Drawing Israel’s sprawling “urburbs” in the sand

Urban sprawl is not limited to the United States; a new installation in Israel looks at that country’s sprawl in the last half-century.

The State of Israel was created in 1948, with a population of around 800,000. Today, 8 million people live there—a tenfold increase that happened over the course of just a few decades. That kind of growth sparks a ravenous demand for land and housing, and in Israel has led to a housing sprawl that a group of designers, architects, and artists have coined the Urburb: neighborhoods that aren’t quite urban (they’re outside metropolitan areas) but not quite suburban (they lack the pockets of commercial businesses that define most suburbs).

To convey the notion of the Urburb, this group—comprised of architect Ori Scialom, artist Keren Yeala-Golan, designer Edith Kofsky, and professor Roy Brand—created an installation at the Israeli Pavilion for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Inside the sunlit space, guests will find four large patches of sand. Atop each is a sand printer, a machine built by the group specifically to trace blueprints, Etch-a-Sketch-style, of Israeli neighborhoods into the sand. After the sand printer has drawn one plan, it wipes the sand clean and draws another. The four printers trace city plans of Jerusalem, Holon, Hadera and Yahud, and in succession, they show how Israel’s neighborhoods became what they are today…

This wasn’t by design. In 1951, when the nation was still in its infancy, a Bauhaus-trained architect named Arieh Sharon created a housing plan for Israel that advocated a dispersed approach to development. Unfortunately for Sharon, people gravitated towards the coast, Israel saw an influx of immigrants, and the plan didn’t take. Units went up quickly to accommodate a booming population, without much regard to architectural integrity. (Yeala-Golan describes the residences as “cookie-cutter houses.”)

Lousy aesthetics aside, the sprawl has also created a commuter culture that’s bad for the environment: Residents have to drive into the nearest city for practically everything—groceries, schools, entertainment, and so on—since commercial properties weren’t built into the neighborhoods.

Urburb is a unique term that seems most like bedroom suburbs in the United States that are primarily about residences.

There are perhaps some parallels here to American sprawl patterns. After World War II, facing rapid population growth, both countries allowed/promoted more sprawling development. In the United States, this was often tied to millions of returning veterans who encountered housing shortages when returning from the war and in Israel it was related to immigration. “Architectural integrity,” an interesting term in itself, was not a priority as people needed housing. When looked at in hindsight, this has its drawbacks.

An interesting question to ask may be what would lead countries like the United States and Israel to promote more sprawling policies while other countries have tried to contain growing populations in more dense urban centers. In the United States, you had a combination of government support (changed mortgage rules, Interstate construction) alongside a developed frontier and individualist ideology and stirrings of sprawling growth in the booming 1920s. Other countries have much longer histories of valuing the urban center. Perhaps where this is most pertinent today is in places like China that in several decades have moved from largely rural to largely urban. What are the political and cultural dimensions of that sort of rapid change?

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