Swedish style to transform Bethlehem

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The Independent Online
Bethlehem is getting a Scandinavian facelift for the Millennium.

Eric Silver in Jerusalem says that although the architect is Scandinavian, the birthplace of Jesus is not about to get an Ikea workover.

Snorre Linquist, a 62-year-old Swedish architect, has won an international competition for rehabilitating Manger Square, which has long been the supreme anticlimax of the Christian world. The Swedish government signed up this week to fund the scheme, the biggest of 91 projects designed to beautify the West Bank city for the 2,000th anniversary of its most famous Son.

The look will be more Middle Eastern than Scandinavian. "If you compared it with the buildings I've done in Sweden," Mr Linquist said yesterday, "you wouldn't think it was the same architect."

His most recent work, the geography building at Stockholm University, is all wood and concrete. The new Manger Square will be local, honey-coloured limestone, cool arcades and shaded corners. Middle Eastern, but avoiding the Arabian Nights kitsch of the 1970s town hall that stands at the far end of the square from the Byzantine Church of the Nativity.

"If you look at the old houses in Bethlehem," Mr Linquist explained, "it's built up with cubistic elements. I've reflected that and enhanced the view of the church."

Vehicles will be banished from the square, which will be paved with stone and scored with trees. Weary pilgrims will be able to dip their feet in six artificial wells, or drink Turkish coffee in a pavilion.

The ugly cement police station, which has blighted the square under British, Jordanian and Israeli rule, is to be torn down. It will be replaced by a two-storey cultural centre, complete with restaurant and bookshop, auditorium, museum of religions, and art gallery.

Work began this week on cleaning up the old market behind the town hall, the first of the 91 "Bethlehem 2000" schemes. All of them together are budgeted to cost $150m (pounds 94m). The Christian Arab mayor, Hanna Nasser, confessed yesterday that so far he had raised only $10m, with donations from France and Spain, as well as Sweden.

Bethlehem has been impoverished by a 10-year decline in tourism, dating back to the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada, and by Israel's reluctance to invest there. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which took over just before Christmas, 1995, has little money to spare.