'Design Is for People'

Instead of approaching the planning of a building with 'awe and reverence,' and considering the future tenants, many architects today are more interested in becoming brands, says the still-vigorous Dan Eytan, who turns 80 this year, of his colleagues

Anat Georgy
Shanee Shiloh
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Anat Georgy
Shanee Shiloh

We met architect Dan Eytan a few weeks ago, on the day of the funeral of his former partner and friend, architect Yitzhak Yashar. Eytan refused to wallow in memories: "My partnership with Yashar lasted six years and ended 45 years ago, so it is a distant memory. It had been born of a common professional understanding and personal friendship."

The number of projects in which Eytan - who will be celebrating his 80th birthday this year - has been involved is impressive, even considering his long career. The list includes the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Katz Faculty of the Arts at Tel Aviv University, and the Dimona reactor (which were designed together with Yashar), as well as the Clal Center in Jerusalem, the social sciences building on Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus, the art gallery at TAU (designed together with architect Bracha Hayutin ), the "City" tower in Jerusalem, and numerous other buildings.

Architect Dan Eytan Credit: Eyal Toueg

In addition, from 1972-1977 Eytan was involved in the design and construction of two urban communities in Iran: Bandar Abbas, with a population of 70,000, and Bushehr, with 40,000 residents (where the nuclear reactor is located today ). As chairman of the Israeli Architects Association he came up with a national master plan in 1986 (which was further developed as part of the Israel 2020 master plan ). He also served on the steering committee involved in founding the David Azrieli School of Architecture at TAU, and was a member of an international review board of the architecture school at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Today he is involved in various projects and also lectures at the Technion.

"We operated in an intellectual, stylistic and ideological framework," he says of his work in the past. "There were rules, there were ideals and there was a sense of calling. Afterward Modernism began to disintegrate. New doctrines emerged that claimed that the shell is merely an expression - that it can be designed in various forms and be endowed with various functions. Until the 1970s there was a sense of compatibility between the theoretical approach and practice."

Today, however, the situation is entirely different, he declares: "There are two types of architects - those who do architecture to live and those who live to do architecture."

In the competition for planning the recent renovations of the Habima Theater, Eytan lost out to his colleague Ram Carmi.

Are you still smarting from the defeat?

Eytan: "No. I don't have a problem with it. I think they made a mistake in picking Carmi. We were friends and we will remain friends. His order of priorities is the opposite of mine, and I am critical of that. I think man should be in first place: Design is meant for people."

What's so bad about the new design?

"It is absolutely disproportionate to and not on a scale with the surroundings. The project is absolutely opaque. If there is a plaza, why not live with it? The Mann Auditorium 'lives' with the plaza. It has a glass wall that faces it. There, too, there is a hall with constraints related to acoustics and lighting. But they solved the problem differently there. Why must the Habima building be so closed? In the interior, however, the situation is different: There is impressive design and a presence. Rami is a designer with presence.

"The renovation that Rami did at Habima is a serious accident. I think that something happened to him when it came to style. When there was a style and a framework, Carmi did excellent architecture. But when all of the rules are thrown to the winds, every architect builds his own rules, and then the question is what sort of world he presents. Carmi presents a world that is very instinctive and disorganized, both in terms of thinking and design. He does architecture straight from the gut. He has without a doubt an extraordinary plastic ability, but its 'translation' into a space that is located in a city with people is problematic. He doesn't think about the people. In the project of the Mashtela neighborhood in Tel Aviv that Carmi designed, the problematic nature of this stands out in an extreme way. Living there is impossible."

The controversy over Habima underscores the fact that the old generation that was here when the state was founded still controls the architectural market, unlike other fields where there is much more room for young people. Why is this so? Because of the nature of the field, or perhaps you have built a powerful clique that is impossible to break in to?

