A Kibbutz Architectural Icon Frozen in Time

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

To enter Beit Lavie, the abandoned performance hall at Kibbutz Ein Harod, one first has to track down the key to the once-elegant edifice, copies of which are kept with just a handful of kibbutz members. At long last, a key was finally located this past Saturday, affording a rare opportunity to visit this Modernist building, representing both the climax of 1960s kibbutz architecture and its wane in the absence of resources, steady maintenance and a well-thought-out preservation program.

When entering through a nondescript side door, one discovers a space where time froze. The stage is still festooned with dusty decorations from some long-forgotten celebration. The covered grand piano is, surprisingly, still in tune. At the edges of the hall are crates full of sheet music and stools lettered "The Valley Choir." Chairs in uneven rows haven't been straightened in many years.

Beit Lavie was erected in 1966 in honor of Shlomo Lavie (1882-1963 ), a founder of the kibbutz movement and Mapai member of Knesset. Born in Plonsk, Poland, he was a member of the Agudat Ezra youth movement established by David Ben-Gurion and Shlomo Tzemah. He immigrated to the land of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century and played a central role in shaping and consolidating the activities of the socialist Zionist groups. It was Lavie's idea to move from the so-called kvutza, a small, intimate community, to a larger framework, which came to be known as the kibbutz.

He was one of the founders of Ein Harod in 1921, living there until his death. Considered the kibbutz's visionary, Lavie, thanks to his political involvement, maintained close relations with Ben-Gurion. In his private life, Lavie endured a series of personal tragedies. His wife, Rachel, died after only nine years of marriage, and their two sons, Hillel and Yeruba'al, both were killed in the War of Independence. While serving as an MK, he was involved in a traffic accident in which a young man was killed. Lavie asked the Knesset to lift his immunity so that he could stand trial for the accident.

Like other kibbutzim, Ein Harod too wanted to honor its ideological leader with a prominent architectural icon. Soon after Lavie's death and after the kibbutz had already split into two - Ein Harod Ihud and Ein Harod Meuchad - the members of the former embarked on the project to build a performance hall that would bear his name. (In the early 1950s, many kibbutzim split on ideological grounds - the Ihud faction siding with Mapai's Western orientation, the Meuchad group with Mapam's preference for the Non-Aligned Bloc. ) Architects David Best and Adam Eyal won the contract to design the hall. The cornerstone was laid in July 1964, and the hall was completed within two years. The funding for construction came from kibbutz members' reparations from Germany, from Lavie's Knesset salary (during his tenure as MK, he had regularly given half of his salary to the kibbutz ), and from the compensation money that had accumulated in the Defense Ministry because of the deaths of the two sons - Lavie himself had never touched it. His friendship with Ben-Gurion, documented in an iconic photograph in which Ben-Gurion gazes at a model of the building, helped raise the rest of the funds needed.

'The Frog'

Unlike other kibbutz performance halls, Beit Lavie was designed as part of a recreation, culture and sports complex, build at the edge of Ein Harod Ihud. It included a hexagonal multipurpose hall with wide terraces where chairs and tables would be set up for the communal Passover Seder. The top floor housed a memorial with Lavie's private archives; today it serves as the kibbutz's building department. The stage is suspended over the kibbutz's Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the building's rain gutters and downspouts were constructed to channel rainwater into the pool. A basketball court, which during the summer months served as an open-air movie theater, was built next to the performance hall. The rear of Beit Lavie opened directly onto a paved courtyard, making it possible to enlarge the complex whenever necessary.

The total area of the building is some 650 square meters. The building could seat about 1,000, at a time when the kibbutz had no more than 650 members. Beit Lavie's architecture was notable for its use of innovative materials (such as asbestos for the roof ) and unique detailing, such as a staircase made of molded composite stone and concrete rain gutters. The futuristic hexagonal shape and its placement on a slope earned it the moniker "The Frog" among the members of the kibbutz.

Best explains: "The building's geometry is unique and serves as a significant element in terms of its relation to the surroundings. The building was designed so that its shape and location would serve as a focal point for a divided kibbutz." According to Best, senior Mapai party officials closely followed the planning process. "Golda Meir thought we should design a purely functional space and forget any considerations of art, form or environment, but Ben-Gurion, who'd been Lavie's good friend, and Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion's assistant, loved the design."

