Architecture during the British mandate

The Brits played a major part in turning this country into a modern, thriving concern.

At the museum: A view from the northeastern corner walls (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
At the museum: A view from the northeastern corner walls
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1934, architect Genia Averbuch won a competition for the design of a municipal plaza in Tel Aviv. Averbuch, who immigrated from Russia with her family at the age of two, had already collaborated on a number of Tel Aviv projects.
This one – Dizengoff Circle – was destined to become the new city’s leading public park. It was modern for the times, and charming, and I remember it well. For it was here, in 1968, that I met the handsome paratrooper I was destined to marry.
Since Dizengoff Circle was transformed into a hideous, cement covered plaza a few years later, I was delighted to come face to face with a giant blow-up of the original park on a recent visit to the Israel Museum. In fact, it is the first photo you see when you enter the foyer of the museum’s newest exhibit: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine, inspired by extensive research carried out by architects Ada Karmi-Melamede and Dan Price, authors of a book on the subject.
The exhibit was curated by Oren Sagiv.
You don’t have to be an architecture aficionado to enjoy the new exhibit (I certainly am no expert!). Obviously, those who love the subject are enthralled by diagrams and explanations about ribbon windows, double envelopes, floating arcades and other architectural terms. But quite a few visitors wax nostalgic, excitingly pointing out places where they lived, walked, relaxed or studied. Photos of streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa elicit cries of “Remember when. . .” and “whatever happened to... ?” Newer Israelis and tourists view, with great interest, sites they have heard about from others, or read about in books.
The Brits played a major part in turning this country into a modern, thriving concern. Indeed, until they conquered the area in 1917, Palestine was nothing but a neglected province in the backwater of a corrupt Turkish empire. But during the 1920s and 1930s, three vastly diverse cities came into their own, full of parks, spacious roads, and wonderfully interesting buildings: Haifa, Tel Aviv and the country’s new capital – Jerusalem.
This was a time when many architects building in Palestine hailed from the US, England, and both Eastern and Western Europe. Combining their knowledge and expertise with this country’s unique topography, geography, local Islamic styles and the needs of a diverse population, they came up with exquisite and even world-famous structures and sites.
While some of these only exist today in photos, quite a few have been preserved, restored or renovated. Rumor has it that even Dizengoff Circle has been slated for a return to its former glory! Here is a sampling of those that are still standing – and even a few that you can enter:
Rockefeller Museum
John D. Rockefeller Junior donated two million dollars for construction of an absolutely stunning museum in what is now called east Jerusalem. Noted archeologist James Starkey, invited to the inauguration that took place in 1938, wasn’t able to make it: he was murdered by Arab assailants on his way to the ceremony.
One of the most unusual edifices in the city, it was designed by British architect Austen St. Barbe Harrison. A student of Byzantine and Islamic architecture who previously worked in Greece, he visited a number of European museums in preparation for the task. But he carefully studied Arab structures in the Old City as well, hoping to come up with a product that blended Eastern and Western styles.
The result was fantastic: the complex houses several wings in a single structure and boasts a six-sided roof, long corridors with arched openings, vaulted ceilings, stone benches dotted with foliage, Armenian tiles, fabulous sculptures and an elongated reflecting pool built with an eye to the local landscape.
Rockefeller Museum is located about 300 meters south of Damascus Gate. Although there is no parking at the site (except on Saturdays) and the signs on the displays desperately need improvement, the museum exhibits more than 5,000 of this country’s most exciting and important artifacts. Thus it is well worth the effort to visit (take the Light Rail and walk from the Damascus Gate station). And of course everything about the building – a museum piece in itself – is simply exquisite! Don’t miss a wonderful exhibit devoted to ancient Ashkelon that just opened at Rockefeller. Thousands of years of history, beautifully displayed, are represented by a wide-ranging collection of marble statues, jewelry, and pottery.
Since the Six Day War, the Israel Antiquities Authority has had its offices in Rockefeller, which is operated by the Israel Museum.
Entrance is free; hours are Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sculpture at the Rockefeller Museum (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)Sculpture at the Rockefeller Museum (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Government House
Harrison also designed Government House, located on the Hill of Evil Counsel in Jerusalem. One of the traditional sites at which High Priest Caiaphas and his colleagues decided to hand Jesus of Nazareth over to the authorities, the hill provides residents and visitors with a stupendous view of the city.
In Hebrew, Government House is called armon hanatziv or the High Commissioner’s Palace, and for good reason: a wonderful combination of oriental and classical styles, the monumental edifice boasts an octagonal tower, triple arched openings, and gardens placed at three different levels.
During the Mandate years, Government House and its gorgeous gardens hosted super-fancy parties where, I am told, all the niceties of proper English etiquette were carried out (I’ll bet the waiters wore white gloves!). The grounds include a pet cemetery (the only one in Jerusalem, I believe), which holds the remains of a British soldier’s cat and the dog that belonged to the High Commissioner’s secretary! After the War of Independence, Government House hosted first the Red Cross and later served both as headquarters for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and as home for the commander and his family. Thus when Israeli forces entered during the Six Day War, there were family members inside the building. Just as a soldier prepared to throw a hand grenade inside the room in which they were hiding, he heard their voices – and they were, miraculously, saved. (Located near the Haas Promenade parking lot. No entrance, but you can feast your eyes on the building from the outside.
