In the mid-1930s, renowned German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn made his way from his new Jerusalem office toward the city’s outskirts, to the site of a hospital he was in the process of designing. He had left behind a promising architectural career when he fled Nazi Germany, moving first to England and then continuing on to the British Mandate of Palestine (the territory was part of the British empire before the 1948 war, after which the state of Israel was established). In addition to a hat factory, newspaper offices and a cinema, Mendelsohn famously designed the Schocken Department Stores in Germany, using state-of-the-art materials. “Curved glass, steel structure, electric elevators!” co-author Dan Price of “Architecture in Palestine During the British Mandate, 1917-1948” marveled as I interviewed him about the exhibit inspired by his book, now showing at the School of Architecture. But when Mendelsohn reached the site of the new Hadassah hospital, Price said, he found builders transporting materials on the backs of camels — his design would have to change.
The exhibition titled “Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine” tells the story of the architectural tradition these kinds of moments forged. It’s about primarily European-trained architects rethinking architectural principles — often weaving in their own Socialist and Zionist beliefs, sometimes responding to the local climate and sometimes learning to make do without the kinds of materials and technologies the modernist movements relished. Showcasing images and drawings of the prominent buildings of Mandate Palestine, the exhibition highlights shared architectural language articulating aspirations for the future Jewish state.
The show starts by portraying the influences of the “International Style” on Tel Aviv architecture in the 1920s. Price narrated the mood of this moment of architectural history to me, calling the International Style a “love affair with technology.” The architects of this movement — mostly based in Germany, France and the United States — were fascinated with the aesthetic of machines and mass production.
“Even after the First World War, the intellectuals in Europe had a fundamental belief that technology was going to redeem us. We’d be able to talk to each other through radios. With the motorcar, the airplane, the ship, we’d be able to travel to different countries, by airplane even across the Atlantic,” Price continued. Building materials developed after the industrial revolution gave these architects “the palettes to define a language of architecture that was not really possible before. And they were in love.”
These ideas resonated with Jewish architects in Palestine — and had a distinctive meaning for them. The “White Architecture” of Tel Aviv built in the International Style, an exhibition panel reads, was for them a language to “express their yearning to erase the diaspora past, and build a new nation.” For these Jewish architects, the traditions the International Movement rejected were not only architectural, but about stages of Jewish history and identity.
In its title, the exhibition presents the idea that the era’s architecture in Palestine was “social construction,” first and foremost concerned with the nation’s people. The idea of the land as belonging collectively to the Jewish people manifested in these architects’ work, Price emphasized. At the time, Jewish foundations such as Keren Kayemet LeIsrael Jewish National Fund were purchasing land to remain “in perpetuity the property of the Jewish people,” he explained — architects interpreted that idea abstractly and based their designs on the “the perception that land was all owned by the public.”
“The idea these architects from 1910s to 1930s formed was that the public has access to properties. There should be no fences,” he explained. “People can walk into land around your building. You can manage the land and use it according to the law but you don’t own it. The architects tried to design their buildings to give expression to this idea.”
“If you think of the conventional brownstones in New York, you come into the building by walking from the street up the steps,” Price continued. “The land behind the front door is private property.” In many buildings of the era in Mandate Palestine, however, gaps separated buildings to form pathways between them. Price and Ada Karmi-Melamede’s book notes the way a passage between buildings “allows the public space of the street to penetrate deep into the site,” and that trees placed in these areas provided shade, encouraging people to walk through them.
The architects of this period also liked to open up the ground floor areas, sometimes with pillars, to extend the public space up to the entrance to residents’ homes. However, some found this approach distasteful and preferred to settle buildings firmly in the ground to capture the idea of the Jewish people rooting themselves in the land. As replacements for the ceded ground floor area, some designed roofs as communal, shaded spaces for all residents of the building to meet.
