The British High Commissioner's headquarters in Jerusalem, now the seat of the UN.
The British High Commissioner's headquarters in Jerusalem, now the seat of the UN. Photo by Aviad Barness
Text size
related tags
The British High Commissioner's headquarters in Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
The British High Commissioner's headquarters in Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Standing in the sunken garden at the bottom of the former British High Commissioner's headquarters in Armon Hanatziv, a neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem, it's easy to imagine the cocktail parties once held here by British Mandate officials. Members of Arab and Jewish high society would gather with them under the arched portico, which overlooks both sides of the garden. The discussions included diplomacy, politics and the future of the British Empire, mixed with strained humor about relations among the local residents.

The various nations that have conquered Israel bequeathed a legacy of grand buildings - from the Roman fortress of Masada, to Byzantine citadels and the arched palaces of effendis in Acre. But the British High Commissioner's headquarters is the only one that still serves more or less its original purpose. It has not been turned into a museum, hotel or visitors center, or, on the other hand, left to sink into ruin. Since the British Mandate ended in 1948 and to this day, it has been used as UN headquarters and as the private home of the commander of UN forces. The sunken garden has lost some of its splendor and its exclusive crowd, but now and then it hosts weddings or other parties held by UN staff.

The British High Commissioner's headquarters - known in Hebrew as Armon Hanatziv, the name adopted for the adjacent neighborhood - is one of the most elegant and monumental buildings in the country. Architects and scholars also view it as one of the most successful 20th century buildings in Israel. Why? Perhaps because it demonstrates a marvelous encounter between British architect Austen St. Barbe Harrison (1892-1976 ), who was inspired by regional building traditions, and the colonial ideology of the British Empire. Harrison succeeded in producing precise modern architecture with a local air, a building that looked both to the past and the future.

Erected in 1933, the building has never undergone comprehensive renovations. The ceilings show signs of dampness and some of them have been cracked by earthquakes; air conditioners and other infrastructure hang from the front of the building. And so the UN is now proceeding with a $7 million renovation, - its details disclosed here for the first time - intended to restore the building's former glory. UN architects and engineers will work on the project with a Tel Aviv preservation architect whose name is being withheld from publication until the arrangements with him are finalized.

My rare visit to the building and gardens took place a few weeks ago, under the guidance of engineer Jaime de Oliveira, the supervisor of the project, who was born in Portugal and lives in Canada. After a career in civil engineering, he has become an advisor to the UN for building restoration around the world. He has worked in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and has been living in Israel for the last three years.

'A work of art'

"The architecture of the British High Commissioner's headquarters is a work of art; it does not look like any other UN site in the world," he says. "We have wonderful modern buildings in Geneva, New York and Paris, but this building is exceptional and of great value."

The headquarters is of particular importance since Jerusalem was the first focus of activity for UN peacekeeping forces. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO ) settled into the building on October 7, 1948 and has been located there ever since. Over the years, its activities have increased, and it also oversees the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDFO ) on Israel's border with Syria, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL ).

We stand in the sunken garden and look at the western side of the building. Harrison planned the building along two perpendicular axes that grant it a classic monumentality and great clarity. The garden lies on the east side of the lengthwise axis, close to the official reception room. But in order to allow it to serve as the main reception area for guests, the architect had to find a solution to a problem: strong winds. For this reason he recessed it into the ground and erected a massive stone wall around it. Harrison designed a similar garden, even more elegant, for the Rockefeller Archeology Museum in East Jerusalem a few years later. An updated version of this design was used by Ram and Ada Carmi in Israel's Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, constructed in the 1990s.

The sunken garden is no longer in use. In recent years, several walls had begun to crumble and pose a danger to visitors. De Oliveira stands under the southern portico and points to fallen stones, as well as holes dug in order to examine the state of the garden structure. "We plan to restore the atmosphere of the original garden, from the 1930s," he says. "Some of the trees are overgrown and their roots disturb the walls. Some simply obstruct views of the building." The building's limestone facade is also being examined; some of it has acquired a black patina over the years.

UN headquarters

The UN headquarters spreads over 65 dunams at the top of the Jabal Mukkaber ridge. In Christian tradition, the site is known as the Hill of Evil Counsel, a name that links it to the high priest of Second Temple days, with whom the priests who turned Jesus over to the Romans consulted. It was chosen for the British High Commissioner's headquarters because of its symbolic and strategic virtues, and because of the landscape. It looks out over the Old City, Mount Scopus, the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert; and it is itself a marker on the Jerusalem skyline. The view was an inseparable part of the plan for the building; sometimes Harrison tried to frame the landscape with open arches and sometimes to grant a panoramic view.

The construction of the building was an important element in establishing Mandatory rule in Palestine. In December 1917, after 400 years of Ottoman rule, Jerusalem surrendered to British army forces after several weeks of heavy fighting. The occupation of Jerusalem and Palestine in general was significant for the British for political and religious reasons. They saw it as a closing of the circle of European crusader activity in the 13th and 14th centuries. Jerusalem, neglected under Ottoman rule, became important in its 26 years under the British Mandate and developed at an extraordinary pace.

