Israeli Species of Spaces – Architectural Absurdity

Israeli Species of Spaces – Architectural Absurdity


Note: The following text is not a self-defence guidance manual or an instruction manual on how to build a protective space against conventional or non-conventional warfare attacks. These lines are only intended as discussion material and to demonstrate the architectural absurdity in which we live in Israel.

When I read Georges Perec’s book, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, I was aware of a few missing spaces for the Israeli reader. Or from another perspective, what other spaces would have been added to Perec’s book, if it were written by an Israeli. Perec gives a very interesting presentation of the following spaces: The page, the bed, the bedroom, the apartment, a space without use, staircases, the apartment building, the street, the neighbourhood, the town, the countryside, the village, the country, the world, space, and so on – forgive me if I neglected to mention them all. I will not go into all possible combinations here, and I do not intending to present a synopsis of his book here, I would just like to offer a few complementary paragraphs highlighting intrinsic elements of the character of Israel. I chose to complete my reading experience with some spaces of relevance to the Israeli reader that will, I believe, be interesting illustrations of aspects of life in our country. I chose to introduce the following spaces from my personal point of view.


The Israeli species of space:

The Bomb Shelter

The Safe Room (Mamad)

The Protected space

The Portable Bomb Shelter (Migunit)

The Sealed Room (1992)

The Personal Space

* I recommend reading Perec’s book before reading this. It is a special book with many subtle observations about the space in which we live – shattering the conventionality of accepted perceptions of space.


In the photograph: Children playing on top of the bomb shelter


The Bomb Shelter

A bomb shelter is an underground structure designed to protect civilians during a conventional attack, such as shelling, long-range missile and aerial attacks, and all other types of attack using conventional weapons that could harm civilians. Public bomb shelters were built to provide a protective response to the sounding of an air raid siren for passers-by or people living in pre-70s buildings not equipped with a built-in bomb shelter or protective room.

The larger part of the shelter construction is concealed below ground, but its entrance is visible at ground level. Usually, just an iron door separates the shelter from the exterior. Behind the door, there are steps leading underground, and the exterior of the shelter seems to follow the path of these steps giving the building the appearance of a right-angled triangle. At the bottom of the stairs, there is a heavy door, sealed and robust. The bomb shelter has no windows; instead, there are air vents that usually protrude at ground level like bent cylinders. The shelter is made of thick reinforced concrete that is resistant to conventional bombs.

In every residential area in Israel, there are shelters scattered all over town, whether in the moshavim, the kibbutzim, the communal settlements or the villages, in border settlements or in central urban districts. There are different types of shelters in Israel, but the most common are the public shelters, which serve, inside and outside, as meeting spaces for the surrounding community – a point which I shall discuss later. In addition, there are shelters in residential buildings serving the residents of the house.

A public shelter is located in each and every neighbourhood. Most shelters are integrated into the town’s green space. They are part of the public parks and playgrounds. Sometimes it seems to me that the public parks and playgrounds around the bomb shelters are like Eli Cohen’s eucalyptus trees. The outer slope of the bomb shelter forms a reinforced concrete slide – great fun for kids to climb up and slide down. I remember a shelter like that at my elementary school. It was a test of courage for a first-grade child to climb up onto the shelter and slide down the slope. We spent a lot of our school breaks enjoying that slab of reinforced concrete.


In the photograph: A bomb shelter in one of the settlements in northern Israel

We would use the shelter space for hobby classes in art, carpentry, electric/electronic model building, and reading – we called it the “library shelter”. Most of our hours underground were spent pursuing activities completely unrelated to the shelter’s defensive image.

In particular, I remember the art classes that were run in the shelter. Apparently, because there was no suitable space to hold them above ground, they decided to bury our art underground.
I remember coloured crayons strokes on brown paper. To this day, I can recall the smell of the crayons, and I believe that some of these art works can still be found in my parents’ attic.

Every year at the school, without fail, they ensured that we were drilled in the use of the shelter. Sirens were sounded in the town, and we all filed down into the underground structure, where we remained until the end of the exercise. At one of the schools where I was a pupil, the school library was located in the bomb shelter, and when we needed a moment of quiet, thought and creativity, we would go down there. I do not know to this day what led them to set up a library in a shelter, whether it was due to lack of space or to the librarian’s fearful safeguarding of the books.

In our country, it seems that bomb shelters are not unique to any generation, and my children also use them both for games and for self-defence. I take my children to the recreation park, and when they get bored with the conventional playground equipment, they make a beeline for the shelter structures jutting out of the ground, and set themselves challenges, like climbing, turning somersaults, and so on. At exactly the same time, other children elsewhere in Israel are going down into the shelter and using it for their protection, as intended, and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Inside the shelter, there is a large room equipped with a sink and a toilet. Often, there are beds and mattresses stored there, as well as a few seats. The nearer the bomb shelter is to a conflict area in Israel, the more provisions there are for a longer stay, whereas in non-conflict areas, it is used more for social and play activities.

