Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City

by Adina Hoffman


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A biographical excavation of one of the world’s great, troubled cities

A remarkable view of one of the world’s most beloved and troubled cities, Adina Hoffman’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem is a gripping and intimate journey into the very different lives of three architects who helped shape modern Jerusalem.

The book unfolds as an excavation. It opens with the 1934 arrival in Jerusalem of the celebrated Berlin architect Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who must reckon with a complex new Middle Eastern reality. Next we meet Austen St. Barbe Harrison, Palestine’s chief government architect from 1922 to 1937. Steeped in the traditions of Byzantine and Islamic building, this “most private of public servants” finds himself working under the often stifling and violent conditions of British rule. And in the riveting final section, Hoffman herself sets out through the battered streets of today’s Jerusalem searching for traces of a possibly Greek, possibly Arab architect named Spyro Houris. Once a fixture on the local scene, Houris is now utterly forgotten, though his grand Armenian-tile-clad buildings still stand, a ghostly testimony to the cultural fluidity that has historically characterized Jerusalem at its best.

A beautifully written rumination on memory and forgetting, place and displacement, Till We Have Built Jerusalem uncovers the ramifying layers of one great city’s buried history as it asks what it means, everywhere, to be foreign and to belong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536787
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. She is also the author, with Peter Cole, of Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which received the American Library Association’s award for the Jewish book of the year. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was awarded one of the inaugural Windham Campbell prizes in 2013. She divides her time between Jerusalem and New Haven.

Read an Excerpt

Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Architects of a New City

By Adina Hoffman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Adina Hoffman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70978-5





Erich Mendelsohn wore thick glasses and had only one, weak eye — cancer forced the removal of the other when he was a young architect in Berlin, and total blindness had since been a hovering threat — but from the moment he set foot in Palestine he couldn't stop denouncing his fellow Jews for their failure to see.

The myopia he encountered there pained him. (So his wife, Luise, would write, years after his death.) He was ashamed by the ugliness of the Jewish settlements, the boxy apartment buildings, the slablike synagogues that had sprung up haphazardly throughout the land. The absence of planning also galled. Without any apparent forethought, cities had erupted, he said, like so much "wild, tropical vegetation." Even the poorest Arab villages were by comparison models of harmonious design — their dirt roads and low houses arrayed according to the shapes of the hills, each of them circling skyward toward a spiral-like crown. Luise would later report that throughout their years in Palestine he'd often stop the car by the side of the road and hop out, eager to study the lines of a favorite village on the old carriageway to Jerusalem. "A little heap of turned-up sand and rocks," it gave "the impression that it was lifted up out of the earth," and its elemental appearance fascinated him.

Meanwhile, just a short drive away, all those well-trained European architects who gathered in Tel Aviv cafés to argue and smoke as they vied for commissions and held competitions were still carrying on as though they were in Vienna, Hamburg, or Dessau — as though history and Hitler hadn't happened, as though it were possible to keep plunking down glass houses on every other corner and ignoring the climatic and cultural facts of where they'd landed: in a hot, ancient, blindingly bright, Middle Eastern land.

Astigmatism had not, he insisted, always been so rampant among his people. The ghetto was to blame. Over centuries of "pariah existence," he said, "their eyes had forgotten how to distinguish between good and bad. A 'better' building meant to them cement instead of wood, and 'more beautiful' meant complicated instead of simple. They had, therefore, to be trained anew to see."

To make his point more forcefully, he'd sometimes flourish an ancient ceramic vessel that he claimed demonstrated the creativity and craftsmanship that long ago characterized the Jewish people. Known as a "tear jug," this was a pitcher meant to hold the weepy runoff of its chronically saddened Semitic owners.

