A Yearning Free of Illusions

Architectural historian David Kroyanker says he wouldn't trade the present for another period, but his many articles and books about Jerusalem are filled with affection for the good taste and craftsmanship of days of yore.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

David Kroyanker calls himself an urban biographer. As early as the 1970s, when he worked on an urban planning team in the Jerusalem municipality, he had already begun conducting historical surveys and documenting the city's crumbling architectural legacy: first, in the ultra-Orthodox Sha'arei Hesed neighborhood, then Mamilla and Katamonim, with their gorgeous palaces owned by the local Arab nobility.

In the four decades that have passed since then, Kroyanker has published some 25 books about the history, architecture and planning of Jerusalem, as well as dozens of pamphlets and articles, the latter published both in professional journals and in the press. His newest book, "The Jerusalem Triangle: An Urban Biography," was recently published in Hebrew by Keter and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Zion Square. 'They say that London is made of brick, New York of glass and metal, Sana’a of clay and Jerusalem of stone. This must be maintained,' says Kroyanker. Inset: Talitha Kumi today.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

We are standing at the site of what was once the Eden Cinema, at the top of Agrippas Street - a stone's throw from the Mahaneh Yehuda Market. A large, crumbling concrete skeleton, with parking space inside, stands today where, between 1930 and 1990, one of the city's most important movie theaters operated.

The Eden was designed by architect Nathan Brinn in the International Style and was covered with rough, gray plaster rather than the usual Jerusalem stone. Audiences enjoyed a spacious hall, where they saw the latest productions from Hollywood, and where, throughout the years, political lectures and meetings took place too. When the city center declined in importance, the Eden screened erotic films, drawing a somewhat more dubious audience. In the near future, the building is to be demolished completely, to make room for a 24-story luxury residential and business project, designed by American-Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind (in cooperation with architect Yigal Levi ).

Kroyanker smiles when he looks at the place that was once a magnificent cinema, and is now a parking lot. "It looks as though the cars are seated in front of the screen, and waiting for the movie to begin," he quips.

A tour of central Jerusalem with Kroyanker is akin to a trip through time and space, with irregular jumps between historical events, anecdotes and juicy architectural details.

His new book focuses on what is called Jerusalem's meshulash: the triangle that is bordered by Jaffa Road and King George and Ben-Yehuda streets. From the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, that area was the commercial, cultural and economic center of a Jerusalem that, until the Six-Day War, covered about a third of the area the city currently comprises. The Triangle contained no fewer than 14 movie theaters, as well as department stores and elegant boutiques, cafes, delis and intimate restaurants. The Jerusalemite culture of consumerism in those years was strongly boosted by immigrants from Germany, the Yekkes, who arrived with the third wave of immigration from Europe, and also because of the foreign currency that poured in with the presence in the city of senior officials and officers of the British Mandate. All this was almost immediately expressed in impressive, refined and frequently innovative architecture.

You could expect to bump into everyone in the little triangle's junction of streets in the center of town, wrote A.B. Yehoshua in his 1960s' short story "Three Days and a Child." This was the "big world," added Amos Oz in his 2002 memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness."

The Triangle was an inseparable part of Kroyanker's childhood scenery, and his nostalgia for it is made up of a "yearning that is free of illusions," as he puts it. He longs for the days when central Jerusalem had a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a European look - "without bazaars, fast food restaurants, 24-hour kiosks, money changers and cheap stores with 'everything for a dollar.'"

His eyes mist over as he begins to point out buildings that have seen better days, and he cites the institutions that once inhabited them. And there, at the corner of Shamai and Darom streets, was the Orion Cinema (today home to a McDonald's ). Nearby was the Orna Cinema, and also the Ron and Or-Gil movie houses.

At the corner of King George and Hillel streets stands the Ta'amon Cafe, still in operation. Once it was a mecca for Jerusalem's bohemia. "The guys would meet here on Saturday nights, sit on the railings and look for beautiful girls," recalls Kroyanker. "Sort of a social phenomenon. The railings have since disappeared and so has the phenomenon, though I'm not sure which disappeared first."