"Architecture deals with so many areas; there must be life experience and professional experience in order to be able to do the job right. An architect is like a composer who later goes on to conduct a large orchestra. Today, designing a complex building involves more than 30 different consultants, and each envisions his own course. The only one who has to see the whole picture and know everyone else is the architect. Therefore, age and seniority are significant."

Still, at age 23 you were given opportunities that no young architect would receive today.

"I think a 25-year-old architect can create excellent architecture. If he is a good architect, he will approach the design with awe and reverence, and produce something good. Again, there are architects who live to do architecture. It is not a matter of age."

Nevertheless they do not manage to break into the clique.

"Because ultimately the market looks for an architect whom you can go to in the morning with a request to plan a 28-story building, and the next day the design will be ready. A young architect can't do that. Developers are looking for the architect who has already done 30 buildings, and don't want some young architect cutting his teeth at their expense. From the developer's standpoint, it is better to hire an architect ... who is experienced and skilled. It is already clear how he will solve the project's problems and how he will go to City Hall and persuade them, because he has standing. You have to keep this element in mind as well."

You don't see a problem with this?

"The problem in this era is that there are not enough competitions. I was able to found my firm because I won two competitions back-to-back, not because I was known. The architects [Avraham] Yaski and [Shimon] Povzner also won during that period six competitions one after another. There were a lot of them."

Today every architect is a brand.

"If a photo of Richard Meier in a suit appears on the billboards instead of the building he is designing, then today the architect has become the main thing. The architect is mentioned not because he is good or bad, but rather because he has already built a lot and his buildings managed to sell. The architect has become a brand. It didn't used to be this way. In the '70s they decided to photograph the Clal building I designed. It was the first one around with a glass elevator, and the building was photographed from across the way, reflected in glass. It ran on the front page of Haaretz Magazine, but they didn't write the architect's name there. A week later they ran a correction about a missing credit. What was the correction? They forgot to name the photographer!"

If you were starting out today, would you study architecture?

"I came to architecture accidentally through a competition to design a monument in Haifa to the fallen of the War of Independence. During the War of Independence I was a sculptor, and I felt that this was something I could do. Besides the monument I also had to design a garden and memorial room. So I asked someone to teach me drafting. I went to the Haifa municipality to see the competition entries; I saw that everyone was an architect except for little me. Two weeks before school started, I decided to study architecture. I was already registered for mechanics at the Technion and also in the humanities at the university. I approached the dean of the Technion's architecture school at the Technion, Yohanan Ratner, and told him about my dilemma, and he said, in his Hebrew with Russian syntax: 'Sir will go in and begin studying, I will make arrangements myself, because Sir will never manage in the admissions office.'

"I began studying architecture. Everyone studying around me already knew something. Carmi was the son of an architect, Zvi Hecker had already studied for a year in Poland, and I knew nothing. At the end of the year, Ratner's assistant, who taught us drafting, said I wouldn't amount to anything because I didn't even know how to draft. But I hung in there. My choice had been so spontaneous, it is hard for me to say today whether I would study architecture."

Eytan arrives slightly late for the interview, which takes place in his modest and crowded office in the center of Tel Aviv. He is accompanied by his second wife, Ruth Lahav, and his dog. Lahav is also an architect and the couple has shared an office for the past year, since Eytan dissolved his partnership with Eri Goshen.

Eytan smokes, but not too much, he claims with a little grin. He adds that he eats healthful food, only if it is tasty. Asked whether he exercises, his answer is that he arrives at the office every morning and stays there until 10 P.M. He is sharp, focused and brimming with charm. And a good storyteller. "We'll come back to that later," was a line repeated quite often during our conversation. But he did not remember, or want, to come back to every point.

In the 1950s Eytan was part of a group of young people, most of them native-born Israelis, who frequented the coffee shops of Tel Aviv. He was married to Rachel Eytan, a writer and translator; later he met poet Rina Shani, a familiar figure in the bohemian circles of 1960s' Tel Aviv, and left Rachel for her. The couple had a daughter, and their relationship ended after Shani left Eytan for singer-entertainer Dori Ben Zeev.

