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Spring 2020

Zionism + Concrete

Concrete was the material that built the State of Israel - its prevalence from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva to the kibbutz is an expression of Zionism itself.

Zvi Efrat, The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel, Spector Books, pp. 1000.

Israel as a Modern Architectural Experimental Lab, 1948-1978, ed. Inbal Ben-Asher Gitler and Anat Geva, Intellect Ltd., February 2020, pp. 374.

1.

Construction is an imperative of the Zionist enterprise. Homelessness and dislocation are only solvable by building: a community, a state, a home. In The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl outlines how the Jewish Company, the instrument for the realization of his vision, will purchase land and what will be built upon it:

“Our unskilled laborers…must of course render each other assistance in the construction of houses. They will be obliged to build with wood in the beginning, because iron will not be immediately available. Later on the original, inadequate, makeshift buildings will be replaced by superior dwellings.”

As to what would supersede the temporary workers’ dwellings and how the “beautiful modern houses” of the future would materialize, in 1896 Herzl had no definitive answer. “Our geologists will have looked into the provision of building materials when they selected the sites of the towns [planned in Palestine],” he writes. But by 1902, Herzl seemed to have reached a firmer conclusion. In Altneuland, he includes the following detail: “Steineck promised that by March he would have a new kind of brick kiln and cement factory going in Haifa.”

Herzl had come to understand that an independent state needed its own building materials. Once more, his words proved prophetic. In 1919, the Palestine Portland Cement Syndicate, based in London, began surveying Mount Carmel and the Kishon River Valley and buying up land near Kibbutz Yagur. Using both Hebrew and Arab labor, the construction of Palestine’s first cement plant began in 1923, and, two years later, the Nesher Portland Cement Company, now Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises, produced its first bag of cement.

A 1951 document from the Research and Statistics Department of the Israel National Planning Office—reprinted by Zvi Efrat in The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel—affirms the importance of this cement to the then-nascent State of Israel:

“All of our considerations need to derive from the fact—established in many other countries as well—that cement is the most important of building materials. For us it is especially important, seeing as the raw material is available inexhaustibly in our homeland.… One prominent expert, who visited here upon invitation from our government, accurately expressed our fortunate condition in this field: “Your entire land is one big cement factory.”

Nesher established a second plant near Ramla in 1953, its cement forming a critical component of the material that built the State of Israel: concrete. Two fine, new surveys of Israeli architecture—Efrat’s sweeping, comprehensive, and magisterial The Object of Zionism and Israel as a Modern Architectural Experimental Lab, 1948-1978, edited by Inbal Ben-Asher Gitler and Anat Geva—attest to its prevalence: from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva, the center to the periphery, the urban to the rural, the housing estate to the kibbutz, the private to the civic. The building of Israel did indeed coincide with trends in international architecture that favored concrete—Bauhaus, Brutalism, and Le Corbusier’s International Style. But like the Nesher cement plant of Herzl’s dreams, concrete was also an expression of Zionism itself.

Like the title of Herzl’s novel, concrete is an old and yet new building material, used in the construction of Rome’s Pantheon and Colosseum, its aqueducts and bridges, but also synonymous with the aforementioned twentieth century architectural movements. Such modernist, concrete-centric movements were, like Zionism, born in Europe yet progressive and internationalist. The use of concrete in Palestine revealed one of Zionism’s inherent contradictions. It would make Israel a nation like other nations while distinguishing it not only from that which came before it in Jewish history, but also from the history and traditions associated with the region in which Herzl’s Jewish state would take root.

Concrete is a blank slate, something that can be used to create anything and everything. But above all, concrete is permanent—a strong building material with an appearance of immovability and rootedness—and transformational. When married with architectural modernism, concrete was put to the purpose of shaping those who lived in its apartments, worked in its universities, attended its concert halls, and visited its monuments. Those who built out of concrete wanted to fashion a new kind of human being. Zionism, too, was an all-encompassing, transcendental work of transformation and self-transformation that sought to entirely change the condition of the Jewish people. It needed a building material that could make its visions and dreams a reality. And that material was concrete.

2.

