Beer Sheva doesn’t have the popular reputation as a center of architectural innovation – but surprisingly, it is. Faced with large-scale immigration of refugees, the idealism of Ben Gurion’s Negev vision, and a mostly empty city, Beer Sheva became a canvas for new ideas about urban housing.
The Ottoman’s had founded the new city of Beer Sheva in 1900 – it was the only city they founded in their 400 years of rule here. Laid out by German engineers on an square European grid model, the city’s purpose was for order and control over transient, free Bedouin tribes, and of course, defense of the southern expanses of Palestine. After Israel’s Independence War, the city was desolate, but was seen as an important strategic point for the new state of Israel. Settling the site would be key for the security of the southern part of the country.
Those who settled in Beer Sheva were mostly those with no other options. Mediterranean basin countries of North Africa and the Islamic countries of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf expelled their Jewish populations during the period after the declaration of the State of Israel. Initially, these refugees lived in tent cities in squalid conditions, but permanent solutions were needed for these Arabic speaking Jews.
Housing in the Old City of Beer Sheva was inadequate for the masses of refugees, so new housing would have to be built; and Beer Sheva’s mostly flat terrain facilitated its journey to becoming a showcase for architecture.
The neighborhood I live in was developed by the young architect Abraham Yasky and others, who tried to combine place and climate. Many of the novel urban housing concepts of the 1950’s were developed in Germany (which had quite a lot of rebuilding to do) and other sites in Europe and the United States. The climate of Israel, however, is very different as are the population and cultural norms, so new solutions were explored. Yasky set out to create what he called a “model neighborhood” with a new concept – carpet housing. This housing would focus on middle/low income residents in a desert space and not be based on socialist ideological outlooks which were popular among the European-born leaders in Israel at that time. Unlike previous projects which covered only a small part of the area with multi-storied housing, leaving the rest open as public green spaces, Yasky’s plan called for filling almost the entire area with low one- and two-story apartments with private gardens.
Houses were planned as row houses, facing one another. Each apartment would have 2 garden spaces covering an area of between 57-87 square meters (600-900 square feet) which were surrounded by walls one-story high (or the walls of the adjacent house). There are few open public spaces and most of the outdoor space is privately owned (and maintained). Because there is not much open public space and high barriers surround the individual gardens, there is less erosion in the desert climate.
Between the two facing rows, a 3 meter wide (10 feet) narrow mishol – pathway – for foot traffic only, led straight into the front yard of each unit. The houses have sections which span over the mishol in the 2 floor models creating shade. Shade is also created by the high walls enclosing the yards.
This neighborhood was designed as an antithesis of the mainstream ideas in architecture. The whole feel represents more the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern Medina quarter or Kasbah than a modern European city, and more familiar to the refugees for whom these were designed. There were, however, some modern features. The streets are straight, and everything is very square, like the lines in the Bauhaus International building style. Another modern feature was the use of concrete and concrete blocks instead of local stone. The flexibility and the ease of construction along with Brutalism influenced this choice.
And so, like Israel in general and Beer Sheva in particular, you end up with architecture which is not entirely Eastern nor entirely Western, but a melting pot of the two. Eventually this neighborhood would change its population, becoming the elite neighborhood of Beer Sheva for a while with the establishment of Ben Gurion University of the Negev and entry of professors and researchers to the city. It remains a unique neighborhood in a city of architectural experiments, and an early attempt to craft architecture for the environment, as well as for the populace – a very modern, 21st century idea.