Ashdod: A big little city with a touch of glass

Glass trim accentuates the rounded corners of buildings surrounding the large square from which a gigantic needle rises.

The people's choice: A replica of a synagogue in Soviet Georgia.

Pyramid power: Just like the Louvre.

First there was an idea for a power station, followed by an idea for a deep port. These were the inauspicious seeds from which the city of Ashdod sprouted in 1956, on a bare stretch of sand bounded by a boulevard of old sycamores.

There had been a city here in antiquity. The Canaanites, the Philistines, the Israelites—and all the other usual suspects—had come and gone. Until 1948 there was an Arab village here, Isdud, that became the Egyptian army’s northernmost position during Israel’s War of Independence.

But modern Ashdod, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv, was a whole new entity. It was to be built according to a plan chosen by competition. The neighborhoods would be ranged around a business and administrative center and each would be self-contained with all the necessary services. It seemed like a very green idea that was ahead of its time.

Then the city grew like Topsy. By the end of the 1980s it had 80,000 residents. Though it was originally envisioned as an industrial city that would absorb new immigrants, its planners came to realize the tourism potential of their coastline. In the 1990s they planned a new, impressive entrance to the city: a broad east-west boulevard that would be lined by high-rise buildings, pass under a large square, and eventually reach the sea and the new marina. Ashdod was a wannabe Tel Aviv.

The buildings surrounding the large square were to have commerce on the ground floor, offices on the next two floors, and apartments above. The developers were skeptical that Ashdod would ever need so many offices, said Niki Davidov, of Mazor First Architects, the firm that planned the new business and administrative center along the boulevard. But the developers were proven wrong, said Davidov, one of three architects and urban planners who, on the last day of 2010, led a tour that offered a glimpse of how the city had taken shape.

In the early 1990s developers were promised monetary incentives if they could put up inexpensive apartment buildings in just eight months to house the flood of immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They cut corners wherever they could, for example by using cheap materials for the parapets on the balconies, which are now rusting and unsightly.

But the high-rises surrounding the square have a touch of glass to give them an inexpensive touch of class. Architect Haim Dotan said he showed the developers pictures of New York’s Flatiron Building to persuade them to use glass to accent the rounded corners of the buildings.

The raised square itself, which is nearly inaccessible, serves no apparent purpose except to support a giant needle that looks like a transplant from a provincial Russian city. Just off the square, residents have built a replica of a synagogue in Soviet Georgia. Ornamented with fluted pilasters and gilded capitals, it is everything their apartment buildings are not. The architects tsk-tsked, but Davidov reminded them that a city belongs to its residents.

And now back to glass, which was part of the sad story of Ashdod’s still-unfinished auditorium, in the culture complex farther west on the boulevard. The original design, by the well-known Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, had a glass roof, perhaps suited to northern climes but impossible in Ashdod’s steamy summers. The city scrapped the design and handed over the project to Dotan, whose seashell-inspired building is still under construction.

But the city—now home to nearly 210,000 residents (and the third poorest in the country, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak)—could not escape delusions of grandeur and the lure of glass-class. The Ashdod Museum of Art—Monart Center, which opened in 2003, has a glass pyramid entrance, which, according to one of the architects on the tour, is “just like the Louvre.” Well, almost.

Text and photod copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.


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