In 1925, the same year the first bag of cement rolled out of Nesher’s production line, the British urban planner Patrick Geddes presented his master plan for the city of Tel Aviv. A system of large blocks created by north-south and east-west cross streets, intersected by narrower access lanes, was to grow northwards out of older neighborhoods like Neve Tzedek and Neve Shalom and streets like Rothschild Boulevard, which had been established and expanded upon piecemeal in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The standard building type of Geddes’ Tel Aviv would be, as Volker M. Welter outlines in his helpful essay on the subject, small-scale domestic dwellings arranged around central open spaces. He had envisaged two-story homes, either detached or semi-detached, with flat roofs and perhaps a partial sunroom. It was not to be. In the 1930s, “once the influx of European refugees had begun, large areas of the city were filled with taller apartment buildings on a larger footprint,” a flurry of construction in the Bauhaus and International Styles—led by Israel’s master builders like Arieh Sharon, Ze’ev Rechter, and Dov Karmi, all of whom emigrated to Israel in the interwar period—that is now synonymous with the moniker “the White City.”

The pre-state period occupies neither Efrat nor Ben-Asher Gitler and Geva very much, even though Tel Aviv’s evolution was the first indicator of how and why concrete would be so important to the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. The former, however, does reprint a fascinating letter written by Sharon to his former teacher and mentor, Hannes Meyer. Meyer had excitedly enquired, “I would also be interested in the character of the Jewish construction enterprise in your country. Are there any attempts to establish a distinctive Jewish-national style??”

Sharon’s response is wonderfully considered. Tel Aviv in 1937, he wrote, is a “boundless construction site” where the angst of émigré architects “dissolves here into a delirium of white walls and flat roofs.” Sharon considers Tel Aviv’s early attempts to find a jüdischer Aufbau or some sort of Jewish national-style trivial: “It was architecture of exquisite kitsch; a pastiche of Jugendstil biblical fantasies; Eastern European casual neo-classicisms; and an assortment of Oriental motifs, geometrical figures, and patterned surfaces.” If there is a national style, it is modernism, which “overwhelm[ed] the entire local Jewish community.” Why, he asks, has modern architecture “spread here so swiftly?”:

Modern architecture is currently being appropriated and misappropriated by the Jews as their own precisely because it is utterly displaced here, hollowed out, seemingly spontaneous, indistinctly eclectic, unambiguously popular.… Cosmopolitan whiteness provides a common ground for the various groups of settlers, émigrés and exiles; infuses an ambience of acculturation and aesthetic Bildung; and above all, instills a sense of elsewhereness.

Modernism was the unifying architectural style and concrete the material that bound the Jews of Tel Aviv together. The concrete White City was an inherently Zionist undertaking, an attempt to forge a new Hebrew or national architectural style and language in the Land of Israel. Tel Aviv’s first neighborhoods were not original but derivative. To use Sharon’s language, they aped “Oriental architecture and Palestinian vernacular.” Its buildings, like those lining Rothschild Boulevard or the original Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium on Herzl Street (razed in 1962 to make way for the Shalom Meir Tower) were antiquated, divorced from the contemporary, “seductive-repulsive agents of cultural assimilation.”

Concrete applied in the Bauhaus or International Styles dispensed with the frivolousness and ornamentation of Orientalism. “We renounced giving an Oriental image by domes and arcades,” Julius Posener wrote in a 1937 edition of the architectural journal Habinyan Bamisrah Hakarov. “This rejection was necessary and also suited the real demands of the Jewish taste.” Pre-state architecture ceased to borrow and pilfer from local traditions, but instead fashioned something for itself by itself, finding a practical, straight-forward, and functional language in which to express Zionism’s ambitions in Palestine. Concrete said that the Zionist project would not be an imitation of what is already here, but something entirely new.

In her essay, “On Concrete and Stone,” Alona Nitzan-Shiftan draws another significant distinction between the concrete state and the stone nation. Stone built cities of browns and earth tones. Stone represented the old world, the Diaspora, the world of ritual and unrealized yearnings and dreams. Stone was ancient, antiquated, primordial. It was also the building material of Jerusalem, the city of myths and mysticism, of a Judaism defined by ethnicity and religion as opposed to a state-centric, civic identity.