Mendelsohn had little patience with Jews who sniffled. He himself was less tearful than he was appalled by the "brutal disregard" of the country's singular beauty and by what he saw as the refusal of these transplanted architects to recognize that circumstances had changed, the world had changed, their materials had changed. And furthermore, "Palestine is not a virgin country insofar as architectural tradition is concerned." Though they seemed to believe they were starting from scratch, the recent arrivals had much to learn from the local Arabs who'd come to understand over centuries how best to shelter themselves from the glare, how to build with thick, cooling walls and small, carefully placed windows. It shocked him especially to see scattered along the streets of the country's raggedy Eastern cities crass imitations of his own sleek German designs — "bastard buildings," he called them, in which the steel and reinforced concrete that he'd used so dynamically in his earlier European work had been yanked out of context, used carelessly, hurriedly, on the cheap, and all in the name of settling the hordes of immigrants who — like many of the architects themselves — had just stumbled blearily onto these Mediterranean shores. With their extravagant use of glass, these buildings were, he fumed, "wholly unsuitable to the sub-tropical climate of Palestine." Such construction had "almost degenerated into a pestilence."

Erich Mendelsohn hadn't come here to make friends.

* * *

Decades later, as a widow, Luise would explain that many viewed her husband as "arrogant, impatient, contemptuous, sarcastic" but that those who knew him well and whom he trusted saw him as unstintingly generous, endlessly attentive, and, what's more, "humble ... in the profoundest sense of a deeply religious personality — always aware of the great unknown."

But he couldn't help himself and his prophetic rages, especially once he reached Jerusalem. And then it wasn't simply scorn that he let rip in this oracular manner but a piercing, almost painful, ambivalence that came blasting out, as though the violent confusion of sensations he was experiencing there hurt him physically.

Taking in all he saw from the heights of Mount Scopus, for instance, the squat man with the soaring ideas was flooded by waves of mixed emotion. The colors in the distance were at once jumbled and overwhelming, with the violet-blue Judean hills stretching as far as the Dead Sea, and the Old City walls that seemed to him gray-green, covered in a glorious ancient patina. The site was (he would write Luise in excited exhaustion that night) "indescribably beautiful — yes, shattering —

"— but the present buildings are scattered about without any plan, in a terrifyingly small-minded way."

He, meanwhile, had a definite plan, or plans — for this summit, for this city, for this country as a whole. And also for himself. That was why the great Erich Mendelsohn was here, after all, traipsing around the rocky wastes of this historic hill on a blustery December day in 1934, swiveling his head and its fedora this way and that as he took in the boggling view.

Often, Mendelsohn would simply drink in a landscape or a cluster of buildings for its own sake. Just as that village on the way to Jerusalem always made him slam on the brakes and spring from the car, go scurrying out with his sketchbook and single squinting eye, whenever and wherever he was hired to build he'd apply the same thirsty observational method. But today was an official visit, not a spontaneous pit stop with his pretty wife or a solitary surveying session. Hearing of the presence in town of the well-known refugee architect — currently working in London, though for a few weeks now he'd been running a makeshift drafting office out of his room in the swank, newly built King David Hotel — the Kishinev-born, Odessa-trained director of the Hadassah Medical Organization, Chaim Yassky, had invited Mendelsohn to accompany him up the mountain.

Yassky was an eye doctor, of all things, the perfect companion for Mendelsohn as he set out on his quest to correct the Jewish people's collectively impaired vision. And although he didn't yet have the approval of his bickering building committee to hire Mendelsohn (they preferred to hold a competition), the doctor also had plans. The old Rothschild-Hadassah hospital in the heart of town on the Street of the Prophets was too small, crowded, and run-down to serve the city's rapidly expanding population. At the start of the nineteenth century, Jerusalem was home to just eight thousand, all living inside the walls; by late 1917, when the British occupied Palestine, the number of residents both within and without those medieval ramparts had swollen to fifty-four thousand. Now — seventeen years since the start of English rule and the approval of the document known as the Balfour Declaration, which pledged that His Majesty's government would use its "best endeavours" to facilitate "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" — the city's populace stood near a hundred thousand and would, Yassky knew, continue to grow. With such figures and the pressing physical facts they suggested in mind, he wanted Mendelsohn to examine the more remote Mount Scopus site to the northeast of downtown and consider the prospect of designing a modern hospital and medical school on the saddle of the hill. There it would rest between those few scattered buildings of the fledgling Hebrew University and the pristine British War Cemetery, with its regiments of cross-bearing headstones standing since the Great War at perpetual attention.

