"The nation’s architect" is a pretty hefty epithet to bear, especially in a country like ours, which has evolved so rapidly, and thus involved much construction across a wide range of utilitarian ventures.
But if anyone deserves that title, it is Arieh Sharon. It is also the name of an exhibition devoted to Sharon’s lifework, currently running at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. It is the first retrospective, curated by Dr. Eran Neuman, of one of the founding fathers of Israeli architecture and one of the busiest members of the profession here during the 20th century.
To put kudos in perspective, Sharon, who died in 1984 at the age of 84, was the first recipient of the Israel Prize for Architecture, in 1962. He made aliyah from Poland in 1919. After schooling himself in Bauhaus design and architecture, he became one of a cadre of Bauhaus-influenced architects, such as Ben-Ami Shulman, Erich Mendelsohn and Dov Karmi, who fled Europe in the 1930s and left their enduring stamp on construction aesthetics in pre-state Palestine, in particular Tel Aviv.
Sharon may have been the most active of the lot. All told, he was responsible for designing over 600 projects across the country, although not all came to fruition, across a career that spanned six decades. By the time the State of Israel came into being, Sharon’s professional stock was so high that David Ben-Gurion himself turned to him to ask him to help devise an architectural plan for the fledgling country.
With olim flooding into Israel at the rate of 1,000 a day, clearly new construction was required, and at double-quick speed. Ben-Gurion
appreciated the urgency of the situation and asked Sharon to help. The upshot was the National Plan – a.k.a the Sharon Plan – which covered not only the erection of residential units, but also industrial buildings and estates, national parks and nature reserves, public institutions and agricultural facilities.
Sharon also created urban plans that helped shape the character of the young state. It is hard to overestimate Sharon’s imprint on life in the evolving state, which is still visible today, and it would be a pointless exercise to try to encapsulate his oeuvre in a single showing. As such, The Nation’s Architect incorporates barely a quarter of his vast endeavor, but still makes for impressive viewing.
“There are all sorts of reasons for giving Sharon the title of ‘the nation’s architect,’” said Neuman, “but principally, it is because from 1948 to 1953 he drew up the first national master plan for the State of Israel.” And this at a time when the country was experiencing painful birth pangs. In fact, work began on the plan while the country was still fighting for its very existence, as the War of Independence continued to rage.
“Sharon was a pioneer,” Neuman continues, “and he worked out of the prime minister’s office, which really makes him worthy of the status of ‘the nation’s architect.’”
Sharon was born Ludwig Kurzmann in Jaroslau, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and joined Hashomer Hatzair.
“That, of course, led to him making aliyah,” said the curator. “Leaving Poland and coming here, where he mostly encountered marshes and disease, that’s quite a radical move.”
The new oleh soon got in the creative act.
“He was one of the founders of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel,” Neuman explains. “When he was at school, he studied all sorts of technical crafts, so he became involved in the building work on the kibbutz. He didn’t plan the work, but he supervised the actual construction.”
The retrospective snakes its way through eight display areas, offering a well-rounded view of Sharon’s vast body of work, but the visitor also gets a decent handle on the man behind the design gems.
As you survey the evidence of Sharon’s work – texts, photographs and plans – you get some idea of just how far-reaching his lines of thought stretched. There are plans for large urban edifices, kibbutz dining rooms, hospitals and swanky residences. The man could, clearly, turn his skills to practically any job going.
“Above all, Sharon was a pragmatist,” Neuman observes.
THE FIRST section of the exhibition relates to 1926 to 1931, when Bauhaus was much in vogue.
“Sharon was quite a colorful character,” says Neuman, adding that he tended to work his way to the margins of society and largely eschewed mainstream thought and activity. In 1926, Sharon decided to up his professional ante and moved to Berlin.
“Sharon liked to tell the story of how, one day, he was on a tram in Berlin and he picked up a pamphlet about Bauhaus, and that’s what prompted him to study the style. But the Bauhaus center in Berlin, at the time, was not the leading design school. The school of Charlottenburg was more important, based on German expressionism.”
That was characteristic of the young architect.
“Once again, Sharon went for a place that was relatively fresh and radical. There was something about Sharon that placed him at the head of the camp, but not too far ahead of it. He always maintained a link with the mainstream but was always a few steps ahead of it.”
Sharon’s initiation into the Bauhaus school of thought followed a suitably footloose avenue of exploration.
“In the first year, all the students studied together, all the different subjects,” Neuman says. “The idea was to allow the students to break free of all the conventions they had been brought up on.” It seems the young Sharon enjoyed some high-quality teaching. “He studied with [celebrated artists] Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. He became interested in juxtaposing shapes or colors, to see how you create a gradient, looking at perspective, at amorphous things.”
