Saadia Mandel, Architect Who Helped Rebuild Jerusalem’s Old City, Dies at 85

Mandel never opposed building in the occupied territories but insisted he planned for all communities, whether Hebron settlers, Jaffa Arabs or Sinai Bedouin

Saadia Mandel in Jaffa's Old City, whose renovation he helped plan.
Daniel Tchetchik

“There is no architecture without politics,” architect Saadia Mandel told Haaretz’s Esther Zandberg in 2005. “There is no doubt that I – though there’s all the difference in the world – like Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, am a full partner to the ideology.”

Indeed there’s all the difference: Mandel helped revitalize the old cities in both Jaffa and Jerusalem. He died Monday in Herzliya at 85.

Mandel also planned buildings for Sinai Bedouin when Israel controlled the peninsula and the Avraham Avinu neighborhood in Hebron’s Jewish Quarter. He spent decades preserving and documenting buildings, part of it as chairman of the administrative committee at the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel.

He also planned private homes and public and recreational facilities such as the Tel Aviv University train station and the country club at Glilot Junction. In recent years he took part in a restoration plan, yet to be carried out, for the Great Leaders of the Nation section at Mount Herzl Cemetery.

Mandel was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, on July 2, 1931. He moved to Israel with his parents when he was 7; they lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After serving in the army he studied architecture in Paris and London. He later planned projects in Rome, Paris and Stockholm.

The Avraham Avinu neighborhood in Hebron’s Jewish Quarter.
Mandel Edri

His journeys around the globe encouraged him to learn languages; he spoke English, French, Italian, Serbian and German well. Starting in the late ‘50s he was a member of the planning team that renovated Jaffa’s Old City; on board were Yaacov and Ora Yaar, Eliezer Frankel and Yona Faitelson. After the Six-Day War they were called on to help rebuild Jerusalem’s Old City.

In an interview that this reporter conducted for Ynet, Mandel discussed the work on the Old City. “Immediately after the war, when I returned from reserve duty and was still in fatigues, I received a call,” he said. “They asked me to go to Jerusalem as quickly as possible for a meeting in the Old City.”

On the phone were members of the Construction and Housing Ministry who had decided to rebuild the Jewish Quarter and quickly develop housing units. “The motivation was political, and I thought it was the right step,” Mandel said. “They wanted to introduce symbols of power into the Old City to demonstrate our presence there.”

Mandel never opposed building in the occupied territories but insisted that he planned for all communities. In the ‘70s he planned for Sinai Bedouin.

Neither right nor left

With architect Gabriel Kertesz, Mandel planned community centers in the Sinai towns Dahab and Nuweiba and in the peninsula's Wadi Firan near Saint Catherine’s Monastery. He also planned the airport terminal near the monastery. Mandel told design writer Orly Robinson that the building was for the Bedouin and done in cooperation with them.

“The use of granite stones and the locations [of the buildings], which were scrupulously tested, led to a pleasant result of ‘walking with the environment,’” he said.

A swimming-pool building designed by Saadia Mandel.
Saadia Mandel

Another of Mandel’s outstanding projects was the planning of Hebron’s Avraham Avinu neighborhood, a decision made after a terror attack there in 1980.

“Indecision was over,” Mandel said. “I went there. A number of us sat there in the evening and held a conversation, and I raised questions like: ‘Are you going to live here with the Arabs? Opposite the Arabs? Instead of the Arabs? Alongside the Arabs? It was finally decided they would turn their backs on the Arabs and build a compound overlooking the square.”

Regarding the decision to plan in every part of the country, Mandel’s son Yariv, a partner in his father’s architecture firm, said that as the son of members of the right-wing Revisionist movement, his father led the way to planning and action “out of an understanding that there is a built fabric here that has to be related to, just as people have to be related to.”

Yariv Mandel says his father’s political positions broke new ground. “He didn’t see himself as right-wing or left-wing, and he was humanistic in his understanding of people,” Yariv said. “He thought that the Arabs in Jaffa also had to be considered, that they were his best friends. He had a broad vision. He came to fulfill Zionism while considering everyone.”

The Mikveh Israel synagogue was designed by Karl Netter and underwent a conservation process by Saadia Mendel.
Mandel Edri

Against high-rises

Mandel was a greatly admired teacher of architecture and the head of the architecture departments at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Ariel University. Ariel even held an evening in his honor in May.

The architect Dana Oberson worked in Mandel’s firm for eight years and has taught at Ariel University for 13 years following Mandel’s invitation.

“He was a spiritual father and a father in general,” Oberson said. “We worked on the renovation project for Acre’s Old City. He cared a great deal about the place, the local culture. He was a man of values, also humane toward those who thought differently than he did, and that’s something sorely lacking today.”

Oberson recalls a project considered revolutionary at a school in Tel Aviv’s Bavli neighborhood in the 1990s. “The children drew their dreams, we checked what was possible and impossible, and then the schoolyard was renovated,” Oberson said. “That was a community project that he did on a voluntary basis.”

Mandel was opinionated and worried about the quality of Israeli cities. He expressed his opinions in study sessions and articles. For example, in a piece  he sent to this reporter three years ago, he criticized high-rise construction in Israel.

Saadia Mandel at his drawing table.
Daniel Tchetchik

“Most of the high-rise apartments that are sprouting like mushrooms from the ground are built on a principle of – I’m not exaggerating – fleeing the public space,” he wrote. “Look at the Akirov Towers on Pinkas Street in Tel Aviv, which convey a clear message that says: ‘If you don’t live here and nobody invites you, don’t even think about coming close.’ Pedestrians have nothing to do there. That section of Pinkas Street has gone from a street to a road. Between the towers and the public space in this part of the city there is no urban dialogue.”

Mandel was also one of the most prominent opponents of the pyramid tower planned for downtown Jerusalem. In an interview with Haaretz he said about one of the tower’s incarnations, planned by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind: “What, is he kidding? Can he possibly be saying, ‘I heard the criticism and I don’t care’? He’s ignoring the central fabric of Jerusalem; the façade is overdone. This building shouldn’t have been born and will remain an eyesore. That’s not an area that needs towers, so this reeks of money.”

At Mandel’s home in Herzliya are endless plans, drawings, objects and texts. “Dad would say, ‘I’m not a collector but I don’t throw things away,’” said Yariv Mandel, who survives his father with two other brothers, Asa and Ido, and their sister Shirel.

Over the past two years, Saadia Mandel worked with Robinson on another book of drawings and texts, with objects to be shown in an exhibition. The result is spectacular as well as intimate.

“He was the greatest of the philosophers of architecture,” Robinson said. “He was sharp-spoken, and when he expressed himself it was a pleasure.”

The book contains some of his enlightening thoughts. For example: “There is no doubt that Diaspora thinking has a decisive influence on corruption involving public money. In the Diaspora, the public purse belonged to non-Jews. Even when we got to the Land of Israel the treasury was Ottoman and later British. It was almost a good deed to cheat the non-Jews’ purse – after all, it was ‘them’ – and we are the Jews. That is still embedded in us somewhere, even though for many years the treasury’s money has been our money.”

And this: “The lack of decision about [Israel’s] desired borders is linked in no small way to a lack of talent to make decisions. A typical saying of quite a few Israelis is: ‘If we don’t decide, the Americans will decide for us.’ That’s a classic Diaspora statement.”