Jerusalem the beautiful

It was not just faced in stone, it was actually built of stone, unlike much of the other work at the time, which was concrete and only faced in stone.

rockefeller museum 370 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
rockefeller museum 370
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
It is worth recording that it was an edict of the British Mandate that has helped to preserve the present beauty of Jerusalem. It was in the 1920s that the first governor, Ronald Storrs, issued the decree that all buildings in Jerusalem had to be faced in the local stone. That ruling is still in effect today, and has helped to maintain the fine, homogeneous appearance of the city.
Besides being a high-ranking British Army officer, Storrs was a humane and learned classical scholar, and it is true that one of his first decisions on appointment as military governor in late 1917 was the formation of the Pro- Jerusalem Society, with himself as its chairman, with the aim of preserving and enhancing the beauty of the Holy City. It was a worthy aim and had considerable consequences, but Storrs was not exactly an expert on construction.
It was the secretary of the society, one Charles Robert Ashbee, who expounded on the building principles and it was his advice that led to the stonecladding decree.
It was more than aesthetics that led to this far-reaching decision. It was the aim of both Storrs and Ashbee to preserve the appearance of Jerusalem, but more than that, to maintain the local arts and crafts of the city, of which the principal ones were stone masonry and the manufacture of highly colored glazed tiles. The first was in the hands of the local Arabs and the second in that of the Armenians, and the British rulers wanted to see both activities employed for the good of the city and the welfare of its inhabitants.
C.R. Ashbee, himself an architect of the British Arts and Crafts movement, put forward several schemes for the improvement of Jerusalem. We know of his plans for landscaping the area of the Sultan’s pool, and a proposal for a palace alongside the Russian Church, but it must be admitted that these projects look pretty weak on paper and luckily were never implemented. However the Storrs-Ashbee policy of encouraging local crafts resulted in several successful buildings, of which the finest example must be the Rockefeller Museum.
Luckily its architect, Austen St. Barbe Harrison, can be deemed to have been, unlike Ashbee, a construction genius.
He was chief architect to the British Mandate but, unlike many such appointments, he was not just an administrator, but actually a first-class practicing architect.
He was born in 1891 in England, studied in Canada, worked in Greece and visited Istanbul, where he was able to indulge his fascination with Byzantine and Islamic architecture, then moving in 1922 to Palestine, where he held several positions in the Mandatory Government before becoming chief architect. It was a rare case of the right man at the right time in the right place.
THE CONSTRUCTION of the Rockefeller incorporated the two specific aims of the Pro-Jerusalem Society. It was not just faced in stone, it was actually built of stone, unlike much of the other work at the time, which was concrete and only faced in stone. Certain sections required a reinforced concrete structure but the bulk was stonework through and through.
The tower is built in a truly traditional way, with an octagonal shaft built over a square base by the use of supports on the four corners, each corner carried on triple projecting stone arches called squinches. It could be seen as a throwback to traditional Arabic vaulting, but it was thoroughly modern as well, and its appearance, when looking upwards from the tower hall near the entrance, is both magnificent and startling.
The finest part of the building is the interior courtyard, which could be considered to be the most restful place in built Jerusalem. It is enhanced by a central pool, and when the water is running it is the coolest place in the city, in both senses of the word.
Its appearance is enhanced by 10 deeply cut stone plaques by sculptor Eric Gill, depicting the 10 conquests and cultures of Jerusalem, from the pre-Israelites onwards, passing through the Seleucid, the Roman, the Islamic and Crusader conquests, and all periods right up to the British Mandate. In each panel Gill expresses the essence of the period in an artistic and witty way.
For instance, the Muslim era is represented by a winged horse with the face of a beautiful woman, a representation of the mythical creature that conducted Muhammad to heaven, via Jerusalem.
Gill, the famous British calligrapher, was a personal friend of Harrison, and carved all the signs of the museum in the three official languages of the Mandate, basing the Hebrew on an ancient inscription attributed to King Uzziah.
At the far end of the courtyard there is a shrine-like room, immaculately faced in brightly colored tiles figured like snowflakes by David Ohanessian, who carried on the tradition of fine Armenian ceramics and manufactured them brilliantly in Jerusalem. The room houses a fountain that was designed by Harrison in cubist style, which was unfortunately replaced by a more conventional circular basin by the Jordanian authorities when they administered the Museum for 20 years from 1948.
Today the museum serves as the headquarters of the Israel Antiquities Authority and, when their new building is completed alongside the Israel Museum, it is hoped that the Rockefeller will be renovated and that its valuable but rather old-fashioned display of unique archeological artifacts will be better presented than the original showcases that still persist.
However it must be remembered that the original purpose of the Rockefeller, when it was founded in 1930, was to house all the archeological discoveries that were scattered throughout Jerusalem in many different national institutions, and this unique function should be preserved.
