A Look Into the Life of One of Israel's Most Important, Yet Forgotten Architects

Israeli architect Alfred Neumann was known for the geometric oddities he built into his designs in the 1950s and 60s; while his buildings are largely forgotten in Israel, his ground-breaking work still resonates around the globe.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

A little after his 65th birthday in 1965, architect Alfred Neumann decided to immigrate to Israel from Canada, following a groundbreaking career. His time in Israel had made him famous in architecture circles and earned him accolades, but it came at a heavy personal cost.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the sharp disagreement between him and the Technion administration over the planning and construction of the mechanical engineering school's Danziger Building.

The Bat Yam City Hall may one day be a branch of the Tel Aviv municipality.Credit: Moti Milrod

Neumann and his partner, Zvi Hecker, were commissioned to design the building a few years earlier, when Neumann was the dean of the Technion's school of architecture and town planning. The two were known for designing buildings that stuck out from their environment, and this was no different. The Danziger Building design was based on a unique geometric system: an outer surface comprised three-sided concrete units able to bear all weight placed on it, leaving the inside space free of pillars.

However, Neumann and Hecker's design did not please the people in the mechanical engineering school. They tried to delay the construction over and over, pointing to various functional problems that might surface in the futuristic building and nearly succeeded in persuading the Technion president at the time, Alexander Goldberg, to remove the two from the project.

Goldberg, however, convened a review committee to consider the gap between the plans and the faculty's needs. In the end, Neumann got fed up with the delays and the Technion's disdainful attitude and he decided to leave the project and Israel.

Later on, he explained to Goldberg that it would be inconceivable for him to continue teaching students, while on the other hand serving as an example of a failure stemming from "unacceptable pressures."

In Canada, Neumann obtained a senior academic post and oversaw the creation of the master's program in architecture at Quebec's Laval University. He developed lung cancer (due to heavy smoking ) and died just three years after moving there.

Despite his unique contribution to Israeli architecture, Neumann remained rather anonymous. He is often tagged as one of the architects that built up Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, even though he was not really involved in formulating the ideological and structuralism of Israeli modernism or in the planning of neighborhoods, kibbutzim and new cities. However, he did formulate an original and radical architectural language.

A doctoral thesis by architect Rafi Segal at Princeton University in New Jersey focuses a spotlight for the first time on Neumann's intriguing personality and looks at the projects in Israel designed by him during a short but productive nine-year stretch.

The disagreement over the Danziger Building, says Segal, indicates an architectural debate that moved on to matters of taste.

"The mechanical engineering faculty complained about the building's functioning even before its construction was completed, but if you review the plans, it turns out that Neumann and Hecker designed the building very simply to make it usable," he says. "The ensuing uproar led to a debate over aesthetics, not function. The Technion was too conservative an institution to absorb Neumann's design as it was, even though he himself was the one who presented the work."

In other words, it is possible that the mechanical engineering faculty staff simply decided that the building was ugly.

The Danziger Building was not the only building to prompt mixed feelings; there is the Bat Yam city hall, which Neumann designed with Hecker and Eldar Sharon in the early 1960s and other buildings they designed and that were built, or remained on the drafting table because they were too far ahead of their time.

The general public and the professional community did not always react favorably to Neumann's unusual architecture, and some of his work and that of his partners was completely erased from the collective memory. Another part of his work is in urgent need of maintenance or comprehensive renovations. None of the buildings he designed has yet been declared a landmark.

Rebel without a building

Neumann was born in Vienna in 1900 and grew up in Brno, now part of the Czech Republic, where his father ran a carpentry shop. He studied and worked in Vienna, Berlin and Paris, among others at the office of French architect, Auguste Perret. Until the Nazis' rise to power, he worked in numerous countries in Europe and Africa on public and private projects. During World War II, he apparently hid in Czechoslovakia, but eventually was caught and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto. He was able to survive and was liberated in May 1945. He never told his family or friends about his experiences during the war.

In 1949, he immigrated to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. He began working in design and research and frequently corresponded with influential architects at the time: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius (who was the director of the Bauhaus School and immigrated to the United States ), Jose Louis Sert and others.

This association continued even after Neumann joined the Technion in 1952 and represented Israel in the international congresses of modern architecture, which greatly influenced the development of architecture in the 20th century.

At the Technion, Neumann was known as a gifted teacher and a brilliant theoretician. In the late 1950s, he went into partnership with two former students, Zvi Hecker and Eldar Sharon, and together with them designed several notable buildings: the Bat Yam City Hall (1963 ), the Club Med resort in Achziv (1961 ) and Beit Dubiner in Ramat Gan (1964 ).

A year after Neumann's death, the pyramid-shaped synagogue of the Israel Defense Forces' Bahad 1 officer training base was completed, though by this time Sharon had left and joined the firm of his father, Arieh Sharon.

The projects by Neumann-Hecker-Sharon earned exceptional international acclaim for that time, with cover stories in internationally esteemed architecture journals. In March 1966, the American publication Life Magazine featured a flattering article on the resort in Achziv, where Neumann-Hecker-Sharon designed geometrically shaped straw huts.

The photo accompanying the article shows minimally clad French vacationers running along the beach and behind them the huts, the beach and the blue horizon. It is a photo that embodies the promise and optimism of the modern architecture in Israel and the liberated face of the young country.

Segal's interest in Neumann surfaced during a study of post-World War II architecture. One of the key themes recurring in the professional discourse at that time was the relationship between design and the human body and its proportions, an area that Neumann researched prior to and after his arrival in Israel. "The occupation with the human body was a counter reaction to the trauma of the war," Segal notes.

