November 15, 2019

Culturally rich history of Jerusalem is literally in the woodwork

When it comes to the Middle East, and especially the city of Jerusalem, everything in the built environment has a significant historical subtext, as we are eloquently reminded in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City” by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a superb and sharp-eyed account of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps,” as Hoffman puts it.

“As I stroll the main street of the city I’ve called home for most of my adult life — a city that has held me in its grip, delighting, infuriating, bewildering, surprising me since I first encountered it — I’m considering both what meets the eye and what doesn’t,” Hoffman explains. “Captured and recaptured some forty-four times by different powers throughout its long history, the city is as renowned for the structures razed there as for those it has retained.”

To make her point, Hoffman focuses on three architects, each different from the others in origin, ambition, style and achievement.  Erich Mendelsohn, an influential Jewish architect in Weimar Germany, despaired of the imported European architecture he found in Jerusalem when he settled there in 1934, seeking instead “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.” Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “essentially, even implacably, British,” was the chief architect in the Public Works Department of Palestine in the early years of the British Mandate. And Spyro Houris was an enigmatic figure with a Greek first name and an Arabic last name, whose signed buildings from the 1920s remain but whose biography is so obscure that Hoffman wonders if he is just a figment of someone’s imagination.

The book serves as a short biography of each man, as well as an architectural history of Jerusalem in the first half of the 20th century. Not incidentally, it is also a work of richly detailed cultural and social criticism by an author with a deep command of history. All of these many facets reflect the light of Hoffman’s own experience in Jerusalem as she finds herself “walk[ing] the streets of Jerusalem compulsively, as I thought I could track down a ghost’s footprint.” Wherever her eye falls on the architectural landscape of modern Jerusalem, she detects not only the footprints, but also the tool marks of its builders.

For example, when Harrison designed the official residence of the British High Commissioner of Palestine, which was completed in 1931, he wanted to “sidestep the politics that surrounded his every choice of carpet and candelabra” in order to create a structure of “sublime timelessness.” Even so, one architecture critic at the time praised the finished building as a “Crusaders’ Castle of To-Day.” For Hoffman, the design was an ironic failure of the architect’s imagination in a place that was both “antiquity-obsessed” and yet vividly aware of the day-to-day conflict between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, Jerusalem had been rocked by an earthquake in 1927 and riots in 1929, both of which served as reminders that nothing is timeless in Jerusalem: “Deliberately or not, Harrison had built a citadel on a far-off hill, a citadel worthy of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem — which as he of all people knew had lasted almost two hundred whole years,” she concludes.

By contrast, when Houris used elaborate tiles to ornament the houses he designed and built, according to Hoffman, he was drawing on the extraordinary richness and diversity of Jerusalem, a quality that can be easily overshadowed by the blood in the streets, then and now. Hoffman writes: “To fathom how those tiles landed on the walls of [an] Arab Catholic family’s elegant home — and ultimately on the doorposts of so many of the city’s twenty-first-century Jewish residents — it’s crucial to grasp how this now almost-forgotten Greek architect took inspiration for the arrival on the scene of an Armenian refugee ceramicist, brought from afar by a group of aesthetically alert British officials intent on repairing the façade of the most iconic building in the entire city, and a structure sacred to Muslims everywhere.”

Countless books have been written about Jerusalem, and I lost count long ago of the number I have read for pleasure or reviewed for publication. For me, the most memorable among them is a thick tome given to me as a gift by the public relations director of the King David Hotel, but only because it prompted a vigilant security officer at Ben Gurion Airport to pull my suitcase out of the X-ray machine for closer scrutiny.  But I am confident that none of the many books about Jerusalem is quite as charming and engaging, nor as surprising and satisfying, as Hoffman’s marvelous examination of the Jerusalem streetscape through the eyes of three men who helped to build it.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.