Capturing Israel’s Destruction of Its Own Past

Sharon Raz has spent over 15 years documenting abandoned buildings all over Israel. The publication of his new photography book was financed via a crowdfunding campaign backed by his online fans

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The abandoned swimming pool at Glilot community center.
The abandoned swimming pool at Glilot community center.
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“Why do we, in this young country, have such an obsession with demolishing and ‘disappearing’ old buildings, to see only things that are new and glittering in our eyes? Why, and from where? It’s an abnormal aspect of an abnormal society,” says architect Sharon Raz. “There’s a distinct lack of respect for the constructed heritage – and I push that in people’s faces by various means.”

Raz has been photographing abandoned buildings for over 15 years. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, he worked quite sporadically, with film cameras that didn’t belong to him. In early 2004, though, he purchased a digital pocket camera and started to document Israel’s abandoned buildings. The reason he only captures Israeli buildings is rather prosaic: he hasn’t been abroad since 2004 for financial reasons. “What’s amazing is that occasionally it bothers me – but, honestly, it’s only occasionally. Apparently, a significant part of the reason for that is because it’s been interesting for me with all these abandoned buildings here. Fascinating, even.

The photos can be seen on Raz’s “Abandoned” blog and the old Disappearing Architecture website. He has held three solo exhibitions and participated in several group and couple exhibitions. Now he’s assembled his work for a new book, “Netushim” (Abandoned), whose editing took about six years and whose publication was financed via a crowdfunding campaign on Headstart.

The Sharon Cinema in Netanya, which closed in 1989 with this photo from 2012. The architects were Samuel Barkai and Heinz Fenchel.

He started the process with 100,000 photos, which he himself whittled down to 3,000. He then turned to artist Meirav Heiman, who chose 600 photos. In the final selection process – “cruel,” according to Raz – Tel Aviv Museum of Art photography curator Raz Samira and graphic designers Magen and Adam Halutz also helped, choosing the 224 best photos.

Raz wrote two texts for the book, while conservation architect Prof. Amnon Bar Or also contributed a detailed essay.

Many of the buildings Raz photographed were subsequently demolished, with his images serving as a unique monument to architecture in Israel. Other buildings remain deserted, neglected and crumbling. Some are in the process of being preserved, which invariably causes them to lose their charm.

That’s also the point at which Raz loses interest in them. “I’m only interested in the building in its authentic, abandoned condition,” he says.

The home of Musa Shaheen in the former Palestinian village of Al-Qubayba, south of Rehovot, 2017.

‘A kind of fig leaf’

One of Raz’s most outstanding works is his documentation of the community center (what Israelis would call a “country club”) at north Tel Aviv’s Glilot interchange (the first junction of its kind in Israel), which operated from 1965 to 2004 and became increasingly surrounded by high-rise buildings. He points to a picture of a concrete diving board that remains in place, which will be part of an open area. “That’s the only thing they’ll preserve. Maybe a kind of fig leaf.”

He also photographed the “Turkish” train station building in Jerusalem, which was later converted into the First Station complex. The Crater stadium in Givatayim and the Box stadium in Netanya are also recorded in the book; both were recently demolished in favor of real estate ventures.

The book cover for “Netushim” ("Abandoned"), by Sharon Raz.

Occasionally, Raz photographs sites directly connected to him. For example, he shot the demolition site of the home of the late Yehudit and Yoel Simkin, his maternal grandparents. They lived in the home – which was planned and designed by architect Dov Carmi in 1953 – until 1975.

“I don’t take a picture of every abandoned building I’ve seen; only those for which I felt something and that inexplicably caught my eye,” says Raz, explaining how he locates the buildings. “I didn’t start shooting due to prior information but through looking at an area, exploring on foot and by car, between other activities, on weekdays and especially on Shabbat.”

He can’t really explain why he started photographing abandoned buildings, but today he recognizes the value of that initial decision. “There was no purpose here, but over time I learned that this documentation is important and even critical. It’s preservation through photography of buildings that are becoming extinct.

“Through my online activity, I’ve raised awareness of the issue,” he adds. “I brought up the subject, which really didn’t exist until then – certainly not with such intensity – by means of perseverance, consistency, power, strength and passion.

Generally, Raz doesn’t continue to investigate sites he’s photographed. But when he encounters abandoned buildings and complexes that really pique his interest, he returns to them several times and tracks their demolition. Often, buildings he has documented have become the focus of public conservation battles.

Jerusalem railway station, built during the Ottoman era and later renovated as the First Station complex. This photo was taken in 2012.

“I snoop intelligently around buildings and complexes whose fate is about to be decided, or has already been decided, and constantly remind myself how much I despise the greedy real estate developers. It sounds naive, but that’s how it is with me,” he states.

Raz says that over the years, “quite a few” real estate entrepreneurs approached him, “trying to act all innocent. Any attempt to communicate with them was very cautious and suspicious on my part, and always ended as I had anticipated: in disappointment and complete disengagement.

“Everytime someone like that hears about me or ‘discovers’ me, he suddenly thinks he’s found a gold mine of rare knowledge and information that will lead him to ‘lucrative hits,’” Raz says. “And he’s right in principle, because there isn’t a single person in Israel who’s seen more abandoned buildings than me. But I’ve always shook these developers off right away. I’ve not responded to any of them in a long time.”

