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Jerusalem is being rebranded for a new kind of tourist

Can the Open House concept work in a city as divided as Jerusalem? asks Rory Olcayto

I was in the old city of Jerusalem, the Muslim quarter, a few strides along from the Austrian Hospice and its tranquil walled garden, when a stranger, a middle-aged man, gripped my right arm and said: ‘Look up. That is Ariel Sharon’s house. But the guide books won’t tell you that. I can show you much more. Would you like that?’

When I looked up I saw a fine, and very solid, limestone house draped in an Israeli flag with a huge menorah on its roof. It straddled El Wad HaGai, narrow and rammed, and remarkably, like most streets in the Old City, navigable on Google Street View.

When I declined the services, the man muttered that I was ‘the same as the rest of them’. The former prime minister, after all, who died last weekend, was a divisive figure, whose purchase of the house in 1987 has been blamed for a growing trend among Jewish people to buy property in the Muslim quarter. No wonder he dismissed me so readily: how could I think that I could be a tourist in this divided city as if it was no different to being in Paris, Rome or New York?

Yet, that is what my host - the Israel Ministry of Tourism - was hoping for. Jerusalem is being rebranded for a new kind of tourist; foodies, for instance, or the kind that is interested in say, going to the opera or watching - or maybe running - a marathon. Or the kind of tourist interested in architecture, in design, in mid-century Modernism and loves Open House weekends. People like you, in other words.

Open House Jerusalem - yes, really - has been running since 2007, and is based on the Open House model pioneered by Victoria Thornton in London, and a tour of some of its highlights was the reason for my visit.

For much of the weekend, my guide was architect Alon Bin-Nun, who with his wife Aviva Lewinson manages the event known locally as ‘Houses from Within’. Bin-Nun is ex-OMA, runs his own practice in Tel Aviv, and teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He knows the city well and reckoned there would be 70,000 visitors to the 120 planned events in 2013 programme.

Bin-Nun deplores the religious tensions in the city and has tried hard to engage the Palestinians to take part, devising a section of the Open House programme called ‘Behind the Wall’ to do just that. Very few would take part however, for a multitude for reasons, not least because as Bin-Nun said: ‘They see it as part of Israel - and participation would mean state recognition.’

‘This is a very political, very stressed city,’ he added, more than a little aware of the absurdity of an Open House programme in city as divided, and closed off, as Jerusalem despite his passion and commitment.

Yet if it were possible to screen out the politics and examine the merits of Jerusalem’s architectural highlights, and not just the obvious, old, holy ones, visitors would find many interesting diversions.

Like the Israel Museum, by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, a sprawling, low-rise ’60s campus on a hill, extended in 2010 by James Carpenter Design Associates of New York and Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv.Or the incredible Jewish quarter housing, partly planned by Moshe Safdie, and who was among its first residents.

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Or the International Style Anglo-Palestine Bank (above) on Jaffa Street and Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus both by Erich Mendelsohn, both in limestone, along with every other new building because of a British Mandate stipulation that shapes architectural creativity in the city to this day. This is the problem facing Jerusalem Open House’s international prospects: it can’t be apolitical.

Or as Ilanit Melchior, Jerusalem’s tourism director told me: ‘Every time you touch stone here, there is a whole story that goes with it.’

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