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A Golden Age of Jewish Architects

Abbie Gorin
June 21, 2015

by Abbott Gorin

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

[caption id=“attachment_37496” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67[/caption]

TEL AVIV’S “WHITE CITY” is declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Moshe Safdie, who designed “Habitat 67” as his McGill graduate thesis for the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, is hailed as “A Man of the World” by CBS Morning News. Former Bronx native Daniel Libeskind does the new street plan for a rebuilt World Financial Center and receives rave reviews for his work on the Holocaust Museum in San Francisco. On American college campuses, and in lower Manhattan, the undulating swirls of certain buildings can be identified as Frank Gehry’s work even by people who are ignorant about or indifferent to architecture.

We are living in a time of exciting architectural achievements by Jews.

I’m not claiming that there is a definable category of “Jewish architecture,” or that non-Jewish architects are any less capable of providing similarly engaging, fascinating, functional works. Yet the question arises as to whether there is something in the Jewish experience or worldview that encourages a Jewish architect to design buildings that come off as less cold, less corporate, and more creative than the common fare of glass-and-steel boxes that so dominate urban landscapes.

AMONG THE COLDEST OF COLD BUILDINGS were the public works of the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes, buildings meant to convey to citizens the power, authority, and grandeur of the state and the “fatherland.” Whether the architect was Nazism’s Albert Speer or one of Joseph Stalin’s neo-classical revivalists, their projects commanded the surrender of individual expression to the dominant political regime. The message of their overwhelmingly monumental, retrograde projects was: Don’t think. Serve. Creativity is frivolous. Your own voice has nothing to add to this aesthetic. Anthropologist Gastón Gordillo describes this intent as “the art of creating power through monumental spatial forms,” and observes that when Hitler’s hope of building “the largest monument ever created” (“a dome... 950 feet high and able to accommodate 180,000 people”) was overshadowed by the Soviet Union’s preliminary construction of the Palace of the Soviets, 1,624 feet high (and designed by a Jew, Boris Iofan), “Hitler was furious,” and when he “ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Speer realized that ‘Moscow’s rival building’ had preyed on Hitler’s mind... As the German armies advanced toward Moscow, Hitler said: ‘Now this will be the end of their building once and for all.’”

[caption id=“attachment_37497” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Palace of the Soviets; construction was halted by WWII Palace of the Soviets; construction was halted by WWII[/caption]

The Nazis certainly believed there to be a “Jewish” style of architecture, exemplified by the Bauhaus School, which they shut down violently even before they came to power in 1933. Bauhaus valued modernism, minimalism, space instead of mass, intimate functionalism, and engaging angles. Walter Gropius, the non-Jewish founder of the movement, believed that its style of design represented the proper balance of form and function in industrial Europe, and that mass production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit. His concept of reconciliation between form and function was not a critique of Germany’s industrial purpose, but an homage to it. Nevertheless, the Bauhaus staff and students included many Jews, some of whom spoke of their work as having international, humanistic significance, which is what made it communist, decadent, and Jewish in Nazi eyes.

DANIEL LIEBSKIND WAS, literally, the son of refugees from that Nazi worldview. His parents were both Holocaust survivors, and Libeskind spent his formative years in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperatives in the Bronx, after migrating with his family from Poland in 1964. “It was very urban,” Libeskind told Jewish Currents in a 2003 interview with architect Stephen Yablon. “It was not about living in the suburbs, but there was a great integration of park space and open spaces throughout the high-density houses, and they were kind of romantic in their shaping but very modern in the way they functioned as a sort of communal structure.... And what could be more advanced than housing for working people at an affordable price?” No wonder, then, that in his battles over the street plan for the World Financial Center, Libeskind proudly and iconoclastically referred to himself as “the People’s Architect.” Creating that street plan, with its eight-acre park, made perfect sense in terms of his lineage. “My father worked as a printer on Stone Street [in the Financial District],” Libeskind explained to the Financial Times in 2014. “He was down there every day, but my father would never be in those buildings... He’d be in the subways or on the streets.”

This son of survivors has built the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Conflict Resolution Center in Belfast, and the City Life residences as part of the redevelopment of Milan. Of his architectural philosophy, he said in the same FT interview, “It’s about memory, tradition, things you cannot see or hear but are there.... It’s a portal to the past.”