The plot Yassky had selected was, as it happens, the perfect limbo-like spot on which to build in the timeless manner to which Mendelsohn aspired — poised between the promise of what would be (the new university and all it represented for the Jewish people) and what had been (that "great" war and its more universal, and devastating, meaning). The hospital's cornerstone had been laid just a few months before, and the proceedings of the ceremony broadcast by live wireless — a first — from these windy heights to the whole wide world, or at least to Cairo, London, New York, and the Wardman Park Hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., where the fifteen hundred white-gloved delegates of the Hadassah Women's Convention assembled to hear the staticky speeches beneath a banner that proclaimed WE WILL BUILD.

As gangly and calm as Mendelsohn was soft hipped and excitable, Yassky had made his way in the world as a sober man of science, but he knew a thing or two about the sweeping rhetoric of sanctification and striving that was, at this moment, so popular in Palestine. Using the loftiest terms, he had managed to convince his endlessly wrangling committee members of the need to situate the country's new, state-of-the-art teaching hospital in the "cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem" — not homogenous Tel Aviv — where it would both serve all the citizens of the country, regardless of creed, and "foster ... the progress, if not the salvation of the Jewish community of Jerusalem, which will eventually become the spiritual center of Jewish Palestine."

Such talk appealed to Mendelsohn, whose own visions, like his ambition and his scathing opinions, were hard to contain. The hospital constituted just one piece of his grand design for this Jerusalem ridge. He'd also already begun to imagine what he called "an entirely new master plan for the whole University complex" — not just a building or two but a complete network of carefully arrayed structures and roads, which would come together as a focused unity and flow naturally across the hilltop "like a proper organism." (As he conjured the image of this marvelously concentrated campus to be "executed by one hand," his own, he may also have been picturing himself strolling across its landscaped grounds, which he meant to plot personally, olive tree by olive tree; there were rumors around town that a chair of architecture at the university would be created especially for him — rumors he did nothing to dispel.) And the university was really but a single element of his gestational plan for all of Jerusalem, and for the building of Palestine as a whole. Mendelsohn wasn't alone, of course, in drawing the essential link between these different realms. Its founders hoped that the university on the hill would, when it was built, represent nothing short of a new Temple, a "House of Life," which would aid "in the quest of modern Judaism for a recovery of its soul."

* * *

No one would ever have accused Erich Mendelsohn of excess modesty, but the idea that he should be the one to give architectural coherence to this campus, this city, this land wasn't some megalomaniacal fantasy of his own. Among Weimar Germany's most acclaimed architects, Mendelsohn had run one of the largest and busiest practices in that country until his hasty departure just the year before. He'd long been praised, if also scorned, for his boldly expressive and trailblazing designs, almost all of them rendered for Jewish clients. One of his earliest buildings was still his most famous — the singularly sculptural Einstein Tower, a modernist spaceship of a stucco-clad observatory and astrophysics lab created around 1920 in Potsdam, so that its soon to be Nobel-winning namesake could test the theory of relativity there. More subtle and suggestive of his work to come were the renovated offices of Rudolf Mosse, a major Berlin publishing house. That building's radically rounded, almost vehicular, corner façade caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 1923 — on that city's very own Jerusalemstrasse.

"The primary element is function," he wrote breathlessly to Luise that same year, speaking of architecture in general. "But function without a sensual component remains construction."