He turns to the Frumin House, across King George Street, where the Knesset had its home until the mid-1960s, and says: "It wasn't a very impressive piece of architecture but it does tell the story of Jerusalem when it began to be the capital of the State of Israel. Originally, the building was supposed to house the branch of a bank, but when they were looking for a place for the Knesset, the state bought the building and turned the basement floor into a hall for the plenum."

Kroyanker draws my attention to a line of serrated stone between the building's second and third floors. This was the trademark of architect Reuven Avraham Rabinowitz, who designed some 15 buildings in the Triangle area. In all of them he inserted the serrated stone lines.

David Kroyanker was born in Jerusalem in 1939 to an educated family of German origin. His father, Dr. Gustav Krojanker, was an outstanding activist in German Zionism, a journalist and columnist, and an art researcher. His mother, Dr. Edith Kroyanker, was a public-sector lawyer. David served in the paratroops brigade. Then he went to study in the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. When he returned from England, he worked for a short while in the office of Jerusalem architect David Reznik, before beginning a job in the Jerusalem municipality's urban planning department, then headed by Meron Benvenisti.

Kroyanker: "After the Six-Day War, a million-and-one hotel and high-rise projects fell into Jerusalem's lap, because there was a sudden interest in the town that had gone from being a divided city, at the end of a dead-end road, into a united metropolis with many rocky hills around it that allowed for countless building projects."

In 1971, Teddy Kollek, who had been elected mayor six years earlier, appointed Benvenisti ("a sharp man with a vision," according to Kroyanker) deputy mayor for planning. Working under him, Kroyanker focused mainly on building preservation - a subject that was not then part of the public discourse, neither in Jerusalem nor anywhere else in Israel. During his career he took part in a long list of public campaigns to preserve buildings and the urban fabric of Jerusalem. Sometimes he won, but frequently he lost. One example was the effort to preserve the Talitha Kumi school building, which was destroyed in 1980.

That building stood at the center of a 35-dunam (about 9-acre ) plot, between Mesilat Yesharim and King George streets. Planned by German architect and prominent researcher of Jerusalem Conrad Schick, Talitha Kumi was built in 1868 by German nuns of the Deaconess Order. Until World War I, it served as an orphanage and an educational institution for Arab girls. The development plan for the tract, drawn up at the end of the 1960s, ignored the structure's rare architectural qualities and doomed it to destruction.

"The historian Zeev Vilnai recommended the building be torn down because it was connected with a Christian legend and it had been run by Nazi German nuns," recalls Kroyanker. "But the building was built in the 19th century, some 60 years before Hitler assumed power. But who knows history in the district planning and building committee? We felt that a large part of the decisions made in that committee resulted from lack of knowledge."

The site where Talitha Kumi stood before its destruction is now marked by a ridiculous commemorative structure comprised of three architectural components dismantled from the original building, in the plaza of what was until recently a Hamashbir Lazarchan department store. Kroyanker, who planned the commemorative marker with architects Nehemia Paul and Nahum Meltzer, says that the decision to preserve the memory of the building in such a minimalistic and controversial manner was made only after the failure of the public campaign. He sees the site as a warning to future generations.

What Kroyanker saw as the Jerusalem public's complete lack of historical and architectural knowledge of its city prompted him to publish historical books on different neighborhoods that were targeted for development. When the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies was established, in 1981, he left his job at the municipality and started working there as a historian and professional documenter. He started collecting historical documents, drawings, aerial photos, newspaper clippings, family pictures - anything that could contribute to his research. Most of his works were published under the auspices of the Jerusalem Institute, with the help of other public organizations and foundations.

His wife, Leora Kroyanker, is an active writing partner, although she concentrates mostly on researching, editing and proofreading texts. At the same time, David Kroyanker has continued working as an independent architect and as an adviser on preservation. He hints that it is difficult to make a living just from writing about architecture.

In his house, he has an extensive private archive, containing both written and visual materials.

"There are neighborhoods about which I can tell you something about every house," he says proudly. "In fact, I have an intimate acquaintance also with many of the families living in them."

Kroyanker's books contain thousands of hand-drawn sketches of buildings, construction details, and street and neighborhood plans that depict their original states, rather than their current look - a subjective decision wrapped in a sense of nostalgia.

