Architecture: Building on history in the Holy Land: Can Israel forge a national idiom out of a turbulent past? Lawrence Joffe watches east and west, stone and chrome, Arab and Crusader collide

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Like an adult in mid-life crisis, Israel - 46 years old - is experiencing a time of painful soul-searching. This is reflected not only in its internal politics, but also in its architecture. Not just in the rigidly geometric and fortress-like housing estates (complete with gun emplacements) overlooking the sprawling and open Arab villages of the West Bank, but also in such symbolically complex buildings as the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, designed by the sister-and-brother team of Ada Karmi-Melamede and Ram Karmi.

Constructed painstakingly of Jerusalem stone, the Supreme Court is a striking composition of sweeping lines, ziggurat-like stepped walls and imposing cylinders. In the centre stands a pyramidal structure, symbolising the hierarchy of the judicial system. Through the middle of the building runs a constant stream of water, a precious substance in the Middle East. While the five courtrooms summon up images of medieval European cathedrals, and enclaves around them evoke the Old City's Crusader catacombs, the sharp geometric shapes speak of contemporary design at its hardest and most razor-sharp. The building also evokes the British-influenced architecture of the Thirties as well as ancient temples, tombs and citadels.

Issachar Gaon, curator of the Israel Museum's department of design and architecture, calls it 'a building built on changes, symbolic of the flexibility of justice', but more than anything else it represents the latest attempt by Israeli architects to define and forge a national idiom, one that reveals the dual eastern and western nature of the country and reflects its long and complex history.

The complex nature of the people for whom Israeli architects are trying to design is reflected in the influx of 500,000 immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, over the past four years. Will Israel absorb them in better dwellings than the eyesores of the Sixties and Seventies? How should the 120,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank live if they put down lasting roots? Can new public buildings in any way reflect the mixed heritage of Israel's increasingly easternised population? Is Israel, as an acerbic reporter at the CBS television studio said recently, the country 'where bad architecture comes home to die'? It certainly has its fair share of horrors.

David Resnick, architect and director of the Israeli Architects' Association, says: 'We are finding a new idiom. In pre-independence days, architects used elements that were already shaped in Europe. After 46 years of statehood, we are reaching a new maturity and are growing more confident.'

Yet Mr Resnick does not deny the influence of the past. 'As with archaeology, we are trying to find ourselves through our architectural identity and by looking into the sources of the Jewish people.'

Archaeology and architecture are spoken of in the same breath. This is inevitable in a country so rich in history. New building sites that will expand the old town of Beth Shemesh (population 17,000) into a city of 120,000 cover three important archaeological sites dating from the Canaanites and Joshua. 'What better evidence can there be of continuity across history?' asks Mr Resnick.

There is also a historic thread linking generations of Israeli architects. The Karmi siblings, who designed the Supreme Court, are the third generation of a family of architects, and contemporaries such as Rechter, Mendelsohn and Shamir all have famous predecessors who made their names in what was Palestine in the Thirties.

But the problem of what buildings should look like today remains. In the Diaspora, Jewish buildings reflect the host culture. In London many synagogues look like Georgian churches: in Tashkent they resemble mosques. Throughout modern Israel there are attempts to leap over the intervening 2,000 years of 'exile' and revive images of ancient Judaea. Perhaps the most successful is the design of Frederick Kiesler's beautiful Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls: its sensuous lines are modelled on the lid of the Bedouin jar that contained the parchments.

Others have adopted an idiosyncratic approach, self-consciously divorced from the past. These include Moshe Safdie's honeycombed Habitat box-dwellings, which caused such a stir at the 1967 Montreal Expo, and Zvi Hecker, whose spiral-stacked dodecahedron housing blocks, and their proteges, are dotted across the occupied territories and ring those parts of Jerusalem 'reconquered' by Israel in 1967.

The latest proposal in this mode is Safdie's twin-tower 'Gate to Israel' in Tel Aviv. If built, it will provide a dramatic focus for a shorefront already bustling with provocative skyscrapers.

Alternatively, architects have adopted the design of Palestinian Arab dwellings. New Jewish suburbs in Jerusalem - Yemin Moshe, Pisgat Zev and the prestigious Ladbroke development, David's Village - incorporate themes such as arched windows and simple courtyards with wells in the middle, and Arab craftsmanship.

But good aesthetic taste may also be seen as bad political judgement. In quaint (and over-restored) old Jaffa stands what is perhaps the starkest example of Israeli architectural triumphalism. This is the Museum to Etzel, Menachem Begin's militant underground movement of the Thirties and Forties, which historians now admit played a key role in driving most Arabs out of Jaffa. The basic building is a beautiful old square stone structure, garnished with Byzantine and Levantine imagery. But the top is blown off, and out of the carcass rises an aggressive black glass and chrome cube.

When completed later this year, the Tel Aviv Centre for the Performing Arts will be a good example of a truly Israeli architecture. It consists of three auditoriums, for opera, theatre and concerts. According to the chief architect, Yakov Rechter, the complex moves away from the monumental structures of the past, and draws instead on the 'new urban experience'. The three halls will nestle in a park, linked by a series of squares and passages. Each building is quite distinct, with no stylistic continuum between exterior and interior. Like a mirror to Israel's polyglot population, the centre will achieve equilibrium out of diversity.

The future of Jerusalem raises acute questions. 'Every architect in the world wants to build there,' says Mr Gaon, of the Israel Museum. 'This is its fourth millennium of settlement, so it would be fantastic if it could become a capital that is both museum and living city. Its quality of light is unique, its spirituality almost palpable. Yet too many architects squander its assets with plans for underground buildings, or grandiose structures that spoil the skyline and use inappropriate windows. With an average of 10,000 lux of natural light a day, what a waste to switch on a light]'

The past weighs heavily on the city. For one thing, relics from previous layers of civilisation seem to pop up whenever a new building is planned. For another, in 1918 the British mandate decreed that only Jerusalem stone should be used to face buildings. Architects have gone to extraordinary lengths to subvert this ruling. Sometimes this is witty, but Mr Gaon regards Post-Modernist jokes, such as fake keystones, as insincere and irresponsible. 'Everyone talks of texture, but not enough talk of architecture.'

Like an Old Testament prophet, albeit one with a twinkle in his eye, Mr Gaon also warns against a deluge of kitsch as a result of the laissez-faire attitude of governments in the Seventies, which encouraged people to 'build your own homes'. In his opinion the West Bank settlements were the prime, although not the only, offenders. 'Many of them look like UFOs come down to land, or buildings left over the day after the carnival left town. They are cheap and quickly made, reflecting the crazy dreams people have of their own pagodas and palaces.'

Meanwhile, government authorities are planning grandiose schemes to develop the infrastructure and propel the nation into the 21st century. There are plans to develop the land between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into one seamless slice of Tokyo-meets-Yokohama. Soul-searching has got a long way to go.

An exhibition on new building in Jerusalem is at the Building Centre, Store Street, London WC1, 19 April-20 May. Details: 071-637 1022.

(Photographs omitted)