A Room With a View of Israel of Old

Buildings in Kibbutz Nir David present an unfamiliar side of the work of the pioneering Israeli architect Zeev Rechter.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

Kibbutz Nir David, in the Beit She'an Valley, offers visitors a bit of pastoral tranquility comparable to any Swiss summer resort. A group of frolicking children accompanied by a teacher and a puppy crosses a bridge over the Hasi stream, a tributary of the Sakhne River. It flows from Mount Gilboa, which looms over the green expanses and red-roofed homes of the kibbutz. This turquoise stream, which once emptied into the Jordan River, maintains a steady temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. In the winter its steaming water covers the banks with mineral-laden vapors. It is no wonder then that there is a growing belief that the members of this kibbutz enjoy great longevity. A number of published articles have reported that more than a few are centenarians.

"Since then, people have started dying," says Meir Gelman, who has been a kibbutz member for more than 52 years, with a laugh. Even the kibbutz itself, soon to turn 76, is well preserved: Thanks to thriving tourism the kibbutz has been able to build new facilities and to renovate its communal dining hall. It, as well as two communal children's homes, were built in the early 1940s by the pioneering Israeli architect Zeev Rechter.

Rechter (1899-1960) designed many buildings across Israel that have entered the cultural canon, including the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'uma), the Tel Aviv courthouse (together with his son Yaakov, the heir to the dynasty) and Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium, together with Dov Karmi. Rechter worked with Karmi and Arieh Sharon for a time, and together three of the founding fathers of Israeli architecture were known as "the three animals." They had a profound impact on Modernism in Israel and were among the founders of the architects' forum.

Rechter's name is associated with the iconic buildings he designed and he is also known for being the first to use stilt columns (pilotis) in residential buildings in Tel Aviv, which raised some or all of the first floor off of street level. His work in Nir David presents a different side of his work that shows his sensitivity as a designer. The Modernist lines are softened, taking on a rural, almost European, quality that kibbutz members appreciate to this day.

'Unique pastoral style'

A selection from the minutes of a general meeting of Nir David members from 1965, when the dining hall was expanded, states that the guiding principle of the project was "to preserve the architecture completeness of our home, built 25 years ago, by one of the best architects of the time, the late Mr. Rechter of blessed memory. Our dining hall was at the time considered one of the most beautiful kibbutz dining halls and any addition might have affected its form and unique pastoral style."

Unlike the massive concrete structures built in most kibbutzim for this purpose, the dining hall Rechter designed in 1939 complements the homes surrounding it and adapts itself to the hot climate. A shaded row of pillars along the southern side faces the main lawn, creating a practical and dignified facade. The 1965 addition turned the original oblong form of the building into an L-shaped structure.

The first children's home, also designed in 1939, is still used as a kindergarten. Called "the green house" and with an exterior in a bright shade of that color, its cast-concrete construction may be the reason for its longevity.

"In the beginning, the kibbutz had tents, and then huts after that, buildings made of concrete blocks. During World War II and the War of Independence, they didn't know what would be. So they at least ensured the children's safety," says Gelman. The southern facade has a horizontal "strip" window that is a salient characteristic of the International Style. The windows were covered with mosquito nets, and on warm summer nights the toddlers slept on the broad windowsills.

The second children's house, which kibbutz members call simply Rechter House, has not aged well. Built from cheap hollow stone blocks, its wood beams now rotted and resting on cracked walls, it is only in partial use today.

The building is H-shaped, with two wings and two patios, one leading to the main entrance and one that was formerly an inner courtyard. It had three bedrooms, two playrooms, a small dining room on the northern side and service areas and bathrooms. The inner courtyard was built in "the typical style of Arab building in the Near East," according to kibbutz records. Hanging along the outer walls, which are covered by a triangular tiled roof supported by thin pillars, above the windows, are hooks. They held hoses that directed cold water on a screen hung with seaweed, cooling the interior.

Despite the improvised desert cooler and the "typical Arab design," however, the building had poor ventilation. In 1946, just four years after construction was completed, the children's bedrooms were moved from the southern side of the building to the western side, and the courtyard was closed off. In a scolding tone the general meeting minutes from the time stated: "There will be regret perhaps among fans of exotic arts that the Levantine-Roman courtyard was removed. In its place, we tried and succeeded in putting in another, a simple Israeli style that is suited to our climate."

Changes ahead

The place retained its original purpose for many years, until a decline in kibbutz membership made it superfluous. It has since housed a shoe repair shop and a clothing store, but today only a small section of the building is in use, as a secondhand store that is open for just a few hours a week. According to a sign at the entrance, erected by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the building has been designated for preservation, but as might be expected the kibbutz is struggling to raise the needed funds for restoration.

An influx of non-member residents to the kibbutz has increased the demand for preschool, but but Gelman is doubtful that Rechter House will be used for the purpose. He says the structure is too fragile and does not meet today's building and safety codes for childcare facilities. In any event, any such facility now would entail expanding the existing paved path leading to the site into a two-way road with a sidewalk, and that would disrupt the layout of the kibbutz.

Nir David is likely to be in for major changes in the years to come. As in most kibbutzim, privatization and the addition of new neighborhoods for sale or rental to non-members will necessitate drawing up a new master plan, one that will take into consideration the new roads and the construction of fences and parking spaces for each home. Battles can be expected over the character of the kibbutz, Gelman says, when a new plan is submitted to the zoning authorities. A proposal to pave over the main lawn in favor of a parking lot is expected to be particularly contentious.

Rechter house, during construction.Credit: Kibbutz Nir David Archive
Rechter house today, rotted beams rest on cracked walls.Credit: Yael Engelhart

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