The Man Who Tamed Concrete

He planned the first supermarket, mall and residential high-rise in Israel and is credited with many other innovations. A new book reveals the work of Nahum Zolotov, one of the country's most intriguing architects, and the man behind them.

Architect Nahum Zolotov used to get to Sharm el-Sheikh, in the Sinai peninsula, in a plane he piloted himself. In the 1970s, when Sinai was in Israeli hands, Zolotov designed a new residential neighborhood in the seaside town, then called Ophira by Israelis. After his flight, he'd get into a Jeep, which was rare then in these parts, and head for the beach and an underwater photography session, complete with diving tanks. This account, provided by a friend of Zolotov's, helps shed light on the architect's riveting personality.

Zolotov already had proven experience in desert construction - as seen in projects in Be'er Sheva, Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea and Neot Hakikar in the Arava - when he was asked to help design the Ophira neighborhood. As per the principles upon which he usually based his designs, he decided to create a residential environment there which would protect inhabitants from the harsh climate. On the edge of the town's famous cliff, he created two terraced, L-shaped apartment buildings around a neighborhood of small patio-homes - like a fence around a lawn. Between the buildings were modest, covered passageways containing public spaces that encouraged a feeling of communal life.

Ein Gedi Field School

The exploits of the architect in Sinai and elsewhere are described in a just-published book, "Nahum Zolotov: Architect and Town Planner" (in Hebrew ), by the Tel Aviv architect Tula Amir.

Zolotov, now 85, is one of the country's most interesting architects. During his decades-long career he has made a major contribution to local architecture, while also developing and embellishing a distinctly personal design language. Stylistically, he is affiliated with the Modernist movement and afterward with the Brutalist stream; his constant exposure to developments abroad (he traveled frequently to conferences and for pleasure ) meant that he was more up-to-date than most of his colleagues. For his achievements in architecture he was twice awarded the Rokach Prize and once the Rechter Prize for architecture - a unique accomplishment - and his work has been widely discussed in leading professional journals abroad.

Born in Warsaw, Zolotov immigrated to Palestine with his family in 1935. He attributes his decision to become an architect to a memory he has of dismantling and reassembling the grandfather clock in his parents' home. He studied sculpture with artist Moshe Sternschuss and afterward collaborated with him as an architect. Enrolled in the faculty of architecture at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, he missed a year of studies when fighting in the War of Independence and graduated in 1950. Five years later, he embarked on an independent path.

Unlike other architects of his generation, Zolotov was not involved in extensive construction projects in Africa and Iran, in the 1960s and 1970s. (He did, however, plan projects in Tanzania and Thailand, and even a dolphinarium in Tenerife, none of which ever reached fruition.) He lived in Jerusalem and Hod Hasharon, and now makes his home in Kfar Sava with his wife.

The initial connection between Zolotov and Tula Amir was forged ahead of an exhibition which she curated, dealing with commemorative structures in Israel, at the 2006 architecture biennale in Venice. In the course of researching the subject, she became acquainted with a spectacular memorial-cultural building on Kibbutz Nitzanim which Zolotov designed in the mid-1960s.

"The structure reflects incredible thought about the connection between memory and life," Amir says. "The lower level is devoted to the commemoration of the kibbutz members who fell in battle, and the upper level to culture and recreational activity. The two levels interact in fascinating congruence."

Zolotov cooperated with the author on the book; Amir says she tried to avoid coming up with a single salient narrative that would encapsulate his work. In a conversation with her, she displays enthusiasm and high regard for him. The book treats him as a heroic figure, the "tamer of concrete," as Amir calls him.

"Zolotov is a wonderful person and an outstanding architect," Amir believes. "This is true both of the way in which he prepared the draft plans for his buildings and conceived them, and in the way in which he continues to think about them to this day - with self-criticism." She adds that he always thought about buildings "from the user's point of view. He is an architect who attaches great importance to the 'using public.' His basic concepts and courageous solutions to problems are simply astounding. There is always something inventive, something new, in his buildings."

As an example, she cites the field school at Santa Katarina in Sinai, which was designed (in 1976 ) in accordance with the skills of the builders, who came from the neighboring Bedouin tribes: "He designed the walls out of stone, because that is what they knew how to build, and because he could not use casting technique, he used light roofs on the buildings. Taking into consideration the people who will actually do the construction work simply is not characteristic of other architects in this generation. It is an approach which begins with people, encompasses the locale and then goes inside."

Invention and innovation are indeed the hallmarks of Zolotov's career. In some cases his inventiveness goes beyond the bounds of the realm of architecture. He designed the first residential high-rise in Tel Aviv - on Ben Yehuda Street - and below it the first supermarket in the country, belonging to the Supersol chain. For years his office was on the building's top floor. Other landmark buildings he designed in or around Tel Aviv include the beachfront Dolphinarium and, in the 1980s, Israel's first mall, the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, for developer David Azrieli. From this perspective, his work can be seen as an integral element in the development of the consumer culture in Israel.

