Architecture in Israel 1995-1998

Architecture in Israel 1995-1998


 The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1995/99-100
The State of the Arts: Architecture in Israel
(updated 1998)

Ran Shechori

Bat Yam Town Hall; architects: Eldar Sharon, Zvi Hecker and Alfred Neumann, 1962










Carmel Hospital, Haifa; architect: Yacov Rechter, 1978










Ort Technical College, Jerusalem; architects: Nadler, Nadler and Bikson-Gil, 1974










Jerusalem Shopping Mall; architects: Yoski Associates in collaboration with mall owner David Azriel, 1990-93










Mivtakhim Sanatorium, Zichron Yaacov; architect: Yacov Rechter, 1968











Wherever they settle, migrants tend to build the land of their origins. When the push towards a large European settlement began in Jerusalem in the middle of the 19th century, the Christians built their edifices in the styles they brought with them: the Russians built the Russian Compound like a fortress, the centre-piece of which is a church with its onion-shaped domes, surrounded by Crusader-like hospices in large, elongated structures. Nearby, the Ethiopians built in their own style. The Templars created neighbourhoods in Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa, based on town plans originating in Southern Germany. The Europeans brought to the Middle East terraced monumental housing structures made from large blocks, which were suited to northern climes, the sloping, tiled roofs which could withstand snowstorms, and building technology using wood which was not available here.

Christian building was characteristically imperialistic. The religious motivation was merely a transparent cover for political purposes obtaining access to and influence on the weak and tottering Ottoman Empire at a time when all the western nations were intent on dividing up its properties. The churches and monasteries, schools and orphanages, hospitals and embassies, were first and foremost a creation of facts, obtaining a foothold through "settlements." Above the roofs of Jerusalem there arose church spires, which competed with and dwarfed the minarets of the mosques.

Since there were no local skilled builders at the beginning of the 19th century the English had even been forced to import stonecutters from Malta no antagonism was felt towards the foreign styles that sprouted on the local landscape. Consciously or not, that century witnessed the belated victory of the Crusaders, with the creation of a Christian presence in the Holy Land, which took over the educational and welfare system and began the Europeanization of this part of the world.

The local population began to copy the European styles of building. Wealthy Arab families who had left the Old City began building villas and mansions in the European style, albeit heavily decorated with traditional Moslem embellishments. The cities that were then growing adopted European terraced housing and the sloping red-tiled roofs.

The Jews, who had lived till then in homes rented from Arabs, also began to establish their own independent neighbourhoods. Mishkenot Shaananim (lit. "tranquil dwellings") was the first such area in Jerusalem. It was built with the help of the British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, in 1860, as a series of long buildings topped by sloping, red-tiled roofs. The Jewish Bukharan community built its neighbourhood in the north of the city as an enclosed locality with large, standardized houses, also with tiled roofs. In the same way, Meah Shearim ("Hundred Gates") and Nahlaot ("Inheritances") were built in Jerusalem and, in the same style, Neve Tzedek ("Dwellings of Righteousness") and Neve Shalom ("Dwelling of Peace") near Jaffa.

Ever since then, three distinguishing features have characterized Eretz-Israel architecture:

a) Buildings unrelated to the local context;

b) Red-tiled roofs, which came to symbolize the Jewish presence and represented the idealized "home";

c) Closed-off "ghettoized" buildings that were ethnically, religiously and socially homogeneous. The desire to live apart from the Arab population led to a similar wish to live separately from Jews of different communities and those coming from different places in the Diaspora.

In the 1920s, as the wave of building among the Jewish population reached its peak following the increased numbers of people coming in the waves of immigration, Tel Aviv grew out of deep yearnings for eastern European cities. Beneath the blue skies and searing sun, engineers and architects hailing from Russia and Poland rebuilt Odessa, Moscow and Warsaw. They built with the morphology, motifs and styles suited to the climate of eastern Europe large, wide windows, balconies, turrets and towers, attics, and ornamentation.

