The Israeli ‘Place’ in East Jerusalem
Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 18.12.2007:
How Israeli architects appropriated the Palestinian aesthetic after the ’67 War
The Jerusalem Quarterly
How does new territorial control become inexorable fact? 1 How does such fact, based on confiscated land, turn into “a national home”? How does this ‘home’ embody the Israeli ‘place’ even as Palestinians contest possession of the genius loci? This essay examines the legitimizing professional discourse of Israeli settler society. Although it addresses problems in Israeli architectural practices in Jerusalem, many of the observations here apply to the Israeli built environment in general. It focuses on the architectural practices that empowered the first Israeli-born generation–the generation entrusted with Israelizing Jerusalem after the 1967 War. In its efforts to localize Israeli architecture, this generation faced a double-bind. On the one hand, it criticized the high, developmental modernism that had hitherto shaped the state; on the other, it sought a situated modern architecture inspired by the Palestinian vernacular (and thus belonging to the Arab ‘other’). This impasse provokes intriguing questions in postcolonial theory about how colonizers appropriate the culture of the colonized in order to define an authentic national culture of their own.
The Search for Place
Architect Moshe Safdie expressed this predicament succinctly when describing the approach to Jerusalem (later, he would play an instrumental role in its Israelization).
[T]he road ascends to a crest overlooking the western hills of the city. Down the slopes, a deserted Arab village hugs the hill, small and larger cubes made of the stone of the mountain: domes, arches, vaults, the mosque’s tower, shaded passages, all in harmony with the landscape and the sun.2
Safdie contrasted this idealized picture of a vacant Lifta with the achievements of Israel’s Ministry of Housing. “At the summit of the hill,” he pointed to David Anatol Brutzkus’s housing in Upper Lifta (Romema), “is a series of long four-story apartment structures built in the late fifties. They do violence to the mountain. They are foreign, as if imported from some rainy, cool European suburb”3.
What Safdie articulated was a generational refusal to espouse the high modernism of Israel’s nation-building years. Although already established by Israel’s first architectural history text as a pervasive Israeli architectural tradition,4 it fell short of addressing the aspirations of a younger generation whose members sought a ‘new’ tradition authenticated by deeper roots. In order to conceive of an identifiable ‘Israeli architecture’, they turned instead to the tradition of the ‘place’ as found in villages like Lifta, and later in the townscape of the Old City.
Eventually, the search for the Israeli ‘place’ evolving from the late 1950s undergirded the conceptual framework most prevalent in post-1967 Jerusalem. Instead of uniform modernist housing blocks, architects experimented with building clusters, hierarchical circulation, and broken masses. The minister of housing explained the state’s building methods in East Jerusalem, prescribing low-rise, stone-clad building. “Also incorporated,” he added, “are elements of Oriental building such as arches, domes, etc.” These “building types are especially adjusted to the topographic condition and the slopes of the sites.”5 The clear reference to the hitherto rejected Palestinian built culture intrigues: how could such built tradition be accepted as a model for the post1967 architecture of Israeli Jerusalem?
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