Walls. What are they?
They can mean different things to different people. For instance, the association of many Brits with “walls” might be nothing more momentous than thinking about ice cream. Real walls can be made of brick or of concrete; they can be made of metal or they can be electrified. They can seal hermetically or they can be open-ended. A wall can be the membranous outer layer or lining of an organ or cavity such as the wall of the stomach or a line of soccer players forming a barrier against a free kick taken near the penalty area.
Walls can be structures that provide stability or they can be structures that divide; often, stability can only be guaranteed when a wall is constructed. Walls are things often regarded as protective or restrictive barriers. We are all familiar with the Berlin Wall, a structure that went up on August 13 1961 and was reported on BBC news on a Sunday afternoon when I was out with my parents in Phoenix Park, Dublin and it came down on, as most of us remember, on November 9 1989, thereby standing for a total of 10,315 days, physically separating West from East Berlin.
It was made of concrete and was the most physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s prescient “iron curtain [that] has descended across the Continent”, part of his by now famous speech “The Sinews of Peace”, delivered at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri on March 5 1946.
The Berlin Wall is just one of a whole series of walls that have been glorified by appending a descriptor to them. Just think: The Great Wall of China; Hadrian’s Wall; The Peace Wall in Belfast; the Separation Wall between Israel/Palestine; and, of course the much Trumpeted and Trumped up Wall that the Donald will finish building between the newly-great-again United States of America (believe it or not) and Mexico (and for which Mexico, of course, will pay).
In what now seems like another life, I once edited a special issue of the journal Political Geography. One of the articles, “Belfast: walls within”, was by Professor Fred Boal, a distinguished scholar from The Queen’s University, Belfast, who prefaced it with a quotation from Mending Wall:, a poem by Robert Frost, originally published in 1914.
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
The narrator of the poem, a New England farmer, contacted his neighbour about rebuilding the stone wall between their two farms. As they work, the narrator questions the purpose of a wall “where it is we do not need the wall”, noting on two occasions that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. Nevertheless, his neighbour sees the wall in a different light and replies twice: “Good fences make good neighbours”.
The Berlin Wall was more concerned with walling people in rather than with keeping marauders out whereas China’s Wall had the opposite aim. The Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem performed neither of these functions but stood as a symbol for the longing of a return to an historical homeland, which was eventually realised, if not quite in the way imagined by most of those who came to keen and pray at it.
However, Fred was writing about Belfast after the beginning of “The Troubles” in 1969, when rioting followed by ferocious paramilitary violence magnified the already pervasive segregation between Protestants and Catholics, (Loyalists and Republicans, mostly). Bombing, shooting, fire-raising, and intimidation almost overwhelmed this deeply divided city such that a series of physical barriers— ‘peace lines’, ‘peace walls’, ‘environmental barriers’— were constructed at ‘interfaces’, places where highly segregated Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods uneasily adjoined one another and were intended to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, localised conflict. When first constructed they were supposed to have been temporary but were still in situ decades later, with constant additions emplaced into the urban fabric. As might have been expected, the strangest thing about these walls was that unlike the Berlin Wall, they were open-ended; one could cross from a Catholic to a Protestant neighbourhood by detouring around the walls! They were truly Irish walls—which is why they were eventually called ‘peace lines’.
Belfast 2000: peace lines and ethnonational segregation.
But these barriers and partitions, impediments or enclosures, ramparts or obstacles, are not really the sort of wall I want to write about in this post. Although I once regarded myself as a political geographer (sort of—because at other times I thought of myself as a social and cultural geographer until I realised that these different labels were just facets of something else — human geographer), borders and barriers were never quite really my thing.
The kind of walls that catch my eye these days are what I see on my daily walks, mostly — but not solely — around North Tel Aviv. There, the walls offer the photographer (in other words, me) a veritable feast of images. This activity led me to think that in some ways, it might be fairly depressing to be an architect and especially one working in Tel Aviv, and particularly if s/he is working on multi-family residential buildings.
Just think about it a bit. An architect might spend months—years, perhaps—designing a residential building, working out how to use the available space efficiently so that the residents can get the most out it while simultaneously creating something that is aesthetic, and not just for those living in the building but also extramurally (in its literal sense), so that the building appears attractive to those looking at it from the street. One architect told me that she’s aware of all this and that thinks that the best thing to do in order to avoid disappointment and despondency is to photograph the work so that she can remember it as it was when the project had been completed. For, when the apartments are marketed and sold, the owners or tenants take over and then often proceed to dismantle much of the architect’s hard work. Inside, they might do anything from hanging pictures that don’t match to inserting closets that spoil the look of a room. Externally — and this is what concerns me — they might place objects such as bicycles, surfboards or washing machines on balconies or hang air-conditioning units or satellite dishes on the exterior walls. In Tel Aviv, they do all this and an awful lot more.
But before I get around to walls in Tel Aviv, which will be the subject of a later post, let me illustrate some images of walls and we can think of them as a control group.
Walls can be constructed of a variety of materials although stones, bricks and concrete are the three most common materials.
On occasion, walls need propping up, presumably because someone has worked out that it’s cheaper to use an existing structure than to build a new one from scratch.
Walls have long been used to fortify cities — to keep enemies out. Although this function has more or less become extinct, city walls remain in situ and, if nothing else, prove to be attractive tourist sites.
In a similar way, some walls are designed to keep the sea (another enemy) out — but when the sea is angry, that’s not always that successful!
Sometimes, walls are covered by ivy or other climbing plants, which, I imagine, can’t be very good for the wall’s health in the longer run and to its life expectancy!
And sometimes the façade is of a material that surprises you even when you’re expecting to see what you see. The example that immediately springs to mind is the magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, in which he uses extremely thin sheets of titanium as the outer skin of the building, causing the colour to change with the light conditions.
Yet other walls serve special purposes, such as the climbing wall in Yarqon Park (now demolished) or the wall surrounding the gardens at Buckingham Palace in London that tell the viewer—in no uncertain terms— “Keep Out!!!”
And this brings me to urban walls. I will expand on these images in a later post but here are three examples from Tel Aviv.
In the first image, very little impinges on the clean lines of the exterior walls of this single-family residential building on a quiet street in North Tel Aviv.
In the second picture, the side wall of an apartment building illustrates some of the uses that the architect never dreamed up — or if s/he did, their dreams were of the nightmarish variety. Railings, air-conditioning units and associated tubes and wires, open and enclosed balconies, added walls, a water storage tank, a chimney, wires for electricity and internet, blocked up gaps where an older form of air conditioner was once located and a wall added to the roof. Yes, it’s all there (well, nearly all!)
At first I thought that this mess only applied to side walls — but I was blind for a very long time. The eye becomes so used to this unattractiveness —no, really, it’s ugliness — that you become inured to it. In the third image in this set, the wall actually fronts on to the street. By-laws? Perhaps — but if there are, there’s little enforcement, it would seem!
To be continued…