"We were young and curious," Eytan says, when asked about that period. "Today I feel that I have attained peace and prosperity."

Rachel Eytan moved to the United States, where she remained until her death from a stroke in 1987; Shani died of hepatitis in India in 1983. For the past 21 years Eytan has been with Lahav. He has four children and his son Omri is an architect.

Eytan himself was born on Kibbutz Ein Shemer and grew up in Tel Aviv. He graduated from architecture school in 1954; as a student he worked at Zeev Rechter's firm. After graduation he traveled to Finland, where he spent six months working at an architectural firm. Upon returning to Israel he began working at Dov Carmi's office. He started his own firm just two years after graduation, after winning the two competitions for designing residential neighborhoods in Haifa and Jerusalem. Two years later he became partner in the firm Yitzhak Yashar-Dan Eytan Architects.

"Yashar brought in the job of the reactor in Dimona," he recalls. "They wouldn't have taken me because of my political views. We got the job thanks to him. Shimon Peres, who was familiar with my opinions, said to Yashar, 'Just hide him, so he won't be in the forefront.'"

In previous interviews Eytan has said he was shocked by the level of construction in Israel in those years. Today he sounds more sanguine.

"'Shocked' is a harsh word. When I was studying at the Technion, I worked on the Dutch huts in the transient camps for immigrants. These were shacks of 24 square meters with an outdoor latrine that swayed in the breeze. I witnessed the transition from tents to huts and from there to buildings. It was hard to voice professional criticism in and about an era when everything looked like an emergency project. It was important to give people a roof over their heads and less important what sort of home they got. The needs of the people who were supposed to live in those buildings were not taken into account."

The residential neighborhoods that Eytan and Yashar designed also did not take into consideration the population that was going to be living in them, he admits. "But we did not know who would live there," he explains. "We were asked to design a neighborhood in Dimona and we [also] did not know who would be living there."

Eytan likes to tell a story about one tenant in the apartment buildings he designed in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood; he refers to the person as Iraqi but emphasizes that he does not know his real ethnic background. The man asked Eytan why the porch had a metal lattice grille instead of a solid wall. Eytan replied that because of the tiny size of the apartment, the open spaces would bring more light and air into the apartment. To this the man replied: "But the chickens will escape!" He adds with smile that the tenant lived on the fourth floor.

Eytan further describes the complexity of adapting design and construction to the residents' culture via a story about Ram Carmi, who at that time was studying architecture in London and came to Israel during a school break: "Rami came to the Aleph quarter of Be'er Sheva and saw that the neighborhood's residents had built a taboun [outdoor oven ]. He was excited about the residents' personal touch and its impact on modern construction. A year later he came to Israel once more with friends and suggested they go to Be'er Sheva to see something wonderful. But when they got there, they didn't find any taboun. That same year the gas company had arrived on the scene, and everyone had decided they wanted to move forward. That's why concentrating on the authentic culture is problematic. Things change after all."

The change in cultural attitudes toward architecture, which began in the 1960s in Israel, is reflected in the neighborhood Eytan designed in Dimona. He recounts that his design had to be drawn up quickly because he was told the residents would be arriving momentarily - "but they didn't arrive." Construction began only after the Six-Day War.

The original plan called for apartments of 48, 65 and 72 square meters. But midway through the construction, after the skeleton was in place and the prefabricated walls were about to be erected, the authorities asked Eytan to enlarge the floor space of the apartments.

Eytan: "Back then they had already built Kitan Dimona [a textile plant ], the nuclear reactor and other enterprises. People felt secure and wanted to improve their standard of living. We did a redesign, took down walls and managed to create apartments of even 102 square meters."

