Designing for the collective: Shmuel Mestechkin

As kibbutzim morph into rural housing projects, a new book documents the work of the man whose buildings left an indelible stamp on the state.

Mestechkin library 88 248 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Mestechkin library 88 248
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Kibbutzim were once small communities whose hardworking members were dedicated to living frugally and adhering to the basic ideology of the kibbutz movement. These days not only has their way of life changed dramatically but so have the somewhat standardized living conditions - bringing the curtain down on the once almost uniform and unmistakable outward appearance of kibbutz communities. Realizing that the specialized kibbutz architecture of yore was fast disappearing, a group of kibbutz historians banded together to produce a book honoring Shmuel Mestechkin, one of the most prominent architects who designed kibbutz homes and public buildings before and after the State of Israel was founded. "With kibbutzim developing the way they have in [recent] years, the architectural demands changed drastically and so in 1999 we developed the idea of publishing a book memorializing what was fast disappearing - and in particular to pay tribute to Shmuel Mestechkin," explains Yuval Danieli, who together with Muki Tzur wrote and edited the recently published Mestechkin Builds Israel: Architecture in the Kibbutz, a 230-page tribute to the chief architect of the Kibbutz Ha'artzi Federation of Kibbutzim (Hashomer Hatza'ir) from 1943 until retirement in the '90s. "Mestechkin was an outstanding architect who - although never a kibbutz member - was very much a kibbutznik at heart, a totally committed socialist," Danieli says. Danieli, an artist, sculptor and historian, member of Kibbutz Hamapil and curator of art at the Yad Ya'ari Center in Givat Haviva (Hashomer Hatza'ir's public archive, established in 1937) says that the project's main aim was to "register and photograph the original buildings and record the basic function for which they were built." Mestechkin's personal archive is also located at Yad Ya'ari Center. Givat Haviva buildings designed by Mestechkin include the original library, a Bauhaus design whose rotunda-style building, perched above the main lawn of the kibbutz campus, emanates strong charisma and charm. Over the years, kibbutzim switched from rearing their children in communal children's houses to having them at home with their parents; dining-rooms became privatized and in some kibbutzim closed down altogether; buildings specifically created for public purposes began to be rented out to private businesses; and kibbutz schools amalgamated to form regional education institutions. And the external and internal appearance of the buildings began to change. In some cases, buildings that had long served the communities became obsolete and were demolished, the land they were sitting on having become lucrative real estate. Danieli interviewed Mestechkin in 2002 after having visited many kibbutzim and researching archival material over a period of three years. Two years later Mestechkin, by then 96 and a Grandmaster of Architects, died. "I carried out two interviews with Mestechkin in his private home in Tel Aviv. The house was built by him, Bauhaus-style and situated opposite Habima. After he died his family wanted to publish a book in his memory and the project [was] supported by the Kiriyati Family Foundation," said Danieli. Mestechkin was born in a small Ukrainian town and in 1921 followed his brother Mordechai to Palestine. "Mestechkin" in Ukrainian is a small town - "kiriya" in Hebrew - and Mordechai Mestechkin changed his name to Kiriyati. Kiriyati, who was 10 years older than Mestechkin, was a surveyor employed by Keren Kayemet and was paid in land rather than in wages. Mestechkin had intended to become a member of Kibbutz Na'an, but that was not to be. While studying in Ben Shemen, Mestechkin built a large tower for a student camp. The head of Ben Shemen saw the tower and said that whoever built it should study architecture. Not having finished high school, Mestechkin was not accepted to the fledgling Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He went to study at Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany - one of very few Israelis to study there, Danieli says. Mestechkin returned to Palestine after the Nazis rose to power and in 1934 designed and erected another tower at a youth movement camp on the Carmel Mountain range. The tower so impressed planners of the Yishuv that it was taken as the model for what became known in 1936 as "the tower and stockade" approach to building Jewish settlements throughout the country. From 1936 to 1939 some 40 such settlements were established. In 1943 Mestechkin, the architect with socialist leanings and an eye for Bauhaus design, accepted the position of chief architect with the planning and development department of the Kibbutz Ha'artzi movement. "Because of his strong socialist leanings, he wouldn't work for the private sector and… jumped at the chance to work for the kibbutz movement - and from then on, history," smiles Danieli. Mestechkin introduced small alcoves to the rather bleak housing of kibbutz members and was adventurous in his design of communal buildings, such as dining rooms with two wings separated by an open courtyard, but with a movable roof that could make both wings one. "Mestechkin understood that the dining room was not just a place to eat, but an extension of the members' homes and he also added a niche (alcove) in the members' rooms. He said they needed a small area where they could have just a little privacy, be apart but not necessarily cut off from the rest," explains Danieli, who has lived at Hamapil all his life. While the kibbutz movement's planning and development department did not restrict its work to kibbutzim - Mestechkin was involved in designing and building the amphitheater, sports stadium and other buildings on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Kiryat Ben-Gurion at Sde Boker and a myriad of other projects throughout the country - the design and construction of Kibbutz Mizra was one of his many projects. "He constructed a three-story building for chickens. It measured about 60 meters long at a time when members were living in rooms no bigger than 20 meters. The chicken coop became known as 'The Chicken Union building' or 'Bauhaus Chickens,'" quips Danieli. Mestechkin Builds Israel: Architecture in Kibbutz (in Hebrew) can be purchased from Yad Ya'ari, Givat Haviva.