Haifa's Glass House - Transparent, but Still an Israeli Mystery

Glass bricks are atypical for this country because of their high cost and unsuitability to the climate. Still, architect Theodor Menkes went ahead in the 1930s and put up Israel's Glass House.

When architects talk about the Glass House, they're usually referring to the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which was designed in 1949 by the American architect Philip Johnson. He lived there until his death.

Or maybe they're talking about Maison de Verre, a large building in Paris put up in the early '30s, which boasts the world's first wall of glass bricks. It gives its residents the feeling they're living inside a machine.

Haifa has a Glass House of its own, and like its cousins across the sea, it reflects a rare architectural avant-garde. The building is on Bar Giora Street in the Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood, on a narrow plot that looks out on the bay. It reflects a collaboration between a client with good taste and a virtuoso architect.

But typical for buildings in Israel that set an architectural precedent, the structure is in dismal condition. The walls are falling apart, the glass windows have shattered, and some of the glass bricks, which comprised much of the building, have been dismantled or covered over with sheetrock. The swimming pool has been dry for years. And the current tenants don't have the money to turn things around.

Haifa's Glass House was built in 1938, based on a design by the architect Theodor Menkes. It contains 14 small housing units, each 53 square meters large, including a tiny foyer, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

The building's owner, a South-African-born Haifa entrepreneur named Max Levine, recognized the need for high-quality rental apartments. He thought he would get a greater return on his investment if he equipped the building with atypical modern infrastructure.

Yaron Kaminsky

So he put in a central heating system, a trash chute, a swimming pool and a rooftop tennis court. The target population: demobilized, unmarried British soldiers who worked in the British authorities' city administration. For them, the building was an opportunity for top-quality urban quality of life.

Levine put an advertisement in The Palestine Post in November 1938: "For rent, apartments with hot water and central heating, in the Max Levine building on Mount Carmel. Close to the postal branch and a minute's walk from the bus stop. Telephone 1643."

Tennis court on the roof

The Glass House was built perpendicular to the street; you enter it via a stairwell. From there, you can continue toward the swimming pool or go up the staircase toward the apartments. Menkes chose to design the stairwell as an independent tower sheathed in a screen wall. In doing so, he turned a building element that is generally considered heavy and clumsy into an airy sculpture.

You access the apartments via open galleries that serve as a buffer between the private and the public; they're also a place for meetings between residents. With thought to the building's general aesthetics, Menkes planned planters along the galleries, which let residents grow flowers or herbs as they pleased. He enhanced the building's industrial image by exposing the plumbing system in the building's facade. For example, the front doors to each apartment are framed by a pair of pipes.

With an eye toward the building's communal character, Menkes provided quality public spaces. On the top floor, he left space open for an oversize balcony. He also used the roof for a tennis court. He put up metal poles and screens all around to prevent balls from flying out onto the street.

Along with the concrete and steel, glass is the building's main construction material. The plan dictated small and narrow apartments, so Menkes sought to let in as much natural light as possible. Glass bricks are atypical for Israel both because of their high cost and their unsuitability to the climate. This was certainly the case in the '30s. Surprisingly, no one has ever written a comprehensive study on the building, so it's a mystery where Menkes got his inspiration to use so much glass.

For many years, the Glass House has been an open secret among Israeli architects and planners. Even in its current state of dilapidation it remains a pilgrimage site. "It's a modern monument on an international scale," says architect Walid Karkabi, director of the Haifa municipality's conservation unit.

Indeed, the building marks the epitome of the International Style in Israel. It relies on the principles of modern architecture conceived by Le Corbusier, while it is very much the product of the local culture.

The Glass House has been discussed in a book on architecture in British Mandatory Palestine by Ada Karmi-Melamede and Dan Price, published by the Tel Aviv Museum. Carmi and Price featured the building in their chapter on "hybrid modernism" as an example of the main period of Mandate architecture, between the '30s and '40s.

"Architecture of this middle period ... assimilated the imported vocabulary and the formal syntax of modernism, but despite all its ideological baggage, it was propelled by functional and pragmatic considerations," they wrote. "This is the stage where an uninhibited local version of modern architecture developed here, as an iconic implement of urban strategy throughout the country."

Red housing projects

Menkes, born in Vienna, came to Palestine during the rise of Nazism. He made his home in Haifa, where he planned private and public projects. For both Jewish and Arab clients he made ample use of steel and glass.

Aside from private homes, Menkes planned workers' dormitories, including a proposal for a workers' neighborhood in Hadar Hacarmel. An article in The Palestine Post in June 1937 refers to plans for "a new type of residential building in Hadar," which was designed by Menkes.

The neighborhood was to include 28 buildings spread out around shared open spaces, covering 2.5 dunams. "The main idea of the scheme is to leave the areas on the sides of the buildings unfenced and to unify them in a shared space," the article said.

Menkes largely focuses on Hadar, and in some projects he collaborated with the neighborhood committee; for instance, in a plan to build a 3,000-seat municipal theater on Pevzner Street.

The Haifa-based conservation architect Noa Schek says the Glass House is part of a large cluster of workers' housing projects built in and around the city between the '20s and '50s.

"The largest industrial zone in the Land of Israel, and one of the largest in the British Empire, was built in Haifa, and the factories took upon themselves the responsibility of building housing projects for their employees. This decision was derived from the European tradition of building housing projects for factory employees, a tradition that was absorbed by many founders and directors of private companies and the British decision-makers, not to mention the Histadrut labor federation in 'Red Haifa,'" Sheck says.

"Dozens of housing projects were built - in some cases single buildings within the urban fabric, not necessarily near the factories, and in some cases on the grounds of the factory. Sometimes they housed simple manual laborers, and sometimes managers in company-owned apartments such as the housing project on the Carmel for employees of the Haifa refinery."

Schek attributes the Glass House's condition today to the long decline of Hadar Hacarmel, which began in the '70s. The neighborhood was once the home of Haifa's urban elite.

"The apartments in the Glass House were designed for a single person and are unsuited to families," says Schek. "If, heaven forbid, a family is squashed into one of those apartments, no good will come of it."

Glass House has been declared a conservation site, but that's about it. The current residents lack the means to finance an expensive renovation, and such a unique building can't take on any more additions. Karkabi says the building must be preserved, but the Haifa municipality isn't rushing to fix the problem.

"I have no doubt that someone should have taken the building and renovated it," he says. "If the Haifa municipality had invested in rehabilitating Hadar, instead of, say, its photogenic investment in the port area, it might have created momentum and brought a strong population back to the neighborhood. This could have led to the renovation of its historic architectural assets."