Israeli Modernist Architecture

The Object of Zionism_object

“There is no Israeli style yet,” said Israeli designer Rafi Blumenfeld in 1972. “We have no original materials of beauty that can inspire style, no great traditions of design.”

In 1948 the new Israelis faced a question of how the build a state from nothing other than an ostensible ethno-religious loyalty binding together disparate émigrés. There was no unbroken geographically centred, national, architectural tradition for Jews. For many framing history, there has been a common perception that there is a correlation between Zionism and architectural Modernism. An assertive form of paradoxically modern architecture was employed for a state legitimised on a claim to an ancient foundational ancestry.

The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel is a study Israeli architecture, with a stress on the early decades of the state’s attempts to establish an identity and provide both symbolic and critical architecture at a civic and residential level. Sections deal with different periods and issues, including original sources and retrospective analyses. Documents are reproduced, so we have a chance to read the original reviews, reports, letters and statements. Reproductions of official reports and journal articles (most in English, but some in Hebrew, German and French) give us a rich range of primary sources. Translations and transcriptions augment these facsimiles. Numerous photographs of locations, models, plans, maps, projections, blueprints and photographs of construction, completion and present states give us visual sources to accompany the text.

Author Zvi Efrat explains that the dispersal of the Bauhaus in 1933 led to many teachers and students schooled in the International Style, materials and techniques. Many of these were Jewish and gravitated to Mandatory Palestine, which led to a flourishing of Art Deco and Modernist architecture, especially in Tel Aviv, in the 1930s and early 1940s. “In Tel Aviv […] modern architecture became both compulsory and compulsive.” The International Style became ubiquitous in the 1930s. (Tel Aviv was later designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.) The dry climate and high levels of direct sunlight led were sympathetic to the Modernism style of flat roofs, terraces and brises soleils.

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[Image:Apartment building, Tel Aviv, 1959, architects: Avraham Yasky, Amnon Alexandroni]

The potentials for a Zionist state had been discussed for decades before the reality presented itself, so the various architectural inclinations had already been advanced prior to 1948. Consensus led to a rejection of colonial, indigenous and quasi-historical architectural approaches. Hannes Meyer wrote a letter in 1937 to his former student Arieh Sharon in Tel Aviv asking if there was a Jewish-national style of architecture. Sharon’s long reply is transcribed in full, with illustrations. Sharon, a Bauhaus graduate and prominent trade unionist, went on to be commissioned to found the Israeli Planning Department. His book Physical Planning in Israel (1951) became the Sharon Plan, which guided planners and architects in the early phase of Israeli history. It set out principles that could be applied locally without central guidance. This replication established a cellular dispersal.

The objectives of a national plan include: siting of agricultural settlements and location of agricultural areas; determination of a rational and sound distribution of urban centres; effective disposition of industry in the various regions of the country; indication of the road network and centres of communication, and provision of forests and national parks.

Sharon identified three determinant factors in the foundation of Israel: land, people and time. Land was limited and varied in climate; people were immigrants from multiple backgrounds and in need of clear realistic objectives and reasonable living conditions; time was short because of the rudimentary foundation circumstances, rapidly rising population level and need to establish a strong economic, agricultural and military framework in the face of foreign hostility.

The Object of Zionism_5

For a century, cities had been seen as sources of moral and physiological degeneration, causing writers, politicians, journalists and academics concern. The project of Israel would require a plan for numerous anti-urban garden towns (modelled on the British model) to be founded in a landscape that would be transformed. The settlements were seen as society in microcosm and the aspirations of the nation, encompassing all its conflicting values, so they were scrutinised and debated extensively. Zeev Sternhall identified a problem, as he saw it, with the new state idealising rural settlements:

The condemnation of the city and the cult of a return to nature, to the simplicity, authenticity, and rootedness of the village, was always one of the myths of radical nationalism, not of socialism. Socialism was oriented toward the modern world, industrialized and urban.