This eclectic concept was sufficiently flexible to dovetail into the "Oriental" movement, which sprang up during that period and which had influenced painting, literature, theatre, dance, and music. It adopted the ideology of returning to the period of the Bible and perceived a parallel between the return of the Jewish people to its own land and the culture of the ancient Mediterranean. The Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, designed by Yosef Berski in 1910, contained features from Mesopotamia (birthplace of Abraham, founding father of the Jewish people) and local Arabic elements, inside the contours of a monumental European building. This is equally true of the Technion in Haifa, designed by Alexander Baerwald, and of Yosef Minors Bialik House in Tel Aviv, an exquisite villa with typical Moslem elements such as wooden bay windows and narrow, arched windows, a truncated dome-shaped ceiling, and biblical-style ceramics designed at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem.

A similar spirit informed the British architects who were invited to Palestine by the Mandate authorities. Holiday, Harrison and Chaiken brought with them an English imperialist world-view of high-quality British building, making gestures in honour of the local culture, samples of which in Jerusalem are Harrisons pool and interior courtyard at the Rockefeller Museum, or Holidays arches and Armenian ceramics in the Scottish church.

Jewish contextual building was caught in an awkward ambivalence. On the one hand, people from the first waves of immigrants saw in Arab culture the conservation of the biblical tradition. The return to the land of the Patriarchs was a return to the days of the Bible, to Jewish sovereignty, to working the soil, to the ancient shepherd and peasant, to mythical heroes and ancient lifestyles. All these were embodied to a large extent in the way of life of the Arab and the Bedouin, which many of the first settlers in the new Jewish colonies and later, members of the Palmah, adopted and copied. An intimate bond was forged between the vision of a "people in its land" and the Arab presence.

On the other hand, Oriental Romanticism became untenable when faced with a real war between Arabs and Jews. After the disturbances of 1921 and 1929 and the forging of a Palestinian national identity in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the dream of integrating into the Arab world was shattered.

Without noticing it, the "Crusader concept" the importing of a foreign culture took hold in the country, together with a feeling of distance and superiority over the local inhabitants. What was now stressed was difference and uniqueness. The Jewish village, the kibbutz and moshav, symbolized by small houses with white walls and red roofs built in a planned, neat, standardized manner, and surrounded by an abundance of plant life contrasted to the Arab village, which developed organically from the ground, willy-nilly, scattered, random and unplanned, lacking greenery or trees. The Jewish water tower became a symbol of the Jewish settlement, in contra-distinction to the Moslem minaret.

In the 1930s, a number of young architects returned to Palestine after a period of studies in Paris, Berlin, Ghent and elsewhere. The rise to power of the Nazis led to the immigration of architects who had absorbed the spirit of western European avant-gardism. The common denominator that united them was opposition to the prevailing local eclecticism, and a contemporary concept of building within the local context. This concept rejected narrative or symbolism, ornamentation or decoration, but sought a purely abstract functionalism.

Le Corbusier, in his search for novel, healthy, enlightened, hygienic and efficient architectural forms, discovered the Mediterranean and the "white cities" of southern Spain, the French Riviera, southern Italy, Greece and Turkey, as well as the cities of North Africa with their cubist-like flat roofs and white walls broken up into small units. He transformed these principles into the dominant elements of his work and brought the Mediterranean to Paris, just as those who were influenced by him brought back this "modern" Mediterranean style to the streets of Tel Aviv. Talented architects such as Arieh Sharon, Zev Rechter, Dov Carmi, Yosef Neufeld, Sam Barkai and others built up the "white city" in Tel Aviv, not as a reflection of Odessa or Warsaw, but as a pure Mediterranean creation, which lived and breathed the local climate and atmosphere.

Prior to these architects was Richard Kauffman who came to Palestine from Germany at the invitation of Dr. Arthur Ruppin in 1920. Kauffman planned more than 150 settlements, kibbutzim, neighbourhoods and towns, and more than anyone else, he was responsible for the physical layout of Jewish settlements in Palestine and for creating a local building language. The villages, such as Nahalal, which he designed, were essentially different from those of Europe. He sought inspiration for the "Ideal City" from the 15th century and from mediaeval monasteries in order to give an urban expression to his concept of the ideal village or neighbourhood in the Land of Israel.