He could easily have been speaking about Judaism.

[caption id=“attachment_37498” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]Guggenheim in Bilbao Guggenheim in Bilbao[/caption]

AMONG FRANK GEHRY’S CREDITS are the Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain; the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; academic buildings at Princeton and Case Western Universities; and a striking new high-rise building on Spruce Street in lower Manhattan. Gehry (born Ephraim Owen Goldberg) fled from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, believing that his leftwing ideas about socially responsible architecture were being underrealized (one of his professors at the time was designing a palace for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista). “Architecture,” says Gehry, “should speak of its time and place, but yearns for timelessness.” More echoes of Judaism?

When Moshe Safdie, born in Haifa, visualized “Habitat” for a graduate thesis at McGill University, he probably had little idea of the career that was ahead of him. His project was to become Olympic housing in Montreal and a design for better living in any city — to this day there is a waiting list to get into Habitat 67, although it was once criticized as looking too boxy and prefabricated. Safdie’s other accomplishments include Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, and Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport and Yitzkhak Rabin Center. “He who seeks truth,” Safdie has written, “shall find beauty. He who seeks beauty shall find vanity. He who seeks order shall find gratification. He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed. He who considers himself the servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self-expression. He who seeks self-expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance.”

Shades of Ecclesiastes!

THE ONLY ARCHITECTURAL DIRECTIVES in the Jewish Bible concern the building of Noah’s ark and of the mishkan, the portable “Tent of Meeting” that housed the Ark of the Covenant. The mishkan was built, with God as architect, through donations of materials from all of the people — stuff that these former slaves had plundered from their owners — which poured in with such generosity that Moses had to ask them to hold back. The first Jewish architectural project, then, was a joint project of the whole people, not a monument to the power of a dictator or corporate board.

Pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem became a significant part of Jewish life once the people had settled. Following the Jerusalem Temple’s final destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, however, the decentralized synagogue became the communal heart of Jewish life throughout the world — and Jewish architecture was deeply influenced by the cultures in which Jews lived. Perhaps none of these had as much influence as the achievements of the Muslim Arab world, especially during the Golden Age in Spain. The Moors were pioneers in wedding complex mathematical formulae for space and design to construction materials in heady combinations. Within any mosque, the religious atmosphere was evoked, at least in part, by the wonders of mathematical contrivance.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish architects began to reverse the flow of influence. David Mocatta, a British Sephardi, helped shape the design of railway stations in the 1830s and ’40s; Alfred Messel created one of the first modern combinations of stone, steel, and glass with his Wertheim Department Store in Berlin (1897); Dankmar Adler, with his non-Jewish partner Louis Sullivan, introduced the American skyscraper. Eric Mendelsohn’s astronomical observatory in Potsdam, the Einstein Tower (1920-21), was one of the first highly sculptural buildings; Albert Kahn, creator of the Ford automobile works of Detroit (1917), transformed industrial architecture in the U.S. Jews were especially involved in public welfare architecture: Julien Flegenheimer designed the Palace of the League of Nations in Geneva; Michel de Klerk, the Spaarndammerplantsoen, a workers’ housing project in Amsterdam; A.I. Gegello, the House of Culture and the Botkin Memorial Hospital for Infectious Diseases, both in St. Petersburg.

An honor roll of modern Jewish architects would have to include Richard Meier, who has refined classic modernism with his stark white buildings: the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art; and a very small, purposeful project, the Education Center in Newark, New Jersey. To Meier should be added Itze-Leib Schminlowsky, born in Estonia in 1901 and renamed Louis Kahn in America, who became one of the 20th century’s great teachers of architecture.

If there were a common theme shared by the work of Libeskind, Gehry, Kahn, et al., it would a sense of human possibility and uplifting people even in the pursuit of very practical tasks. Their purpose has been not to send an unrelenting message to the public to “know thy place,” but to provide public spaces in which people, both rich and poor, can enjoy, contemplate, and define themselves. Moshe Safdie captured that aspirational essence when he designed the memorial at Yad Vashem: He built it into a hillside so that the visitor moves from deep in the earth into the light.

Abbott Gorin is an attorney with decades of experience working for tenants’ rights and other progressive causes.