The “ribbon openings,” long thin slits spanning the length of a building, had a striking effect on the sense of communal life. This kind of window was inspired by architect and theorist Le Corbusier and was characteristic of the Internationalist Style. Yet Jewish architects in Palestine left their own mark on the design. A 1937 image of Zina Dizengoff Circle in Tel Aviv prominently displayed in the exhibit showcases a street of adjacent aligned ribbon windows. It’s as though the street is one layer of public space — and then the second, third and fourth floors of each building also share a plane, spanning high above the street level. I can imagine people looking out their windows and chatting across the gap between their buildings.
An important innovation to the International Style ribbon openings was to leave them open, as opposed to filled with glass. The long open slits did help apartments’ air ventilation in the hot climate — but the reason architects often hesitated to build with glass was because it was difficult to create such long pieces with the local technology. Many architects encountered the same set of issues as did Mendelsohn, who, accustomed to state-of-the-art technology, had to figure out how to use instead the available camels to complete his hospital design.
However, Karmi-Melamede and Price do not describe these limitations as disadvantages. On the contrary, to them, these architects’ conditions contributed to their culture’s distinctive personality. In an email, Karmi-Melamede said, “This generation of architects celebrated paucity and restraint in their work due to the limitations of local means, materials and the lack of industrial technology in Palestine and also because of their shared idealism in the potential of this new country.”
The exhibition gives the impression that the designers relate to this subject matter as the foundation to their national culture. There is a sense of pride in this story of Jewish architects grappling with European traditions and claiming the agency to rework them — writing their own related but unique Israeli national story. The 25-year project of finding images to publish in the book by sifting through boxes of old records that architects’ descendants had planned to throw out — “a true labor of love,” Price describes — reflects the passion of people personally committed to the subject of their research.
For Karmi-Melamede, the connection to the subject matter was particularly personal. The distinctive architectural language the book and exhibition explore is part of her own family history. Her father Dov Karmi, who died in 1962, can be called one of the “founding fathers” of Tel Aviv — and therefore Israeli — architecture. She started out this project wanting to write a book about his work.
“[My father] was free from the dogma and the underpinning of the modern movement,” she said. “[He] held to his own architectural expression of clean and pure geometric forms that related to the local conditions and also the social aspirations of this new country.”
For Price as well, this project is about understanding what was distinctive at these moments of cultural founding. “I was born in South Africa. There’s South African modernism. Those same architects like my parents who fled [Nazis] got to South Africa and developed South African modernism,” he said. “And others like [Walter] Gropius, who worked here and formed an American modernism. Those who came to Israel, to Palestine at the time, developed a particular branch of modernism.”
“This is what our book and exhibit really try to deal with: What was unique about Palestinian modernism as opposed to other modernism?” he continued.
From the other side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Dima Srouji ARC ’16, a descendent of Arab-Palestinian architects, has spoken out against the exhibit. She studies Arab-Palestinian Modernism, working to identify a local modernism. She contends that the exhibit should explicitly specify that it tells the story of Zionist architecture, rather than all Palestinian architecture of the era, since it does not in fact portray Arab-Palestinian architecture.
Listing the names of a number of prominent Arab-Palestinian architects active in cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem — including her great grandfather and great uncle — she explained over email that “most of these architects studied abroad where they were exposed to similar precedents including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. and upon their return, given their similar cultural backgrounds, created an architecture that was formally consistent.”
In addition to those European influences, modern Palestinian architecture was shaped by techniques shared between Arab architects across the national borders, which “create[d] an architectural unity.”
Srouji lamented that “almost no literature has covered the concurrent Palestinian phenomena [to the “Social Construction” exhibit].” She has worked toward discovering formative but understudied works, and she also has pressed the “importance of Palestinian representation.”
For the layperson, language used to describe architecture that employs common words in unfamiliar contexts can be difficult to discern. But parallel to the field’s specialized conversations about forms and aesthetics runs another thread, one about architecture’s visceral meaning to people as an emblem of their nationalities, distinctive cultures and origins.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor | email@example.com .