Mendelsohn Building Spurs Monumental Dilemma

In 1934 renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn built a private residence for Salman Schocken in Jerusalem. Now that villa has reopened a heated debate on preservation.

Plans to preserve and make an addition to a Jerusalem residence designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn were approved by the city in March, 2011, but are now being reopened due to the objections of neighbors. Villa Schocken, a residence in Rehavia designed for businessman and publisher Salman Schocken (founder of the Schocken publishing house and grandfather of Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken), was purchased by developers who then reached an agreement with preservationists on the plans for the building. However, after angry neighbors contested the plans they have been returned to the deposit phase, providing an opportunity to reconsider Mendelsohn's works in this country and the way they should be preserved.

"Modernism in architecture and preservation is a kind of oxymoron," says director Duki Dror whose film, "Mendelsohn's Incessant Visions" on the life of Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953 ) came to the screens last year. "Even though his buildings look like something eternal, they too crumble with the years." The film, he adds, was an exploration of the mark that an individual, an architect as influential as Mendelsohn, leaves behind.

Compared to other Bauhaus architects of his generation, Mendelsohn was a Zionist of a different sort. Immediately after Hitler's march into the Reichstag on March 21, 1933 - Mendelsohn's birthday, as it happens - the successful architect hastened to leave Germany, his birthplace, and immigrated to the land of Israel. But he was quick to leave Mandatory Palestine as well, as Hitler's army was approaching its borders in 1942 in the wake of a series of successful battles and occupations in North Africa. Perhaps what explains his quick departure is the fact that Mendelsohn did not at all support the establishment of the State of Israel; rather he believed there should be a brotherhood here of the Semitic peoples, the East's response to the dying West.

Mendelsohn's landmarks

In the same spirit, he embraced Jerusalem, where he built four projects of major significance: Villa Schocken, the Schocken Library, the Anglo-Palestine Bank and Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. While his German colleagues, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, and their Israeli successors (Josef Neufeld, Zeev Rechter, Arieh Sharon and others ) pursued the International Style, a clean architecture that could be applied anywhere, Mendelsohn was vehemently opposed to the idea that such an architecture could exist, right from when it was exhibited at the Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar in 1923. Therefore, in Jerusalem, the center from which light would radiate unto the nations from the the Judean HiIls that so enchanted him, he designed buildings quite different from the ones he had designed in Europe.

"In Berlin he worked within a metropolis and reacted to the idea of how a person perceives a building as he rides in a streetcar, how commerce effervesces on the ground floor and how show windows are created with double and triple the area," says Alona Shiftan, head of theoretical studies at the Technion faculty of architecture and town planning, who was interviewed in Dror's film. "He dealt with a culture of neon, of a big city and the like." In Germany and throughout Europe Mendelsohn planned large buildings like factories and Salman Schocken's chain of department stores. The building most identified with his name is the Einstein Tower he planned for the scientist and his team in Potsdam, a sculptural building that is closer to the architect's freehand drawings than to the buildings he planned in the city centers.

An Oriental spirit

In Shiftan's estimation, before he had to leave Europe Mendelsohn was the Modernist architect whose works took up the largest volume of building on the entire continent. Here, his urban outlooks were not relevant and Mendelsohn suited his buildings to the exotic spirit he identified in the East. "His view was far more Orientalist. Though this is an inverted Orientalism, it is Orientalism in every respect," she says.

Mendelsohn did not identify with the workers' organizations and the social movements, but rather the reverse: First and foremost he worked with the elites - he planned the president's house in Rehovot for Chaim Weizmann and Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Salman Schocken, with whom he had worked in Germany, asked him to build his private home, Villa Schocken, in the Rehavia neighborhood along with the library building where he housed his private collections.

Mendelsohn chose to put Villa Schocken, which was built in 1934, at the highest point of the lot that was selected, facing the Jerusalem hills. "Among other things he related to the open view in the direction of the Judean hills, which of course disappeared after they built taller buildings on the plots of land around it," says architect David Guggenheim, who says of himself that he is "concerned about Mendelsohn's buildings; I care about them and I love them."

The great experience the house offered was a garden facing the large, open landscape. The residence, which was three stories high, was one of the most impressive and largest buildings in the area. It was designed to afford maximum privacy to its residents, and the large indoor spaces dictated its outward shape as asymmetrical rectangles. Along the living room there was a wide veranda, which provided natural light and through which it was possible to look at the views. The architect drew elements from the local tradition, such as small vertical windows, pergolas and roof gardens and covered the inner walls with light colors that created a sense of coolness.