In 1966, Eytan struck out on his own: "One day Yitzhak said he wanted to disband. We split the office in two, and out of respect for his age [Yashar was 10 years older than Eytan], I let him choose which projects he would keep. Most of the jobs I took were the ones which did not seem then as if they were definitely going to be realized. Fortunately, they were. In any case, Yitzhak and I remained friends."

Even after the partnership ended, Yashar and Eytan cooperated on several occasions, mainly when it came to the expansion projects at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

"We sat over the sketches together and nothing came of it, so we decided to divvy up the projects between us. When they were about to plan the new wing, they signed a contract with me and I sat with Yitzhak over the design, though in the end the project went to somebody else."

In 1978 Eytan joined Eri Goshen's firm, which became D. Eytan-E. Goshen Architects Ltd., a partnership that was dissolved last year. Thereafter, Eytan joined the firm R. Lahav-Rigg Architects as a senior partner.

One massive project that Eytan designed with Goshen is the area of north Tel Aviv known today as Park Tzameret. The Akirov Towers there have become a symbol of luxury high-rises in Israel. Eytan was involved in the project from the start, in the early 1970s. The original plan was for a neighborhood of 1,000 homes, which would include three towers of 15 stories each, and a school and shopping center in the middle. For various reasons the plan was stuck for a long time and in 2000, just before it was approved, the municipality decided to update the entire concept of the neighborhood and increase the number of housing units.

Even though the two designers concurred that there should be more units, in the meantime the number of original owners of the property in question had risen from 14 to more than 40 heirs of, and heirs of heirs of, owners.

"The project had been kicked around for 30 years already," Eytan explains. "The first generation was no longer alive for the most part, and we had to go back to the drawing board. But that was impossible because the redesign would have taken too long."

In the end the municipality's solution was to add more stories to the towers, and Eytan and Goshen's firm was fired because of disagreements with the city and the owners of the property. Furthermore, the clear and strict rules the architects had anchored in the design seemed to the contractors too difficult to implement.

"The neighborhood's growth skyward changed its scale and it grew disproportionately to the environment, like a tree without roots," says Eytan. "Avner Yashar, who worked for one of the owners, argued that the buildings' designers should be given free rein. He persuaded the contractors and the municipality and we were fired because we objected ... The entire concept of the urban [commercial] street there went haywire because of the attempt to increase and maximize the building rights. Street commerce can't exist per se because of the type of population there. Instead they opened a mall. The public domain is not being used. There is a total disconnect from the environment."

Nothing remains of the original design. Did it become a bad project?

"It is an outcome of today's design economy. These are architects who do architecture to live. And whoever works to live works with the client and bends over professionally to satisfy him. Later he justifies this to himself with a whole slew of professional excuses of one kind or another. The case of Avner Yashar is a cynical case. After all, why did he design a triangular building? Because that way you can make sure all the residents have a sea view and the apartments will be more expensive."

That shows consideration for the residents. What's wrong with that?

"The thinking is not fundamentally bad, but in the back is another building that has to contend with the broader facade blocking its own view. The debate is not over this or that form, but rather the justification for using a particular form. [Yashar] provided exceptional service to the client and the residents, but the question is, at whose expense? These are complex questions that do not pertain to the specific architecture, but rather to the attitude toward the environment and society. That is the problematic thing about this profession."

So, where is work really being done for architecture's sake? Where is good architecture being designed that takes into account people, the surroundings and interactions with other elements?

"When the municipality announces that any tract larger than 3 dunams [1.25 acres] can receive additional building rights and then adds more on top of that, because of pressures of all sorts, you wind up with more than 400 percent density. The architect has to decide if he agrees to design it. What's he going to do? After all, if he doesn't design, someone else will take the job. It won't be stopped from happening."

What are your goals today, at 80?

"I am in my prime today. Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most important architects in the world, is 103. He has a grandson who works with him and he still has projects in Spain, Brazil and other places in the world. When he was 95 they asked him when he intended to retire and he replied, 'The children have to make a living. You don't stop."



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