It is worth recording that it was an edict of the British Mandate that has
helped to preserve the present beauty of Jerusalem. It was in the 1920s that the
first governor, Ronald Storrs, issued the decree that all buildings in Jerusalem
had to be faced in the local stone. That ruling is still in effect today, and
has helped to maintain the fine, homogeneous appearance of the
Besides being a high-ranking British Army officer, Storrs was a
humane and learned classical scholar, and it is true that one of his first
decisions on appointment as military governor in late 1917 was the formation of
the Pro- Jerusalem Society, with himself as its chairman, with the aim of
preserving and enhancing the beauty of the Holy City. It was a worthy aim and
had considerable consequences, but Storrs was not exactly an expert on
It was the secretary of the society, one Charles Robert
Ashbee, who expounded on the building principles and it was his advice that led
to the stonecladding decree.
It was more than aesthetics that led to this
far-reaching decision. It was the aim of both Storrs and Ashbee to preserve the
appearance of Jerusalem, but more than that, to maintain the local arts and
crafts of the city, of which the principal ones were stone masonry and the
manufacture of highly colored glazed tiles. The first was in the hands of the
local Arabs and the second in that of the Armenians, and the British rulers
wanted to see both activities employed for the good of the city and the welfare
of its inhabitants.
C.R. Ashbee, himself an architect of the British Arts
and Crafts movement, put forward several schemes for the improvement of
Jerusalem. We know of his plans for landscaping the area of the Sultan’s pool,
and a proposal for a palace alongside the Russian Church, but it must be
admitted that these projects look pretty weak on paper and luckily were never
implemented. However the Storrs-Ashbee policy of encouraging local crafts
resulted in several successful buildings, of which the finest example must be
the Rockefeller Museum.
Luckily its architect, Austen St. Barbe Harrison,
can be deemed to have been, unlike Ashbee, a construction genius.
chief architect to the British Mandate but, unlike many such appointments, he
was not just an administrator, but actually a first-class practicing
He was born in 1891 in England, studied in Canada, worked in
Greece and visited Istanbul, where he was able to indulge his fascination with
Byzantine and Islamic architecture, then moving in 1922 to Palestine, where he
held several positions in the Mandatory Government before becoming chief
architect. It was a rare case of the right man at the right time in the right
THE CONSTRUCTION of the Rockefeller incorporated the two specific
aims of the Pro-Jerusalem Society. It was not just faced in stone, it was
actually built of stone, unlike much of the other work at the time, which was
concrete and only faced in stone. Certain sections required a reinforced
concrete structure but the bulk was stonework through and through.
tower is built in a truly traditional way, with an octagonal shaft built over a
square base by the use of supports on the four corners, each corner carried on
triple projecting stone arches called squinches. It could be seen as a throwback
to traditional Arabic vaulting, but it was thoroughly modern as well, and its
appearance, when looking upwards from the tower hall near the entrance, is both
magnificent and startling.
The finest part of the building is the
interior courtyard, which could be considered to be the most restful place in
built Jerusalem. It is enhanced by a central pool, and when the water is running
it is the coolest place in the city, in both senses of the word.
appearance is enhanced by 10 deeply cut stone plaques by sculptor Eric Gill,
depicting the 10 conquests and cultures of Jerusalem, from the pre-Israelites
onwards, passing through the Seleucid, the Roman, the Islamic and Crusader
conquests, and all periods right up to the British Mandate. In each panel Gill
expresses the essence of the period in an artistic and witty way.
instance, the Muslim era is represented by a winged horse with the face of a
beautiful woman, a representation of the mythical creature that conducted
Muhammad to heaven, via Jerusalem.
Gill, the famous British calligrapher,
was a personal friend of Harrison, and carved all the signs of the museum in the
three official languages of the Mandate, basing the Hebrew on an ancient
inscription attributed to King Uzziah.
At the far end of the courtyard
there is a shrine-like room, immaculately faced in brightly colored tiles
figured like snowflakes by David Ohanessian, who carried on the tradition of
fine Armenian ceramics and manufactured them brilliantly in Jerusalem. The room
houses a fountain that was designed by Harrison in cubist style, which was
unfortunately replaced by a more conventional circular basin by the Jordanian
authorities when they administered the Museum for 20 years from
Today the museum serves as the headquarters of the Israel
Antiquities Authority and, when their new building is completed alongside the
Israel Museum, it is hoped that the Rockefeller will be renovated and that its
valuable but rather old-fashioned display of unique archeological artifacts will
be better presented than the original showcases that still
However it must be remembered that the original purpose of the
Rockefeller, when it was founded in 1930, was to house all the archeological
discoveries that were scattered throughout Jerusalem in many different national
institutions, and this unique function should be preserved.
architect to the Mandate, St. Barbe Harrison was also responsible for the
main Government Post Office, which presents an austere and imposing façade to
Jaffa Street. It is a fine building, but its plainness is trumped by another
modern building next door, the original Anglo-Palestine Bank by the architect
Erich Mendelsohn. It is also rather severe and monumental, but the repeated
windows have a certain lightness in their framing that overcomes the monotony,
and the side elevation to Uzi Hasson street exhibits some of the graceful curves
that Mendelsohn loved to display in his work.
