Digital

Exclusive online content

Building Jerusalem

By: Benjamin Balint
August 1, 2016

n Jerusalem, so overburdened with symbols, architecture too becomes a form of interpretation.

This theme suffuses Adina Hoffman’s artful new book, “an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems,” as she calls it, “and the singular builders who envisioned them.” Her excavation dusts off three twentieth-century architects—Jewish, British, and Arab—who transformed the city between 1920 and 1948, the years of British colonial rule.

The first, Erich Mendelsohn, was a one-eyed refugee from Nazi Germany, acclaimed for his sweeping modernist department stores in Berlin and Stuttgart and his telescope observatory (the Einstein Tower) in Potsdam. But as he wrote in 1933, “I saw in Zionism the only chance of finding myself and being really creative.” On his arrival in Jerusalem, he set about “building the country and rebuilding myself,” he said. He brought his iconoclastic curvilinear style of “unaffected simplicity,” as he put it, to the design of several of the city’s most dignified buildings: Hadassah’s hospital and medical school on Mount Scopus, enveloped in long horizontals punctuated by rhythmic windows; the seven-story headquarters of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which opened in 1939 on the central thoroughfare Jaffa Road; and a villa and library for his patron Salman Schocken. Nicknamed “the Oriental from East Prussia,” Mendelsohn not only joined function to sensuality, but conducted a dialogue between old and new, East and West. Politically, he expressed unequivocal support for a Jewish-Arab bi-national state. As the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine searched for a national architectural idiom, Mendelsohn’s enduring contribution was to create a Jerusalem vernacular that expressed itself through modernity rather than through exoticism or paternalism toward the indigenous “natives.”

Hoffman’s second subject, a reclusive and self-deprecating British expatriate named Austen Harrison, held rather different ideas about the Jewish national home. In a letter to friend in Israel in the 1950s, Harrison wrote: “You Jews entered Palestine under the wrong auspices—as westerners instead as of orientals.” As the “house architect” of the British Mandate, and as the author of the final chapter in the history of British colonial architecture, Harrison believed that a building must “avoid flouting local tradition.” That conviction informed the syncretic but restrained style evident to this day in the three buildings he gave to Jerusalem: the central post office, with its generous volumes and stately proportions; the introverted Rockefeller Museum with its octagonal tower overlooking the Old City walls from the north; and the official residence of the British High Commissioner, perched atop the Hill of Evil Counsel, with a commanding view of the Old City from the south.

As her last character, Hoffman takes the elusive Alexandria-born architect Spyro G. Houris, who came to Jerusalem before the First World War. Houris built here entirely for private clients: an Italianate home for a Jewish judge; a villa on the road to Mount Scopus for the Muslim intellectual Isaf al-Nashashibi; and a brace of graceful buildings at the commercial heart of West Jerusalem. For the facades of his buildings, he commissioned the master ceramist David Ohannessian, who fled the Armenian genocide and was brought to Jerusalem to retile the iconic Dome of the Rock. Although Hoffman concedes that despite her sleuthing his figure remains “frustratingly hazy,” she takes Houris as representative of “a time and place where one’s own identity could be multiple, and where the bonds that stretched across what are now considered nearly impassable ethnic, national, and religious borders were not only conceivable, they were critical to what made the city the city.”

These ambitious authors of the cityscape each attempted to juxtapose the new city’s urban demands with the Old City’s ramparts and domed cubes. In the end, each was defeated by Jerusalem.

The refugee Mendelsohn never shook the sense that he remained an outsider in an antiquity-obsessed and architecturally polyglot city that resisted modernist innovation. As he waxed ambivalent about whether to stay, one colleague warned him not to behave like a prima donna, “since the only recognized prima donna here is Palestine itself.” Mendelsohn, perhaps too much the modernist to put down roots, left for good in 1941, still protesting “I have never deserted Palestine, nor will I ever desert her ideals.” Self-banished, he would die in San Francisco in 1953.

After fifteen years in Jerusalem, Harrison made a hasty exit in 1937, a day after qualifying for his British government pension. Neither his post office nor his museum had yet opened, but he’d grown sick of political propaganda and the violence that a decade later would erupt into Israel’s War of Independence. “I can stay only at the risk of going off my head,” he said. Having destroyed most of his personal papers relating to his work in Jerusalem, Harrison would die in Athens in 1976. Houris died in Jerusalem in 1936, aged 52, uncelebrated and alone.

If Till We Have Built Jerusalem reads less like an impartial survey than as a lament for a city’s lost cosmopolitanism, it is because the book leaves the impression that its author, too, has been defeated by the aesthetics of Jerusalem. Hoffman, previously the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, is galled by what she regards as the city’s frumpy tackiness. She variously rebukes latter-day Jerusalem in this book as “bedraggled,” “gaudy,” “dingy,” and “run-down.” She regards it as a “bellicose ghetto,” and as “an increasingly cluttered construction site.” Elsewhere she says the city has become a “vulgar and crowded theme park.” She fears that it faces a “grimly monolithic future.”

Architects often talk of transcending architecture. Le Corbusier spoke of the “ineffable,” Louis Kahn of the “immeasurable.” But those occupied in the mundane tasks of building cannot afford merely to stare at the numinous.

Perhaps these contrary pulls are felt especially strongly in Jerusalem, a metropolis of monotheisms perched not only between East and West, antiquity and modernity, violence and piety, but above all between reality and imagination. There are, in other words, two Jerusalems—transcendent and all-too-earthly—and by interpreting the real in light of the possible the architects whom Hoffman takes as her heroes did their best to bridge the two. As a meditation on the meaning of the two Jerusalems, and on the distance between things as they are and things as they might be, Hoffman’s triptych offers a welcome introduction.