the reference wall

our first day in cairo sachin and I wandered onto an aqueduct. this particular portion begins at the nile, with a pump to draw water from a well next to the river, and ends at the metro line, where the arched structure was simply demolished.

the tall open structure (we only had to remove a small wire from the barricade to open it and get in) gave us a spectacular view over Cairo, and a chance to see what was happening on top of the buildings, many of which are unfinished. I am told that this is because there is a different tax structure in cairo for finished vs. unfinished buildings, the latter being the cheaper alternative. therefore building owners might leave the structural brick exposed, extend concrete columns in preparation for the next floor, or leave out the final enclosure elements.

an active element on many roofs is the water tank, which is often surrounded by a lightweight shade structure of dried grasses, likely papyrus or cane, or wood slats. one of few rural references in cairo’s sea of red brick, the structures take an edge off the harsh sun and offer a quick solution for shade on the roof or at the street, as well as temporary shelter or an initial cover for space grabbing.

finally, the aqueduct itself acts as a wall for the city. to the north, the nile runs up to downtown, and a major east west thoroughfare runs along the aqueduct. to the south, dense settlements press up against it.

despite the density, there is still space for birds.

intermission: india

the first major leg of my trip is complete. after traveling from northern india to the brink of europe in istanbul, down through israel/palestine and around egypt, i spent a short week in ethiopia, whose neighbor eritrea i was sadly unable to enter. due to an unbelievable processing time of 5-6 weeks for an eritrean tourist visa, i had to reroute my ticket at the last minute, after pleading at embassies in the us, israel and india for an exception (to which they all happily agreed yet failed to enact).

i have taken a moment to breathe back in ahmedabad for a week before heading off to switzerland and france. summer is at its peak, and every gust of wind feels like the air from a working oven, burning every inch of exposed skin.  needless to say, i’m spending my time indoors or at least in the shade. stay tuned for some posts of the recent past…i’m hoping to (yet again) catch up on what i’ve missed over the last few weeks of travel.

heliopolis: dual structure

I have spent the last few weeks in Cairo, and now I am about to head off to another adventure in Addis Ababa and surrounds. before I go I will try to get a few things posted from my time in Egypt…and more is on the way sometime mid-May…

Heliopolis is a little on the early side of my subject: it was designed and built just before the twentieth century began. But the design of the commercial arcade was certainly something worth investigating.

On Baghdad Street, four story arcades line one side of the street, while the other contains shops and on the ground floor and holds upper stories with various bay window structures, more typical of the rest of the urban fabric of the district.

What is remarkable about the four story arcade buildings is the dual structural systems that govern the division of (in this case) shops in the building. The structure of the façade, outside the arcade, is symmetrical, and emphasizes the building as a block of the street. Classical motifs punctuate the columns and center + end are dealt with as anchors. But the structure of the building behind is not hierarchic: it is a simple post and beam system in which all beams are spaced equidistantly.

The dual system allows the commercial space behind the arcade to be divided and subdivided, or expanded, without overtaking the public zone of the street. What is more, the variation in the scale of the arcade spaces as they move up through the section of the building allows different types of activity and different materials to be inserted as the occupants shift.

The symmetric  style may be a bit heavy handed, but it offers an interesting possibility for the creative use of competing structural systems in the design of a building that must withstand commercial and residential change while keeping a foot in the public and the private.

tel aviv phase two

In the second phase of planning, when Tel Aviv expanded east, commercial areas were included. He Be’lyar is one of these zones. Wrapped around a circular dog park, the city’s high end boutiques and fashion labels occupy the ground floors of these bigger, bolder and commercially more friendly buildings.

Though perhaps not the most exciting or beautiful solution, this plan for a commercial area in the second phase of Tel Aviv exhibits design characteristics that I would say were based on the original alterations. Whether they were expressly considered by the architect, or if the new buildings simply conform to market needs, I cannot say. I imagine both were at work. Regardless, in either scenario the buildings are adapted to a more economically driven circumstance.

The upper stories contain larger, more flexible spaces for offices, which is what now occupies most buildings in the commercial areas that Tel Aviv has grown. At the ground level, the commercial strip is continuous, because all of the space at the sidewalk is valuable for visibility. At the top, structures already occupy the terraces.

The city is learning, but newer structures have already been altered by their tenants!

the flattening effect

Tel Aviv is preserved as the White City, a city of modern cubes. In its bid for world heritage status, the authors describe the city as a result of the intersection of modern planning and architecture. Certainly a simplification, the description actually goes too far in combining its planning and architecture. Actually, as it has been argued since, the architecture came from a modernist school of thought that supported open, fluid space in which were placed building objects, while the planning was based on early twentieth century garden city concepts, which by 1927, when the plan was adopted, were no longer avant garde.

Basically, Geddes made a denser plan with smaller lots than was in vogue. He also based the major roads in his plan on the existing roads, and then organized the infill. Functional zoning unconsidered, he was planning a garden suburb whose only real zoning category was residential, with some space for residentially based commerce.

Within a restrictive plan and lot division, architects may have envisioned a sea of white cubes. Or, they simply built out their buildings to the maximum size after the setback regulations that governed all sides of each plot.

Source: Tel Aviv City Archive

What it produced was a new kind of street in Palestine, one that held a depth of open space on either side. According to Nicky Davidov, the simplicity of the building design drew emphasis away from each building, allowing the street edge to function as a whole, while still creating a somewhat fluid space through the presence of the gaps in each lot. The buildings acted as volumes that filled out the street space.

Since then, the building volume has flattened into a continuous edge along the street. Growing vegetation obfuscates the side and back lots, and in some cases the front facades as well.  New additions to the sides of buildings in commercial areas fill in the side lot gaps at the ground level, creating a continuous edge along commercial streets. Balconies have been filled in with plastic shades, disconnecting the inhabitants from the street, and further flattening the facades.