Concrete was a negation of stone in the way Israel was a negation of the Diaspora. The “stark white houses” of Tel Aviv and the later settlements it inspired were “conceived as the proper traceless home for the uprooted Jew, ‘an apartment free from past memories.’” Tel Aviv was laid out according to scientific suppositions. It was a new city, built on sand, divorced from history. It and Israel, Nitzan-Shiftan writes, was a modernist project that emphasized “forward-looking infrastructure, housing and industry.” The concrete state was everything that the stone nation was not, and the other way around.

3.

Like the Zionist enterprise, Tel Aviv depended on a plan. “Everything must be systematically settled beforehand,” Herzl warned in The Jewish State, by the “keenest thinkers,” “every social technical achievement,” and “every valuable invention.” “By these means a country can be occupied and a State founded in a manner as yet unknown to history, and with possibilities of success such as never occurred before.” It is this, Efrat argues, that makes Israel singular among nation-states. Nothing about Israel is accidental.

After 1948, David Ben-Gurion distilled Herzl’s emphases on plans and systems into his concept of mamlachtiyut, the surrender of the needs of the individual to the cause of building a state. In the roughly 30 years Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionist movement dominated the apparatus of the Israeli state, mamlachtiyut led to the creation of an enormous military, educational, and political complex, within which all participants shared the same ideological vision, namely, as Sharon Rotbard writes in White City, Black City, “that Zionism and the protection and projection of Zionist interest take precedence.”

When it comes to architecture, Rotbard supposes, “since construction and destruction are the primary expressions of the division of power in Israel, we cannot help but attribute political value to virtually every undertaking of the sort.” Indeed, mamlachtiyut came with its own form of spatial politics which, in 1950, led to the publication of Arieh Sharon’s master plan for the nascent state. Unique “in its ambition to set forth in one go a single vision…on a scale of 1:20,000,” Efrat writes, the Sharon plan was “almost instantaneously, within less than a decade, transformed from a statement of principles into a mega-project encompassing about thirty new towns and over four hundred rural settlements; extensive woodlands, national parks, and nature resorts; and networks of roads, electricity, water, ports, and factories.”

Concrete, an agent of Zionism, flowed through the State of Israel. It was the perfect building material for a state founded as a negation of history wishing to establish something new—cheaply, quickly, and efficiently. Early Israel not only needed new versions of everything—apartment buildings, courthouses, bus stations, concert halls, public squares—but it needed multiple versions of those things in order to establish the infrastructure of a functioning, modern state. Concrete was malleable—it could be poured to fill any mold, manufacture any shape. It could be domestically-produced and prefabricated. Concrete could be used to create anything. Concrete would serve the plan.

Central to Ben-Gurion’s vision was settling the periphery, especially the Negev, where he expected half a million Israelis would live by 1968. As the region’s largest city, Be’er Sheva became the Negev’s focal point, a “fertile ground for experimentation” in Brutalist buildings hewn from exposed concrete, Isaac A. Meir, Rachel Bernstein, and Keren Shalev write in their contribution to Israel as a Modern Architectural Experimental Lab. Phaidon’s Atlas of Brutalist Architecture details many magnificent examples of concrete monumentalism in Be’er Sheva: the 100 cupolas of the central library of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dan Karavan’s deconstructed, sculpted Negev Brigade Monument, whose shapes and curves seem to rise and fold back gracefully into the earth.

Israeli construction in Be’er Sheva “constituted a significant departure from the Ottoman city” which preceded it, Meir, Bernstein, and Shalev write. “The opportunity of formulating Be’er Sheva’s architectural character was perceived as a tabula rasa, a clean slate.” For Efrat, setting the Negev in concrete was an ideological decision. Brutalism “rhetoricized the desired homogeneity and solidarity of the welfare state,” he adds, “signaled the passage from bourgeois whiteness to proletarian grayness, [and] camouflaged the folkloristic diversity and ideological ruptures within the Israeli ‘melting pot.’” Exposed-concrete architecture was, for Efrat, an expression of mamlachtiyut.

