Berlin's Tel Aviv Walls

Fascinating, this portrayal of one of the country's outstanding - but almost forgotten - architects and his influence on Israeli culture.

Ziva Sternhell
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Ziva Sternhell

"Josef Berlin, arkhitect: Bein Tel Aviv haktana leveyn ha'ir halevana" ("Josef Berlin, Architect: Between Little Tel Aviv and the White City") by Baruch Ravid, Binyan Vediur, 192 pages, NIS 199.

The "White City" exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1984 was a watershed event, and not only in the history of Israeli architecture. In one fell swoop, the general public was awakened to the importance of preserving and restoring the scarred and crumbling buildings from this formative period. At the same time, the success of the exhibition - and especially the correlation it drew between a small group of Bauhaus architects and the new architectural trends in Tel Aviv in the 1930s - led to the "Bauhaus style" becoming a generic label appended to all modern buildings. At this point, all we can do is wait for academic research, not known for its speediness, to reveal the variations and complexity hiding behind this popular label.

Baruch Ravid's book, published by Binyan Vediur magazine for architecture and landscape design, is an excellent example of the kind of detailed research that is sorely needed. Ravid, a mechanical engineer by training, left his job at the age of 53 and began to study art at Tel Aviv University. This book is an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation on the life and work of Joseph Berlin and the buildings he designed in pre-state Israel.

From the data painstakingly gathered from archives in Tel Aviv and St. Petersburg, Berlin emerges as an outstanding architect, a professional who developed a distinct language and was instrumental in raising the standard of architecture in Tel Aviv of the 1920s. But beyond portraying Berlin the man, this book sheds light on a subject that has not received the attention it deserves: the classic influence on Israeli culture.

Berlin, who came to Palestine with his family in 1921, had already designed quite a few buildings in St. Petersburg and quickly found a niche in Tel Aviv. His first job was with the Histadrut labor federation's office of public works and buildings, where he was responsible for several prestigious projects, among them the Mashbir building on Levinsky Street and the Jaffa District power station. He also drew up plans for the Borochov and Chelnov neighborhoods. In 1923, he was elected chairman of the Engineers and Architects Association. The following year, Berlin opened his own office together with a partner, Richard Pasovsky. Over the next 14 years, he was commissioned to design 83 buildings in the public and private sectors. Together, this body of work constitutes a fascinating chapter in the history of Israeli architecture. Nevertheless, Berlin was considered a "lone wolf," and up until recently, his legacy was all but forgotten.

Local context

With all Berlin's projects in Tel Aviv now assembled in a single volume, accompanied by explanatory notes, one is able to discern various stages in his architectural career. His early designs, like the Labor Federation building in Haifa, which was rejected, and the power station on Hahashmal Street in Tel Aviv, built in 1922, are examples of the monumental neo-classicism popular in the early 20th century. Later, his work began to change. One sees how the scale of the buildings, brought over from St. Petersburg, was gradually adapted to the local context.

The last chapter of the book focuses on Berlin's designs in the 1930s, the most impressive of which is the Haaretz building on Mazeh Street. These buildings incorporate the highly modernistic architectural language that was fashionable in Tel Aviv at the time. Ravid explores the influences that Berlin brought with him from Russia, as well as those he absorbed in the course of his work in Palestine.

As an outstanding student at the academy of the arts in St. Petersburg, Berlin acquired the consummate professional skills that distinguished his work from the amateur architecture characteristic of Tel Aviv until the end of the 1920s. His ability to combine academic principles based on universal classic heritage with distinctive local elements infused his work with significance that went beyond technical expertise.

Architectural ideals embraced by the academies of Europe since the 18th century - the monuments of the classical era, the villas of Andrea Palladio, neo-classical French architecture - cropped up in Berlin's work not only in public buildings, but in the private homes and shops of the petit bourgeois evolving in Tel Aviv. The careful symmetry, the clear axes, the doorways ornamented with classical motifs like Doric columns, gables and arches - all these came together to create a harmonious composition. This traditional harmony, a familiar sight in the beautiful cities of Europe where most of the architects were academy-trained, was adapted by Berlin to local conditions and scaled down to suit the provincial Middle East.