Beit Lavie was one of Ein Harod's most important cultural centers, alongside the Ein Harod Museum of Art (architect Shmuel Bickels, 1948 ), the members' club, and the tower stage (architect Arieh Sharon, 1939 ) at the entrance to the kibbutz, which served as an open-air venue for plays. The performance hall is additional evidence of the tremendous importance kibbutz members attributed to culture as part of everyday life, sometimes coming at the expense of more urgent, practical needs.

The Beit Lavie building recently became a subject of Tzipi Shiloh's master's thesis at the University of Haifa, entitled "Performance Halls in Kibbutzim During the First Three Decades of Construction, 1940s-1970s" (supervised by Dr. Yoni Ascher and Dr. Esther Grabiner ). Shiloh says Beit Lavie is part of a subgroup of multipurpose halls built in kibbutzim in the 1960s to serve guest performances as well as everyday needs of the members. "During this period, agriculture-based rural communities were building large, elaborate halls that bore little relation to their size and needs," she says.

According to Shiloh, the establishment of Beit Lavie also reflects one of the climaxes of the bitter split in the kibbutz movement. On the day of its dedication in Ein Harod Ihud, Ein Harod Meuchad celebrated the inauguration of another performance hall, Beit Tzikling, somewhat smaller than Beit Lavie but built for exactly the same purpose, a blatant example of the rivalry between the two kibbutzim and the desire to demonstrate ideological superiority by means of architecture.

"Although the notion of unity appears in the names of both kibbutz movements, they have chosen to build two separate performance spaces separated by a mere few dozen yards. But the guests coming to the Ihud dedication will also be able to visit the other cultural center, because the two kibbutzim are not separated by a fence and the distance is minimal," wrote Tuvia Carmel in the Hebrew daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 1966. "Thus, what the two movements had in common has been even further reduced, but one thing remains even now: the holiday commemorating the ground-breaking of Ein Harod, the joint celebration of the divided kibbutz."

Breathtaking beauty

Beit Lavie was in constant use, hosting performances, plays, weddings and, of course, the communal kibbutz Passover Seder, which drew about 1,000 participants every year. According to Israel Smilansky, caretaker of the building in Ein Harod Ihud, activity started tapering off in the late 1970s when people started putting TVs in their homes. "We stopped using it mostly because the population of the kibbutz declined, and then it became clear that Passover, which used to bring the largest number of people to the kibbutz, could be celebrated in the dining hall, and that was true also for other events. With time, Beit Lavie became unattractive and too hard to operate," Smilansky says.

The problems encountered by Beit Lavie do not stem only from the kibbutz members' cultural preferences. In fact, its construction was never really completed. Bathrooms were never installed, and the exterior, supposed to have been clad with cement board, was never finished as planned, putting the building at the mercy of the elements. "In winter, members came here wrapped in coats and blankets," Smilansky remembers. The asbestos roof, at the time considered the height of technological innovation, was declared a health hazard (and would be a violation of current fire codes. ) Lacking an adjacent parking lot, access to the building is difficult, even before considering contemporary accessibility requirements.

Like other public structures in the kibbutz movement, Beit Lavie is not listed in any orderly preservation program. While there is no immediate danger of it being razed, the many years of neglect are showing and the building's architectural and historical features may be at risk the moment it is decided to redefine the complex's function. Its future has been discussed at the kibbutz plenum several times. Some members feel it should be turned into a kibbutz department store, while others have suggested it be turned into studio spaces for artists as an extension of the activities of the Ein Harod Museum of Art. There was even a proposal to replace the asbestos roof and install solar panels - an intriguing, environmentally-friendly solution that could lend new life to the structure.

In Tzipi Shiloh's opinion, the building should be preserved because of its legacy. "Architecturally, these buildings are gems. On the other hand, you need a lot of money to make them operational. I wish I had an answer."

Adds Smilansky: "To this day I have warm feelings for this space. Everyone tells me it has to be demolished, but I believe it should stay. Were you to ask me today if it should be built, I'd have to say no. But now that it exists, and after it served us so well for so many years, I can't help thinking highly of it. Maybe I'm just the last of the Mohicans. It's breathtakingly beautiful. Had they built the bathrooms, set aside a corner for coffee, and made it just a little smaller, it would have been possible to turn it into a wonderful hall."

Swimming pool at Kibbutz Ein Harod’s Beit Lavie cultural and sports center: A break from ideology.Credit: Yael Engelhart
A Modernist gem whose architectural and historical features could be in danger.Credit: Yael Engelhart
David Ben-Gurion (l) and Shlomo Lavie looking at model of complex.