The career of Avraham Yaski, one of the founding fathers of Israeli architecture, parallels the history of the country. He built Rabin Square, public housing for new immigrants and the national library and now designs apartment towers for the ultra-rich. A retrospective on the occasion of a new biography focusing on his work.
Having reached the age of 80 this week, architect Avraham Yaski is taking stock of his professional life so far. His 55-year career has no precedent in Israel. Yaski has done just about everything an architect could wish for - engaging in extensive public and educational activity, leaving a mark so deep on the built-up landscape that it is unimaginable without him, receiving every possible prize in the field, including the Israel Prize for Architecture, designing malls and luxury towers. And yet, he unhesitatingly points to the "gray years" of building the country with exposed concrete - of which he made such widespread and amazing use - as the best period of his life and in the life of Israeli architecture. He was among the creators and most salient figures in the history of Israeli architecture and was highly visible at each of its main junctures.
Yaski: "This was the post-World War period, when everyone believed in architecture that would rebuild the world. We were a group of architects who were assigned the task of building the country, however archaic that may sound. We worked with the establishment, and despite all the difficulties there were always people who were enlightened, if not necessarily very learned. In some cases they had barely attended heder [religious elementary school]. But they had intuition and they identified the possibility of doing something and solving problems. Who thinks of such things nowadays? The only criterion today is money, and no one is looking to do anything beyond that."
With the money now pouring into real estate, construction and architecture in Israel, "people are interested in doing more, not doing it right," Yaski says. "They look for ways to add another piece of glass here, another strip of aluminum there, another awning and another facing. Not how to create quality. Yes, there is plenty of construction going on here. There are many buildings, but there is no architecture." Yaski draws a not altogether flattering comparison between Israel and Eastern European countries, which have become a coveted target for Israeli architects. The firm in which he is currently a partner, Yaski-Mor Sivan, is considered one of the big exporters in this field.
The firm, Yaski relates, once drew up three design alternatives for a project in Ukraine - one that was "down to earth," a second with "some gimmick" and the third "totally off the wall." The clients chose the third option, "because they are frustrated after the drought of the Communist period and they want to absorb everything."
In those wonderful, gray years when the country was being built, Yaski and his partners produced respected architecture without lurching into excess. Just the opposite - it was everyday, orderly, high-quality building. It is an irony of fate that the architecture of that period is the exception today. Against the background of the visual noise and the prevailing architectural vulgarity, their work in those years stands out for its understatement and its common sense and for its beauty, even if the members of the generation will object to the term.
Yaski: "Modern architecture was socialist in its essence, and a serious architect would not dare to utter the word 'beautiful.'" The crisis occurred, he says, in the period of postmodernism, which "blew the mind and confused everything. It was the same internationally. Many architects, like me, fell into that trap, which so quickly became a joke and evolved into what is going on today. The last days of Pompeii."
One stand-out item, at least, is justified. Yaski: "Through the window of a hotel in Minnesota I saw from a distance a kind of cock's comb of metal sheets, and we went to see what it was. We stood in front of this thing, Frank Gehry's gallery of art, and we asked ourselves what in the world it was supposed to be. All around were the historic buildings of the university - orderly, respectable, beautiful, but - how to put it? - boring. And all of a sudden, I understood Gehry. He comes with his bent metal sheets and his nails, and says, 'Kiss my ass with all this order, and why does everything have to be heavy and serious?' I find that genuine, and one can get to like it."
Doing, not talking
Yaski's eightieth birthday will be marked on Tuesday evening at Tel Aviv University, with the launch of a monumental book about his work, "Avraham Yaski: Concrete Architecture," by architect and researcher Sharon Rotbard. Most architects can only dream of a book like this, the fruit of almost 10 years of research and writing, with the assistance of Yaski himself. In about a thousand pages of text, photographs, documents and ramified cultural contexts, the book sets forth the picture of Israeli architecture from the establishment of the state to the present day. Israeli architecture never dreamed it was like this.
True to the tenets of his generation, which equated personal exposure with cheap gossip, Yaski preferred that the book not be a personal biography. "I told Sharon I was interested not in that," he says, "but rather in a book about architecture of the period I had a part in. What interest is it to anyone what happened to me or what I said or someone else said?" The book is also a retroactive catalog of Yaski's architect peers, a generation of architects that was raised in an anti-intellectual tradition. "We were educated to do, not talk," he says.
The book begins with a "hitch," Yaski says, referring to the Yaski Houses in Kiryat Gat, which he designed in 1960 with his good friend and partner at the time, the architect Amnon Alexandroni. These consist of four long block-like buildings, inspired by the residential solutions of Le Corbusier, whom Yaski and Alexandroni admired as "our Bible and our Shulhan Arukh," referring to the codification of Jewish religious law.
The government project was to replace the transit camps, with their tin and asbestos huts, where new immigrants were living but which had deteriorated until they were no longer fit for human habitation. Their fate encapsulates the tragedy to which many good intentions led, and also demonstrates vividly that the gray years were not good for everyone.