Sometime around 1925, Berlin's work underwent what Ravid describes as a "dramatic transformation," coinciding with the Tel Aviv architect's discovery of "Czech cubism." This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting findings in the book. In a photograph he was examining, Ravid noticed a newspaper published by the Czechoslovakian Association of Architects on Berlin's desk. On a visit to Prague, Ravid found the issue, from 1926, thereby proving Berlin's connection to the avant-garde Skupina group that was active in Prague in the early 20th century. The connection was through his partner, Pasovsky, who studied in Prague and continued to subscribe to the professional newspapers published there.

The change in his work was indeed obvious, particularly in his private residence on Rothschild Boulevard. The quiet harmony of the classic style was ruffled by a gust of expressionism. "The facades of his buildings were henceforth studded with crystalline modules in star, pyramid and other shapes," writes Ravid, pointing out the influence of the French analytical cubism that seeped into his work via the Czech group.

Silicate brick pioneer

Berlin was a pioneer in this country in the use of exposed silicate brick. His professionalism came to the fore in his attention to small details. He created complex compositions just by laying the bricks in a certain way. The facades of some of the buildings he designed in the second half of the 1920s - his home on Rothschild Boulevard, the Mugrabi theater and a residential building located at 106 Allenby Street - had a kind of surrealistic flavor, but the buildings themselves were still classical in conception.

There is no question that Berlin matured as an individualist in the second half of the 1920s. His ability to create a synthesis between classicism and the expressionist trends that dominated European culture in the 1920s make this chapter in his development especially interesting. From the standpoint of Israeli architectural history, however, the classic-academic legacy he brought with him is worthy of special note.

With Israeli culture springing from the Romantic rebellion against academicism (a broad generalization, I admit), this important legacy was shunted to the sidelines for many years, even though quite a few Israeli artists and architects were the product of European academies. Traces of academic neo-classicism are detectable in the modernist Tel Aviv architecture of the 1930s - in the work of Shlomo Gepstein, Shmuel Barkai and Joseph Neufeld, for example. Oskar Kaufman, trained at the technology institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, provided the country with a paragon of neo-classical modernism with his design for the Habimah Theater.

A serious study of the classical influences on Israeli architecture, however, does not end with a list of symmetrical buildings or buildings with classical proportions. Ravid discusses the teaching methods at the academy in St. Petersburg and how they were adapted to make room for technological advances and the new trends that came into vogue - art nouveau in the early 20th century, followed by a return to neo-classicism. Indeed, Berlin brought with him to Tel Aviv not only the professional skills he acquired at the academy, but also the spirit of the cultural milieu of which he had been part. The synthesis of universal neo-classicism and nationalist ideology that was flourishing in Russia, as in the rest of Europe, was thus transplanted to the dunes of Tel Aviv. This explains Berlin's enthusiasm for silicate bricks produced from local materials, as well as the Orientalist motifs that appear in many of his buildings, testifying to a search for local identity.

Ravid lays the foundation for a discussion of Berlin's work and challenges the popular definitions of Tel Aviv architecture. But this book is not the final word. While Ravid proves that Berlin was inspired by trends in St. Petersburg and professional journals from Czechoslovakia, there may have been additional European influences, such as early German expressionism (which Ravid touches on very briefly) and the Art Deco school. Beyond that, Berlin's work invites an analysis of Tel Aviv architecture in the context of early 20th century Western culture - the seedbed of modern architecture.

The modernist architecture taking shape in Europe in the 1920s managed to disguise its sources, and most of all, its underlying classicism. The "return to discipline" in the early years of the century, in response to the extreme individualism of art nouveau, had a crucial impact on the pioneers of modern architecture, among them Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Adolph Loos. All the criticism of the European academies for their "eclectic historicism" has deflected attention from their important contribution in turning out professionals capable of preserving high aesthetic standards in the face of "mass culture."

When monumental neo-classicism became a tool in the hands of nationalist movements in the 1930s, it was forgotten that the goal of these academies from the late 18th century onward was to promote architecture articulating timeless universal values. Knowing this is vital not only for an appreciation of Berlin's work. It provides the study of Israeli architecture with a whole new basis.

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