Erich Mendelsohn had come
to Jerusalem, via London, from Berlin in 1934 as a result of the rise of the
He was not the only Jewish architect to leave Nazi Germany but he
was perhaps the most distinguished. His was an unusual combination of commercial
know-how and creativity.
In Berlin he had run one of the most successful
architectural practices, but with the rise of the persecution of Jewish
professionals, he turned his attention to Palestine, following his most
prominent client, storeholder Salmann Schocken. For Schocken he had built
innovative department stores in Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Chemnitz, and in
Jerusalem Schocken commissioned him to build his own house and a library for his
collection of rare Jewish books and manuscripts in Rehavia.
set up office in the windmill on Ramban and received a considerable number of
important commissions, but he also maintained an office in London at the same
time, where he had won the competition for the Bexhill Pavilion contract with
his British associate Serge Chermayeff. So Mendelsohn lived in two worlds, Great
Britain and Palestine, but he nevertheless devoted himself here and completed
several of his masterpieces in Jerusalem, and another in Rehovot, where he built
the beautiful home for Chaim Weizmann, who had been instrumental in bringing him
to Palestine in 1934.
THE WEIZMANN house is a treasure. It is both grand
and homely and absolutely suited for purpose. But Vera Weizmann was not happy
with Mendelsohn’s choice of furniture and went to the length of employing
another designer to help her choose the interior fittings.
This was one
in the eye to Mendelsohn, and he was suitably offended. It was his custom to
design things down to the last piece of furniture, and Vera did not accept that;
it did not suit her more conventional tastes. As the client, she won, and
Mendelssohn walked away in a huff.
However, that contretemps does not
appear today and what we see is the excellent plan of a large but modest house
planned around a small open swimming pool, that gives the residence light and
air and makes it rather special in the way of residential
Internally there are fine little touches, like the recessed
electric fires and the large sliding- folding screen, the first of its type,
between the hall and the dining room. There is the airy, well-lit curved
staircase, so typical of Mendelsohn’s work. He always put the stairs in a
prominent place, in the light, and not tucked away in a dark corridor, as so
many other architects did.
The staircase at the Schocken Library in
Rehavia is similarly prominent and flooded in light, and it leads up to the main
room of the library, where Mendelsohn designed all the bookcases and the display
tables. He arranged for soft clerestory lighting, so as not to damage the
precious books and manuscripts and, by contrast, introduced a small projecting
oriel window where just enough sunlight enters to help a reader sit by it and
inspect the treasures.
Here Mendelsohn’s fusion of building and furniture
reaches a high level of achievement, and there was no lady of the house to
stymie his plans. Today the building is occupied by the Jewish Theological
Society and houses their literary treasures, taken over from
Thanks to the recommendation of Schocken, Mendelsohn gained the
contract for the vast Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus, where he introduced a
new concept for the wards, making them comfortable sitting rooms rather than
His triple-domed entrance is magnificent, and a polite bow
to Arab culture, but unfortunately spoiled today by ugly accretions. In
accordance with the requirement for stone facing, Mendelssohn covered the
concrete structure in stone, in good faith, but set the stone in vertical
courses, quite unsuitable for building, to show that it was not an integral part
of the construction.
MENDELSSOHN WAS always hungry for commissions and,
as the war loomed and work in Palestine and London dried up, he moved off to the
United States, the golden land of greater opportunities, but ironically, there
his work deteriorated. It became less disciplined; it did not have the material
constraints that had operated in Europe and Israel, and one can truly say that
perhaps some of his best work was conducted in the difficult conditions of
He was an international Jew, but one likes to think
that the spirit and the sunlight of Israel were precious to him and gave
exceptional impetus to his inspiration. That sounds plausible, but then another
of his masterpieces was the Bexhill Pavilion in southern England, and one can
hardly say that the British sunlight (or lack of it) would have provided the
same stimulus and inspiration.
The pressure of Nazi persecution, the play
of sunlight and the spirit of Zionism inspired Mendelsohn to create masterpieces
in Jerusalem. The same sources may not have applied to Austen St. Barbe
Harrison, but he had a love of the Orient and a deep knowledge of its
traditional arts and crafts, and also produced a masterpiece in the Rockefeller
Both these architects made their contributions to the beauty of
Jerusalem and we should celebrate their works, together with the many other fine
and more ancient buildings and monuments, in Jerusalem today.
is a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological