All in the details

The Israel Museum’s new exhibition ‘Jerusalem in Detail’ celebrates the city’s architecture and the work of David Kroyanker.

Sandel House, 9 Emek Refaim Street, German Colony. (photo credit: ASSAF EVRON)
Sandel House, 9 Emek Refaim Street, German Colony.
(photo credit: ASSAF EVRON)
The old adage “God is in the details” takes on new meaning for David Kroyanker.
The 70-year-old Kroyanker, a native Jerusalemite, has been chronicling and documenting the city’s architecture for the past 50 years. Kroyanker’s life and career have been dedicated to the preservation and renovation of Jerusalem’s historic neighborhoods and buildings. In his approximately 30 books, Kroyanker documents the city’s architecture with incredible expertise and adoration. His last book was a four-volume set titled God is in the Details. The volume of some 1,350 pages, included 3,500 illustrations, photos and drawings and served as the source of influence for the Israel Museum’s new exhibition “Jerusalem in Detail.”
“The exhibition is the highlight of my career,” Kroyanker says. “The Israel Museum is one of the most prominent in the world, and to have my work be on display in one of the central spaces there for six months is a tremendous achievement.”
That Kroyanker was born in Jerusalem, works here, and lived here up until five years ago, when he moved to Tel Aviv, gives him an intense love of the city. He is the proud owner of one of the largest archives of Jerusalem’s architecture.
Kroyanker began documenting his fascination in 1969, two years after the reunification of the city. He emphasizes that the period between 1967 and 1973 was one of complete euphoria in Israel and that this had a direct effect on the architecture.
“There was a feeling that we could do anything we wanted, both politically and militarily,” Kroyanker adds. “This feeling influenced city planning. The period was expressed in the tendency to demolish large parts of historic neighborhoods, in order to create a new, modern Jerusalem in the center of town. It led to demolishing neighborhoods such as Nahalat Shiva along Jaffa [Road]. There was very little knowledge about the importance of Jerusalem architecture in terms of its historical significance.”
Kroyanker was working as a consultant for former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek at the time. He began publishing and exposing various projects that suggested certain buildings should be demolished. His goal was to shed light on the subject and to halt the demolitions; it worked.
He then began to work for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, which was established by Kollek. Kroyanker published six volumes on the architecture of Jerusalem during that time; five about findings outside the Old City, and one about the Old City itself.
“I would say that I established something which did not exist before,” Kroyanker states. “There was very little interest in architecture, revitalization or preservation. These terms were brought from abroad, mainly by Jewish immigration after 1967. They were imported from Western countries. No one used these terms like we do now. Due to the subject of demolition versus preservation of many buildings, it created great interest in my book, which gave an answer to the situation. I think that was my greatest achievement: to create something which didn’t exist before and, to a very large degree, influence the relationship to these terms which were not known beforehand.”
For Kroyanker, Jerusalem’s uniqueness is reflected in its architecture. The mixture of art nouveau, art deco, Bauhaus and even Mamluk architecture is unlike anywhere else in the world. Kroyanker believes that the Mamluk architecture around the Temple Mount area in the Old City is some of the most beautiful in the world, similar to that of Egypt and Syria. But unlike in either of those regions, there is a design symphony comprised of myriads of cultures and traditions in Jerusalem. The idiom that expresses it well, again and again, is that God truly is in the details.
“It has nothing to do with religion,” Kroyanker shares. “The quality and beauty of any kind of product depends ultimately on the perfection of its details. This is the case in Jerusalem. I wanted to call the exhibition that, but since God is a very problematic figure in Jerusalem’s history, it didn’t work. But Jerusalem is unlike any other city in the world; so many different religious and ethnic cultures blend harmoniously in a cosmopolitan melting pot. It isn’t a cliché. There is no other city in the world where you can find art nouveau, glazed ceramic tiles, Bauhaus buildings and so forth. It doesn’t mean that the art nouveau is first class, but we still have it. This mixture makes for a very unique city.”
The Jerusalem in Detail exhibition shows Kroyanker’s work through photographs and films. In terms of the photographs, there were hundreds of design motifs from Kroyanker’s many volumes to choose from, and it was difficult deciding which would make it into the exhibition itself.
Those that did make it constitute a stunning display of what Kroyanker terms the four design identities of Jerusalem. They are Jewish, Muslim, Christian and 20th century. According to Kroyanker, up until the 1920s, which was the beginning of the British Mandate, there was a very clear distinction between these design identities. One could easily make the distinction between what was a Jewish building and what was a Muslim building. After that time, the clarity of the ethnic identities began to diminish and became more cosmopolitan, more global.
“The exhibition and my books reflect the fact that Jerusalem’s design vocabulary consists of two components. One facet is functional structures and ornamental features; the other is the design motifs that symbolize traditions, religions and ethnic lifestyles,” Kroyanker explains. “This is really the story. You have decorations and functional designs, and then you have these various ethnic and religious traditional symbols. The films which are a part of the exhibition serve as visual stories, which give you a very good impression of these two facets.”
Because of Kroyanker’s acute eye for details, he catches designs that others might miss. In fact, he catches designs that most often miss.
In the German Colony, Kroyanker found the design feature of a swastika in the floor tiles of a building that was built in the 19th century. The detail was introduced in the 1930s by the Germans who were living there at the time.
Another surprising and less troublesome finding for Kroyanker was the head of a sleeping lion on the doorway of a house on Emek Refaim Street. The lion looks like he’s taking a nap; it is anything but the typical, courageous depiction of a lion. The size of the lion is only 25 cm. by 25 cm.; it’s very small. Many people saw it and didn’t know what it meant, or didn’t even register it at all.
Kroyanker found out that the story behind the lion was an homage to the architect’s parents. Theodore Sandel added it when he built the building at the end of the 19th century. The lion was in remembrance of his parents’ pharmacy in Germany, which was called Lion’s and bore the same symbol.
“This is just one detail,” Kroyanker adds. “What I’m really trying to do is to expose the significance of many of these architectural design motifs, which people often pass by and don’t realize they exist. I’m highlighting these design features that were previously unknown and which really make Jerusalem an interesting design museum.
“The exhibition in many ways is like a Russian matryoshka doll; a museum in the city, and the city in a museum. The exhibition is very significant. Because Jerusalem is so unique in terms of its different design features and motifs of the various cultures which built the city, it becomes very interesting.”
The exhibition, which opened on October 6 and featured a lecture by Kroyanker as well as the attendance of both Mayor Nir Barkat and President Reuven Rivlin, is currently on display at the Israel Museum’s Bella and Harry Wexner Gallery. Attendees have the option of viewing the exhibition with an audio guide, narrated by Kroyanker and with an introduction by Rivlin.
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