Although he claimed inspiration from the structural logic of nature and always kept a collection of seashells and petrified wood on his worktable, he had a gut feel for the energy and rhythmic vitality of the booming twentieth-century city. On a 1924 voyage to New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other more rural American spaces, he found himself at once allured and appalled as he snapped vertiginously neck-craning pictures of towering skyscrapers, neon-flashing billboards, and looming elevated tracks. Improbable as it sounds, on the SSDeutschland sailing to the States, he'd befriended fellow passenger Fritz Lang, then plotting his own Metropolis. As Mendelsohn wrote in Amerika, the book of photographs and aphorisms that documented his travels and included several images shot by Lang — who seems to have learned a few architectural things from his shipmate and applied them to his movie — he saw in the United States "everything. The worst strata of Europe, abortions of civilization, but also hopes for a new world."

It wasn't just the company he kept on the deck of the Deutschland. There was something essentially cinematic about Mendelsohn's own vision of the restless drive and flux that ruled the teeming streets. Sometimes this took literal form. Soon after his return from the United States, he designed a notoriously kinetic, bow-shaped movie theater, the Universum, as part of his plan for a spacious Berlin shopping, residential, and entertainment complex. Complete with a hotel and cabaret, it was the largest project built in that city during the entire Weimar period, and it held all the charge and force of his American photographs, though it converted the dizzying upward rush he must have felt in the presence of the steep skyscrapers into the sweep of a tremendous, forward-hurtling horizontal. "Motion is life!" he'd proclaimed at the cinema's gala opening in 1928: "Real life is authentic, simple and true. Hence, no posing, no sob stories. Neither in films ... nor in architecture ... No rococo palace for Buster Keaton, no wedding cake in plaster for Potemkin."

He was best known for his department stores. In his daring designs for the Herpich family's Berlin fur emporium, for instance, and in a series of audacious structures planned for the retail tycoon, cultural patron, bibliophile, and publisher Salman Schocken, curving windows and vivid signage became the most animate of immobile elements. First sketched by Mendelsohn in the middle of a Bach concert, the Schocken store in Stuttgart was, in particular, a masterpiece of stasis and fluidity played off one another in spectacular counterpoint — a steel, glass, and travertine ocean liner always gliding down the same busy street.

While it might not have been dazzling department stores, let alone fancy fur outlets, that dusty Palestine needed just yet, various Zionist leaders had singled out Mendelsohn for the highest praise and suggested that the country should be planned by "great artists" like him. He had, in fact, come here now to design a house in Rehovot for the charismatic chemist and de facto political leader of world Jewry Chaim Weizmann and his fastidious wife, Vera. Excising himself and his business affairs from Germany, Mendelsohn's former employer Salman Schocken was also newly arrived in Palestine, and had just commissioned a villa and private library in Jerusalem. As chairman of the Hebrew University's executive committee, Schocken made clear as well his determination to have Mendelsohn plan the campus of the most important Jewish institution of higher learning in the land. Yassky too considered Mendelsohn "one of the outstanding living Jewish architects" and patiently defended him against the skepticism and even hostility of some of the sniffier members of the Hadassah building committee, who complained that he didn't understand the local conditions and bristled at his "ultra-modern style of architecture," which they deemed "not suitable for Palestine."

Yassky remained firm, however, vouching for both Mendelsohn's character and his talents. The doctor was certain that he would build in a manner appropriate to the context. Though he admitted that Mendelsohn was known as "not an easy man to work with" (Schocken had warned him), Yassky was intent on overseeing the construction of a unique building on this Jerusalem hilltop, a noble structure of the sort that Mendelsohn would surely plan — unlike various candidates whom he described as "capable architects, but ... not above the average." He would hate, Yassky said, "to put up on Scopus another box in Tel Aviv style," an argument that seemed to stir something in the group as a whole. "This is not," agreed one formidable female member of the committee, "to be an ordinary hospital but the hospital of the Jewish people."


Excerpted from Till We Have Built Jerusalem by Adina Hoffman. Copyright © 2016 Adina Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Beyond Jaffa Gate: An Opening 3

I Jerusalem strasse, 1934 13

II Beautiful Things Are Difficult, 1923 125

III Where the Great City Stands, 2014 / 1914 199

Rock Paper Scissors: An Epilogue 289

Notes 305

Acknowledgments 333

Index 337

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