The public shelter in an apartment block is designed as a safe space for all residents of the building, but when it is needed and if the warning-time is brief, it is not practical for residents on the upper floors. Consequently, new regulations require every home in Israel to have a built-in safe room (mamad), and this is further discussed below. In many parts of the State of Israel, the bomb shelters in apartment blocks have become storage rooms in which you can find anything from old pictures to the abandoned sofa of a former tenant, old coffee tables, rickety chairs, children’s bikes, bottled water in case of need, and more.

In the photograph: Residents in the communal shelter during “Tzuk Eytan – Operation Protective Edge”, July 2014

Looking at another aspect of shelters in playgrounds and public spaces, it is possible to observe an effort to soften and disguise the reinforced concrete by covering it with wood, or painting and illustrations from the children’s world. In the children’s play area near our house, the shelter has been decorated with characters from the story of Winnie the Pooh. Children and parents alike delight in using images such as these to tell a story or ask questions about the characters. During my many visits to the park, I have never heard a child asking about those structures sticking out of the ground, and no parent ever chooses to elaborate to the children on the nature of those structures.

Recently, I have sought to examine a different aspect of the shelters. For all that people try to embellish them in playgrounds with bold colours and characters from children’s stories, I still see them as reinforced and suffocating concrete, and. I remember my claustrophobic feeling inside a bomb shelter during practice drills in elementary school.

The Israeli bomb shelter is not a historical monument, it is alive and in use. The shelter is put to practical use frequently in different parts of the country, at various times. (Up to here, the text was written about a month before “Tzuk Eytan”).


The Safe Room (Mamad)

As I was writing these lines, conflict began to flare up again in the Gaza Strip, leading the majority of Israel’s population to encounter once again the Israeli species of spaces – the bomb shelter, the safe room and the portable bomb shelter (magonit). There are those who live in such close proximity to the Gaza Strip that the warning time before the bombing is insufficient. They must be within reach of the protected space or even spend a large part of the day inside it. Then, there are those who are further away from the Gaza Strip, and enjoy a warning time of ninety long seconds to reach the protected space. It was a matter of chance that the “Tzuk Eytan” operation in Gaza infiltrated these lines. I started writing about the Israeli species of spaces several months before the July, 2014 conflict. Since then, the shelters in playgrounds frequented by children were opened up, and this time not for hobby circles but to provide protection to the children playing in the park.

Golda Meir said: ‘We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will have peace with the Arabs only when they love their children more than they hate us.” These three sentences explain the cycle of fear that enveloped the so-called Israeli leaders of Aug 2014. If Golda Meir had stopped after her first sentence, things might have been different here.

Yehuda Amichai wrote that “God has pity on the kindergarten children”. But I am quite certain that he did not spare them either. There are some without any protected space at all, while others have a protected space but no opportunity to use it.

Returning to the safe room (mamad), it is an ordinary room to all intents and purposes. It is built of reinforced concrete with heavy steel windows and a heavy steel door, just like the shelters. The safe room concept does not derive from any school of interior design and is not taught as part of the curriculum in any of the schools of architecture and interior design where the language of discussion is Italian. A safe room is the last room in the house, or in other words, the room to which the least attention is paid. It is added at the end, only if no other rooms are available. The safe room is often used as store-room, a training room with neglected tracks, a study, playroom or guest bedroom.

If the owner adds an extension to the house, this will always be the last addition. He will call it the extra room, but it is a space of confinement, a room without benefits.


The Protected Space

A protected space is an area that offers protection against missile attacks, although it is not designed for that purpose. Often, it is used by passers-by on the street or tenants in older buildings with no safe room. (Recently, when building office blocks and public service buildings, protected spaces have been designated in the building plans, and they are also built more robustly than any other room in the building). As a rule, any room that has no wall, windows or ceiling in direct contact with the exterior may be correctly considered a protected space. For example, the stairwell in some buildings is defined as a protected space.

At the end of July 2014, I was working in an office block, and when the air raid siren sounded we went out of the office into the stairwell. Unexpectedly, that stairwell became unusable, and all visitors to the building found themselves dispersed in stairwells on dozens of floors – an inherently surrealistic scene. The protected space is for instant use, and is not intended for a long stay. After the rocket has fallen, everyone returns from the protected space to continue their work. This is in contrast to the shelter, which is designed for an extended stay.