While in Berlin, Sharon met and married Gunta Stölzl, head of the Bauhaus weaving workshop. Their daughter Yael was born there. Shortly afterward, Sharon received his Bauhaus diploma and was immediately put in charge of the architectural concern of then-Bauhaus head, Hannes Meyer, and supervised the construction of the Bundesschule des Allgemeinen Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbundes (ADGB Trade Union School) in Bernau bei Berlin, to the northeast of the city.
A year or so later, Sharon returned to Palestine and opened up his own firm in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Stölzl emigrated to Switzerland with their daughter. The couple officially divorced in 1936.
Sharon soon began to make his professional presence felt here, although not everyone took to it too kindly. His first commission in Tel Aviv was for the construction of four pavilions for the Histadrut exhibit at the Levant Fair in 1932. Despite bringing the Bauhaus message over here from the cradle of the later-celebrated school of thought, Sharon wasn’t exactly allowed to bask in imported glory.
“The local architects didn’t like his design,” Neuman notes. “It seemed too modern.”
But the forward-looking architect got a helping hand from someone in a much higher place in the local hierarchy, British High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope.
“Wauchope liked what Sharon was doing and he encouraged him,” Neuman says. “Sharon didn’t like the stuff that was going on in Tel Aviv at the time. He thought that, as a modern city, Tel Aviv should adopt a modern style of architecture. He didn’t like the eclecticism here.”
Apparently, Sharon was made of sterner stuff, and his cooperation with the Histadrut, then the main political power base in pre-state Palestine, helped pave the way to the right people in positions of influence. He was in pole position to make the most of the elbow rubbing when Israel came into being. “As soon as the state was established, the leaders called Sharon in. For them, he was the go-to architect and planner.”
Sharon’s connections and planning gifts kept him duly engaged and out of his own office during the first years of the state. Thus, Benjamin Idelson was brought in to the company to keep things ticking. Sharon’s headliner projects at the time included several hospitals – Beilinson in Petah Tikva, Ichilov in Tel Aviv and Soroka in Beersheba, Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus and Tel Aviv University.
Idelson and Sharon enjoyed a fruitful partnership until 1964, redefining the way planners and the public viewed architecture. They preferred refined articulation of building envelopes, as well as tending to place buildings around the perimeter of the site in question, thereby demarcating the boundaries. That created a presence and a different kind of connection between the interior and exterior spaces. All of this contributed to the creation of buildings that conveyed both a civil and a monumental appearance.
Sharon also took his gifts and rich experience to foreign climes. During the 1960s and 1970s, he and his firm were commissioned to participate in the planning of an array of projects, especially hospitals and universities, in what were then called the “developing countries.” The most significant project he planned outside of Israel was the university campus in Ife in southwestern Nigeria. The latter also involved Sharon’s son Eldar, who meanwhile had joined the company. Together they drew up a master plan for the Nigerian university, taking in the Faculty of Humanities building, the student dorms, main library, residence of the university’s vice-president, administration building, education institute and the Assembly Hall. The faculty and administration buildings and the library formed the center of the campus and were located on an orthogonal “free grid,” much like the Israeli campuses Sharon had already planned. Here, too, Sharon marked out the boundaries of the campus, placing the humanities, law and social science faculties. He also made them more user friendly by interconnecting the buildings with a system of covered passageways that provided protection from the tropical rains.
As Jerusalem began to spread out following the Six Day War, Sharon was once again in the thick of the architectural action. Together with Eldar and David Anatol Brutzkus, he drafted a master plan known as A’in Mem/9 for the development of Jerusalem’s so-called Holy Basin – the Old City and its environs. That took in not only a vast area, it also meant grappling with some taxing physical and religious logistics. Sharon sought to strengthen the Old City, without overloading it, with numerous municipal facilities. Most importantly, their plan defined the Old City as a pedestrian area while promoting its commercial thoroughfares. Following the annexation of East Jerusalem, Sharon & Co. aimed to significantly increase the residential density there, while planning parks, public buildings, schools, community centers and religious institutions. As always with Sharon, it was an ambitious venture.
Advancing years and grand-scale public architectural project notwithstanding, Sharon never lost touch with the need for buildings to serve human beings and to be as user friendly as possible. Although Arieh and Eldar Sharon’s approaches to architectural planning developed during very different periods, Sharon Sr. took his son’s ideas on board and viewed them as a continuation of his own modernist-universal worldview. In the days when the state was already a fait accompli and the buds of privatization were beginning to sprout, Arieh Sharon hoped that individual spaces would be created within their modular system of architecture.
Over three decades after his passing, that legacy lives on. The Nation’s Architect closes on October 27. For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il/helena-rubinstein-pavilion
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