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"A Tale of Two Cities": an interview with Els Verbakel, Belgian-born architect and academic

"A Tale of Two Cities": an interview with Els Verbakel, Belgian-born architect and academic
© Els Verbakel

Belgian-born architect and academic, Els Verbakel, who heads the graduate program for Urban Design at Jerusalem's prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, chats about how she found Tel Aviv to be right up her alley


Tell us a bit about yourself.


I have a Masters from Columbia University in Urban Design. While studying there, I met my partner in life and business, and also earned my PhD from Princeton in Architecture. We started our practice, Derman Verbakel Architecture, in New York in 2001, and we specialize in Urban Design. We moved to Tel Aviv in 2006. Currently I am heading the Graduate Program in Urban Design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.


© Yuval Tebol

Why Tel Aviv?


My partner is Israeli. We came to a point where either we would stay in New York forever, or we would need to move right away.  We had some professional opportunities here and we decided to give it a one year try, which turned into 11 years. We live in Jaffa and one of our main clients is the Municipality of Tel Aviv; right now we are creating a new strategic plan for the whole city. 


What do you love about Tel Aviv?


It’s an easy city to love, quite small in size, but very rich in culture, leisure, beach life, excellent food and great weather. It’s a bubble, but a friendly one. Tel Aviv has a special urban fabric and history. It is basically two cities–the historic Jaffa, a classic story of an ancient city, and in parallel, the city of Tel Aviv, which was built on the Scottish Urbanist Patrick Geddes’ theory of garden cities. His concept of bringing green qualities to urban life can still be seen in central Tel Aviv. My first impression of Tel Aviv was “Why do they call it the White City?” In fact, it feels like a very green city, which is very different from cities in Belgium.


Gan Ya'akov
© Ron Henzel


Favorite places to visit in the city?


It’s very interesting that visitors automatically end up in places of little architectural interest, like the Allenby/Ben Yehuda intersection, which are the least representative areas of the Tel Avivian mood. I would recommend places like the Noga neighborhood, Florentin, and the Jaffa Flea Market.


How is it to teach here?


My students are diverse. The Israeli-Jewish students have a lot of life experience, so they come to the program more critical, focused, and opinionated. I teach many Arab-Israelis and Palestinians, so the topic of “space” can be a hot one. It leads to interesting discussions about how to share and use space, and dimension.


What does the urban future of Tel Aviv look like?

Tel Aviv aims to be a forward-thinking leader in the future of urban design in Israel. In the next 30 years, the concept of a street will change dramatically, they will become more fluid: one day hosting a street party, the next day a market, then at peak times on Sunday mornings they will be reserved for traffic.

The idea of public and private spaces will change, too. We have seen the beginning with shared cars, and will continue to see its effect over the next five years–shared cars, electric bikes, taxi drones...who knows? Even though we haven’t built our light rail yet, it is already old news.


© Rubinstein Felix