He showed sensitivity to conditions of climate, and in a school he built in Kibbutz Degania in 1928, he utilized a common Arabic element the taka a small, round window located under the line of the ceiling, in order to release the hot air trapped between the top of the window and the ceiling. Instead of copying the taka exactly, Kauffman designed narrow, long windows running along the entire length of the walls in the classrooms. Above the roof he built a lightweight canopy to provide shade and to protect the building from direct sunlight. In later residential buildings in Tel Aviv, he built simple roofs above the windows and a cement "apron" above the balconies which cast permanent shade at the front of the house during the summer months. In the winter, when the sun is low in the sky, it could penetrate into the interior of the house.

The modern approach of Kauffman and other architects in the 1930s created the typical Israeli, and especially Tel Avivian, architecture, in that it was the first to relate to the local physical and climactic conditions. The modern, clean, young and clear line also projected aesthetically Eretz-Israel as a new country and underlined the metaphor of Zionism as revitalized youthfulness.

Only in the 1960s was there a serious effort to develop an Israeli architectural style in a wider sense. One of the most interesting attempts to build a regional structure in a modern-local style was the municipal building in Bat-Yam designed by Eldar Sharon, Zvi Hecker and Alfred Neumann. They located the structure on one side of a large square, like a Greek agora, remains of which have been found in many places in the eastern Mediterranean basin. The building itself is a three-storey inverted pyramid, which casts a shadow upon itself. Wind shafts, similar to those developed in the Persian Gulf, speed the movement of air in the central atrium-like area, towards which the municipal offices face. The building is dominated by strong shades of blue, red and gold and covered with rhomboids and elements reminiscent of Moslem lattice work. Details of the building are influenced by Le Corbusiers late phase enriched by rough-case concrete sculpture work. This was a courageous attempt to enter into a dialogue with the local culture and its tradition of building, not by imitation and copying of elements removed from their functional and cultural connection, but an attempt to build a modern, contemporary "Israeli" structure.

In the 1970s, there was a return to the Crusader tradition. Yakov Rechters Carmel Hospital in Haifa, the Beit Ariella Library in Tel Aviv, designed by Moshe Lupenteller and Giora Gremerman, the ORT school on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, designed by Nadler, Nadler and Bikson, and Ram Karmis faculty of humanities building on Mount Scopus, like many other buildings in the same period, were influenced by Crusader structures and by European and American "brutalism," particularly that of Paul Rudolf. They are characterized by an aggressive, fortress-like vigour, with enclosed interior areas, an abundance of towers, truncated corners, leaning walls, narrow windows and large areas of exposed concrete.

It is possible that this phenomenon was an expression of the feelings of dominance following the Six-Day War of 1967 or of the fears that existed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Yet it was also an attempt to create a link with a clear-cut symbol of the countrys past.

The post-modernism of the 1980s prepared the ideological ground for a dialogue with the past and the search for a regional architecture. It led to a search for Arab-Moslem elements such as those in Shlomo Aharonsons Suzanne Dellal Square, Tel Aviv, which was influenced by features borrowed from Islamic Spain, particularly Seville small citrus trees, water channels, blue-glazed ceramics. Similar elements can be found in Beit Shmuel in Jerusalems Hebrew Union College, designed by Moshe Safdie.

The majority of architects seeking to incorporate eastern features in their buildings turned to the distant Islam of the far west, in Spain, rather than to more local Arab building.

A serious attempt to come to grips with the local building tradition is apparent in the Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem, designed by Ram Karmi and Ada Karmi-Melamede and opened in 1992. It makes rich and wide-ranging references to the whole lexicon of Eretz-Israel building over the centuries, starting with Herodian structures, through the Hellenistic tomb of Absalom, the Crusaders, Greek Orthodox monasteries, and up to the British Mandate period. This outpouring is organized in a complex, almost baroque structure, built out of contrasts light-shade, narrow-wide, open-closed, stone-plaster, straight-round, and a profusion of existential experiences.

Is there in all this the crystallization of an "Israeli style of architecture"? Over the years, clear evidence of a national style has emerged. It is beholden to modern building, sensitive to changing fashions and styles in the world, and flows from the economic, technological, cultural and political pressures within the country. Building technologies with concrete were quickly absorbed in the 1920s when the sector had to adjust to the lack of skilled building workers and the absence of an industrial infrastructure. Apart from Karl Rubins Beit Hadar in Tel Aviv in the 1930s, building with metal, which hardly existed in Israel, has come to the fore only recently.

