Rethinking residential towers

Professional ethics in architecture appear to be rather flexible and vague.

Artist rendering of Jerusalem urban renewal project.  (photo credit: DAN EITAN AND RUTH LAHAV-RIGG)
Artist rendering of Jerusalem urban renewal project.
‘Think Higher,” “A tower no one else has.”
Slick and aggressive marketing with a 10-ton emphasis on snob appeal. Yet another photo of a proud, smiling mayor pictured against the backdrop of yet another banal tower. Photocopies of each other, the existing urban context be damned, most residential towers are little more than package designs, marketing tools, shouting for attention. What Noel Coward said of London years ago seems truer than ever here today: “The higher the building, the lower the morals.”
The plague of free-standing residential towers blanketing all of our major cities has by now reached frightening proportions. A recent master plan commissioned by Jerusalem Municipality, no different from tens of others, calls for 30 towers, each 30 stories high, to be built on difficult topography in the Ir Ganim neighborhood, totally unrelated to anything in sight. All that came before would simply be erased, necessitating the mass relocation of residents and certainly damaging the neighborhood’s social fabric. In planning terms, this is no less than criminal.
Many factors have contributed to this state of affairs, among them our growing population, the scarcity and high price of land along with the fact that many Israelis view these towers as status symbols. For the developer, short-term profit is the name of the game. Give him something that will come in cheap. Pride in a building built to last is just about the last thing he has in mind, and his architects are more than willing to cooperate.
Professional ethics in architecture appear to be rather flexible and vague. Architect Moshe Tzur, for example, had no problem whatever, when interviewed on television, informing us that his Holyland Park tower was merely “a pin,” somehow failing to mention that it dwarfs the very hilltop it stands upon as well as the entire surrounding area.
The negative environmental and social consequences of free-standing residential towers are severe. Towers being vertical objects in space, can accent outdoor space but cannot alone properly define it. The space between them, therefore, is most often a no-man’s land. Dead ground levels are the rule. And as towers must be set back from the street, the street becomes less frequented and therefore dangerous, which in turn kills the neighborhood. Towers are also costly to build and maintain. When occupied by poorer populations, they have often turned into slums that eventually had to be torn down. As access from them to the outdoors is difficult, they are unsuited to families with young children. People don’t meet in elevators or in underground parking garages. Towers discourage social and inter-personal interaction. Often constructed in exclusive, private and closed enclaves such as Holyland Park in Jerusalem, these enclaves are anti-social and anti-urban, destructive of community values.
Granted the need for solutions that provide for economic urban densities, free-standing residential towers are most certainly not the only way to build. A viable alternative that would enable urban continuity, permitting old and new to co-exist side by side, is to combine high-, moderate- and low-rise in a fully integrated manner.
The low and moderate-height buildings, made up of a variety of building types, their street levels at times allotted to commercial uses, would address the street, relating respectfully to existing structures, at the same time creating well-defined public and private open space. Physically tied to them, the towers would accent and terminate a unified, yet varied architectural composition.
Where several towers are included, each would respond to its unique setting, never two the same.
A rare Israeli example of this building typology is the “Lev Hair” project by Israel Prize laureate architect Ada Karmi-Melamede in central Tel Aviv. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, architect José Luis Sert, then the dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, designed a series of successful projects in the United States based precisely on this strategy.
We needn’t wait for academic studies by social scientists and environmental psychologists to tell us that the residential towers being built today will have serious environmental and social consequences. Professional literature on the subject has been on the shelf for decades. Social integration mandates a full range of housing types, workplaces and shops, located in close proximity to one another. Maximize choice. Create an environment well-related to the existing natural and built setting, having a strong identity.
Given the nation-wide dimensions of the free-standing residential tower phenomenon and its extremely negative social and environmental impacts, the local, district and national building and planning authorities would do well to reconsider their present policies, searching out far more mature and responsible alternatives.
Urgently needed: urban housing of economic density that expresses a just balance between the goals of the individual and the collective. Unrestrained market forces cannot be permitted to be the governing organizer of urban life.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.