Back to the Future / No Country for Old-folks' Homes

The decision to put Gedera's Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital out to pasture means the abandonment of a major piece of the country's architectural heritage.

The Avraham Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital, the first of its kind in Israel, was established by the Kupot Holim Clalit health maintenance organization to treat the aging leaders of the Zionist Labor movement. On a green hill near Gedera, Clalit purchased a 66-dunam plot and built an institution that was innovative in its approach and outlook, which gave devoted care to thousands of elderly people.

"Pinhas Lavon [an early defense minister] died here, as did writer S.Y. Agnon," said architect Yaakov Gil to Haaretz this week. Gil planned the building together with Avraham Yaski at the end of the 1960s.

Avraham Hartzfeld hospital
Moti Milrod

"It is doubtful there is a lovelier place than this hill in Gedera," enthused a report in the now defunct Labor movement newspaper Davar in June of 1969. "The view is stunning in its vistas. To the west it reaches as far as the seashore, to the east as far as the Judean hills. In the expanses to south and the north are scattered the agricultural communities. The breezes blowing through the rooms, the halls and on the expansive balconies compete successfully with the technical means of air conditioning. Apparently natural air conditioning still has outstanding advantages."

The hospital was dedicated in 1970 and its architectural uniqueness was recognized immediately. A year later it had already won Yaski the prestigious Rechter Prize for architecture. The stunning qualities of the building have been well preserved over the years, apart from some internal changes, but its future is not at all clear.

Clalit, the owner of the building, has decided to close the hospital and move to a new building at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. Judging by past experience, the building will be sold to the highest bidder.

The location, on a hill in central Israel, is expected to make it a hot real estate property. Around it, the open fields have already become red-roofed residential neighborhoods.

"The decision to abandon this hospital in favor of real estate profits is liable to constitute damage to our cultural heritage," says Gil sadly.

Hartzfeld was one of the first projects Yaski planned after splitting with his partner Amnon Alexandroni. He remained with a small office and a few employees and began anew to enlist clients. He got the Hartzfeld job thanks to his acquaintance with Moshe Soroka, the chairman of the Kupat Holim central committee. Soroka became aware of him during the course of the work on the Yoseftal Medical Center in Eilat and afterward made a point of visiting every project he planned.

After the success of Hartzfeld Hospital, Soroka gave Yaski additional projects such as the Eisenberg Hospital in Jaffa (which was never completed ) and Shalvata Mental Health Center in Hod Hasharon. All of them were planned and built during the first half of the 1970s.

Avraham Hartzfeld hospital in 1971.

Yaakov Gil, who had been an employee in the firm, became a partner during those years. Yaski's planning work for Hartzfeld was preceded by a trip to Europe with Soroka and engineer Yaakov Notar, who was the head of the technical department at Clalit.

The three examined the proposed design in light of the existing solutions abroad and formed the impression that most of them were not suitable to the medical culture in Israel.

Yaski, who was very influenced by Modernist architect Le Corbusier, chose to build Hartzfeld of exposed concrete and give the patients especially good conditions because of the relatively lengthy periods of hospitalization.

The central planning idea is a building shaped like an airplane: The hospitalization departments were located in the wings and the general functions like the dining hall for employees and the day clinic were located in the central "cabin." In the "belly" - that is on the ground floor - the administrative offices were located. To that end, the central part of the hill was excavated.

A system of underground tunnels linked the administrative wing to the departments and served the many technical systems and the laundry rooms. The hospitalization departments are arranged around generous patio courtyards and the internal corridors leading to them are flooded with natural light. The patients' rooms face outside and are emphasized on the facade by means of rectangular concrete frames.

According to Gil, the aim was to give independent expression to each of the rooms instead of designing a generic repetitive facade.

Another important element in the planning is the Gedera water tower that was included in the hospital compound and also designed by Yaski's firm. The tower, a symbol of pioneering settlement, jibes well with the Labor Zionist hospital's space.

Sharon Rotbard, author of the "Concrete Architecture" which deals with Yaski's work writes that the decade between 1967 and 1977 was the first decade of the "Yaski-Gil-Sivan empire." All the projects planned by the firm after 1967, including Hartzfeld, were strictly of exposed concrete. In his book Rotbard, has an extensive discussion of the essence of concrete architecture and defines it as "an earmark of the regime."

The decision to close Hartzfeld is seen an efficiency measure. Hertzfeld doesn't get enough patients and administratively, it already constitutes a part of Kaplan Hospital.

Clalit says the decision on Hartzfeld's future has not yet been made. Kaplan Hospital has already presented the plans for the new building but it will be quite some time before it is built. However, it is fitting that the architectural and historical importance of hospital already be clear to the authorities at this time so that in any future discussion it will be taken into account, they say.

"The hospital is a unique Modernist building and there is no doubt it is necessary to preserve it," says Tal Ben-Nun, manager of the central district at the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. "We believe the architecture of the 1950s and the 1960s should be examined closely to ensure we aren't missing important works."

According to her, the hospital is listed in the survey of sites in Gedera carried out by Dr. Avi Sasson and architect Tal Katzir and is mentioned there by virtue of the importance of its historical architecture and as a landmark in the area.

However, it is not on the approved list that includes only buildings from the earliest days of the settlement.

The hospital's location in one of the important farming communities of the early settling of the state can actually work against it, as preservations focus on sites from its beginnings.

"Kupat Holim Clalit is selling off its assets in many places," says Ben-Nun. "It is important that the buildings planned for it by the best architects find a public use so they will continue to live and function and not become easy prey for real estate sharks."