A dynasty of design

“The Architecture of Memory” is showing until the beginning of March 2013 at the Munio Gitai Weinraub Architecture Museum in Haifa.

Amos Gitai 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Amos Gitai 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
If, for some reason, you ever decide to throw a brick up into the air anywhere in Haifa, there is a good chance that when it comes down it will land on a museum. This city can boast not only beautiful views, smart shops, trendy restaurants, the magnificent Bahai Gardens, scenic cable car rides and Israel’s only subway, but also perhaps more museums per square mile than any other city in the country.
And, as of high noon on September 14, Haifa has been able to boast yet one more. Joining such cultural icons as the Haifa Museum of Art, the Haifa City Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the National Museum of Science, Technology and Space, the Museum of Prehistory, the Dagon Archeological Museum, the Railway Museum, the Clandestine Immigration and Navy Museum, the Israeli Oil Industry Museum, the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, the Mané Katz Museum, the Hermann Struck Museum and the Marc Chagall Artists’ House is the Munio Gitai Weinraub Architecture Museum. This institution, dedicated to the memory of a leading proponent of the Bauhaus style of architecture, is Israel’s 233rd museum.
The new museum is the creation of Munio Weinraub’s son, internationally acclaimed film director Amos Gitai. Throughout a filmmaking career that began when his helicopter was shot down by the Syrians during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Gitai has written, produced and directed more than 80 films. He has directed such well-known actors and actresses as Oscar winner Natalie Portman, has been featured in retrospective shows in places ranging from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to film festivals in Italy, Brazil, China and Japan, has been nominated for four Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival, was distinguished Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2000, received the Rossellini prize in 2005 and 2007, and was awarded a Leopard of Honour at the Locarno Film Festival in 2008. Gitai’s movies are studied in film schools around the world and are the subject of numerous books.
Asked why Haifa needs yet another museum, Gitai replies, “This museum is going to specialize in architecture. So it’s not another museum about painting, or individual painters, or visual art or Japanese visual art.
“I feel that Tel Aviv was very smart for using its architectural history as a way of ‘selling’ the city as a Bauhaus city, even if it’s slightly exaggerated. But they did it very well,” he continues. “They got UNESCO to declare the city as a World Heritage site, which was a major coup. Haifa was very negligent by comparison. Haifa is a very beautiful place. The museum will be neither about just the architecture of Haifa nor about just the works of my father. It will try to express what we think about architecture.”
And what does Gitai, the new museum’s director, think about architecture – especially the architectural scene in Israel at present?
“I was formed as an architect. I have a diploma in architecture from the Technion, and a PhD in architecture from Berkeley. All together, I spent nine years studying this subject,” he says. “My father, as well as other very talented architects of his generation, came here from Europe, but they did something that can be identified as ‘the Israeli style,’ and ‘the Israeli project.’ They were fascinated with this place, and were really invested in a creative way with trying to articulate exactly what this place is about.
“So they made a very great effort to create technology that would respond to this place. Like how to use the wind to ventilate houses and buildings,” he explains. “They forged a synthesis with the know-how they brought from Europe and the parameters of their new home. They produced an Israeli style... The architects who were born in Israel spend too much time looking at architectural journals and become too imitative of other styles from abroad – often not even adaptive for this kind of climate.
“Now we produce too much imitation and don’t make enough effort to adapt to this land,” he says. “Because, you know, the beauty of this land is its simplicity. We don’t have things like Niagara Falls. We have the very gentle light of the evening, a bit of warm color, some cool color and the light of the trees. It’s very delicate, and we take it for granted. We abuse it with bulldozers and by building roads all over the place and generally not being sensitive. We are in danger of losing the very sense of what this place is. It must be conserved. So with this museum, we want to extend the conversation about architecture and express other ways of thinking. If we manage to do this, then I think I will have achieved something important.”
PERHAPS NOT surprisingly, the museum’s inaugural exhibition, like the museum itself, is dedicated to the memory of Gitai’s father. Born in 1909, Munio Gitai Weinraub left his home in Galicia to study architecture at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, where he was influenced by such avant-garde artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, they closed the Bauhaus, arresting Weinraub and three other Jewish students. The four were beaten, charged with treason against the German people and expelled from Germany.
“For me, this is really the very tragic dimension of figures like my father,” Gitai says. “Because the intimacy between the German culture and the Jewish culture before the Holocaust was something that never existed anywhere else in the world. The Jews were everywhere, making a major contribution to German culture. And the violence and the brutality of the final break put figures like my father in shock for the rest of their lives. My father used to walk home speaking to himself in Hochdeutsch [high German], just to hear the sound. They were longing for this culture that killed them.”
Weinraub found his way to Switzerland before coming to Israel in the mid-1930s. Joining other refugee architects from Europe, he contributed to the Bauhaus-style building boom in Tel Aviv and Haifa and was later one of the designers of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He died in 1970 after a long and productive career.
