Israeli Architecture's Lone Arranger

The Israeli Architect's Archive, founded and operated by architect Zvi Elhayani, is in fact a large private collection without institutional academic or financial support. Elhayani funds it out of his own pocket, aided by a few sources of varying value.

A few meters under Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, in a remote underground wing of the Shalom Tower, is one of the lesser known and most interesting treasures of Israeli architecture. Hundreds of thousands of items documenting the legacy of building here since the end of the 19th century are concentrated in a tiny office measuring no more than 10 square meters: from rare pictures of modernist beauty in Be'er Sheva to professional journals from all periods and original plans for some of the most important buildings erected over the years. At the center of the room is a model of the Shalom Tower, the first skyscraper in Israel (1965 ) and an icon in itself.

The Israeli Architect's Archive, founded and operated by architect Zvi Elhayani, is in fact a large private collection without institutional academic or financial support. Elhayani funds it out of his own pocket, aided by a few sources of varying value.

Archivist Zvi Elhayani in his small office
Daniel Tchetchik

But despite this situation, Elhayani, 39, has managed to continue to add pieces to the collection for 20 years. "The obsession of a crazy person," he says. The innumerable folders and containers that had been stored in Elhayani's home were moved to the archive's current location in the Shalom Tower just a few months ago. Elhayani celebrated the launch in May, and ever since, he says, there has been a constant stream of people interested in the project.

"The amount of emails and telephone calls I get in a week shows what a vacuum there is in this area," he told Haaretz this week from his office. "Architects and architectural students approach me but also similar numbers of art curators, filmmakers, and book researchers looking for information on some anonymous building. The archive nurtures many cultural disciplines but is also nurtured by many sources. Instead of cataloging places and people, it touches on the culture of building design and contains many uncharacteristic pieces. For example, if someone is looking for information on the Shalom Tower, I direct them to the film 'Aliza Mizrahi,' which documents the building wonderfully. I believe that television and film can provide useful documentation of architecture."

An ignored discipline

Elhayani's collection started off with four loose leaf notebooks filled during his architecture studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design almost two decades ago.

As a student, he wrote for the Jerusalem weekly Kol HaIr (after working on the army's Bemahane publication during his service ), and had access to a large amount of material.

At the time Israeli architecture was a rather ignored topic that drifted between nostalgia for Muslim and Mandatory styles and just another subject along the continuum of the history of architecture that had to be surveyed.

"My teachers knew only what was taken for granted. They could say a few words about Dov Carmi or Ze'ev Rechter; the name Arieh Sharon was barely mentioned," Elhayani said. "As a result, students were unfamiliar with almost every Israeli architect operating after the state was founded. They studied for five years and went to work in the field without understanding it at all."

At the end of his studies, as a regular writer for the art magazine Studio, he was asked by its then-editor Zvi Efrat to research an exhibit entitled "The Israeli Project" for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

It was the first of its kind, a critical, thematic and historical survey of the Zionist building enterprise from 1948-1973. Instead of joining an architectural firm, as most of his friends did, Elhayani immersed himself in forgotten collections of black-and-white photos, "to bring a completely unknown body of knowledge to the surface, [one that had been] forgotten and forsaken," in his words.

"Consciously or unconsciously, I decided to transform what I had collected during my work on the Israeli Project to my life's work," he says. "People always said that there was no material about Israeli architecture. But I gradually understood that everything was there but in a disorganized way. We found thousands of texts, articles, lectures by writers and also by people we had never heard of."

The exhibit in the Helene Rubenstein Pavilion opened in October 2000, and was a great success with the public and professionals. The catalog of the exhibit (still practically the only lexicon of the period ) credited Elhayani as deputy editor.

No original plans needed

Those few loose leaf notebooks have turned into a library with rare information on 800 professionals and thousands of buildings, sites and communities. Elhayani estimates that that there are several hundred thousand documents and about 100,000 photos, some of which have been scanned into digital formats.

Some of the material has been saved from destruction, as in the case of the late Haifa architect Shlomo Gilad. His family agreed that Elhayani could take plans and materials about iconic buildings such as Haifa University and the Cameron Auditorium in Beit She'an from the office after it was closed.

