The Renewal Plan for Lifta

A few years ago, a locked up synagogue abandoned in the middle of a prayer service during World War II was discovered in Budapest. The scene was chilling - open prayer books, taliths and other objects remained on the tables exactly as they had been left when the worshippers were taken to concentration camps by the Nazis. Historically, such evidence is equivalent to thousands of hours of research no one could ever achieve otherwise. With no hint of comparison whatsoever, the hastily abandoned Arab village of Lifta has remained a fascinating authentic place. Derelict for the past 55 years, the wear and tear of time passing, the looters and eccentrics have left their mark. But the outstanding architecture, the outcome of hundreds of years of evolution, has survived as one of the countrys most genuine examples of vernacular architecture.

The ongoing dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis propaganda is irrelevant. Both distort reality to suit their political agendas, especially in their campaigns for Jerusalem - one of the most controversial issues of the historical conflict. While Israel regards Jerusalem as Jewish property, the Palestinians make every effort to gain a foothold on any piece of land of which they claim ownership. Hence, this article stresses the archeological significance of  the architectural findings in the site, disregarding all political controversies, 

A visit to Lifta reveals an organic settlement where the village pace of life is almost tangible; a place where one can still experience the wealth of architectural spaces - homes, streets, a spring, oil-presses, a cemetery, a school, workshops, inn and a mosque that has endured years of evolution.

What is there today is mainly an Arab village that developed during the 19th century. The village is comprised of a nucleus bulk of stone houses densely situated side by side along the main street, and gradually growing sparse towards the periphery. Although a clear model of traditional nucleus development, the site bears evidence of much older civilizations, even as far as Byzantine or crusader built forms. The location of the mosque on the outskirts of the nucleus, the distance of the spring from the village center, the two-way direction of the oil presses, and asymmetrical figurative engravings, incongruent with the abstract Muslim outlook, are indicative of an entirely different village plan.

Kept in the Rockefeller Museum, the Lifta file contains archeological findings of a Canaanite settlement from the Bronze era (approx 2000 BC). It also seems that the different names given to the village at different times should have aroused the archeological sensor long asleep on duty. The name Lifta means corridor in Aramaic, and Mei Naftoach was the spring mentioned in the Book of Joshua which signified the border between the Yehuda and Binyamin tribes territories. Naftoh was its Roman name, which was then renamed Kabesta by the Crusaders. It was only during the second Islamic era that it regained its Aramaic name.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel a number of attempts have been made to renew life in the village. One such attempt proposed the use of the Muslim buildings to house immigrants from Arab countries, such as the Yemenites during the 1950s. But the distance from the city and life in fear along the border soon caused them to leave. In 1965 a decision was made to destroy Lifta, as part of the thought to demolish abandoned villages that might harbor infiltrators. However, due to the intervention of the Monument Guard of the Israel Antiquities Authority the plan was not carried out.

During the past twenty years a number of alternatives have been examined, some of which were even promoted through accelerated procedures. In 1985 the architects Shlomo Aronson, Saadia Mandl, and Gabriel Kertesz were asked to prepare a rehabilitation plan for the village, concentrating on conserving the buildings and transforming the village into the headquarters of Israels National Parks Protection Authority. The plan was encouraged by the Jerusalem Fund, and architect Larry Halperin, who added a few romantic illustrations to the booklet, joined the team. Within this frame, the spring and part of the pathway leading to it were slightly refurbished.

The choices in this plan indicate the importance placed on conserving the site. However, the plan was stopped by one of its promoters, then-mayor Teddy Kollek, who feared the Orthodox would overtake the citys entrances and block the roads on Shabbat - a threat thats still relevant today.

A few years ago the Israel Lands Administration appealed to architect Aronson, who was involved in the preparation of the recently approved Jerusalems master plan, and to Kertesz - Groag Architects who had gained experience through the rehabilitation of Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, and the Wine Route in Zichron Yaacov - successful projects though not lacking mistakes by  conservation standards.

There is no doubt that with such established experience, the architects responsible for the rehabilitation plan are more aware of the problems of conservation, especially in applying symbolic terminology instead of an actual reality. And indeed, they themselves requested a detailed survey of the place so that they could get a genuine sense of the place.

However, Kertesz-Groag and Aronsons conservation plans main problem is that the clusters of buildings in the nucleus will be developed by entrepreneurs who will fund their building - commercial center with shops, hotels, bus stations - by the land sold for individual housing on the western slopes. The plans even weaker point is that the planning concept is based on building complexes and not individual houses, to avoid the undesirable phenomenon of 'build your own home'. In other words, the plan is based on development from the whole to the individual, and as such it contradicts organic development which grows from individual elements into a unified whole. The end result of such an inorganic approach may resemble something reminiscent of the 'rural' neighborhood of Malcha, at best, or the 'fabric-like' housing of Ramot, at worst.

The plan speaks of 190 housing units in the first stage of development - something that will inevitably require a supporting infrastructure – a commercial center, schools, a community center, medical centers, and perhaps even a community police station.

On the whole, it is hard to accept a conservation plan where it is not at all clear what is to be conserved. As such, it is analogous to conducting brain surgery based on a group photo. Hence, well aware of the problematic situation, the architects themselves incorporated the necessity of exposure, measurement, and documentation in the plans codex, as a condition for any future conservation decisions.

Despite the architects honest efforts to guarantee the plans conservational character, its success is dependent upon the involvement of different developers. Even if it is based today on strictly defined interpretations, it still demands a far stricter supervision mechanism, perhaps a permanent committee comprised of international conservation specialists. Such a committee will be able to neutralize anyone who attempts to sway away from the general plan - though a legitimate step in itself.

Since the powers involved have proven they can reform any approved plan to suit their needs, there is no other choice but to neutralize them. The municipality has proven it is driven by changing political approaches, and the Israel Lands Authority, whose main objective should be the preservation of Israels land for coming generations, instead is permanently stricken by a real-estate-development outlook.

A number of Templar buildings in the Kirya in Tel Aviv bear witness to the above, as they were granted mercy only when an article about their architectural significance was published in Architecture of Israel (#34).

חזרה לגליון 60    back to issue 60