From Modesty to Monstrosity

The current government did well by acting in the spirit of former president Navon's maxim - about a 'temporary scandal' being easier to stomach than a massive, structural eyesore - and canceling plans for the new 'Israeli White House'.

David Kroyanker
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David Kroyanker

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved with his family to the Prime Minister's Residence at the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin Streets in Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood. Some months ago, Netanyahu declared he would cancel the government's recently approved plan to build a new prime ministerial residence, known as the Almog project and dubbed the "Israeli White House," in the government offices' compound (Kiryat Ha'leom). Ram Karmi, one of Israel's most renowned architects, designed this eclectic structure in a "pompous and loud" architectural style, which has been an intrinsic part of world architecture around the globe for the past 15 years.

A slew of less-than-complimentary epithets were heaped on the NIS 650-million plan for the new residence approved by Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert: "architectural abuse," "violent monster," "exceptionally hideous," etc. And that criticism was justified.

A representative structure of the state should be designed in a style suitable to the architectural-urban character of the two other government buildings next to it: the Supreme Court building and Foreign Ministry. The site slated to house the new Prime Minister's Residence, was planned to include - in addition to a new, spacious structure incorporating the prime minister's offices - an underground network of rooms where the premier can safely work during emergencies, such as a nuclear strike. This bunker, dozens of meters underground and already under construction for the past four years, features a special elevator leading to the security cabinet's meeting rooms, a sophisticated media center and accommodations for senior officials. The "hole," as the underground project is unofficially known, was designed with a subterranean entrance, complete with escape vehicles to take the prime minister and his entourage through a tunnel leading to the Arazim Valley on the city's western outskirts.

Shortly after the state was established, prime minister David Ben-Gurion received a suggestion to renovate the luxurious villa of the Jamals, a Christian Arab family, which was built in 1934 in Talbieh, and to convert it into the PM's official residence. Ben-Gurion rejected the recommendation on the grounds that it was inappropriate for a state representative to live in the home of an absentee family that abandoned its house in 1948.

Later, Ben-Gurion sought to have the official residence located in a Jewish neighborhood, and in 1950 the government acquired the home of the Jacobs family, at the corner of Ben Maimon and Ussishkin Streets in Rehavia. Julius Jacobs, one of the senior Jewish officials in the British Mandate government, erected the modest house of concrete and mortar in 1933. Jacobs was working at the Mandatory headquarters in the King David Hotel, and was killed there in the 1946 bombing. Seeking to distance itself from the tragic loss of its patriarch, the family sold the home to the nascent state. Ben-Gurion lived there with his wife Paula from 1950 until 1953, when they moved to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, and returned during his second term in office, from 1955 until 1963.

A different, later version of the Ben-Gurion-Jamal story involved the home of attorney Abd al-Ghani Kamleh and his family on Bustani Street in Katamon. In the early 1960s, the villa - one of the most beautiful edifices built in the wealthy Arab neighborhoods during the Mandate period - served as the residence of then-finance minister Levi Eshkol, who continued living there for a short while after being elected prime minister in 1963. His wife, Miriam said that Eshkol refused to continue living in the villa because it was absentee property, and demanded to move to the former house of the Jacobs' in Rehavia, where he lived until his death in 1969.

Eshkol's successor, Golda Meir, lived in that home until 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin replaced her. That year the government decided to move the premier's official residence to the former home of Egyptian Zionists Edward and Lydia Aghion - which, until then, served as the foreign minister's official residence - and to convert the former Jacobs home into a center commemorating Levi Eshkol.

In 1938 the Aghions built their home on the seam between Talbieh, then an Arab neighborhood, and the Jewish neighborhood of Rehavia. The two-story structure was designed by architect Richard Kaufman in finest International Style (Bauhaus) of the day, complete with a convex wing and horizontal concrete awnings. The Aghions, active in Jerusalem's cultural and artistic scene, organized a number of special events in their garden, such as the first-ever recital of pianist Pnina Salzman, and a party in 1942 featuring singer Josephine Baker, to mark the British victory over Erwin Rommel's forces at the Battle of El Alamein. In 1947, when the British established a security zone in Jerusalem, the Aghions were ordered to evacuate their home for the use of the British military administration.

In 1952 the building was sold to the Israeli government, and later used as the official residence of foreign ministers Golda Meir and Abba Eban. In 1974 the government converted it into the official Prime Minister's Residence in place of the building on Ben Maimon Street. The first prime minister to live there was Yitzhak Rabin, during his first term in office (1974-1977). In later years, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres resided there. Rabin returned in 1992, at the start of his second term, and lived there until his assassination in November 1995.