There was no private or civic structure that could not be built from concrete. Efrat documents universities and libraries, office blocks and apartment buildings, schools and museums, cinemas, shopping malls, and synagogues, all of whose exteriors bear the marks of exposed concrete. The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture highlights such diverse projects as Haifa’s Bat Galim central bus station—out of which sprout the stacked square floor plates and concrete columns of Egged’s offices, topped with a crown of intersecting blades—a convalescent home in Tiberias, the checkerboard city hall in Bat Yam, the modular hexagonal units of Zvi Hecker’s Dubiner apartment building in Ramat Gan, and his equally dexterous synagogue erected at an officers’ training school near Mitzpe Ramon.

One particular subterranean current that Efrat examines is the concrete architecture of the Histadrut, a “proxy state-within-the-state” with its own comprehensive social system that provided “housing, social welfare, health care, education, and cultural activities for its members.” For Efrat, the Histadrut’s most impressive architectural endeavors were the buildings of its Health Fund, among them a national network of convalescent homes designed by the father-and-son team of Ze’ev and Yaakov Rechter. It was an “architecture of spectacle,” of “sensuous materiality,” “fashionable and stylized,” with the convalescent home in Zichron Ya’akov being the finest example. Its scale and ambition not only represent the power and reach of the Histadrut, but on an aesthetic level its concrete curves mirror the waves of the sea and the grading of the hillside, its insets and loggias offering the possibility of respite and recuperation.

Mass immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, meanwhile, created both an imperative to resolve a housing crisis and an opportunity to settle the periphery. The desire to achieve both simultaneously necessitated housing schemes based on “standard, repetitious apartment blocks,” Meir, Bernstein, and Shalev write, made from prefabricated concrete panels without consideration of “local factors whether social, cultural, climatic, or other.” This was true not only in Be’er Sheva but in development towns across the Negev and Galilee. Such was the rate of mass housing construction from the late 1950s through the 1960s and ‘70s, Efrat writes, that “cement was raved about as the ‘Israeli material’: wet on-site concrete casting became a local expertise, and bulky béton brut buildings allegorized a collective sense of solidity, integrity, sensuality, and ingenuity.” There was nothing that Israel could not achieve through concrete.

4.

Zionism as concrete was not confined to the urban sphere. To Natan Alterman, the transformation of the rural was not merely about planting trees and tilling fields. “From the Slopes of Lebanon to the Dead Sea / We shall crisscross you with ploughs / We shall yet cultivate and build you / We shall yet beautify you,” he wrote in his 1935 poem, “Shir Moledet.” “We shall dress you in a gown of concrete and cement / And lay for you a carpet of gardens / On the soils of your redeemed fields.” To the literary critic Dan Miron, Alterman’s words show how “there is no opposition between gardens and cement, just as there is no opposition between the soil of the city covered in concrete and the ‘redeemed soil of the fields.’”

Nowhere was this more evident than on the kibbutz, an ideological and communal experiment that was also an instrument of state-building. The kibbutz movement was integral to the Zionist project, intertwined with the state. Kibbutzim were used to demarcate and consolidate Israel’s territorial boundaries and conquer its environment. “Perhaps only in the Zionist rural of the 1920s to the 1960s did modern architecture proliferate, evolve, and signify so profoundly,” Efrat writes. “While in the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa modernism became the language of domesticity, in the rural it was distinctively the marker of publicity.”

The kibbutzim did not begin with concrete but with wood. This was particularly true during the Arab Revolt in the late 1930s when, in a bid to found as many new settlements as possible while providing a haven for those who did so, a gar’in would use a tower and stockade system, which as Efrat explains, consisted of “a prefabricated wooden observation tower and four shacks” which were “erected in the inner yard, providing housing for a ‘conquering troop’ of around forty people.” As by virtue of Ottoman-era law, no building with a roof could be demolished. Some 52 kibbutzim were established this way.

But making the kibbutzim permanent was achieved through concrete. Concrete expressed the solidity of the kibbutz. It was an assertion of aesthetic authority, a manifestation of the kibbutz’s ownership and mastery of the land. It expressed a desire to create a new man, that buildings of concrete could shape and control the individual. Concrete signified independence and self-sustainability and, like Tel Aviv’s White City, the kibbutz’s distinctiveness from the past. The kibbutz needed an architecture that manifested its egalitarian principles. “The kibbutz does not belong to the past,” said the kibbutz architect Samuel Bickels. “It is perhaps the sole actual architectural form in the world that may be described as an ‘architecture of the left.’”