High Commissioner Herbert Samuel was headquartered at the Augusta Victoria building on Mount Scopus, constructed by the Germans in 1910. His successor Lord Herbert Plumer detested the German building and asked that a substitute be found. A ruinous earthquake in 1927 rendered Augusta Victoria impossible to use and convinced officials in London that a new headquarters had to be built. The question was: what kind of building? Palestine held historic and religious significance for the British, but it was ruled under a mandate and not as a crown colony. The British did not know when they would have to relinquish it. In addition, its income from taxes was modest; colonies funded public buildings without aid from London.

Nonetheless, Plumer convinced the colonies office to budget a large sum for the British headquarters. A senior architect in the public works department of the mandate government, Harrison was chosen for the job. He began to work on plans in 1927, and sent them for approval by the colonies office. Officials in London did not like the monumental and ceremonial character of the headquarters and criticized the size of the public spaces. Officials were also put off by the suggested budget, 53,000 Palestinian pounds, and hinted that the project should be transferred to London.

Harrison answered them: "I would like to note that while building materials and methods used in London, Buenos Aires, Prague and Belgrade are similar, they do not apply to Jerusalem...An English architect capable of designing an aesthetic, harmonious building in a cosmopolitan city will have difficulties doing so in Jerusalem, where the building must be suited to the landscape of Palestine, and to existing technologies and materials with which only a local person and not a foreigner is familiar."

The challenge that lay before him was complex: how to create a building that would relate to Palestinian historical tradition, to its dramatic landscapes, and the nature of local architecture, and at the same time represent the values and culture of the British Empire.

The masters' view?

"Against this hidden tension, any gesture the architect made would immediately become an announcement of the link between the government and the land," according to the article "The view from Armon Hanatziv" in the Eretz Israel journal. "For example, design has the power to express the point of view of the masters - or, in contrast, of consideration and sensitivity. A building that dominated the landscape would express the former, while a restrained and modest building the latter. Who should the architecture of the rulers represent, the culture of the British or the local experience of those who are ruled over?"

It appears that during the long planning process, Harrison solved all these issues. He created a building with an original facade based on classical symmetry that also included local elements. At the entrance he placed an impressive gate combining Eastern and Western motifs. An access road is fronted by another sunken garden, where the UN flag now flies at its center.

The building's horizontal axis leads to a lobby and very modest main corridor. The vertical axis stretches from the eastern wing of the building with its main reception room, ballroom, and lounges; above them is the commissioner's private residence, and in the west, service rooms.

Visitors are greeted by a series of arched spaces. Because of the building's size and special proportions, it can seem either like a private home or office space. These feelings sharpen when entering the reception room; on the one hand, it evokes a homey feeling and, on the other, it is clear that its proportions invite much larger events. Harrison's architectural skill is evident in this space, and it seems that he did not overlook even the smallest detail.

The most impressive room is the ballroom, which connects to the southern part of the reception room. Like the display spaces in the Rockefeller Museum, here too Harrison installed special galleries providing access to the high windows that let light into the rooms. The original wooden floors, where senior British officials and local VIP's trod, are still in place, as is the splendid fireplace designed by the Armenian ceramist David Ohanessian.

The final plans for the building were authorized in 1928 and work on the building was entrusted to the Italian construction company Ernesto D. A. Da Faro, active in the Middle East. One year later, 400 workers began building.

Symbol of imperialism

Responses to the headquarters fell into two categories. Architecture critics in England spoke about admiration and a feeling of historic mission. Christopher Hussey, for example, was in the first camp. "This house represents the fulfillment, at long last, of a dream that set the medieval world aflame...the view over the sacred city commanded by these windows floated fantastically and unattainably before the eyes of our forefathers, whose dust now lies beneath a cross-legged effigy in churches scattered over the length and breadth of our land," wrote Hussey.

In contrast, many in the Jewish population saw the building as an ugly symbol of imperialism. But one thing is for certain: it turned Harrison into a star in the imperial architecture scene. He received the desirable position of head of public works and designed some of the largest and most impressive public buildings in Palestine.

In 1948, when Israeli independence was declared, the British abandoned the building and turned it over to the Red Cross. It served them during the war and later; when a disarmament agreement was signed, it was turned over to the UN. The building was a constant point of friction between Israel and Jordan because of both sides' desires to make use of the area surrounding it. In 1952 the head of the UN forces decided to transfer UN headquarters there from Beirut. The process was interpreted as an attempt by the UN to revive the idea of turning Jerusalem into an international territory.

Since the state was established and up to this day, many real estate plans have been proposed for the land where the headquarters is located. Among other ideas, it was suggested in the 1970s that the building be turned into the new residence of the Israeli president, rather than building a new structure for that purpose.

In addition to preserving the building, the UN intends to upgrade the site. Eighteen temporary buildings on its west side, now used for car repair and by Israeli Border Police, are expected to be demolished. A new building is to be erected, according to the latest earthquake regulations and will include a large shelter. Perhaps the UN also feels threatened by Iran. Planning of these buildings will be given, according to de Oliveira, to a local Israeli or Palestinian architect.