walrus – “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.” Martin Weyl, on the other hand, is desperate for us to be protected from the merciless Middle Eastern sun.
Weyl is not just sitting around moaning about the lack of shade in public places all over the country; he has been researching the topic for some time now. The 74-year-old Dutch-born former Israel Museum director and head of the Beracha Foundation has invested a lot of footwork and elbow grease in what he considers to be a very pressing matter for some years now.
The pictorial fruits of his earnest labors will be onshow at Design Museum Holon, at the “Urban Shade in Israel” exhibition opening on July 4 and running until November.
There are over 100 items in the exhibition, mostly taken by Benny Gam Zu Letova, that convey an oxymoronically chilling message – we simply do not protect ourselves adequately from the potentially harmful effects of the sun.
“It’s ridiculous, if you think about it,” says Weyl disbelievingly. “In a country that has so much sunshine, you would have thought the authorities would provide shade in public spaces. It’s really very basic.”
Weyl has been dedicating himself to matters of environmental importance for some time now. After leaving the Israel Museum in 1996 he was approached by several organizations, eventually opting for the Beracha Foundation on the proviso that he could devote most of his working hours to green subjects, starting with refuse.
“What interested me at the time was the Hiriya,” recalls Weyl, referring to the former mountainous garbage dump just outside Tel Aviv. “I thought there was no more central place than the Hiriya, and I thought it was the symbol of our country – and I had to try to do something about it.”
Weyl isn’t exactly inferring that we should replace the Star of David with an image of rubbish; rather, he is noting the geographic position of the said dump.
“The main access to Tel Aviv, and the roads that run south and north, pass close to the Hiriya, and one of the first things that everyone coming to Israel by air saw was a garbage dump,” he notes. “So we turned it into a little park. I thought I had to try to turn it into something positive.”
Indeed, Weyl did a grand job in turning the detritus of modern urban living into an appealing beauty spot that now goes by the name of Ariel Sharon Park.
With the green bit firmly in place, Weyl continued his environmental work with the Beracha Foundation and gradually started devoting more of his time to an area in which he feels the country could make much more of an effort.
“We are very backward in the area of the environment in Israel,” asserts Weyl, adding that he has done his utmost to further green initiatives during his time at the foundation.
“I have always been interested in public spaces. I made the Mifletzet,” says the now semi-retired foundation director, referring to the iconic behemoth-shaped children’s play facility in Kiryat Hayovel in Jerusalem, “and I did all sorts of things like that. But I always thought it was strange that while [they have the opportunity to] be outdoors, people are not outdoors – and there is something not normal about the situation. I analyzed it and came to realize the reason is the lack of shade.”
That comes across in spades, in the images that will comprise the “Urban Shade in Israel” exhibition in Holon. The show includes shots of children’s playgrounds, in the Liberty Bell Gardens in Jerusalem and in Kiryat Gat, with lovely colorful swings and other facilities tailor-made to get kiddies to burn up some infant energy. In the picture in the capital, we see a small child on a swing taking the brunt of the midday sun, while the latter playground – although it appears to offer lots of activity possibilities – is completely deserted.
Playground in Kiryat Gat with little shade.
(photo credit: BENNY GAM ZU LETOVA)
There are other planning slip-ups in the Jerusalem park. “There is a fabulous skateboard park there - they really invested a lot of money in it – but it’s like hell, it’s so hot there. So in the daytime, kids can’t play there.”
But maybe it is the lure of the Internet and multichannel TV that keeps children indoors instead of engaging in healthy outdoor pursuits? No, Weyl puts it down unequivocally to the lack of natural or man-made protection from the scorching sun.
“If you look at other Mediterranean countries, like Spain or Portugal, people all sit in the central piazzas of their villages and towns. They have a central piazza, with beautiful trees that create shade, and that’s where they go to sit.”
The problem is portrayed in stark fashion in a photograph of a picnic table in a park in Yeroham, not exactly the coolest part of the country. The trees look handsome and the grass looks inviting.
The only problem is that the table is located in the center of the lawn, meters and meters away from the arboreous shade.
Weyl also shows me a shot of a rest stop on the Arava highway, no doubt a welcome respite from the long drive and the desert sun. There are, indeed, trees nearby – but only one of the picnic tables benefits from the shade.
Weyl has been pounding the beat, and talking to all kinds of people who have the authority and the means to rectify the situation, but to little avail.