Wait just a bit, though, as the façade is undergoing renovation at the moment).
Double houses in Tel Aviv
The White City’s first twin houses in were built by Ukrainian immigrant architect Josef Berlin as homes for two Berlin brothers and their families. When constructed in 1922, the structure was only one story high; a second floor – and a bridge between the two houses – was added three years later.
An eclectic combination of classical and contemporary styles, the building, located at 7 Mazeh Street, is splendid to behold. It was abandoned, and in a state of advanced disrepair, when it was rescued at the beginning of the millennium as part of an upscale gentrification project. Today the complex houses the Chelouche Gallery for Contemporary Art. Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free entrance.
Barclay’s Bank
When he designed Jerusalem’s Barclay’s Bank, British architect Clifford Holiday gave shape and form to what was then called Allenby Square (today’s IDF Square). Inaugurated in 1930, it had two parts: a rounded section facing the Old City walls, and a straight stone façade in the back which served as Jerusalem’s City Hall until 1993.
It was the front, which was occupied by the bank, that caught (and still catches) your attention. The top half of the rounded area boasts five arch-shaped windows covered by bars in a theme known as the “rising sun” – a motif popular at the time. Intermingled in the bars are the initials BB.
Today the structure hosts municipal offices and you cannot go inside, but look for the large “pictures in stone” on the wall, telling some exciting stories.
IDF Square at Barclay’s Bank (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)IDF Square at Barclay’s Bank (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Boonem House and Beit Hama’alot
After Hitler came to power, many Jews who had been studying International (also called Bauhaus) design in Germany came to this country and immediately applied what they had learned.
Thousands of structures in Bauhaus style were built in Tel Aviv; several dozen more in Jerusalem. In 2003, when it became known that Tel Aviv boasted more buildings of Bauhaus design than any other city in the world, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bauhaus design is characterized by asymmetry and a lack of any decoration that doesn’t have a function. In fact, everything was supposed to have a purpose, from flat rooftops (for laundry, gardens, etc.) to the thermometer, a long vertical strip with windows along the building’s staircase, allowing in a maximum amount of light and air.
A fine example of Bauhaus architecture is situated at 21 Ramban Street in Jerusalem and functions, today, as a bank. Designed by Vienna-born painter and architect Leopold Krakauer as a dwelling for German immigrant and gynecologist Dr. Paul Boonem, it was completed in 1935.
Like so many buildings in Tel Aviv, the exterior is plastered and not covered in typical Jerusalem stone. The entire structure is made up of cubes – tall, squat, thin, and wide! Typically, the balconies are shaded by cement roofs, while the latticed wooden balcony on the corner vaguely resembles an Arab mashrabiya (intended to keep women hidden from view while allowing light to enter through the slats).
Beit Hama’alot was Jerusalem’s first modern apartment building.
Completed in 1935 on the corners of King George and Hama’alot Streets, the huge structure was intended to be a sort of neighborhood that would supply services to its well-to-do residents.
Architects Meir Rubin and Hungarian-born Alexander Friedman designed Beit Hama’alot in Bauhaus style, giving it flowing lines, rounded balconies creating shade for the story below, and the popular stairwell thermometer.
From the beginning Beit Hama’alot housed both homes and offices. Several offices were occupied by Brit Shalom, a small Jewish organization that renounced Zionism and favored the establishment of a bi-national state in Palestine.
People assume that Beit Hama’alot was named for the street on which it stands. But no: it got its name because it boasted one of the city’s very first elevators (maaliyot)!
Boonem House on Ramban Street (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)Boonem House on Ramban Street (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Post offices
When the Ottoman Turks ruled this country, foreign nationals frequented post offices run by various governments: Russia, France and Turkey, for example. However, Jerusalem residents who wanted to make certain that letters reached their foreign destinations utilized the Austrian Post Office, widely renowned for its efficient and reliable service. Those writing to relatives in America asked that return mail be routed through Trieste, the port from which Austrian ships bound for the Holy Land would depart.
Two central post offices appeared during the Mandate period. Both were designed in a similar style by chief architect Harrison, with the Jaffa Post Office appearing at 12 Jerusalem Boulevard in 1934 and Jerusalem’s Post Office at 23 Jaffa Road four years later.
Although rather nondescript, each had redeeming elements.
Jaffa’s post office included arched pseudo doorways, and dark and light-colored layers of stone that vaguely resembled Mameluke design.
The blandness of the Jerusalem Post Office exterior, which isn’t layered, is offset by a row of black basalt stones from the Golan Heights. Inside, colonial England shines through in black and green marble floors and high ceilings.
Most striking, however, is a fabulous mural located behind the tellers that, unfortunately, people intent on their business don’t even notice. Over 27 meters long and 4.5 meters high, it stretches from one side of the main hall to the other. Bulgarian-born artist/sculptor Avraham Ofek began the mural in 1971, after then-communications minister Shimon Peres approved his idea for depicting the return of the Jewish nation to Zion.
These days there are five added attractions: brilliantly colored Mandate-era mailboxes located on Jaffa Road directly across from the post office. At night you can make music by drumming your fingers on their tops and, when you do, watch as colored lights that match the mailboxes jump around wildly on the post office wall.