From Bauhaus to boycott: a history of Israel's architectural gems

British architects are protesting against colleagues building in the Occupied Territories. It is a bitter blow for a country with such a rich modernist heritage, reports Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online

All the focus is on the dark side as the new British group of architects agitates for an economic boycott of Israel's construction industry, in protest at the building of settlements and the separation barrier in the occupied territories and Jerusalem.

But Israeli architecture also has, on the other side of the pre-1967 green line, a bright side. From the cool, asymmetrical 1930s' Bauhaus buildings of Tel Aviv, the "White City", to the 250-metre tall grey concrete spike created by the architect Moshe Safdie to house the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel has plenty of reasons to be proud of its modern architecture.

A visitor might think it eccentric, when there is so much that remains in historic Palestine from neolithic to Ottoman times, to devote a trip to the Israeli buildings of the past 80 years or so. But he would find it an informative experience.

Such a visitor could do worse than to start his tour in (Jewish West) Jerusalem.

Our architectural tourist might bypass the monumental King David Hotel and stay instead, as Condoleezza Rice does when she's in town, in Safdie's less well-known David Citadel, an 11-storey, horseshoe-shaped hotel with hanging gardens and balconies overlooking the Old City.

He would then be ideally placed to see, in a day or two, some of the country's world-class modern, and indeed post-modern, architectural treasures.

He can ignore some of the real monstrosities that make up the ugly sprawl made by greedy developers in the outer western sector of the city. One example is the vast bridged apartment block plonked like a letter E on its side on the hilltop site of the old Holy Land hotel.

Near the top of his list would be the Israel Museum, a building which, unlike so many from the mid-Sixties, has stood the test of time. The white-tiled dome of Shrine of the Book is a visual echo of some of the ceramic jars in which the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are kept inside the building, were found. The Shrine is two thirds under the ground, a reflection of the cave in which a Bedouin found the first scroll in 1947 while he was looking for a lost goat.

Our visitor would be only a minutes' stroll away from the Knesset, designed by Joseph Klarwin in 1966 and worth seeing for more than the Chagall tapestries and mosaics within. The building's Greco-Roman-style columns are at the same time functional, pre-stressed roof supports, and a reminder of Roman republican civic architecture.

As the Rough Guide accurately describes it: "Israel's one-chamber parliament occupies an understated cubic building whose simplicity and human scale avoid the pomposity and monolithic authoritarianism of so many seats of government."

Another short walk away is the award-winning Foreign Ministry building which somehow manages to combine light and elegance with a level of security that only a country in conflict could require to protect politicians visiting from abroad. The onyx panels of the main reception hall look, by day, like the rest of the building's opaque limestone.

At night they change, glowing yellow like amber. Yet they are also mounted on aluminium springs designed to retract inwards and recoil outwards - as protection against an explosion. Those handsome teak wall panels in the hall's mezzanine walkway are also designed as a further defence against flying debris.

Nearby, too, is the Supreme Court, designed in 1992 by the Israeli brother and sister team Ram Carmi and Ada Carmi-Melamed. Some of Israel's critics would argue that its symbolic location on a hill above the Knesset to demonstrate the supremacy of law over politics hardly reflects the true day to day realities here. But, regarded by some as Israel's finest contemporary building, the post-modern limestone clad Supreme Court remains one of the most imposing built in Jerusalem since the foundation of the state.

Before he leaves Jerusalem, our visitor will want to take in the 1970s stone-and-textured-concrete Jerusalem Centre for the Performing Arts and the Mormon-sponsored Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, with its glass-walled concert hall looking out over the Old City from the slopes of Mount Scopus. He should also take in the Haas promenade, the work of the California landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, and above all the new Yad Vashem.

Safdie's other worldly prism-like triangular structure cut into the mountainside dips underground where most of the horrors of the Holocaust are displayed before rising again to burst hopefully into the open air and a magnificent view of the Jerusalem hills.

The visitor will have done well to leave Tel Aviv to the last. (If he has time he might first want to take a high-speed train north to Haifa to inspect the vast and extraordinary hillside Bahai Temple, built in 1953 and world headquarters of the faith, its walls carved of Italian Chiampo stone, its classical golden dome supported by Arabic arches and columns in a remarkable mix of European and Middle Eastern styles).

He won't be able to ignore the skyscrapers - of which the most stunning are the 50-floor Azrieli Towers combining 150,000 square metres of office space with one of the largest shopping malls in Israel and an eight-screen cinema. He'll want, too, to see the Mann Opera House and the Tel Aviv Opera House.

But it's the 1930s' architecture which is the real glory of Tel Aviv.

No city in the world has as rich a variety of Bauhaus-derived buildings (about 1,500 of them), ironically, given that it was the Nazis who closed down the Bauhaus School of Art and Design in 1933 because of its suspected communist leanings. Wandering in the streets around the Rothschild Boulevard, he will note both the characteristic, functional, unornamented style of Bauhaus and specifically local features, some borrowed from Le Corbusier for whom some of the 1930s Tel Aviv architects had worked in Paris.

The European style, for example, featured large windows. Here that would have meant unbearable heat in summer and windows tend to be long and narrow, some overlooking equally long and narrow balconies. From le Corbusier the architects borrowed the idea of pilotis, stilt-like columns which provided room for underfloor gardens and airflow. And the roofs were flat, instead of slanting and shingled, so they could be used for everything from laundry to parties.

It isn't of course this world class heritage of modern architecture that is worrying Lord Rogers and his colleagues, but an eloquent article by the dissident Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, describes as "the lowest points in Israel" - ones which he remarks with irony "are found of all places on the peaks of mountains and the hilltops [of the West Bank]."

Remarking that the now jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghhouti asked him in 1997: "When will your Israelis understand that nothing scares us more than the settlements?"

Levy adds: "From the window of a burnt clothing store in reoccupied Bethlehem, from a bathroom window in Kafr Beit-Dajan, from a living room window in the village of Sinjil....from an office in Nablus, from a store in Ramallah - from everywhere you can spot the settlement on the hilltop, looming, threatening, dreadfully colonial."

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