Architecture was the ideal forum in which the kibbutz could demonstrate its newness. A peculiar and particular arrangement, the kibbutz enjoys a surfeit of public facilities, for as Galia Bar-Or and Yuval Yaski observe in Kibbutz: Architecture Without Precedents, “the idea of communal sharing and egalitarianism found expression first and foremost in the principle of a shared space for all the functions of life.” Each kibbutz has its own dining hall, culture house, members’ club, sports courts, swimming pool, library, archive, music room, and performance hall. Efrat elaborates: “The formative dictum ‘neither a city nor a village,’ denoting a rejection of the cultural deficiency of the village and the lack of solidarity in urban life, generated an architecture with vast civic space and a colossal public sphere.”

These public and civic structures lent themselves to concrete monumentalism. For Kibbutz Geva, Arieh Sharon designed a multi-purpose hall that served as theatre, cinema, gymnasium, assembly hall, and dining room on festive occasions. Partly sunken into the earth, it is an exposed concrete building of epic proportions for such a small community, one which included an amphitheater, hall, courtyard, and central stage that could, when all the structure doors were open, be transformed into a single space with a capacity of 1,110.

“The kibbutz became a platform for innovative experiments in new building types that were distinctively modernist and displayed structural ingenuity, since they were based on large open spans to allow the assembly of the entire community,” Efrat writes. As the nucleus of kibbutz activity, the dining hall in particular took on a certain symbolic significance. Robert Brenner’s example on Kibbutz Givat Brenner and Shmuel Mestechkin’s on Kibbutz Mizra used vast windows and sunroofs to create an interplay between interior and exterior, concrete and gardens, erasing the distinction between the two.

Indeed, as Miron also points out, both a “gown of concrete and cement” and a “carpet of gardens” are modifications of nature. Concrete in the form of kibbutz architecture really “manifested Zionism’s designed otherness, its estrangement from the native surroundings… and, above all, its transformative energy,” Efrat concludes. Kibbutz architecture “should therefore be read as such: a staged setting, a radical concept, an emblem of national reincarnation, a mold for a model society working the land while cultivating communal Bildung and architectural savoir faire.”

5.

At a time when concrete, architectural modernism, and Brutalism were already falling out of favor in the western world, and state-led planning and large publicly-funded housing developments were increasingly viewed with suspicion, Israel experienced a political earthquake. Rotbard observes that Menachem Begin’s election victory in 1977 entailed not only a new spatial manifesto that oriented development away from the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys towards the hilltops of Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also two new building schemes.

The first, the Neighborhood Rehabilitation program, “looked to repair damaged or worn-out existing public housing projects with added ornamentation and by painting the exposed concrete facades with shiny happy colors.” The second, Build Your Own Home, “enabled any citizen to lease land in order to build a private house according to one’s own taste and means.” Both signaled the end of modernism in Israel, superseded by postmodern pastiche, “an architectural cacophony, a mishmash of styles, a baroque of oriental images and Mediterranean colors.” Efrat calls Build Your Own Home “a State-instigated crusade against State-sponsored public housing, against any urban theory whatsoever,” the outcome of which an architecture that was, in its way, “hilariously anti-architectural.”

Every action, of course, has a reaction. If the Build Your Own Home scheme was Begin’s response to the all-encompassing spatial politics of the old Labor Zionist regime, then the potpourri of houses that followed beget a renewed interest in the concrete architecture that built the State of Israel. This began with Michael Levin’s 1984 exhibition “White City: International Style Architecture in Israel: Portrait of an Era” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, continued by way of Esther Zandberg’s architecture column in Ha’ir and then Ha’aretz, and reached its zenith when the White City of Tel Aviv became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

Contemporary Israeli architects have also returned to concrete. Amnon Rechter’s work on the Tel Aviv Law Courts—a new 40,000 m² tower and courtyard complex adjacent to the existing structure designed by his father, Yaakov—is neo-Brutalist, for which concrete blocks were cast individually on site and then left exposed, each one a different shade and texture. And these two collections, The Object of Zionism and Israel as a Modern Architectural Experimental Lab, are another manifestation of this renewed appreciation of early state architecture and add to our collective understanding of the role concrete played in Israel’s magnificent construction.

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