We are sitting in Elhayani's small archive and he wanted to show me how the material is arranged. He brings the binder for Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square, drawing out a Na'aman porcelain plate with a charming illustration of the square.

"This is an item which teaches us a lot about the structure of the square when it was first built and also about its importance to Israeli culture," he says.

The binder also contains a few dozen articles reflecting the sharp public debate about the square, and a singing postcard from the 1960s with a photo of Dizengoff Street.

Items one would expect to find in such a folder - the original plans by Genia Aberbuch and the renovation planned by Zvi Lisher - are not there.

"Most archives tend to collect material by names or sites, while I want to bring popular culture into them," he says.

He lifts a transparent paper weight, estimated to be from the 1960s, with a drawing of the Hasharon Hospital in Petah Tikva.

"This item, for example, contains a lot of architectural information; it is certainly worth studying, in order to understand the original layout of the building," he says. "Whatever expresses the culture of architecture in the expanses of Eretz Israel and Palestine in the 19th century goes into the archive, whether the work of a building contractor, architecture without an architect, and of course that of professional architects. I believe that by collecting, context nearly creates itself. The archive is not an arbitrator; it does not distinguish between high and low or beautiful and ugly. And so I don't attribute great importance to original documents. I am trying to broaden knowledge."

An obsession with no place to go

The first talk about an Israeli architecture archive began in the 1940s and a number of attempts to start one were made over the years, the most prominent being the Architectural Heritage Research Center founded by Prof. Gilbert Herbert at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The enormous amount of building in the first decades of the state left architects with almost no time to document their work, and especially the erasure of traces of the Palestinian footprint.

From this point of view, Elhayani's archive is perhaps the one that has come closest to realizing this idea. But the Tel Aviv Museum of Art announced recently that it would erect the David Azrieli Israeli Architecture Archive. Three years ago, Elhayani tried to enlist Azrieli and the museum to support his archive. At the same time he made contact with the family of architect Arieh Sharon, which holds a very important archive of its own, and attempted to bring the parties together.

He presented a formal work proposal to the museum, and arranged a meeting between the museum's director and chief curator, Prof. Moti Omer, and the Sharon family. But the museum decided to carry out the project without Elhayani. "After a month or two I received a personal e-mail from David Azrieli that he would be working on the project with the museum and without me."

What was the reason?

"I still don't know. You might say that its unfortunate they have ended their relations with me. I don't think it is a matter of ownership but rather a loss to Israeli architecture. Archives require a kind of obsession which I have acquired over the years. It seems to me to be an irresponsible effort to build an archive when one already exists and there is already someone devoted to it."

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art responded by saying it decided to go in another direction.

"During the course of a profound discussion about establishing a national architectural archive at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, it was decided to select Dr. Eran Neuman as the founder and manager of the archive," the museum said in a statement. "That said, we welcome any initiative focusing on maintaining and memorializing Israeli architecture throughout the generations."

From the point of view of the architectural community, a certain amount of loss is involved in the endeavor. It would have been better to examine the possibility of cooperation instead of having two separate archives.

Paradoxically, Israel, which skipped over the stage of having a traditional archive, could have one body which integrates older materials like paper and newer, digital materials which are produced at a dizzying pace by architecture houses today.

Elhayani's doctorate (supervised by Prof. Rivka Oxman of the Technion ) also deals with the subject and seeks to offer a thematic model for Israeli archives, in comparison with similar archives around the world.

Elhayani understands that his archive is larger than he can support and that it must be absorbed by a funded cultural institution. He hopes to find a home for his collection and begin conducting research in an organized way into its enormous riches.

"Since the 1970s, when the Technion began offering such a doctorate, there have been less than 10 theses dealing with the history of Israeli architecture," he says. "The lack of an archive means the absence of knowledge. We haven't got any idea about the most important architects who operated here. The excuses and quarrels must end. Israeli architecture, without regard for quality in any judgmental, aesthetic sense, simply must be documented."