The architecture of ideology

Plain talk with Ram Carmi, who has been called, among other things, the "enfant terrible" of Israeli architecture.

Ram Carmi 521.jpg (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Ram Carmi 521.jpg
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
RAM CARMI, Israeli architect and Israel Prize winner, has built some of the most exciting and iconic buildings in the country over a career that spans more than 60 years. Like all great artists, he is controversial and revels in replying to his critics, of whom there is no shortage.
But no one was quite prepared for Carmi’s response to the chorus of criticism that greeted his renovation of Habimah Theater, revealed to the public a year ago.
Even during the course of the work – which took three years – architecture and environment writers complained of the ugly building site at the heart of Tel Aviv, the result of the addition of two floors and concrete walls which, some claimed, turned the national theater – designed in 1930 by Oskar Kaufman as a perfect manifestation of White City architecture – into a concrete monster, totally out of place with the adjacent square and nearby buildings.
“They can kiss my arse,” was Carmi’s response.
Well, when you reach 80, I suppose you can say what you feel. He was nevertheless excoriated by critics who had given him the title of “the gentleman architect,” and always assumed he was one.
I spent an hour and a half talking to Carmi at his home in Herzliya Pituah, where he lives with his third wife, Rivka. He has six children from three marriages – the youngest a daughter who is just starting her army service.
The basement of the family villa houses his office, with computer stations for seven young architects honing their skills under his watchful eye.
One cannot say that Carmi is frail, as he is solidly built, but his voice is quiet, and he has to strain it to convey his ideas. His eyes are blue and distant, but sometimes a smile hovers around them, softening his rather stern look. I feel I am in the presence of someone whose contribution to the Israeli cultural scene is immense.
The plan is to talk about the development of Israeli architecture and where it stands today, but in view of his less than elegant response to the Habimah criticism, I ask him if he has become less tolerant over the years.
“I’ve always faced criticism,” he says. “When I was a Brutalist, and, together with my father, produced buildings like the El Al building in Tel Aviv, there were plenty of critics who didn’t like the style. Brutalism was an appropriate style for the times, it was a time of austerity in Israel, soon after the state was established, and the stark non-ornamented style of Brutalism fitted in well.
“Later I left Brutalism and switched to lyrical architecture, which I felt was more appropriate to Tel Aviv. The White City was the architecture of light, and Brutalism was the architecture of shadow,” Carmi explains.
His father, Dov Carmi, one of the early builders of Tel Aviv, designed over 100 buildings, public and private.
Like many of the early architects of the metropolis, he immigrated from Europe and experienced the stark difference between the light left behind and the glaring light of the Mediterranean.
“They had a dream of white buildings made from a material that would never grow old, like toothpaste that comes from a tube and solidifies like a piece of glass. Sadly this material was never invented, and the buildings of white Tel Aviv – the Bauhaus influence – have not aged nicely,” says his son.
At the same time that Dov Carmi was working in Tel Aviv, two other young architects also arrived from Europe and made names for themselves – Arieh Sharon and Ze’ev Rechter. Carmi digresses for a moment to point out how each one has a name which reflects his nature.
“My father, Dov, was like a bear, the most human and lovable of the three. Ze’ev Rechter was a wolf.”
Here Carmi waves his hand as if to convey the curved lines that are typical of Rechter’s work.
“Arieh was a lion, a king. Because he was a kibbutznik, they could afford to send him to the Bauhaus itself to study under Hannes Meyer [the director]. He taught him that good architecture is a building, not a monument, and everything is a question of economy, not culture. He was connected to the founders and their socialist ideology. My father had to go and study somewhere cheaper, and qualified in Belgium.”
Carmi points out that all three brought foreign architecture to Israel.
“It didn’t grow from the soil here,” he says.
Altogether, says Carmi, there were between 40 and 50 immigrant architects who came here right after completing their studies in Europe.
“They were full of Zionism and thought they were going to build a brave new world,” he says. “There was a strong spirit of unity, although each worked in his own office, but in what they produced they were in agreement, and the white architecture of Tel Aviv shows the spirit of their unity.
“Tel Aviv is a city that is more than 90 percent residential. In the Thirties, they were building the new world, not for the rich, but for the masses, the proletariat. So if you look at Tel Aviv as a city, there are very few monumental buildings.”
But, according to Carmi, this is what makes Tel Aviv a valuable and dear city.
“What makes it so special is its residential texture. There is not one building in Tel Aviv that will make it into a book on the history of modern architecture,” he says. “But as a group, it’s the best. A group of white buildings like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
As to the architecture of today, Carmi is clearly not enamored of it.
“It’s all towers and glass walls,” he says disparagingly.
“Because the walls are made of glass, there are no windows, no dialogue of in and out, just a kind of twilight light from the glass.” Carmi does not think it’s a good fit with the architecture that made Tel Aviv the White City and a UN World Heritage site.
“White architecture is the architecture of ideology, of socialism, it came out of a time of belief in an ideal,” he says. “Now all the ideology has gone bankrupt, the spirit of the age is every man for himself, rather than everyone for the group. It’s the ideology of Netanyahu, of the private tycoons who buy up public buildings and turn them into businesses.”
Although he is over 80, he still works as intensely as ever and has, he says, five or six commissioned and designed buildings which are “in the freezer.” One of them is the home of the prime minister, a “White House of Israel” as he calls it.
Having completed the Habimah renovation, Carmi observes, somewhat skeptically, the renovation of the Mann Auditorium, for which his company did not win the tender.
“It was my right to do it,” he says, somewhat bitterly.
“My father designed the original building. We are a unique family in Israeli architecture. My sister Ada Carmi Melamed [with whom he designed the Supreme Court building], my father Dov Carmi and myself have all won the Israel Prize, the only architectural family to have done so.”
Summing up his feelings about Israeli architecture in general, he says that it is evolving and in some ways post-modernism has destroyed the unity and team spirit of what had already been built and established.
Asked which building best exemplifies modern Israeli architecture, he picks – with exemplary filial devotion – the Mann Auditorium, and expresses the hope that the renovation will maintain the spirit of the original.
“Israeli architecture is somewhere in space between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s not light and shadow; it’s a mixture of different lights – the light of the morning, the light of the evening.”
His face breaks out into a broad smile as he self-consciously produces a quotable sound bite.
“It’s the light of a dream,” says Carmi.