"When you want to teach people about [matters of] style, you have to show them how something looked originally," he explains. "That is why I strip off the buildings the things that got added to them and that dull their original qualities."

Over the course of four decades of writing, Kroyanker has revealed a series of important historical and archaeological findings; he thinks the most important has to do with the extent and quality of Arab construction in the city.

"You see it, for example," he says, "in Talbieh, where there is a very high level of construction and of detail. In contrast to what people may want us to think, the Arabs had a huge influence on the center of Jerusalem as we know it today. One can also find a large number of buildings in the International Style that were built by Arabs, especially those from the Christian community who were interested in Westernizing."

The main criticism of Kroyanker's work concerns the nostalgic tone of his research, and the fact that it ignores more contemporary architectural phenomena, such as the effect of the security barrier on the urban space, or the abundance of empty apartments in the center of town - many of them owned by Diaspora Jews, who inhabit them only during holidays or vacations. Sometimes it can even seem as if Kroyanker's books are less objective history than works intended to serve the efforts of either city hall or real estate developers.

In this context, one must note his book "Mamilla: Prosperity, Decay and Renewal - the Alrov Mamilla Quarter" (Keter, 2009 ), which documented the long process by which the veteran commercial neighborhood outside Jaffa Gate was deconstructed and turned into an exclusive and sanitized shopping and residential area. That book was published with the financial support of, among others, businessman Alfred Akirov, who built the compound. Writing at the time in Haaretz, architecture critic Esther Zandberg wrote that "instead of a troubling historical document, we got another shiny, nostalgic album, interesting and pleasant to look at, that will not annoy nor cause anyone of the people involved to lose sleep ... Kroyanker is the person who could have screamed out this story, rather than just documenting it with a kind of acceptance of fate."

Kroyanker says his signed agreement with Akirov gave him complete freedom as a researcher. "If Akirov had not put up the money, the book would not have been published, and then a very important documentary chapter in the history of Jerusalem would not exist. Call it a controversial urban documentation."

He is aware of the criticism of him for ignoring burning architectural issues, such as the terrible, or magnificent, architectural chaos (depending on how one sees it ) that characterizes Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. From Kroyanker's point of view, the increasing Haredization of the capital is akin to "punishment" for its architecture. "As far as the municipal licensing system goes, this is an exterritorial area. Inspectors are afraid to go there, and everyone does as they please. The same thing happens in the Bukharan Quarter [for example]."

What bothers you most in Jerusalem?

"I have a love-hate relationship with the city. But the thing that most bothers me is the neglect. It is a ragged city. Look at every lamppost: stickers. There is no sign, either, that hasn't undergone abuse. Frequently the Arabic has been erased. It is a very extreme place."

Kroyanker's new book proposes five walking tours for exploring the Triangle, though it is definitely not your run-of-the-mill guidebook. Its heft (434 full-color pages ) and depth require one to study it before one heads out to the street. Yet, one must also commend Kroyanker's attention to common and mediocre buildings, which lack lofty airs but nonetheless make an important contribution to the urban fabric and the city's history. "The Jerusalem Triangle" contains not only drawings and plans, but also images of movie tickets from the 1950s, advertisements and pictures of day-to-day life, all of which paint an overall picture of the heyday of the area.

Kroyanker thinks that since Kollek's retirement from the mayoralty, in 1993, Jerusalem has been undergoing a dramatic decline in status, something that is also expressed in the field of preservation.

"In recent years, Tel Aviv has overtaken us by far. It has proved that it could do preservation just as well," he notes, adding that he is not necessarily opposed to construction of high-rises in the downtown area ("as long as the locale is chosen very carefully and an emphasis is put on the quality of the design" ). He thinks that the tradition of building with stone must be preserved: "They say that London is made of brick, New York of glass and metal, Sana'a of clay and Jerusalem of stone. This is an image that must be maintained."

Despite the economic, cultural and design changes in Jerusalem that are widely reflected in its architecture, Kroyanker wouldn't be interested in returning to the Mandate period, to see all the buildings he loves without any changes or additions.

"Cynics ask when the messy Ottoman regime will be overturned, and the Mandatory administration will come back. Of course, that's a paraphrase on today," he laughs. "But I wouldn't trade the present period at any cost."