The late Edward Said, a literature professor at Columbia University and one of the best-known voices for the Palestinian cause, turned the history of his own family home - not far from the Aghions' - into a symbol of the disinheritance of the Palestinians from their land, and of the necessity for second- and third-generation 1948 refugees to return to their homes. In one of his articles, Said wrote that the Prime Minister's Residence in the former Aghion home was once owned by an Arab family that had been forced to leave, an assertion the professor was later forced to retract.

In 1996, when Netanyahu was elected prime minister the first time, the government decided to renovate the former Aghion villa, both to better suit the new premier's needs and to improve security, with the erection of a high wall and additional guard posts. Four years later Balfour Street was closed to traffic, to the predictable dismay of neighbors. This provoked the government to devise a plan to transfer the residence from a residential area to the Givat Ram compound.

'No beauty'

The President's Residence has also undergone a number of reincarnations. The official office and residence of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, and his wife Vera were both located in their well-appointed Rehovot villa. Weizmann's successor, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, lived in a four-room apartment in a residential building in Rehavia, while an adjacent wooden structure known as the "shack" was used as the official reception hall. The idea of building that structure, instead of a sturdier building, came from the president himself, who saw its simplicity as reflecting the humility and down-to-earth quality he believed the presidency should embody.

After Ben-Zvi's death in 1963 the government decided to create a permanent presidential residence on a 10-dunam (2.5-acre) plot in the prestigious neighborhood of Talbieh. A public competition to design the residence was won by architect Abba Elhanani. His plan, completed in 1971, became a target for severe criticism, not only for its design, but also for its unimpressive setting with the adjacent apartment buildings.

On February 10, 1967, Amos Eilon published an article in Haaretz entitled, "The president's home - residence, garage or fortress?" stating: "Many will be angered by the bombastic style of the building designed by Elhanani. Its walls are covered with Eilat granite, just as a nouveau-riche person covers his apartment with imported wood paneling to make an impression. Isn't Jerusalem stone beautiful enough? Isn't it more suitable to the surrounding scenery? What exactly are they creating with that massive window-less block: a fortress, a jail? Is it intended for monks, cut off from the world? Or for some crazy despot afraid of his agitated subjects? On the other hand, the president will be unable to go to his private office, or his living room, without having to look at his clerks."

The ongoing criticism, which resonated loudly with the public thanks to broad media coverage, was led by none other than Yitzhak Navon, then deputy Knesset speaker, who not long afterwards was appointed the country's fifth president and would soon live in the house he so denigrated. Navon's criticism was aimed at both the building plan and those who had drafted it. In his article, "An open response to the President's Residence architect," printed in Maariv on September 17, 1971, he wrote: "In my opinion the building you designed and built to house the president of the State of Israel is ill-suited to its purpose." Furthermore, he added, quoting the Book of Isaiah: "No beauty or majesty," is displayed in the building. "It is an unending collection of mistakes, errors and disparities. That is why I suggested to the prime minister that the president not move to the new residence, and that the building be given to another public body, or sold at the full price of its value, in exchange for which another house will be built, at an elevated and exalted location, in a suitable and awe-inspiring manner, and with due consideration for the requirements of such a residence. I told him, 'This is not an easy decision, but better a temporary scandal than to cry over it for generations.'

"The ceiling of the President's Residence now levels with the floor of the adjacent Van Leer Institute. It's a kind of flat, yet concave plate, a spectacle for all of the neighbors who hang their laundry above the residence, and a source of worry to those charged with maintaining the security of the place and its zig-zag fences. Someone has forgotten that this is not a private villa on the Herzliya coast, but the first home built for Israel's nasi since the destruction of the Temple," Navon wrote, using the modern Hebrew term for "president" that was also used for the leader of the Sanhedrin in ancient times.

The battle between Navon and Elhanani, waged on the pages of the nation's newspapers, eventually prompted the architect to sue for slander. After an extended legal battle, in June 1975 Navon wrote another open letter in Maariv, saying, "I hereby express my apologies if in making my remarks about the President's Residence, I unintentionally harmed Mr. Elhanani and his reputation as a renowned and respected architect."

The current government did well by acting in the spirit of Navon's maxim about a "temporary scandal," canceling the Karmi-proposed plans for the new Prime Minister's Residence and is initiating new plans for a much more modest yet dignified residence.



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