In the 1960s the villa was purchased by the Academy of Music and Dance, which added a new wing designed by Joseph Klarwein, a Jerusalem architect whose credits include the Knesset building. Despite the fact that the building was already on Jerusalem's short list of preservation in the 1980s, it was nevertheless sold to a development company that planned to demolish it and replace it with a luxury apartment complex.

Public outcry

When the plans were shown to the public in 2003, a broad struggle ensued that involved the architects association, cultural figures and museum people who fought for the preservation of the building. The struggle succeeded: The municipality decided on full preservation of the original building and the removal of the later additions, with most of the area of the building designated for public use. However, a price was exacted for the preservation, with the planning of a six-story building on a part of the lot, supported in part by the historical building.

Now the issue has come up again, after the neighbors who live adjacent to Villa Schocken petitioned the court on the grounds that the volume of the expected construction on the site had not been made clear to them. As a result, the decision on the preservation of the building was revoked and the plan was reopened before the regional planning committee, which this week ruled that the developers must prepare the documents anew and exhibit them for objections. The meaning of this is a delay in the implementation of the preservation, but also a delay in construction by the developers.

"In the framework of submitting the objections I discovered that the plan adds significant built-up areas of nearly 50 percent on top of the existing building," says attorney Rafi Ettinger of the firm of Azulay, Afik, Ettinger & CO., Advocates, who is representing the neighbors of Villa Schocken. "The addition dwarfs the building for preservation and does not integrate into the neighborhood with regard to its height."

Ettinger adds that in the past there were discussions between the state and the developers about purchasing the building and compensating them with building rights elsewhere - a plan that was not implemented.

By means of the current objection, the petitioners are hoping to revive those discussions and to house a public body in the building, such as the Academy of the Hebrew Language, for which the government of Israel recently decided to establish a new home. Itzik Shviki, the Jerusalem District Manager of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, in fact regrets the decision to reopen the plan for discussion. "We believe that the whole process is because of a typographical error," he says. Shviki, who was one of the organizers of the public struggle, submitted an objection to the plan in the past and he is satisfied with the compromise obtained with the developers.

Inside a work of art

Unlike the residence, the adjacent Schocken Library has in fact been well preserved. Behind the walls of the building hide soft and inviting spaces that serve as a suitable home for Salman Schocken's original book collection numbering more than 60,000 volumes, among them rare manuscripts and books written before the invention of the printing press. As in Mendelsohn's other buildings, "God is in the details," says Dror. "There is a kind of feeling there that you are inside a work of art. Every space is very clear, very interesting, very much draws you in."

Since 1961 the building has been under the supervision (and since 1977 under the ownership ) of the American Jewish Theological Seminary, which operates the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research there, respects the special building and preserves its original fine details. However, progress does leave its mark and in the 1990s a proposal was submitted for the construction of a seven-story building for the seminary's use next to the library, in a place where there is now a parking lot. The plan was dropped from the agenda in 2000, according to a representative of the institution, but as for the future, "Everything is open."

"At some stage they will build, in my opinion," says Shviki. "The building is graded as a monument in the preservation categorization so it is forbidden to attach new structures to it. If they want to it will be possible to have an underground passage [that could link the original building with newly-built structures.]"

"I understand the desire, and I also don't think it would be terrible damage," says Guggenheim, "but you have to know how to do the expansion. It has to be in relation to most of the surroundings, not like the terrible proposal that was detached from any context."

The issue of construction on top of buildings listed for preservation is complex. On the one hand there is a desire to preserve the character, scale and appropriateness of the original building, while on the other hand there is a need to give incentives to developers to preserve the building in a way that is suited to current needs, which are very different from those of the 1930s. "There is nothing to prevent additions to buildings for preservation as long as the issue is properly examined on a case by case basis," the Jerusalem municipality has responded. "In many cases submission of plans enables the preservation of the building along with its exposure to the public."

In the past decade the Jerusalem municipality has enlarged its preservation department and in recent years it has been working on a preservation list for the city.

"However," says Guggenheim, "for every building that went up in the city in the 1930s and the 1940s - whether or not it is good or of value, they drive you crazy at the municipality. They don't distinguish between conservation and conservatism."

Yael Engelhart
Courtesty of the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research
Courtesy of the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research