Back to the Future / Closing the Book on a Building Without a Chapter

B'nai B'rith may not be as popular as it once was, but Tel Aviv should appreciate the gem it left behind.

At the corner of Kaplan and Laskov streets in Tel Aviv stands a quiet plaque commemorating the fruitful activities of the B'nai B'rith order in Israel. Since 1963, the B'nai B'rith building has served the organization's members for a series of internal and public events - charity evenings, social gatherings and even popular art exhibitions.

Three years ago, however, B'nai B'rith was forced to transfer the building to the Tel Aviv municipality because of huge debts that had accumulated in "arnona" (municipal property tax ) payments. Today the members of the organization use only a few small offices, while the rest of the building - for the most part - is deserted, and while its outer walls are being filled with graffiti and public notices. The municipality is planning to tear the building down at some point in the future.

B’nai Brith building - Photos: Aviad Bar Ness - 05102011
Photos: Aviad Bar Ness

The B'nai B'rith building was planned by the architect and engineer Yitzhak Yehoshua Gvirtzman (1920-1991 ), a somewhat anonymous figure in the Israeli architectural world. He was born in Lithuania and at the age of 12 came to live in Palestine with his family. He studied at the Technion in Haifa and later worked in the Haifa offices of the architects Al Mansfeld and Munio Gitai Weinraub, as well as in the Planning Administration under Aryeh Sharon. Gvirtzman was responsible for the planning of several relatively small but high-quality buildings.

Among other things, he planned the charming entrance hall at the Beit She'arim National Park (together with the Yahalom Tsur firm of landscape architects ), the Helena Rubinstein factory in Migdal Ha'emek and the planetarium and Canada Hall on Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. Gvirtzman lived at 224 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, in a small cube-shaped house that he planned for himself.

Gvirtzman's connections with B'nai B'rith were established in the middle of the 1950s and produced a number of proposals for buildings in different areas of Tel Aviv. Eventually the municipality responded to the organization's request and allocated to it the lot on Kaplan Street in the 1960s.

The designated lot was close to the army base at the government precincts, between Beit Ha'ikarim (The Farmers' House ) and the Mifal Hapayis state lottery building. The building was completed and inaugurated in 1963, on the 120th anniversary of the establishment of the worldwide organization. With this building, Gvirtzman successfully expressed the DNA of B'nai B'rith as a closed and exclusive social club with a proud heritage.

The ground floor of the building meets the street directly, without any fences or gardening, but turns toward it a sealed facade that is covered with rectangular blocks of marble in an elegant brown. Above it, the architect placed a white cube with two floors and vertical windows in orderly fashion that are reminiscent of loopholes. The combination of narrow slits and the stone facing on the cube echoes the stone architecture in Jerusalem and the walls of the Old City.

The only significant opening in the building's outer shell is on Laskov Street. Gvirtzman stretched it almost along the entire length of the facade and coated it with a unique layer of metal bars that are designed in reference to the organization's logo - a seven-branched candelabra. It is an aesthetic gesture that is reminiscent of the naive imprinting of the stalks of grain on the neighboring agricultural bank building. In the years when electrically illuminated signs were not in use in Israel and public relations firms had not yet been invented, this was one of the only ways for organizations to present their essence to the public.

Events paid the way

Inside the building, which covers an area of some 1,500 square meters, the architect took pains to separate the public areas and the offices from the service quarters. The ground floor served mainly for offices and bomb shelters (that were used for activities ), while the two floors above it held a large hall (whose ceiling extended over two floors ), a library, and meeting rooms.

A monumental staircase connecting the different levels was situated in the north-eastern section of the building. In the past, it used to be accessible from Kaplan Street for the purpose of events and festivities that were not connected with the organization's daily activities.

"In the good old days of B'nai B'rith, the members of chapters from all over the country used to gather here. It is a most beautiful building," says Raphael Barel, the president of B'nai B'rith Israel, with great sadness. "The brethren and sisters of the order collected the money to set up the building themselves, but today we are active only in a small part of it and the remainder is sealed up and belongs to the municipality."

Barel says that the organization was forced to transfer the building to the municipality three years ago because of the heavy debts it had accrued. The building had belonged to the organization but the land was leased. He says that first the Tel Aviv municipality "put the organization to sleep" and then demanded that it vacate the building. "Instead of giving the money we collected to charity and to support the poor, we are handing it over to the municipality," Barel adds. When asked for his opinion about the municipality's plans to destroy the building, he says: "Tel Aviv has become a place for the rich only. Apparently the municipality has its own plans for what to do with the plot."

For many years the building was used for a great many public and private events that helped pay for its upkeep. .

In the mid 1960s, B'nai B'rith's management became the focus of a much publicized public debate when it agreed to rent some of the rooms in the building to the Reform and Conservative Jewry movements. As time went on, the main hall was rented out for private functions and the public events moved to larger and more updated facilities.

B'nai B'rith is located in an unusually excellent compound of office buildings that were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s and served as the nerve center for public, institutional and semi-government organizations. Close to it one can find Beit Sokolov, the journalists' building (architects: Shulamit and Michael Nadler ), the Jewish Agency building (Shmuel Rozov ) and the Kibbutz Ha'artzi building (Shmuel Mestechkin ). These buildings provide a glimpse into a different economic culture for offices, which was based on modesty and efficiency and used qualitative modern architecture in order to express its values to the public domain.

A short walk around the area makes one to see the dizzying development of Israeli architecture since those days - from the light and airy modernism of the journalists' headquarters, to the influence of Le Corbusier control methods on the Jewish Agency building and on to the plastic brutality of Beit Yachin, which marks the beginning of the Tel Aviv skyscraper era. When one looks in the direction of the new skyscrapers planned for the surroundings, it is difficult not to yearn for the originality, the innovation and the amazing level of detail that characterized modernism in this country.

Some of the buildings in the area are in danger of being torn down, like the Agriculture Bank at the corner of Carlebach and Hashmona'im streets (mentioned above ). On the other hand, there are some buildings that will be preserved and get new life. Right now, renovations and repairs have begun at Beit Ha'ikarim, which was bought by the Gazit-Globe company some five years ago. Another two floors will be built onto the roof of the building, in glass, planned by the architect Gidi Bar-Orian under the restrictions of the municipal preservation plan.

The future of the B'nai B'rith building seems most worrisome at this point. Sources within the municipality say that "the building will be evacuated and torn down as part of the Leonardo project that focuses on connecting the Center for the Performing Arts, the Tel Aviv Museum, the Golda Center and the Beit Ariella Library with the Cinematheque compound. The area will have a 'green axis' - a wide path for pedestrians and a cyclists' path are being planned. The B'nai B'rith building stands on municipal grounds which are earmarked for public activity and we are examining relevant alternatives for using the site."

Without delving into the existing financial issues between the organization and the municipality, it must be asked why the city is determined to destroy a building of such high standard instead of converting it into something else. And why the building has to be destroyed so as to add a few centimeters to a sidewalk that is already wide. If the city indeed is committed to preserving the public character of the land, it would be worthwhile to consider its history and also to recognize the value and qualities of the building that has stood there for the past 50 years.