About a year ago, the Kiryat Gat housing project was featured on the investigative television program "Fact." Yaski was asked for his response and drafted up a businesslike explanation about tiny apartments which had been designed for small families of new immigrants from Romania, but which in practice were given to large families from North Africa. Unaware of the rules of the game and the new discourse, he found himself under attack. "They lambasted me and looked only for things to turn into a scandal," he explains again today. "They wanted me to appear on the program, but I had undergone a difficult operation and wasn't able to go. When I understood which way the wind was blowing, I said I didn't want to be involved in what they were doing."
Avraham Yaski was born on April 14, 1927, in Kishinev, Moldava, and immigrated to Palestine with his parents in 1935. After graduating from the Haifa Technion he began working at Sharon Idelson Architects. He views Arieh Sharon, a graduate of the Bauhaus and the father of socialist architecture in this country, as his spiritual father. When he was just 25, he designed his first project, together with his partner at the time, Shimon Povsner: Kikar Malchei Yisrael (Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv. He went to night high school and worked as a messenger and a junior clerk when he way young. Today he lives in the Opera Tower, the shopping mall and residential tower on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, across the street from the beach. His sons, Shaul and Yuval, are also architects.
Yaski's career is one of the most brilliant in the history of architecture in Israel, Rotbard writes in the new book. Its scope, with both its successes and its failures, would not shame even major firms abroad. Together with his partners over the years - Povsner, Alexandroni, Yaakov Gil, Yossi Sivan and others - he designed hundreds of projects in almost every locale and for every possible purpose. His work represents the mainstream of architecture in Israel, Rotbard writes, "from the invention of Israeliness to the country's integration in globalization, from the lean architecture of concrete in the 1950s to the architecture of glittering glass at the beginning of the 21st century."
For the most part, these are practical, everyday buildings, which do not argue with reality but create it, using the finest tools available to the architect. A series of structures using exposed concrete Yaski helped design in the first decades of his career stand as milestones of Israeli culture, notwithstanding the neglect into which some of them have fallen. His range extends from an immigrant-absorption center in Be'er Sheva, to the Jewish National and University Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital in Gedera, to some of the country's most beautiful private homes and apartment buildings.
In the 1980s, Yaski designed the first high-rise office building on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Zion House, which created a precedent in the granting of discriminatory zoning variances on the part of a municipal authority. This project paved the way for other office buildings which are, despite everything, contributing to the area's renewal. Yaski's firm is currently designing dozens of such office towers and prestige residential towers, including Tzameret Towers and Yoo Tel Aviv, apartments which sell for millions of dollars and have become symbols of Israeli decadence.
How many rich people are there here, to fill up all these towers?
Yaski: "A lot more than we tend to think, and [their fortunes] are measured by the billion now. Millionaires are already the poor. High-rise residential construction is for the rich only. In the Opera Tower, we pay NIS 2,700 a month for maintenance, compared to NIS 100 in a regular co-op building. So it's not for everyone. Do I feel comfortable building for the rich? It's my schizophrenia. As an architect, it's fun to make these kinds of three-dimensional objects. But as a person, you think to yourself, what is happening to our society, what happened to the people of Israel, how did everything go topsy-turvy?"
Those with limited means should live in low-rise buildings, Yaski says - an approach he has espoused for years. In the 1950s, he coordinated a study on building for people with limited incomes for the Batsheva de Rothschild Foundation, which engendered the shikun residential apartment projects in Be'er Sheva. The idea was to build homes that could be expanded as needed, with a small common yard to ease the crowding. "The idea was successful and also gained an international reputation," he says, "but there was no follow-up. What is going on today with the clearance-rebuilding projects is stupid."
Lifting the veil
Yaski's firm (which recently merged with the Mor firm to become Israel's largest architecture firm) is headquartered on the 21st floor of an office building in Bnei Brak. From his office window Yaski can see Serpentine, a sculpture by artist and architect Itzhak Danziger, in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park. Danziger was a beloved friend - "charming, easygoing, the only one who had anything important to say." The cityscape that is visible through the window sparks a discussion about the Israeli landscape and Israeli architecture, a topic that always comes up. Yaski: "What is this landscape, actually? A mixed suburban landscape like anywhere in the world. A few red-tile roofs, a few flat roofs, grass, nothing distinctively Israeli."
Is there really anything distinctively Israeli?
"A group cannot sit down and create a local architecture. Local architecture which possesses a character of its own is created over time. In the 1950s something started here. At that time in England or France, exposed concrete was a curiosity. But we treated that material with all seriousness and made it ours. The concrete constantly improved, and if it had continued, something marvelous would have emerged. But in the postmodern period the process stopped and concrete began to be hated. Not only in Israel, internationally too. It's hated because it bespeaks strength and some sort of honesty and primordial quality, and that seems to upset people."
Like architecture itself, of which he is viewed as the salient representative, Yaski is the subject of a mixed approach within the architectural community and among the public. But what he is probably taken to task for most is that he dared to lift the veil of fibs and falsehoods from architecture, in the shadow of which many architects like to take refuge.
"My architecture is practical," Yaski says. "I always tried to imbue it with a dimension of quality, and to ensure that people feel comfortable. Never a symbolic dimension, and I never told stories. I don't know how to do that."