There is probably no other capital city main street in the Western world equal in its functional and physical misery to Jaffa Street. Behind thick layers of degeneration and negligence lies, however, a fascinating historical urban story that reflects multi-layers of politics, security, economics and society, in addition to changes in planning concepts, standard of design, and quality of building.

Jaffa Street, which lies along 3 km from Jaffa Gate up to the western entrance of the city, is the main development axis of Jerusalem. Here, the periods of prosperity and depression faithfully mirror the urban processes that have taken place in the city since the shift to reside outside the Old City walls in the mid 1900s; the latter years of the Ottoman period; the British Mandate; the divided city of the new-born state; the extreme changes which occurred after the Six Day War, and up to recent construction.

From the mid 1900s to the beginning of the Mandate there was a gradual development from a dirt road in a deserted area to a lively urban street. During this period Jewish neighborhoods were established along the street (such as Hatserot Even Israel and Ohel Shlomo) along with buildings of charity (like the Shaarei Tsedek Hospital), a number of Christian buildings such as the “pilgrims’ city” within the Russian compound, and a row of a commercial buildings built by the Armenian Patriarch.

Modern construction began during the British Mandate. In the 30 years of the Mandate (1918-1948) the city center manifested itself as an urban network with an advanced European character. The mandatory planning was based on a sequence of enclosed structures at curb line, defining the street area by their continuous façades of 2 to 4 stories. On the ground floor there was a succession of shops, and above them residential apartments or offices. The buildings were designed in a number of styles, prominent among them the eclectic style incorporating modern elements with neo-classic ones, and the international style that combined cubic blocks with vaulted wings.

The Mandate construction is considered to this day to be the city’s most prosperous. Its urban design quality is reflected in a few of the public buildings in the area between Tzahal square and the junction of Shlomzion Hamalka Street. One such is the historic Council building (in front of what used to be Allenby square - Tzahal square of today) designed by architect Clifford Holiday and completed in 1932. Further on is a cluster of 3 buildings built in the second half of the 30s as a continuation of the street: the Anglo-Palestine Bank (Bank Leumi today), the Central Post Office building, and the Italian Generali insurance company building. These 3 modern buildings which project a civil dignity, illustrate the commercial development in the city center at that time.

Designed by Erich Mendelssohn in 1939, the Anglo-Palestine Bank was one of the most important financial institutions of the Jewish settlement in the Mandate period. The 7-story rectangular structure (on the Jaffa Street side) includes typical Mendelssohnian elements on its side face, such as flowing lines and round  windows similar to the portholes of a ship. The Central Post Office building, which was inaugurated a year earlier, was designed by architect Austin St. Barb Harrison. Its architectural uniqueness comes from its monumental and quiet character. One of its outstanding characteristics is a plinth built from the combination of white and black stone, a reminder of the Mameluke building in Jerusalem. Harrison used a similar principle in the façades of the Central Post Office building in Jaffa, but there the combination is of white and red stone.

The third building in this group is the Generali building constructed by the well known Italian architect Marcello Piacentini, who was connected to the Fascist ruling circles of Benito Mussolini. The building corner, simulating the prow of a ship, is accentuated by an impressive stone sculpture of a winged lion, the commercial symbol of the insurance company - thus defining the urban importance of Jaffa and Shlomzion Hamalka junction. The first plan was prepared in 1932 by Richard Kaufman. However, his plan - a 7 story convex building with curving lines in the international style, was rejected.

The quality of construction typical of this period is also expressed in 5 buildings, part of which are 3 stories high, located between Heleni Hamalka and Harav Kook. These buildings, separated by narrow lanes perpendicular to Jaffa St., create an impressive urban block. The buildings are situated at curb line, and their façades are carefully designed with high quality stone details and stylized metal work. 

Since the establishment of the state there has been a significant regression in the planning quality of many of the buildings constructed along Jaffa St., especially when compared to the buildings from the Mandate period. The majority of the new buildings have been erected without any real architectural or urban concept, and without a comprehensive vision of the functional level and appropriate appearance of the main street in a capital city of international standing.

The most obvious failures of the pre Six Day War  architecture are two highrises: Clal Center adjacent to Davidka square, and Hapoalim Bank on Zion square. At the time of their construction it was hoped that they would liven the center of Jerusalem, and the city administrators granted them exceptional building rights.

Those hopes, however, were not realized, and not only did the buildings fail to renew the street, but they actually accelerated its degeneration. Since the Zion cinema was closed in 1972, Zion square has gradually lost its importance as an entertainment center and social meeting place. The construction of the Clal Center on the corner of Jaffa and Kol Yisrael Haverim streets caused the destruction of most of the buildings comprising Kol Israel Haverim School - the first Jewish vocational college in Jerusalem, inaugurated in 1882. In their place, the large and heavy center was built, the lower part of which is used for commerce, and above -  a 14 story residential tower.

Clal Center was the first attempt to create a luxurious roofed shopping center in Jerusalem. However, since its completion in 1979 it has exemplified a typical Jerusalem commercial failure. It has neither anchor shops nor the continuity of small businesses, and, in addition to its activities ending in the early afternoon, none of the bank branches at the entrances are a sufficient source of attraction. Moreover, the building plan makes it hard to find ones way around; the wide granite surfaces create a very mournful effect; and the stone covering on the façades is too thin to withstand the ravages of the weather. Some of the tiles have fallen and the rest look dirty.

The failure of Clal Center stands out especially in view of the expectations it had generated, and because of the ”pioneering act” of its construction. In addition, this burning failure prevented a wide scope of investments in the city center, and caused entrepreneurs to look for more worthwhile alternatives on the periphery.

The most successful project along Jaffa St. since 1967 is Kiryat Hairiya (city council) on Safra square. The project combines 10 preserved and restored historical buildings, with 2 modern office buildings and 3 public squares. Its completion in 1993 created a high standard urban locality which contributed to the renewal of the neglected area around it. However, public criticism has been expressed about the lack of cultural and commercial functions in the surroundings. Indeed, one of the main reasons for the poor conditions of the city square and the city center around it, is the lack of commercial, cultural and entertainment functions that might nourish each other.

Two new buildings that were constructed in the last decade at the western end of Jaffa St. - Sharei Hair and the central bus station, express the current building taking place in Jerusalem, both in their scale and positioning along the curb line.

Sharei Hair (1997), planned by the Reznik office, is a 10 story office building whose concave shape defines Nordau square at the junction of Jaffa and Sharei Yisrael. The new bus station (2002), planned by Zeev Schoenberg, is a boxlike building of 8 stories following the curve-line of Jaffa St., with shops on the lower floors.

As said, Jaffa St. is at its lowest today esthetically and functionally. However, both its importance as the main street of the city and the quality of its historical buildings enhance its chances of being restored. There is no reason that the processes that have taken place in the centers of other cities around the world should not also take place in the center of Jerusalem - and Jaffa St. will once again be a lively and effervescent street with all its national significance.

The change from depression to prosperity can be achieved with a little more urban intelligence and less negligence. Along the street there are segments built with one or another historical importance. Among them there are some available areas with good potential for development. The architectural standard of construction in those areas will determine the future of the street and the city center around it.

* The article is based on excerpts of David Kroyankers book “Jaffa St., Jerusalem: a Biography of a Street - the Story of a City”, 2005. 

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