Making it our own

“There is a local style which underwent adaptation to the International Style, to international modernism,” explains curator Oren Sagiv.

A Tel Aviv round-up (from top) – 5 Engel Street: Aginsky House, Shmuel ‘Sam’ Barkai, 1934 (photo credit: YITZHAK KELTER’S COLLECTION)
A Tel Aviv round-up (from top) – 5 Engel Street: Aginsky House, Shmuel ‘Sam’ Barkai, 1934
It is well known that we have possibly the best collection of extant Bauhaus architecture in the world. That was officially recognized in 2003, when UNESCO proclaimed the White City to be a World Cultural Heritage site, noting that the Tel Aviv’s more than 4,000 Bauhaus, or International Style, structures comprised “an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century.”
It is not just Tel Aviv that sports some sparkling specimens of the Weimar, Germany-based school of aesthetic thought, which promulgated its groundbreaking philosophy between 1919 and 1933. As the Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine exhibition, which opened at the Israel Museum last week, shows, Jerusalem, Haifa and Rehovot also have some alluring Bauhaus gems of their own.
The museum show is based on a weighty tome produced by celebrated 79-year-old architect Ada Karmi-Melamede and South African-born business partner Dan Price, called Architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate, 1917-1948, published in 2012. The project was put together painstakingly, with the authors scouring thousands of building plans and photographs, to provide as extensive an overview as possible of the emergence of intriguing edifices up and down the Jewish homeland in waiting.
For anyone who digs the alluring clean cut aesthetics of Bauhaus architecture, the exhibition – and, of course, the aforementioned coffee-table-sized publication – will provide an eye opening and eye-soothing experience.
But there is so much more to the display than meets the eye. For starters there is a thought-provoking discrepancy between the Hebrew and English titles of the exhibition. While the Hebrew name opens with the words “Binyan Mekomi” – local construction – the English title starts with “Social Construction.”
“There is a local style which underwent adaptation to the International Style, to international modernism,” explains curator Oren Sagiv who, when he’s not putting on exhibitions at the Israel Museum, keeps himself gainfully occupied as a lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and as a highly active architect.
There is an even weightier, ideological, subtext to the Hebrew prelude. “The word ‘binyan’ refers both to structure but also to the act of building,” Sagiv continues, “building a society.”
Sagiv notes that the architectural ethos, which was imported here from Europe, but also from the United States, was filtered through Middle Eastern sensibilities, and not just tailored to accommodate the local climate and abundance of sunlight.
“There was also a social code here which also had to be taken into consideration, which was expressed through the local architecture. The Zionist-driven young architects, many of whom made aliya, wanted to convey something through their work,” he says.
Presumably, the said eager young professionals also brought something of their own cultural baggage to their work too, which may have come through in some eclectic tweaking here and there. “That’s true,” Sagiv concedes, “but I prefer to stick to the bigger picture.”
The curator says that, in architectural and Town planning terms, the era of the British Mandate can be divided into three clear parts. “The exhibition focuses on one decade of the mandate, the Thirties, on the local modernism which sprouted here.”
We move on to a monochrome print of Dizengoff Square, taken in 1937, when the urban nodal point was based on a park format, with lawns, benches and even a small pond with a fountain in the middle. Sagiv’s interest naturally centers on the flow of buildings that surround the square. “Look at this emblematic picture – [the architectural approach] created a sort of society, which revolved around an axis of the interface between the public and private domains, between the street and the interior of the residential buildings. Much of the ‘translation’ [of the International Style of architecture] was designed for this, to promote a new relationship between the private domain and the public domain,” he explains.
That was the prevailing construction and design theme during the middle decade of British rule in Palestine.
“The first and last decades are multifaceted,” Sagiv continues. “They were very unstable times. The old [Ottoman] political order had come to an end, a period that lasted a full 400 years. And then you get a colonial power, that comes here from Europe, that brings its own approach to the region. Town planning is introduced to this part of the world for the first time. The Turks did not have that.” The new rulers wasted no time in stamping their authority on the physical development of the Holy Land. “They began with that in Jerusalem right from the start.”
Still, the Brits did not find a tabula rasa here. “There were local architectural and planning traditions,” notes Sagiv. That was augmented by other recent arrivals. “There was also the Zionist movement with its own ideas and ideals. Of course, construction was an integral part of developing the Jewish presence here.” That led to a wide range of constructional styles. “You get eclectic design mind-sets.”
The second decade of the Mandate was a much more regimented time. “All the architects built in the same style,” says the curator. “That’s something you never see. It wasn’t as if someone officially dictated that. There was a harmonious approach to building and design.”
That takes in the aforementioned inside-outside coalescence. You see that in the long balconies that seem to unfurl across the facades of apartment building, proffering a glimpse of the interior, as part of what Sagiv (and Karmi-Melamede and Price) calls “the double-layered wall.” While the outer skin of the building sports tailored gashes that invite the outside in, the inner wall has a very different makeup, with openings that serve the personal needs of the occupants.
That boundary-leaping aspect also comes across in the design of workers’ housing, such as an urban block located at the meeting point of Frishman, Frug and Dov Hoz streets in central Tel Aviv, built by Israel Prize laureate architect Arieh Sharon.
The buildings are grouped around an inner yard which was shared by the residents, and also by members of the public who were offered access to the semi-private milieu through an entrance which opened out directly to the street. The notion of a seamless conjoining of public and private spaces contrasted with the European modernist ethic of free-flowing areas only within the residential unit.
“Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine” is a feast for the eyes, with some brain tickling thrown in, in the form of architectural drawings and plans that enhance the appreciation of the attractive prints. Visitors to the exhibition will, no doubt, subsequently view the Bauhaus buildings still dotted around the country with greater understanding and appreciation.
“Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine” closes on December 31. For more information: