Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Israel Trip: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

November 2011
by Antony Wood

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To say that to learn about Israel is to learn about much of the world’s history, politics and religions is a cliché and yet, after being in the country for a few days, I can state that it’s absolutely true. As I stood on the Mount of Olives looking down at the incredible walled city of Jerusalem, perched on a plateau within the surrounding mountain tops, with its spires, domes and minarets illustrating the stories of Abraham, Jesus and Mohamed, so many disparate stories from other countries and travels came slowly together, piece by piece.

The trip had started two days previously, in the incredibly green and modern city of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, just an hour from Jerusalem. I had been invited by our CTBUH Israel Country Representative, Israel David of Israel David Engineers, and CTBUH member Danny Marian of the Israeli Society of Civil, Structural and Infra-Structural Engineers, to deliver the keynote presentation at the 7th National Congress of the Society (of which, Danny is Chairman). As usual, workload in the CTBUH office  prior to my departure was as busy as ever, so I didn’t have much time to plan for the trip – or do any research on the cities I was planning to visit.

From left to right: Antony Wood (CTBUH), Danny Marian (Israeli Society of Civil, Structural, and Infra-Structural Engineers), and Israel David (Israel David Engineers)

Often the best experiences one can have is without preconception however, so I was genuinely surprised and delighted to experience Tel Aviv as a bustling, vibrant city with many tall buildings spread along the Mediterranean coast, in the city itself, and in the neighboring central business district of Ramat Gan. If I did have a preconception of Israel, I guess it was one of fairly barren desert and goat herds, so the “garden in a city” feel of Tel Aviv, with plentiful trees and greenery, was a pleasant surprise (actually much of the 20th century city was planned by urban planner Patrick Geddes of the British "New Garden City" movement).

Azrieli Center, Tel Aviv

Akirov Towers, Tel Aviv

Isrotel Tower, Tel Aviv

My first full day in the city started with a couple of newspaper interviews and meetings, then I was kindly given a fantastic orientation tour of the city by Gil Shenhav of Canaan Shenhav Architects. Gil is a friend of Danny Marian’s, a connoisseur of tall buildings and had spent a year studying in Chicago when he was younger, so we had a lot in common. Our tour started at the historic city of Jaffa perched on a small hill above the coast before moving out to see, quite literally, the layers of modern architecture and city development that ripple out from Jaffa like the skins of an onion. What many people likely do not know about Tel Aviv (and I was amongst them prior to my visit there) is that the city houses the largest collection of Bauhaus architecture anywhere in the world (maybe not that surprising a fact given the flight of Jews from Europe to Israel prior to, and during, the Second World War when the Bauhaus was all the architectural rage in Europe). This distinction with the Bauhaus collection has earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

We finished the day amongst the skyscrapers of Ramat Gan, including two that had graced the pages of our 2011 Awards book; the First Rothschild Boulevard and W Towers. Looking around several other towers in the city, it was clear to see that the Israelis are not scared of architecture.

First Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv © Yashar Architects

W Towers, Tel Aviv © Yashar Architects

The 7th National Congress of the Israeli Society of Civil, Structural and Infra-Structural Engineers

The Congress that started the next day was quite an impressive affair; obviously the Israelis know how to put on a conference. Fifteen hundred people were in attendance for the two-day event with its accompanying exhibition (the congress is held every two years). British-Jewish architect Ron Arad opened the proceedings, before the delegate body broke out into seven simultaneous tracks covering the latest developments in engineering in Israel. My keynote in the afternoon – on the topic of “Tall Buildings and Sustainability: Contradictory or Complimentary” – concentrated on the challenges that face the typology and seemed to go well (at least if nobody leaving the room was anything to go by!) I received many favorable comments afterwards.

Normally when I attend these conferences it ends up being a fairly intense few days, with me presenting and supporting the organizers in various other ways throughout the event. I also try to take in as many of the presentations as possible myself whilst in attendance. However, with the exception of my presentation, the rest of the congress was in Hebrew, so the organizers kindly offered at the last minute to send me to Jerusalem the next day, so I could take in the capital city before flying out that evening. It took me a nano-second to consider this proposition – I didn’t need to be offered twice.

Antony Wood presenting his keynote at the 7th National Congress of the Israeli Society of Civil, Structural and Infra-Structural Engineers

So it was that I stood on the Mount of Olives with my excellent guide Yossi Kalmanovich (who was one of the best guides I’ve had in travelling in over 60 countries; I can heartily recommend him if anyone else is travelling to Israel: Taking in the view of Jerusalem from the mount, relics of the three major religions represented in the city were before us; the Jewish graveyard where the first would be resurrected at the coming of the Jewish Messiah, the twin domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of the walled city on the spot where Jesus was believed to have been Crucified, and the huge, golden Islamic Dome of the Rock with its surrounding courtyards that dominates the view. I can hardly begin to describe the fantastic experiences I had during the rest of the day – donning the Jewish kippah (skullcap) to take in the Wailing Wall, walking the ‘Via Dolorosa’ route of the last steps of Christ on his crucifixion (even for a non-believer like me, quite a special experience), and finally settling down at an Armenian restaurant with my guide as the afternoon slipped into evening, to learn all about the 1948 and 1967 wars and the intensely political history of the country. More than all this though, perhaps the greatest pleasure of the day was just walking through the narrow, ‘bazaar-type’ cobbled streets of the walled city of Jerusalem itself. With its undulating plane underfoot, solid limestone walls all around, and buildings jutting in and out of the streets in a piecemeal way, it’s almost as if the fabric of the city echoes the stories it contains; the destruction of temples, the occupations of Crusaders, the influx of myriad peoples and countless other interventions which have seen this city of three thousand years or more build and re-build in a seamless and organic way. Yes, I know that there are still a million unresolved issues in both the city and the country at large – and who knows if, how and when they will become resolved – but I can very certainly say that I have never quite experienced a city like Jerusalem.

View from the Mount Olives on the walled city of Jerusalem

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

I would like to thank sincerely Danny Marian of the Israeli Society of Civil, Structural and Infra-Structural Engineers, Israel David of Israel David Engineers, and Congress Chairman Dori Shaviv for inviting me to speak at the congress and giving me this wonderful opportunity to experience Israel. A million thanks also to Gil Shenhav of Canaan Shenhav Architects for giving up so much of his time (and larynx!) to help me understand Tel Aviv. And, finally, to the 60 year-old guide Mr Yossi Kalmanovich who spent 10 hours keeping pace with me around Jerusalem, baring the soul of his country and never once tiring at my ceaseless questions. Many thanks to you all.