Eretz-Israel was built by its Jewish citizens as a European outpost within the hostile Arab Orient. Even when, as recently, it engages in a dialogue with the local tradition, it remains conscious of western qualities and its ties to European and American architecture.

The majority of Israeli building is still clearly extra-contextual, as exemplified by the many shopping malls built in the last decade. The mall is a bubble of dream and fantasy, cut off from the city and the street, creating a type of "American" territory cut off from the climactic and cultural surroundings. An artificial micro-climate pervades the large interiors; McDonalds and Pizza Hut feed the hungry; bright, artificial lighting illumines the shops, and everything reeks of prosperity and universal consumerism, isolated from Israeli realities and the fading neighbourhood buildings on the other side of the walls.

Many recently-built tall office buildings also take their exteriors and interiors from another, alien world. If once yearnings were directed to Odessa, today Israel styles itself after Manhattan and Los Angeles. Massive curtain walls of dark glass conceal transparent elevators, and elegant carpets and art deco furniture pervade every corner.

One building that is encouraging is the sanatorium of the Mivtachim Health Insurance Company in Zikhron Yaakov, for which the designer Yaakov Rechter won the Israel Prize. The building is complex and clever, and reveals a profound sensitivity to the landscape and layout of the land. It follows the soft lines of the topography of the mountain and slope and is open along its entire length to a scenery of sea and valley.

During the past two decades, awareness of conservation and restoration has been on the rise, in contrast to the bulldozer solutions, which typified the 1970s when, in order to exploit the economic potential of urban real estate, entire areas were threatened with destruction. One such example was the plan to destroy the entire areas in Jerusalem of Nahlaot and Mahaneh Yehuda and erect skyscrapers in their stead (the Clal Building and the City Tower in the centre of the city are two reminders of this plan).

The needs of a modern city for fast, wide roads and the need to utilise expensive land in the most economic way threaten the short-lived tradition of building in Israel. Public awareness of conservation leads municipalities, Tel Aviv, for example, to offer initiators of projects building ratios much higher than usual on condition that they invest in the preservation of a historical building. Thus Rothschild Boulevard has been transformed into a collection of skyscrapers of between 20 and 25 storeys. Although these have revitalized the old city centre, which had an acute shortage of office space, it has completely wrecked the intimate proportions that existed in the past and destroyed the relationship between the height and breadth of the road and between people and house sizes.

Such economic strategies created some strange phenomena, so that behind the wall of an original two- or three-storey building, there sprang up a massive glass-covered structure. Though the original building was preserved, it was swallowed up by a new and alien context.

Despite this, the mere awareness of the treasures of the past is important. In 1994, a Bauhaus conference took place in Tel Aviv, which brought to public attention the achievements behind Tel Aviv buildings of the 1930s.

Many buildings have been restored and renovated and have escaped the destruction that awaited them. People like Nitza Smoke, who is responsible for conservation in the Tel Aviv Municipality, and David Kroyanker, who does so much to bring architectural issues into the limelight in Jerusalem, are at the forefront of this battle.

The massive wave of building in recent years, stemming mainly from the need to house the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, threatens, as in every place in the world, the destruction of green spaces and the construction of megalopolises along the entire coastal plain. Endless tracts of agricultural land have been designated for building purposes, and many neighbourhoods of red-roofed homes of three or four levels on the seacoast and in the hilly land of Judea have sprung up.

Just as in the beginning, the Israeli still sees the red roof as a status symbol. This phenomenon brings in its wake large and boring commuter towns and increased pressure on the roads. The speculative economic pressures and the freeing of agricultural land for the sake of residential building threaten to turn Israel into one of the most crowded countries in the world, destroying almost any open land and eliminating the delicate balance between built-up and rural areas.

The historic yearning to build as much and as fast as possible threatens to turn this small country into a concentration of malls, office buildings, red-roofed cottages, residential high-rises, motorways and paved car parks, and to destroy the specific qualities achieved by a century of Israeli building.

(Translated by Mordechai Beck)

Ran Shechori, born in 1936 in Tel Aviv, was art critic for Haaretz and has published essays on art and architecture in various magazines. He was director of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, from 1980-1991. He is chairman of the Department of Plastic Arts of the Israel Public Council for Arts and Culture.

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