Historical constructions

David Kroyanker’s ‘The Jerusalem Triangle: An Urban Biography’ elegantly chronicles the past and present of the capital’s downtown area.

The Jerusalem Triangle’light rail train 521 (photo credit: Photos: ‘The Jerusalem Triangle’)
The Jerusalem Triangle’light rail train 521
(photo credit: Photos: ‘The Jerusalem Triangle’)
David Kroyanker is possibly the leading authority on the subject of architecture in Jerusalem. But having vast amounts of knowledge at your fingertips, an impressive professional CV in the relevant field and an abiding love for the subject matter doesn’t necessarily make you a good vehicle for producing literature which is both immensely informative and a good read. Here too, however, Kroyanker repeatedly produces the goods and his latest book, The Jerusalem Triangle – An Urban Biography, is a delight to behold.
The weighty Hebrew tome is chock-full of tidbits about the capital and its buildings, in this case, specifically in and around the eponymous downtown triangle of Ben-Yehuda Street, Jaffa Road and King George Avenue. Throughout the over 400 pages of text, photographs, illustrations and drawings, Kroyanker offers a sublime combination of professionalism and romanticism.
The 72-year-old author seemingly leaves no stone unturned. He is a seasoned professional who has worked in and written about many of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods for over four decades, serving as a member of the downtown Jerusalem planning team in the early 1970s, then as an employee of the municipality, and more recently as a self-employed architect and researcher at Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. His bibliography to date includes such titles as the Architecture in Jerusalem – Periods and Styles six-volume set, Arab Construction outside the Walls and Construction during the British Mandate.
Four hundred-plus pages of text, plus around 40 pages of bibliographical references, sources of information and an index, even with a plentiful supply of graphic and pictorial adornment, sounds like a lot to wade through, but The Jerusalem Triangle – An Urban Biography is anything but turgid. Voluminous proportions notwithstanding, the coffee-table-sized book just begs to be picked up and perused. Therein lies the book’s user-friendliness.
Kroyanker does not swamp the reader with facts and figures and the new offering is neatly divided into epochs, starting from the earliest days of the capital’s urban development, from the end of the Ottoman Era through to the mid-1930s. Other chapters are devoted to what Kroyanker calls “the golden era and time of prosperity,” from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, urban deterioration and attempts to revive the city, architectural and construction styles, and the people behind the buildings – the house owners, contractors and architects.
Among the statistics, descriptions of buildings and entertaining anecdotes there are some nuggets of information and the odd surprise. For example, Kroyanker informs us that, back in the early 1970s, a Swedish company proposed solving traffic congestion problems in the center of Jerusalem by building – would you believe? – a monorail transport system. The mockup picture of the said futuristic-looking mode of public transport, on page 81, is quickly followed, on page 89, by a photograph of an actual light rail train on a trial run down Jaffa Road.
The similarity between the simulated illustration and real life photograph is uncanny.
Kroyanker’s love of Jerusalem, its buildings and architectural heritage comes through with every turn of a page. While not exactly getting on his soapbox, the author conveys his regret at the loss of some fine edifices in the capital, such as the building of the Talitha Kumi for German orphans on King George Avenue which was demolished in 1980 and replaced, seven years later, by the far less aesthetically pleasing Beit Rejwan.
Kroyanker also bemoans the loss of a fine 1920s building just up the road from Beit Rejwan, when the former Goldsmit House Pension and Hotel was knocked down and replaced by the Jerusalem Towers skyscraper. There is a fuzzy photograph of Goldsmit House on page 230, resplendent with three tiers of balustraded balconies with a reproduction of a delightfully naïve advert for the hotel next to the photo.
The Jerusalem Triangle – An Urban Biography is not meant to just sit around on your coffee table looking pretty, or on your bookshelves waiting for the occasional perusal. Kroyanker encourages readers to take a proactive interest in the content and discover the author’s beloved city for themselves.
Chapter 6 is called “Walking Routes” and contains five inviting trails in and around the downtown triangle which take in all sorts of key places of historic, urban, architectural and social-cultural importance. One tour takes in the Shamai, Hillel, King George, Rabbi Akiva and Mevo Hamatmid thoroughfares within the triangle, while another takes the reader into the lesser known expanses of the Muslim cemetery and Independence Park. A third route strays somewhat beyond the triangle into the evocative cheek-by-jowl architecture of Shlomzion Hamalka, Koresh, Ben-Sira and Shimon Ben-Shetah streets.
Each trail starts with a list of the important stations. The Three Triangle Sides tour, for example, includes the building of the former Palatin Hotel at 4 Agrippas Street, Shiber House at 23 Ben-Yehuda Street, which now sports an impressive mural by French artist Gilbert Koren, and Beit Hahistadrut at 1 Histadrut Street, once home to the Tel Or Cinema.
Veteran Jerusalemites may recall that the center of the city once had a plethora of cinemas, and the walking tours take in the erstwhile premises of several of them.
The names of Eden, Zion Hall, Or-Gil and Orion all feature in the book, the latter premises now occupied by McDonald’s on Shamai Street.
As you would expect from a book written by an architect, there are plans, diagrams and artist impressions of various buildings, but also highly evocative photographs, both in monochrome and color, as well as posters advertising movies starring yesteryear stars Robert Young and Fredric March.
The Jerusalem Triangle – An Urban Biography is an eloquent blast from past but also an open invitation to get out there and take a closer look at the buildings that have survived.