“I once had a meeting with the mayor of Beersheba, he wanted some ideas for the city, and I told him, ‘It is very unpleasant to be in your city.’ I said the city should be an oasis, and what is an oasis? It is shade and water, and Beersheba doesn’t have either.
“He replied: ‘I never thought in those terms.’ In the middle of the day, in fact most of the day, you can’t walk around Beersheba because it is so hot.”
Weyl says his advice did have an effect, of sorts. “The mayor said he was going to plant trees, but he planted palm trees that don’t give any shade. The more I went into the topic, the more I discovered there is no shade whatsoever in this country – not provided by architects or landscape architects.”
When you think about it, it really does beggar belief. It really should be a fundamental of any architectural design, particularly of open spaces, to provide as much shade as possible. And you can’t blame the lack of protection from the Mediterranean sun on outmoded mindsets of the past; planning matters have not improved.
Take, for example, the expansively appointed redesigned Habima Square, which was completed in 2011.
“You have [Tel Aviv’s] Rabin Square and [Jerusalem’s] Safra Square, and the worst now is Habima Square – in the middle of the day no one can be there,” notes Weyl. “You see people only in the shady part, right next to Habima, where the building provides cover.
“In summer, it’s much more pleasant to be in the underground parking lot,” he adds with a wry chuckle.
The troubling phenomenon is rife wherever you turn.
“You see benches on streets, and no one is sitting there because there is no shade,” Weyl laments. “Architects make beautiful pavement for what’s under your feet, but nothing for what’s above your head. It’s all topsy-turvy.”
There’s more: “The whole idea of planning is wrong. There’s the beautiful Teddy Park [in Jerusalem]; there’s no shade at all there, and [they put so] much money into it. And they make pergolas that don’t give shade.”
Weyl demonstrates the latter point by producing a photograph of a substantial public seating area, laboriously constructed in the middle of a new traffic circle at the top of Jerusalem’s Martin Luther King Street a couple of years or so ago.
The building work took forever, and the result is an impressively proportioned metal-framed affair with benches on all sides. I have never seen anyone enjoying the fruits of the municipality’s labors.
“You’ll never see a living soul there,” declares Weyl. “It is not functional. You make a pavilion, you should look carefully where the sun falls and where the shade is. There may be one bench that is shaded out of all the benches there.”
Surely it would have been a good idea to plant a nice climber that would gradually stretch out across the structure and eventually provide some shade, courtesy of Mother Nature.
It is a nationwide, and highly undesirable, phenomenon.
Herzl's memorial in direct sunlight.
(photo credit: BENNY GAM ZU LETOVA)
“I have been all over the country and seen endless pergolas, but no vegetation,” comments Weyl.
He attributes part of that oversight to municipal orders of priority.
“These things require delicate pruning. Municipalities have gardening departments, but they are not aware or don’t care about such things. They also don’t like trees that drop dirt [fruit] on the ground. But you can genetically engineer trees that don’t leave dirt.”
The health issues are varied. “You see courtyards of schools completely exposed to the sun. Children can get dehydrated and the sunlight can be blinding, because of the glare from the stones. That can be damaging for the eyes.”
During his odyssey up and down the country, Weyl says he came across all kinds of public and open spaces that simply cry out for a bit of cover.
“There are monuments and cemeteries where people often have to stand for an hour, and there’s just no shade. And there are outdoor stairs, which can be difficult enough to climb up anyway, even without the sun.”
The latter is particularly pertinent for inhabitants of cities like Jerusalem and Haifa, where the topography means that getting home often entails having to negotiate external steps.
According to Weyl, much of our planning is simply misguided.
“In our Zionist endeavors, we planted millions of trees in the mountains. But we don’t live in the mountains, we live in cities!” he exclaims. “It is a very strange way of thinking.”
Weyl would like to see regulatory guidelines introduced, so that anyone planning a building or public space has to take the need for shade into consideration. But, for now, he just hopes that the stark statement coming across in “Urban Shade in Israel” sets a couple of wheels turning in the right direction.
“The purpose of this exhibition is to try to change the consciousness of people towards the topic,” he clarifies. “You see people hiding behind bus stops when they’re waiting for a bus, because of the sun. You see trees that give shade to the road and not to the pavement.
“It really is ridiculous.”
For more information: (03) 215-1515 and www.dmh.org.il/