In another realm, Zolotov devised an original plan for the development of Tel Aviv's transportation infrastructure in the 1960s, which would have involved eradicating the tree-lined boulevards and building a ring of rapid-transit roads in their place. Fortunately, that plan was never implemented, but the general idea underlying it was highly innovative at the time. In the end, Zolotov designed only a small part of the plan that was implemented, for the southern Tel Aviv train station, though it too was not built at the originally designated site.

Between Avdat and Carmel

Tula Amir was born in Jaffa and grew up in Ramat Hasharon. She first studied to be a chef, but afterward turned to architecture, apprenticing in the studio of the architect Eliezer Frankel, later working in the firm headed by Ada Karmi-Melamede and studying at the prestigious AA School of Architecture in London. After returning from her studies abroad she joined the planning department of the Tel Aviv municipality, before opening her own firm in 1994. She is married to Ron Pundak, one of the framers of the Oslo Accords and presently the director general of the Peres Center for Peace. They make their home in the so-called officers' neighborhood of Tel Aviv, whose exposed concrete envelope was designed by Amir herself. It is difficult to think of a greater contrast than the one between the modest, exposed image of Zolotov's concrete and its present-day rich and "correct" image.

In addition to working as a curator - at the Venice biennale and of an exhibition mounted last year in the gallery of Tel Aviv University - Amir teaches at the Azrieli School of Architecture at TAU.

Ironically, the building which houses the architecture department and which was formerly a cafeteria and social club, was designed by Zolotov in 1964. The stairway leading into the structure from the campus' perimeter road is known for its perfect proportions and has been copied in many other private and public projects in Israel.

Over the years the building underwent a series of modifications, as determined by its usage. What remains of it is now under threat by a controversial plan to build a new wing, which will be installed in the form of an overweening diagonal structure above the building. Azrieli himself is responsible for the pompous design.

The disturbing story of the school of architecture building at TAU is also being played out with regard to many of Zolotov's buildings, not sparing even the most highly acclaimed of them. A case in point is the prolonged abuse inflicted on the inn at Avdat, in the Negev. The building, which was erected in the early 1960s at the foot of the ancient Nabatean city, housed a cafeteria and a gas station. The design was elegant and modest: narrow concrete arches and walls covered with stone taken from the ruins (which would be impossible today, under the stringent antiquities laws ). Lovely views of the archaeological tel nearby were framed by large windows and inner courtyards.

The inn's distinctive qualities of form and plasticity landed Zolotov his first Rechter Prize, in 1963. "The structure not only realizes every architect's aspiration for a modern creation," the judges wrote, "but also constitutes a continuation of the aspirations harbored by [architect Zeev] Rechter: the crystallization of the architectural form and its simplification into primary elements, the quest for a characteristic form that springs organically from the building's functions and from the particular [desert] character of the surroundings, a sincere and faithful expression of the constructive structure and the consistent use of building materials."

However, the inn was always treated coldly by all the relevant authorities. At present it houses, unbelievably, branches of McDonald's and the Aroma chain, whose signs cover every trace of the delicate arches. Windows were added to the building, contrary to the original plan, the patio was blocked off and the exposed concrete was painted a depressing cream color. Las Vegas in the heart of the Negev.

In the past, Zolotov said that in principle he was not against modifications and additions in the buildings he designed, as long as they are executed by professionals. Amir concurs: "All of Zolotov's buildings are holding up very well. Not all of them are well kept and not all are preserved, but there is something so powerful in their planning that they are hurt only slightly. Even in places where intervention has occurred, one can easily differentiate between the original building and the subsequent additions."

According to Amir, Zolotov simply did not do enough to promote himself and make his work known to the public at large. The only example of a successful transformation of a work that he originally planned is the guest house in the Carmel Forest that Zolotov designed in conjunction with the interior designer Tamar de Shalit in 1963. The design plan reflects particular sensitivity to the natural landscape; the placement of the rooms on two different levels created a new typology for hotel architecture. Years later, the building was converted into a luxury spa. The relatively minor changes made to the building's envelope attest to Zolotov's ability to forge a space that functions well for totally different publics.

Amir's work about Zolotov was supposed to have appeared as part of a broader project, conceived by architect and historian Zvi Elhayani and sponsored by the department of architecture of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and Carmel publishers. The idea was to map the work of Israeli architects by means of a series of monographs which would be available and useful to both members of the profession and the broader public.

Amir was thus commissioned to write the monograph on Zolotov, but when the project was scrapped she decided to complete the task on her own. To that end she established a publishing house called Ama. She financed the book's publication through the Israeli Center for Libraries and with the aid of a mysterious private donor. All the photographs are in black and white, and none of them are up-to-date. This is a controversial decision, which emphasizes the nostalgic aspect of Zolotov's work and not its contemporary dimensions. Amir cites budget constraints, in explanation.

Her book does not have very much new to say about Zolotov's work but does try for the first time to impose order on the list of his projects and to forge a connection between the different themes that occupied him. It contains only one article, written by Amir, which wanders from one project to another intuitively, sometimes in the wake of a geographical link (such as desert construction ) or under a broader rubric (transportation in Tel Aviv ). The book suffers from an absence of other articles, which might have offered a deeper and more critical interpretation of the body of Zolotov's work, linking it to developments here and abroad.