For Sternhall, inevitable development towards an urbanised society meant that the romantic rejection of the city as the Zionist ideal was in conflict with the travel of history. The implications of extreme nationalism in recent European history were a matter not lost on the Jewish Diaspora. Sternhall goes on to point out that even in the 1920s and 1930s Mandatory Palestine, 80% of Jews lived in towns. Proposals asserting rural settlements as an idealised target for the new nation (which could never have been a principally agricultural in character) therefore were only one instance of the actualisation of utopian symbolism.

Extensive afforestation, irrigation, desalination and soil conservation projects were initiated, turning barren desert into productive agricultural land. The de-desertification of the Negev Desert was a project of irrigation that was directed by the government. The one hand of the Israeli planners cleared former Palestinian villages was a necessary step in the process of creating the tabula rasa which the other hand thence transformed into the site for a Utopian project such as a kibbutz or a garden city. The Object of Zionism does not shy away from the removal of the Arab population in 1948, the later border wall and the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

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[Image: Amal Lady Davis High Dchool, Tel Aviv, 1965-73, architects: Ram Karmi, Chaim Ketzef, Ben Peleg]

The Kibbutzim were first founded in 1910 as an implementation of the communal ideas of Zionism, Marxism and anarchism. (The name Kibbutz was first used in 1921.) Kibbutzim featured communal dining, group childcare, no fences and common public spaces such as libraries and temples. There were no leaders and decisions were taken by democratic vote. In the new state they would be multiplied across the land to enable national self-sufficiency. The national and political imperatives of independence, agrarian reforms and providing work for millions of migrants aligned in Israeli policies for land use in the first decades of the state’s existence.

New building methods were pioneered. “Cannon houses” made by the method of constructing shuttered structures into which concrete was poured by concrete mixers with long barrels which looked like cannon. The architecture of the desert was in the form of Neptun Hotel and the school in Eilat with wind-catching chimneys to control the interior control climates. “Centralization, serialization, standardization, reductivism, and ergonomic efficiency were not merely the idealized concepts and modes of operation of the Zionist establishment; they were its only option.” Various projects are discussed, showing how an entire nation had to be created from very little in a short period of time. Utopianism was sometimes sacrificed to contingency but a surprisingly strong ideological character can be detected in the urban planning of early periods.

Top architects who planned buildings for Mandatory Palestine and Israel included Erich Mendelsohn, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson and Oscar Niemeyer. Over 1960-5 Isamu Noguchi was invited to design sculpture garden of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Philip Johnson designed Soreq Nuclear Research Centre (1956-9). This volume includes theory and projects by Frederick Kiesler, Alfred Neumann, Kahn and Niemeyer. There is discussion of significant buildings such as the Knesset, Israel Museum and Hebrew University.

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[Image: People’s culture house, Beersheba, 1955, architects: Zeev Rechter, Moshe Zarhi, Yaakov Rechter]

Later developments included Brutalism (Yafo City Hall (1957-65)) and I.M. Goodovitch’s saddle system, using undulating concrete slabs as roofs. There were advanced schemes that did not meet with success. The Ramot Polin housing (1972) of polygonal prefabricated cells met with considerable professional and press interest but was rejected by residents, who found the spaces impractical and unsettling. By the late 1960s native Israeli architects were rising to prominence.

The soft power of Israel is apparent in the official encouragement of Israeli architects to work in other states, particularly non-aligned countries in Africa. This was associated to Third Worldism and the Non-Aligned Movement and an attempt for Israel to position itself outside of the influence of the USA and USSR. Israel had more links to the USA than the USSR, not least because of USSR’s policy of engagement and support for Arab nations. Planning, concepts, consultancy and architects were exported to Africa and also Iraq and Iran. One of the most notable Israeli-led projects was the luxurious Abidjan Riviera hotel complex of the late 1960s, as part of Ivory Coast’s aspiration to become an international jet-set destination.

A serious and comprehensive survey, The Object of Zionism should become the foundational volume of any study of Israeli architecture.

 

Zvi Efrat, The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel, Spector Books, 2018, cloth hardback, 951pp, fully illus., €62, ISBN 978 3959 051330

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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