Souled Out?

Apr 25th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles

An interview with urban creativity guru Charles Landry, who warns that Tel Aviv may be neglecting its “good vibes.”

charles-landry-portraitCharles Landry describes himself as a strategic advisor to cities. “In my work, I try to combine the freshness of the outsider with the knowledge of the insider,” he says, “whilst being aware that, as an outsider, one can be ignorant, and as an insider one often does not see the wood for the trees.”

Considered an authority on harnessing the imagination and creative thinking to revive cities, Landry is the author of several books on the subject, including The Creative City and The Art of City Making. He was recently invited to speak at Tel Aviv’s Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability in early April.

His presentation at the conference, which was received with tumultuous applause, reflected his unique approach to advising cities. Displaying a series of photographs, shot the day before during an eight hour stroll through Tel Aviv, Landry proceeded to draw a string of surprisingly insightful conclusions about the city, its inhabitants and its leadership.

For the most part, he liked what he saw. Tel Aviv, said Landry, has good vibes. However, he warned, there were signs that the city is neglecting itself and the very things that make it great, choosing instead to relinquish control over its ongoing evolution to real estate developers.

There were also personal reasons that brought him to Israel. Landry’s parents were German intellectuals, he explains, who helped Jews escape the Nazis, and were eventually forced to flee Germany themselves.

How would you describe what you do?

My intention is to stimulate, challenge and to provoke when I am giving a talk. Overall, though, I think of myself as an ideas entrepreneur.

My overall aim nowadays is to change the intellectual architecture. In simple terms, this means moving from linear thinking and looking at cities in a fragmented way to thinking in a more rounded way, where we see the interconnections between things such as economics, culture, the environment, ethics, values and social issues.

I try to help cities make the best out of themselves. My approach is to be a ‘critical friend.'”

What is your method? What kinds of things are you looking for in cities?

After looking at places for over 30 years, I have a battery of things in my mind that I am looking out for. But at the same time I just let the city come at me, so that I can feel it instinctively. The first feeling is whether things are saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This is, so to say, my core methodology.

I look for things like: how are people interacting, is it easy to walk from place to place, how much asphalt is around (in most places far too much and the roads are ridiculously over-engineered), is this place more focused on the car or on people, is it put together by traffic planners or someone who understands vitality, is there appreciation of beauty? I look at how buildings hit the street. I ask myself ‘what kind of conversation is this environment having with me’, does it close off or does it open out?

Badly designed places and buildings exude a negative feeling. Energy, so to say, leaks out or drops, and you can see in these environments that they do not work well. Shops are unsuccessful, offices cannot be rented out.

What were your impressions of Tel Aviv?

I really liked some parts of Tel Aviv very much; indeed it had a very good vibe. My worry is that planners and developers are forgetting what is great about the city. Obviously the White City [is a great asset], but we must remember what was good about that style: the proportion, the human scale, a good level of density, a sense of intimacy with a sense of cosmopolitanism.

Instead of spending lots of money on some new big building, how about having an incentives scheme to redo the White City? That would put Tel Aviv on the global radar screen. What would have more effect, some basically not very interesting new building or a cared-for White City?

In essence the city does not look loved or cared for.

For instance, in some parts of Jaffa there was definitely a ‘no’ feeling, such as where the new developments are taking place and the Palestinian community seemed very wary. At the same time other parts of Jaffa were ‘ordinary’ in a good sense – life was just going on.

Equally, at the beginning of Rothschild Boulevard, where the new buildings are coming up, there was definitely a ‘no’ environment – a complete lack of understanding, expressed in the architecture, of how people respond to place, verging on placelessness.

We all know why this happens – a real estate logic that has been allowed to go wild. Of course, I love new buildings. But when they forget all urban design principles (and remember I am not an urban designer or planner or anything like that, I studied politics, history, economics), you know people have let themselves become detached from human desires and needs. These needs are interaction, communication, mixing. And this is the essence of the city.

Also importantly people want something that inspires and is aspirational, something that taps the soul and spirit. Often, planners think the performing arts centers or big galleries should fulfill that role, but they too often (even in Tel Aviv) are too imposing and difficult to relate to.

In your presentation, you discussed the over-rationality and technical, linear thinking that seems to dominate the design of the landscape. Is that kind of thinking wrong?

You cannot grasp the dynamics of the whole, e.g. the city and how it operates, by looking simply at the parts. You need a whole systems view of things. Technical rationality is very narrow, does not understand how people experience things, or what the value of feelings are. But the city is of course an emotional experience. Technical rationality results in creating much of the depressing environments we have.

In your presentation, you described Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers as “isolated blobs” lacking any sort of interface with the street. What kind of effect do you think tall buildings are having on the way people experience this city?

You can have high buildings, no problem. The issue is: how do they relate to the street? You need to layer buildings back so that they do not feel overwhelming. The central issue is maintaining a sense of human scale. For instance, I got out at Hashalom train station [adjacent to Azrieli Mall] on my way back from Haifa, and the amount of roads was unbelievable.

Were you impressed by the plans unveiled by the Tel Aviv Municipality at the conference?

I didn’t get a real sense of what all these projects were about, but I did not notice that the projects were geared to making people feel ‘I could fall in love with this place.’

To me, as an outsider, it’s not about new building projects. Far more important to me was the sense that Tel Aviv needs caring for. Right now, it just feels as if nobody really cares. Everything seems geared toward big, built form statements. Given your immense potential that is a pity. Build on the assets you have without being nostalgic.

If you were hired by the city of Tel Aviv, how would you advise them to start thinking about planning for the next 100 years?

The first thing I’d try to do is to get them to think differently – to combine soft and hardware thinking. Now the city would probably find that irritating, so I would focus on their global opportunities and the competition, and how you could maximize your position in that.

My aim would be to humanize the city. This is the big danger and if it is not addressed Tel Aviv is in real trouble, given all the other dilemmas there are in being Israel.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post’s Metro supplement on April 24, 2009 as “Conflicting Vibes” (pdf).

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  1. Thanks for providing the interview with Charles Landry, Jesse. The Art of City Making is an excellent book and Charles has inspired me and my website Cities for People.

    Thanks for a fascinating blog!

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