Gitai explains, “The museum’s inaugural exhibition is called ‘The Architecture of Memory,’ and it creates a dialogue between the viewer and work that Munio did or took part in. For example, he worked on Yad Vashem with a group of other architects. He worked specially on the building of the archives, which is a very severe-looking building. Munio worked on the archive and on the Givat Ram project and worked on some of the buildings in Haifa – industrial housing, and so on.
“I like, in all the exhibitions I have done in different places in the world, to have something that engages the viewer in study. It’s not just an exhibition where we go and see a beautiful painting.
I’m calling on the viewer to work out some of the connections. I’m not spelling out anything out. So there is a component of drawings, a component of photos from Haifa, some video work by me that reflects Munio’s roots in Dessau. And then there is a component of a text read on video by actress Hanna Marron,” he says.
Gitai’s opening of a museum in homage to his father – along with an inaugural exhibition in his memory – comes on the heels of other such exhibitions in Ein Harod, Jerusalem, Paris and Tokyo; exhibitions in honor of his mother in Ein Harod and Bordeaux; a film entitled Lullaby for my Father; another film called Carmel, based on letters written by his mother; and one or two parent-focused books.
This extraordinary sequence of homage to his parents begs the inevitable question of why Gitai is so driven by these memories and emotions. We all have had parents, but most of us don’t mount exhibitions and open museums in their honor.
Gitai nods and laughs as the question is put to him. “Yeah, I have been asked this question again and again. Look, I made films which dealt with the big issues about this country – Kadosh, about religion; Kippur, about war; and Kedma, about the War of Independence. But I feel that the political reality here now is so chaotic, and changing every day. It seems like we have one perception in the morning and another one in the afternoon. In cinema, you need perspective. You can’t make films like this.
“So I decided to look at two people I think I know quite a lot about – my dad and my mom – and work on a biography to see what biography can say that is larger than the lives I am looking at. I have dedicated the museum and its inaugural exhibition to the memory of my father, but at the same time this allows me to raise issues that are larger. The work that I’ve done with my mother’s letters is really about the origin of Israel, about how people came here with a vision and gave so much. I’m sure that if my mother were around today, there are things she would be enthusiastic about and others that she would not be. So thinking about her creates the necessary perspective.
“Also, I was 19 years old when my father died. When you’re that age, you don’t have many occasions to speak intelligently to your parents. And I think I went to study his craft, spending nine years to do it, in order to keep talking to my dead father.”
Asked why he left architecture to become a filmmaker, Gitai replies, “I think that was from flying rescue missions in my helicopter in the Yom Kippur War. One of the things about that war that really moved me was flying a wounded man out of Syria one day. He was wounded and alive. And while we were flying, some stuff came out of his pocket – a shopping list, some photos of his family, and so on. So I leaned down to pick the stuff up and put it back in his pocket, but when I turned back to him he was dead. And this non-dramatic transition was more dramatic than anything I could imagine. I think that was one of the moments in which I became a filmmaker. That was when I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life designing hotel lobbies or things like that.”
HAS GITAI managed to exorcise his ghosts? Can we perhaps now look forward to more films like Field Diary, Kadosh and Kedma, which delighted some and enraged others?
“I think that I’m closing a chapter with this exhibition,” he says. “I feel that I’ve come to the end of this big chunk of work. I want to do something else. And I will be 62 in October. It’s time. I think it’s necessary to speak about keeping a certain openness in Israeli society, not accepting hatred, xenophobic attitudes and caricatures of the ‘others.’ I think it’s very dangerous. If Israel continues with the very strong political forces that have put it in this position, I think it will conform too much to other countries in the region. It has to stay open, it has to stay tolerant. Even if we don’t want to absorb immigrants from Eritrea, a Knesset member must not call these people the ‘cancer of the nation.’ This cannot be done. We cannot do this – not in this savage, uncivilized way. So I hope to make films that will raise these issues.”
Gitai plans to raise other issues with the new museum. He says, “I want at some point to pay homage to two artists, Yitzhak Danziger and Avital Geva, two artists of different generations who were looking for ways to deal with landscape as healers. They wanted to heal the wounds of the environment. And I want to make one exhibition with Walid Karkabi, who is the city architect of Haifa. He did some very big research about joint projects in the 1930s and ’40s between Palestinian Arab promoters and Jewish architects who came from Eastern Europe after the Nazi seizure of power. For me this is interesting because we’re always speaking with big words about ‘coexistence’ and ‘peace,’ but the more complicated issue is how people can create together. As it happened, some of those collaborations produced some very good pieces of architecture. So I want to express our sense of architecture with these exhibitions, as well as with exhibitions of indigenous architecture from other cultures around the world.”
“The Architecture of Memory” is showing until the beginning of March 2013 at the Munio Gitai Weinraub Architecture Museum, 135 Sderot Hanassi, Haifa. The museum is open Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday 10 to 4, Thursday 3 to 9 and Friday 10 to 1. Tel: (04) 871-2311.