As a rule, Israeli species of spaces deal with the issue of personal safety. In situations where there is no discussion and resolution of the question of suitable living conditions – people live in protected spaces. And in general, how can the word ‘space’ be associated with protection, when a protected space, by definition, lacks space. It is suffocating. Imagine a knight wearing iron armour or a soldier wearing a heavy ceramic bullet-proof vest. Does the term “space” also apply to them?

Space is associated with freedom, peace, neighbourliness and wellbeing. In Perec’s book, he describes the concept of space “on Earth” and “in Space” – the Israeli species of space, by contrast, integrates protection on the virtual plane – those kinds of protection not associated with reinforced concrete, such as anti-missile missiles, iron domes, Qassam rockets and arrow missiles, which create a safe virtual space for us with no clear boundaries. This gives us a sense of security “on Earth” and “in Space”, as referred to by Perec. The virtual sense of security resembles that provided by a protected space.

The virtual protected space is, to a large extent, the reason for things not getting outmoded and the obsession that perpetuates the sorry state of Zionism.


The Portable Bomb Shelter (Migunit)

The portable bomb shelter (Migunit) is a means of defence against attack by conventional weaponry. The portable bomb shelter is composed of a concrete block located on the surface of the public or private space, and its purpose is to serve people who are outside and in need of shelter or who have no safe room or access to shelter in their homes. The portable bomb shelter can have several different forms: Some look like large concrete sewer pipes and others are in the form of reinforced concrete rooms located on the public space surface. The portable bomb shelters are distributed mainly in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and in settlements relatively close to the Strip.


In the photograph: A portable bomb shelter (migunit) in a public park in a Gaza Strip settlement


The Sealed Room (1992)

Sealed room is a concept dating from the Iraq war that took place in 1992 after the then Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel in the face of the American humanitarian intervention in Iraq. Ultimately, the threat of the use of chemicals did not come to fruition, and only conventional, long-range missiles were sent to Israel. Nonetheless, the Israeli home front prepared protection against the chemical threat, and every home and office was equipped with a sealed room. A sealed room is like a safe room or protected space which includes do-it-yourself protection: House windows facing outside were covered with a web of sticky tape, and the windows and doors were sealed with nylon sheeting secured with sticky tape. When an alarm was sounded, triggered by the “Nahash Tzefa” emergency code (meaning Viper), we would run to the sealed room in the house, closing the door behind us and sealing it with the nylon sheeting and tape. We sealed the bottom of the door with a damp rag, and wore gas masks. While we were in the sealed room, we would listen to the radio for the all-clear to leave the sealed room. I remember the sounding of the first alarm, to this day. I got out of bed in the middle of the night, and took my most valuable possessions with me – my running shoes.


Personal Space

Personal space is the space in which each and every individual exists. This is a virtual space that behaves like a shadow. Wherever we go, our personal space will accompany us: in a room, at home, on the train, on the street. The virtual space has dynamic limits, depending on location and context. If I pass a neighbour in the street, I will greet him politely and perhaps exchange a word or two with him. If I meet a sibling in the same street, I will hug him/her, and embark upon a personal conversation that goes beyond common courtesy. I might also accompany the person I meet, joining his personal space.

Personal space depends on codes of behaviour. If I wanted to listen to music on the street, I will put on headphones and keep the sound waves within my private space. If I want to listen to music at home, I will use an amplifier while maintaining the sound waves within the acceptable home limits. The individual is the one who controls the boundaries of his personal space while considering those in his vicinity. Personal space is very vulnerable because it is not perceptible to the eye, it has no visible border, and there is no fence, wall or outline drawn around us. It is the area at virtual boundary defined by codes of behaviour.

The Israeli personal space is intruded upon and not respected: For example, the person who wants to hear music in the street and does not use headphones, or who opens his car windows while increasing music volume to reach beyond the limits of the car, intrudes upon many personal spaces around him.

As a rule, Israelis find it very hard to conduct themselves without clearly defined physical boundaries. Many Israelis, when they walk down the street and encounter house windows that are not closed, will allow their gaze to penetrate those houses. This behaviour also constitutes an invasion of the personal space of those family members. So, you can see that many Israelis use screening devices, such as curtains, and tinted or unidirectional windows. In this way, they maintain their privacy and avoid friction.

There are cultures in which awareness of personal space is clear and as deeply embedded as a birthmark in the community consciousness. In some cultures, the preservation of personal space is even specified in laws and regulations. For example, in Switzerland there are restrictions on the hours when you can run your washing machine and dryer, and there is even a time after which you may not flush your toilet in apartment blocks.


In the photograph: A shelter in a school

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