Safe as houses

Getting to know the Israel Museum’s new curator of design and architecture.

‘Architecture is a form of populist art’: Dan Handel gained valuable experience on the Young Curator program of the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Architecture is a form of populist art’: Dan Handel gained valuable experience on the Young Curator program of the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If Dan Handel has anything to do with it, our towns and neighborhoods may be taking on a new vibe in the years to come. Not that Handel is a high-flying political wheeler and dealer – far from it – but he has a hefty personal and professional vested interest in the way we build in this country.
At the beginning of this month Handel took on the prestigious position of curator of design and architecture at the Israel Museum. Despite his relatively tender years – he is all of 38 years old – Handel appears to have paid his professional dues, and has accrued an impressive professional bio.
A curator, critic and professor, Handel is a founding editor of Manifest, an annual journal of American urbanism and architecture, and a member of the faculty at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He also served as co-curator of the Israel Pavilion for the Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2012.
“Dan brings with him cross-disciplinary expertise and a professional background, both in Israel and internationally, that will enable him to advance the museum’s local and global perspective in the rapidly changing fields of architecture and design,” said Israel Museum director James Snyder. “His vision as a curator is deepened by a strong grounding in contemporary visual culture, and we are delighted to broaden our curatorial reach with his special combination of talents.” High praise indeed and apparently well deserved.
Handel’s impressive CV to date includes a stint curating at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which was established in Montreal in 1979 by Phyllis Lambert. The venerated 89-year-old architect was recently over here to accept the 2016 Wolf Prize in the Arts category.
Handel was on the center’s young curators’ program, and says he shares Lambert’s view that architecture is not just about buildings. “The practical expression of architecture is structures. But, in my view – and I would say this applies to design as well – architecture interfaces with economics and society,” he notes. “Architecture also impacts significantly on the surroundings. When all is said and done, buildings are where we spend the majority of our working hours and where we live. Architecture is a very important element in our lives. I always say that architecture is a form of populist art. It is not classical music. I’d say it’s much closer to rock music.”
Whether we like it or not, and whether or not we are consciously aware of it, the structures we see every day, on our way to work, school or the stores, color our mood, our energy levels and our lives in general. Handel says he recently got a clear reminder of that inescapable fact of life. “I was conducting an interview with someone who wanted to study at Bezalel, and I asked him to describe where he lives. He told me about a building in his neighborhood, and he went into quite great detail. I got two things from that. First, I understood that the building in question had been very poorly planned, but I also realized just how powerful an effect architecture has on us.”
As the newly arrived incumbent of such a prestigious position in the local architectural domain, Handel is now in a position to make his voice heard about the way things are going, in the field, up and down the country. I gave him an example of what has taken place in the Baka neighborhood over the last decade or so. Numerous old and attractive small buildings have been extended by two or three floors, and the character of the original structure has generally been trampled underfoot by the expansion which, naturally, brings in revenue for the municipal authorities.
While empathizing with the loss of the olden charm and villagey feel of Baka, Handel recognizes that this is simply the way of the world. “Israel is a place that experiences rapid change, and that the changes are dramatic. But we have to remember that changes are always dramatic. Think of Baka in its first 10 years, and then in the 10 years after that and so on, every decade in Israel brings many changes.”
Handel urges us not to cling to the “good old days” too fervently. “There is nostalgia, and it is true that the changes here are dramatic, and you have to constantly keep up with what is happening. There is a lot of bad stuff around, but it is certainly not all bad.”
Handel brings a broad perspective to his Israel Museum job. After gaining a bachelor’s degree at Bezalel, he gained a master’s at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He has earned curatorship spurs at numerous exhibitions around the globe, taking in shows in the US and Europe. “I am honored to accept the position of curator of design and architecture at the Israel Museum,” he says. “Many groundbreaking exhibitions were created by this department throughout its history, and I look forward to continuing that tradition and to working with the talented team at the museum. My hope is to further the department’s role as a platform for discussion, reflection and display in the fields of design and architecture in Israel and around the globe.”
Handel’s professional geographic spread, and his work with Manifest, provide him with a broad perspective on the field in this country, and enable him to discern impact from foreign climes. “There is a definitive American influence on architecture in Israel,” he states. In fact, he is something of an expert on the topic. “When I engaged in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale I put together a kind of theory about how architecture in the United States informs design work here. That relates to architectural styles here and also the way we go about funding architectural projects. That influence has changed the way Israelis go about initiating building projects.”
Naturally, however, as much as some Israelis may harbor a personal American dream, Israel and the US are two very different places, in terms of climate and human behavior. “That’s true,” Handel concurs. “What makes architecture really interesting here, in that respect, is looking at the Israeli twist, at the way we adapt the American model. At the end of the day, what we have here is very Israeli.”
Handel is a concerned by the way planners go about their business, and says that contractors are often overly monetary gain-oriented. “Our architecture is in a sticky situation, in terms of the profit mind-set. You have to look at what you define as quality, and what provides the public with a service, beyond the objective of the construction entrepreneur.”
No doubt, under Handel’s aegis, the Design and Architecture Department of the Israel Museum will take a long hard look at that, and other areas of architectural endeavor here in the coming years.