But it is not only additions and alterations that have affected the streetscape. The buildings themselves were primed to support that shift. The buildings, though described as white cubes, were built with emphasis placed on the front façade, both in geometry and surface treatment. So as the side lots began to fill, the already secondary building faces disappeared altogether.

index: alteration

In the case of Tel Aviv, I think the relationship between what people have done to their individual buildings, apartments and shops, both for commercial and residential purposes, has impacted both the block and the city. Designed without major commercial centers, these have grown through demand and eaten through the residential fabric, changing not only the appearance and function the buildings, but also the streetscape and city-wide traffic patterns, both pedestrian and vehicular.

Following are various types of building alterations I have discovered in the urban fabric of central Tel Aviv, which repeat throughout the city, and have had the power to change both the existing fabric and newer implementations of the plan.

Most restaurants put tables and chairs out during the day. Some even borrow public benches for their services.

As a practice that gradually builds permanence, these start chairs, add paint on the ground, then move to flowerboxes and awnings, and finally construct an extension to the building.

Restaurant owners also build out into arcades, but always leave a gap for pedestrians. So while the access remains intact (though now feels semi-private), the permeability of the arcade disappears.

Filling in the gap is another common practice. Because the majority of the area was residential, almost all buildings were setback on all sides from the property line. In the homegrown commercial areas, owners have compensated by adding a single story addition to the side of their building, which creates a continuous shop-filled edge along the sidewalk.

Usually one side builds out to the lot line, while the other leaves a narrow space for access to the back of the buildings.

In areas that have remained residential, one of the key components for alteration has been the balcony.

Plastic shades were the original way to enclose balconies. They closed off the connection to the street and flattened the façade. Nissim Davidov, Nitza Smuk and others have written about this phenomenon throughout the city. Now these shades are being replaced by glass, which might reopen the visual connection, but still cut the aural relationship.

Finally, 2 story penthouses pepper the terraces of the buildings. New regulations allow owners to add two stories to their buildings as an incentive to renovate.

Each act happens in the interest of the individual owner. But an individual act sets a standard, and others follow. These moves have rippled around Tel Aviv until they have restructured the street and sidewalk, and moved commercial zones deep into residential areas. Furthermore, many of these changes to existing buildings have been incorporated into the planning and design of later phases of Tel Aviv. More on that later….

addition: bomb shelters

One of the first major changes to the public spaces in Tel Aviv was the addition of bomb shelters, which has continued, with multiple generations of shelters resting on the same sites, some visible, and many home to various underground activities.

Many of the shelters have now become canvases for graffiti and political action, as constant reminders of the military state of Israel in its occupation and necessary precautions.

palestinian easter

I took a break from Tel Aviv to spend Easter weekend in Jerusalem and Ramallah. On Sad (Good) Friday, the streets of Jerusalem were packed with thousands of pilgrims come to follow the Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre, the path that follows the Stations of the Cross through Jerusalem.

I also joined the line, with Sahar, who graciously joined me in the packed Friday city. The crowds were crammed in the streets, and movement mostly happened in short bursts, after many minutes of standing. Various groups chanted as they carried the cross, and others watched and raised their cameras high for a view of the road.

The Old City of Jerusalem dates back to the Roman era, but the area we walked was built much later. Built layer upon layer, it is sometimes difficult to know whether you are walking outside, in a deep channel running between stacked stone structures, or merely looking up through the skylight of a tunnel beneath the terraces. Flying buttresses extend the limits of the walls, opening ground for new passages while carrying space for rooms.

At the end of the walk, the Holy Sepulchre, the crowds became fierce as some overly zealous pilgrims fought for their turn to walk inside the tomb.

In Ramallah, on Saturday, a much happier parade celebrated as everyone celebrated Waiting for the Light, which comes out of the Holy Sepulchre and is delivered to towns in Palestine. Bagpipes blared and teens danced as the crowds followed the bishops into the church to keep the light burning until Easter morning.

I head back to Tel Aviv for my final week before moving on to Egypt.

modern facades

I have been in Tel Aviv now for a few weeks, soaking in the city, digging through archives and snooping around buildings in various neighborhoods. I have many thanks to offer…once again I have experienced wonderful generosity from many people here and around Israel/Palestine.

Sahar, Danna, Opher, Liya  & Mikael,  Yael, Yahel & family, Itai & Adi, Rachel, Nicky, Neta….

Today I had an illuminating conversation with Mr. Nissim Davidov, who is a fountain of knowledge on the planning and architecture of Tel Aviv. After our talk he graciously offered to walk with me through the city, discussing the stories behind the buildings, gardens and squares as we passed them.

Tel Aviv’s modern architecture, the ‘bauhaus’ collection, has far less to do with the modernist principles that began the movement than it does with the sleek appearance of the façade. This façade, not produced by an ‘honest expression of the interior’ instead creates a homogenous backdrop for the now lively city.

In most (perhaps all) buildings, various additions and alterations have crept in. Most common are balcony enclosures, which were first done with plastic shutters and now upgraded to glass. At the street, restaurants creep out and borrow space from the ample sidewalks. And without human intervention, the heavily salted air from the Mediterranean works hard to break the stucco and concrete surfaces.

In Zina Square on Dizengoff Street, at the center of planned Tel Aviv, the façade’s importance (or building’s lack) reaches a high point. Here, one of the seminal Tel Aviv buildings was bulldozed for remodeling…while the façade remained standing.

And the gulf between façade and building is growing. Notice the project (one of a few I’ve seen) under construction in south Tel Aviv.

But this isn’t the city’s only face…there are many incredible things happening here. More to come…