AS CHIEF architect to the Mandate, St. Barbe Harrison was also responsible for the main Government Post Office, which presents an austere and imposing façade to Jaffa Street. It is a fine building, but its plainness is trumped by another modern building next door, the original Anglo-Palestine Bank by the architect Erich Mendelsohn. It is also rather severe and monumental, but the repeated windows have a certain lightness in their framing that overcomes the monotony, and the side elevation to Uzi Hasson street exhibits some of the graceful curves that Mendelsohn loved to display in his work.
Erich Mendelsohn had come to Jerusalem, via London, from Berlin in 1934 as a result of the rise of the Nazis.
He was not the only Jewish architect to leave Nazi Germany but he was perhaps the most distinguished. His was an unusual combination of commercial know-how and creativity.
In Berlin he had run one of the most successful architectural practices, but with the rise of the persecution of Jewish professionals, he turned his attention to Palestine, following his most prominent client, storeholder Salmann Schocken. For Schocken he had built innovative department stores in Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Chemnitz, and in Jerusalem Schocken commissioned him to build his own house and a library for his collection of rare Jewish books and manuscripts in Rehavia.
Mendelsohn set up office in the windmill on Ramban and received a considerable number of important commissions, but he also maintained an office in London at the same time, where he had won the competition for the Bexhill Pavilion contract with his British associate Serge Chermayeff. So Mendelsohn lived in two worlds, Great Britain and Palestine, but he nevertheless devoted himself here and completed several of his masterpieces in Jerusalem, and another in Rehovot, where he built the beautiful home for Chaim Weizmann, who had been instrumental in bringing him to Palestine in 1934.
THE WEIZMANN house is a treasure. It is both grand and homely and absolutely suited for purpose. But Vera Weizmann was not happy with Mendelsohn’s choice of furniture and went to the length of employing another designer to help her choose the interior fittings.
This was one in the eye to Mendelsohn, and he was suitably offended. It was his custom to design things down to the last piece of furniture, and Vera did not accept that; it did not suit her more conventional tastes. As the client, she won, and Mendelssohn walked away in a huff.
However, that contretemps does not appear today and what we see is the excellent plan of a large but modest house planned around a small open swimming pool, that gives the residence light and air and makes it rather special in the way of residential design.
Internally there are fine little touches, like the recessed electric fires and the large sliding- folding screen, the first of its type, between the hall and the dining room. There is the airy, well-lit curved staircase, so typical of Mendelsohn’s work. He always put the stairs in a prominent place, in the light, and not tucked away in a dark corridor, as so many other architects did.
The staircase at the Schocken Library in Rehavia is similarly prominent and flooded in light, and it leads up to the main room of the library, where Mendelsohn designed all the bookcases and the display tables. He arranged for soft clerestory lighting, so as not to damage the precious books and manuscripts and, by contrast, introduced a small projecting oriel window where just enough sunlight enters to help a reader sit by it and inspect the treasures.
Here Mendelsohn’s fusion of building and furniture reaches a high level of achievement, and there was no lady of the house to stymie his plans. Today the building is occupied by the Jewish Theological Society and houses their literary treasures, taken over from Schocken.
Thanks to the recommendation of Schocken, Mendelsohn gained the contract for the vast Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus, where he introduced a new concept for the wards, making them comfortable sitting rooms rather than poky cubicles.
His triple-domed entrance is magnificent, and a polite bow to Arab culture, but unfortunately spoiled today by ugly accretions. In accordance with the requirement for stone facing, Mendelssohn covered the concrete structure in stone, in good faith, but set the stone in vertical courses, quite unsuitable for building, to show that it was not an integral part of the construction.
MENDELSSOHN WAS always hungry for commissions and, as the war loomed and work in Palestine and London dried up, he moved off to the United States, the golden land of greater opportunities, but ironically, there his work deteriorated. It became less disciplined; it did not have the material constraints that had operated in Europe and Israel, and one can truly say that perhaps some of his best work was conducted in the difficult conditions of Mandatory Palestine.
He was an international Jew, but one likes to think that the spirit and the sunlight of Israel were precious to him and gave exceptional impetus to his inspiration. That sounds plausible, but then another of his masterpieces was the Bexhill Pavilion in southern England, and one can hardly say that the British sunlight (or lack of it) would have provided the same stimulus and inspiration.
The pressure of Nazi persecution, the play of sunlight and the spirit of Zionism inspired Mendelsohn to create masterpieces in Jerusalem. The same sources may not have applied to Austen St. Barbe Harrison, but he had a love of the Orient and a deep knowledge of its traditional arts and crafts, and also produced a masterpiece in the Rockefeller Museum.
Both these architects made their contributions to the beauty of Jerusalem and we should celebrate their works, together with the many other fine and more ancient buildings and monuments, in Jerusalem today.
The author is a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.