From this point on, Segal began collecting material on Neumann, much of it obtained from Hecker. (Segal joined Hecker in designing the Palmach Museum in Ramat Aviv in the 1990s. )

Segal was exposed to Neumann's many written articles, works he did in Europe, Africa and Israel and his theory on "the humanization of space" at the heart of which lies the modular design theory that is based on the proportions of the human body.

A few years earlier, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier considered the father of architectural modernism, developed a similar method called the Modulor system. Le Corbusier was personally acquainted with Neumann and his work and even cited him in his writings.

"At a certain stage in the research, I realized that Neumann's work reflects a window of opportunity onto the golden age of local architecture," says Segal. "His ideas earned a lot of attention from abroad and his work expresses a riveting trend that did not manage to develop in Israel. He rebelled against the mainstream of modernism."

Neumann, who was already notably experienced when he came to Israel, insisted on creating an original language and did not attempt to replicate his colleagues' works. That is why he is also perceived to a large extent as an outsider in the architecture milieu of the period.

Spiritual geometry

Neumann's approach to architecture expresses a transition from viewing a building as an object to viewing it as a pattern. His projects focused on the geometry of polyhedrons and the creation of new architectural shapes while factoring in the human dimensions and specific circumstances of a given venue. "A switch to searching for a new architectural language, there is a spiritual aspect to engaging in geometry," adds Segal, "It's a search for a more balanced, more perfect creation, based on a higher order."

The Bat Yam City Hall is one of the best examples of the work of Neumann-Hecker-Sharon and the geometric concepts that guided them. Hecker and Sharon won the building design competition a short time after they graduated from the Technion. They approached Neumann, who had been their lecturer, and asked him to join the team. Originally, the city hall was to have been built on an existing lot in the city center, but the architects suggested locating it in a more distant place so that it would serve as a catalyst for urban development.

The building is a reversed pyramid with three stories and a central atrium for public use. The offices are located along the edge of the building and the corridors linking them open toward the central space. The amazing design of the facade is based on the cuboctahedron shape (a polyhedron with eight triangular faces and six square faces ). The roof has four sculptured chimneys, each in the shape of a different polyhedron that helped to ventilate the inside space.

The contrast between the dynamism of the facade and the monumental form of the building creates a unique structure that was a breakthrough in all matters related to the design of public institutions in Israel. Instead of buildings of severe looking concrete blocks, they created a Disneyland of shapes and colors.

Surrounding the Bat Yam City Hall, the three architects designed a monumental plaza with three-story commercial buildings, something of a cross between Venice's San Marco Square and Moscow's Red Square. In the end, only the central structure was built, and the larger municipal plan was dropped. The rooftop chimneys were dismantled and the whole building is in urgent need of renovations or extensive preservation.

Vacation from spatial reality

The resorts designed by Neumann-Hecker-Sharon were also design breakthroughs. In the early 1950s, the French Club Med chain was looking for a site to build a new club in the Middle East. After failed negotiations in Tunisia, they decided to lease a plot on the Achziv beach, near an abandoned Arab village, and they approached the firm of Arieh Sharon to commission a design for the resort. Sharon was too busy and so the project went to his son, Eldar, Neumann and Hecker.

The French asked them to use straw and the three decided to design a new shape for the typical hut and chose a tetrahedron (a polyhedron of four triangular faces ) made of wooden frames and woven straw.

"The contrast between the avant-garde geometric shapes and the dunes and the Arab village was astounding. Neumann, Hecker and Sharon thought that if you go on vacation and forget about the everyday routine, you should also forget about familiar shapes and patterns," explains Segal.

The unique shape of the huts made it possible to dismantle them in the winter and pile them up on top of each other. The geometrical language also dominated the other facilities at the Achziv resort: the dining room, the restrooms, dance floor and kitchen. The resort's success and the international exposure it gained led Neumann-Hecker-Sharon to design two more resorts in Mikhmoret and in Ashkelon.

Today there is nothing remaining from their original design. The straw huts were replaced by sturdier huts and the Achziv resort lost its design glory. Presumably the unique architecture, with a few necessary changes here and there, could have enabled it even today to have an added appeal to vacationers.

Neumann's architectural legacy did not manage to make it past the 1970s. After the Six-Day War, he and his partners' attempts at industrialized construction and the use of exposed concrete disappeared almost completely. Their buildings were seen as structural curios and the only building that remains almost entirely unchanged is the synagogue Neumann designed with Hecker for Bahad 1 in the late 1960s.

Thanks to its location on a military base and the strict maintenance procedures there, it looks as good as it did when it was first built.

Segal, 44, lives with his family in Princeton, New Jersey. He did his undergraduate and master's degrees at the Technion. Now he teaches at Harvard University's graduate school of design and at Cooper Union College in New York. He has his own firm that does architectural planning and urban research.

His research on the housing crisis in the United States has received considerable media exposure.

Segal hopes his doctorate will soon be released as a book and will contribute to the understanding of architecture in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Think how amazing it is that such an original creation managed to surface in Israel," he says. "It happened thanks to a talented artist or artists but also thanks to the clients and to Israeli society which was able to embrace these works. I think that knowing Neumann's work will help encourage original architectural work in Israel."

Segal says he believes Israel would still be able to embrace another Neumann, should he or she come along.

"I would like to believe that it can happen. On the other hand, the society as a whole has less faith in the role of the architect," he said. "I think it depends on the prevailing cultural mood."



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