COVER

BUILDING IN A TROUBLED LAND

GEOFFREY JAMES May 23 1988
COVER

BUILDING IN A TROUBLED LAND

GEOFFREY JAMES May 23 1988

BUILDING IN A TROUBLED LAND

COVER

When a 29-year-old Moshe Safdie returned to Israel in 1967 after a 15-year absence, he carried with him vivid childhood memories of clean, white, modern buildings set on hills lush with palms and green pines. He had a rude awakening. As the architect recalls, Lod airport outside Tel Aviv “seemed like the airport in a small developing country.” Haifa, the paradisal small town of Safdie’s youth, turned out to be “a rather nice hillside city, in not much better condition than Naples, with lots of peeling stucco.” During his absence the country of less than one million had absorbed nearly two million immigrants, and was suffering from acute suburban sprawl. Safdie was confronted by “the very last word in bureaucratic architecture, row after row of four-storey apartment buildings set on columns ranked like soldiers, with paved parking lots between them.”

Since that visit Safdie has made his mark on his native Israel. Indeed, he has transformed the look of its holiest city, Jerusalem. Since opening an office

there in 1970, he has undertaken a wide range of projects: private houses, major renovations in the old city, two rabbinical colleges, a children’s memorial next to the Holocaust Museum and a master plan for that most sacred of all Judaic monuments—the famous Wailing Wall, where Jews have been praying since AD 70. Said Israeli architect Ada KarmiMelamede: “Moshe has had an influence on Jerusalem, and Jerusalem on him.”

Hero: Safdie returned to Israel as the hero of Habitat, Montreal’s revolutionary housing complex. The Israeli government even asked him to set up Habitat Israel, a system of manufacturing prefabricated housing units built on a large scale. Safdie began commuting between Canada and Israel, working with engineers and scouting possible sites. After meeting with the London-based banker Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who offered to raise funds, he modified the plan: to create new towns—complete with industries—to house Arab refugees in Israeli-occupied territories.

In that period Israel was still euphoric from a swift victory in the Six Day

War. With victory came responsibility for the Palestinians living under appalling conditions in refugee camps. Safdie spent a year planning the housing project, but in 1968 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol decided to abandon the scheme, refusing to deal with the refugee problem until Israel had a peace treaty with all its Arab neighbors. “We were incredulous,” recalled Safdie. “A great opportunity was missed.”

Instead, government policy turned toward establishing an Israeli presence on the West Bank by building Jewish settlements in urban areas—what Israelis call “facts on the ground.” Safdie has always opposed that plan and has refused to build on the West Bank. But within the old borders of Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, he has established some interesting facts of his own.

Optimistic: In 1970 he agreed to produce a master plan for the famous Wailing Wall and its adjoining plaza.

While working on his proposal, Safdie bought a badly damaged house in the area, a crumbling amalgam of Crusader,

Ottoman and Jewish architecture. His redesign, featuring an acrylic skylight, domed interior spaces and breathtaking views of the city, is a seamless blend of the old and the new. Safdie now lives there for several months each year.

The architect says that he felt the plaza, a vast thoroughfare for Arabs on their way from the village of Siloah to the Moslem quarter, provided no intimacy for the private act of prayer. At night, when seen from his balcony, the black-clad worshippers lined up against the immense, floodlit wall have the exposed look of men standing in front of a firing squad. Safdie devised a plan for exposing 43 more feet of the Wall. Worshippers would then be able to stand on the original street built by King Herod, and the plaza would rise in tiers. And a colonnaded walkway would give Arabs access to the city.

Safdie’s dreams for the Wailing Wall plaza remain unrealized, largely because the project is a political minefield. Jerusalem’s influential and highly conservative Orthodox community has resisted all efforts to redesign the sacred area. As Karmi-Melamede put it, “It’s the Holy City—and it’s hard to build holy.”

Still, Safdie, who began the project when he was 30, remains optimistic. “If the political conditions are right,” he said, “it will be built by the time I’m 70.”

Completion of the Yeshiva Porat Josef, a rabbinical college that looks down on the Wailing Wall, has also been held up. When Safdie was approached by rabbis Moshe and Avraham Shrem in 1969, they had already dismissed two other architects. Asked whether he would design a traditional or a modern building, Safdie replied, “If I succeed, you won’t be able to tell.” Safdie’s final design is his most controversial in Israel: massive outer stone walls with slits that reveal inside a honeycomb of con-

crete arches. The plan also called for a synagogue skylit by prism glass.

But after construction started, relations with the rabbis cooled—especially when Safdie discovered that they were involved in what he said was a misleading program to attract donors. The rabbis turned against the design, even manually toppling over interior stone arcades themselves. Safdie won the ensuing lawsuit. But while the Yeshiva’s living quarters are now occupied, the building is still unfinished.

Serene: By contrast, Hebrew Union College (HUC), outside the city walls and on the same street as the famous King David Hotel, bears witness to a perfectly harmonious relationship between architect and master. The college is a serene, understated ensemble of concrete-

trellised walkways, modest buildings, cloisters and gardens. “It doesn’t have big elbows the way most Israeli buildings do,” said Karmi-Melamede. Added retiring city engineer Amnon Niv, who has publicly disagreed with Safdie: “With HUC, Moshe has finally understood Jerusalem.”

Hope: Safdie’s most recent work in Jerusalem is equally impressive—and unlike anything he has done before. Twelve years ago he was approached by the director of the Holocaust Museum, an enclave of two large buildings on a hilltop outside of Jerusalem, to design a memorial to the 1.5 million children who perished under the Nazis. His building, completed last year, is radical-

ly different from the documentary spirit of the nearby museum. The entrance to the memorial, which is built into the hillside, leads past a few portraits of children and into a disorienting dark space. Inside, a single candle is everywhere reflected to infinity by semimirrored glass. Recorded voices intone the names of children, where they were born and their age when they died.

After the numbing horrors of the Holocaust Museum, the quiet space of Safdie’s memorial allows for grief. Then, as the architect intended, the exit leads out into sunlight and a sweeping view of the Judean Hills. In a troubled land, Safdie has created a monument without morbidity—a moving symbol of hope.

GEOFFREY JAMES in Jerusalem