JERUSALEM — In an age when people spend more time in front of their computer screens than they do interacting face-to-face, a noted architect has skillfully drawn on his knowledge of history and antiques to design one of the most striking and beautiful urban spaces in the world.
Most of the Mamila-Alrov Quarter opened this season in Jerusalem, capping off a 35-year quest of the Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie to create a thoroughly modern shopping and dining destination just outside the walls of the Old City. In fact, no visit to Israel, especially during the 60th-anniversary celebrations, is complete without experiencing Mamila's charming pedestrian mall.
Most tourists are unaware of how long it took for the project to come to life. Renovation, restoration, and new construction are always difficult endeavors in locales steeped in history. But Mr. Safdie's project aimed to show the world that a sophisticated urban development could please picky preservationists and bring a city's diverse population together.
"It was a controversial master plan in that some people didn't want any new construction so close to the Old City," he said. "I always saw this project as a bridge between the old and new cities, a place where Israelis and Palestinians could interact and where everyone could come together. People said I was naïve."
The development begins at the foot of Jaffa Gate Bridge and continues up the hill to the intersection of King Solomon, King David, and Agron streets. The $400 million development along the Haemek Street boulevard includes a 270,000-square-foot pedestrian mall and shopping center complete with shopping, antiques, art galleries, book stores, and coffee shops. It also boasts 200 residential luxury units overlooking the walls of the Old City.
Nearby is the Crafts Market, an open-air shopping area that's one of many historic influences on Mr. Safdie. "My work is extremely contextual. The regulation of using traditional Jerusalem stone worked well for me. Plus, nothing new in the development is taller than what was already there."
In fact, Mr. Safdie embraced the smaller scale of many of the buildings in the Mamila development. The parking garage near Jaffa Gate is covered in olive trees and other foliage. Domes on the luxury apartments are made of fiberglass and have rotating glass doors, but reflect the ancient domes of the Old City. "I took old elements and reinterpreted them in contemporary ways," Mr. Safdie said.
Architecture buffs know Moshe Safdie well. He designed the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, as well as Ben Gurion International Airport's Air Terminal 2000. On the former project, he received a dispensation to use poured concrete instead of the traditional local, yellow sandstone outlined in the municipal building code. There's also the Habitat '67 project in Montreal that brought him renown as a skilled urban planner.
Mr. Safdie began his experience with the Mamila neighborhood in 1972. The Israeli government appointed him to come up with a master plan for the 25-acre area that, during Roman times, was where the aqueduct arrived at the city. The first paved streets outside the Old City were in Mamila when the neighborhood became a trade center during the British Mandate.
Mr. Safdie went from urban planner to architect of the project in the late 1970s. The prominent real estate developer Alfred Akirov, who has overseen the rebuilding of the neighborhood since that era, encouraged him to create a high-end, mixed-use area that would make it a popular destination for big crowds of locals and tourists.
Part of what took so long was that the two men decided to preserve many of the oldest structures in Mamila. They disassembled many buildings, numbering each stone, placing them in storage, and then reconstructing them after a parking garage took shape underneath the boulevard. "You can still see the numbers written on the bricks and I want to keep them there. Why not let people know how extensive this project was?" Mr. Safdie, whose architectural firm is based outside Boston, said.
Urban vitality is all about mixing hotels, housing, and shops, and Mr. Safdie points to the fact that a crowded street is now an upscale pedestrian mall that serves as the central corridor of the project. "Mamila is now an interesting religious and secular mix of people that's becoming the most popular meeting place in Jerusalem," he said.
Copyright New York Sun 2008