The "Box" stadium was the home of Netanya FC for many years before the club moved to a brand new stadium in 2012.

‘Demolition is the simplest’

Raz is identified mainly with abandoned movie theaters, many of which he managed to photograph just prior to their demolition. “It’s a building that moves a relatively large number of people,” he explains. “Folks are full of nostalgia and memories about the cinemas of their childhood. I also love to see them and to photograph inside them.”

Old movie theaters he shot include Holon’s Armon Cinema and the Tel Aviv Cinema, which operated in the city center. Several of the abandoned theaters that appear in the book are still standing: the Shavit Cinema in Haifa and the Yarkon Cinema in Rosh Ha’ayin, which is slated to become a community center. Other movie theaters became local conservation battles – for example, the Amal Cinema in Kfar Sava, and the Orot Cinema in Be’er Sheva, which was recently slated for preservation.

One movie theater very dear to Raz’s heart is Petah Tikva’s Heichal Cinema, which was designed by Arieh Sharon and is under threat from real estate developers. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear in the book. “It’s important to me that they won’t demolish it, and that perhaps they’ll repurpose it for the public’s benefit – for cultural, religious, social purposes,” he says. “As long as they don’t demolish it. Demolition is the simplest, the most barbaric and the least considerate for the environment. “

The demolition site of Yehudit and Yoel Simkin's house (Raz's maternal grandparents) in Petah Tikva, where they lived until 1975.

You’re barely involved in actual conservation struggles. How come?

“Physical preservation is of less interest to me. I also learned that the power of the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel and architects’ associations is very limited to almost nonexistent, unfortunately. It’s not like in most well-run countries in Europe, where the architects’ organizations and those in charge of conservation have a lot of power. This is Israel, here it’s different.

“Sometimes, I participate a little in support of such battles – for example, to preserve the Amal Cinema, or complexes such as the agricultural school in Pardes Hannah, and others – out of a desire not to see them torn down,” he says.

This building was a Palestinian spinning mill until 1948, and later an IDF base at Beit Dagan (abandoned in 2000). This photo was taken in 2014.

Raz repeatedly stresses that he isn’t acting out of nostalgia. “In the lectures I give to older audiences, many people are exposed to sights that tug at their hearts and fill them with memories and nostalgia. However, as the lecture progresses, they realize that what I’m showing is far from cute – it’s the opposite of nostalgia.

“These are powerful photos, totally in your face, of a sad, melancholy, even somewhat depressing situation,” he says. “That’s the reality and I look it right in the eye, shoot, commemorate and then reflect the situation to those who are unaware of it. Ignoring, repressing – that’s second nature for us. We all abandoned the buildings, and this is the result.

“Some people will tell you the world is progressing, changing. Change is a natural process. That’s the rational explanation. Yes, there’s nothing to be done; there’s renewal and there must be renewal – especially in a country as crowded as ours,” he continues. “But if that’s the ‘natural way,’ why is it that buildings in Europe stand for hundreds of years with no problem? Here, deal with your destruction. You don’t want to look at it, but I want to look only at it – not at the new neighborhoods you’re building.”

The Armon Cinema in Holon. View of the movie theater from the projection booth, a few days after a fire in 2011.

‘I lost it’

Raz, 52, takes pictures all over the country, but focuses mainly on urban areas in central Israel, around Tel Aviv, due to constraints of time, money and mobility. He hasn’t had a car for two years. He says he’s often asked why he doesn’t photograph abandoned Palestinian buildings from 1948, which can be found in many places.

“I do what I do and don’t work on behalf of anyone’s agenda,” he replies, mentioning an interview with Haaretz architecture critic Esther Zandberg at the start of his photography career. “I photograph what my eyes want me to photograph, the buildings to which I’m attracted and which fascinate me,” he explains. “That’s also why I don’t photograph every abandoned building, and that’s why it doesn’t work if people write me: ‘Sharon, go and take pictures here, go and take pictures there.’”

British officers' school building (1935-1948), Hasan Salama's headquarters (1948), near Ramle. Part of the building was bombed and later used as an IDF base (1948-1998). Pic taken in 2013.

Despite that, there are a number of Palestinian buildings in his book. One is the beautiful home of Musa Shaheen, part of the remains of the village of Al-Qubayba, south of Rehovot. Another fascinating building is one that was used as a shooting range until 1948 and eventually became part of the army base in Beit Dagan.

“If there’s a Palestinian building that attracts me – I’ll photograph it, as I’ve done quite a few times,” Raz says. “All buildings are equal in my opinion, and it makes no difference to me what their ‘origin,’ ‘nationality’ or ‘race’ is. Just as all people are equal to me. What I decide to photograph is my decision alone.”

He studied architecture in Tel Aviv and Glasgow, Scotland, where he lived for three years. He then worked as an architect in various firms for eight years, until he left the profession in 2004. “I was tired of it, I was deeply disappointed,” he reflects. “I’m a very good architect who isn’t interested in dealing with details of stairs, with bureaucracy, procedures, building laws, annoying clients who think they know everything and don’t know anything,” he says.

“I also left due to various circumstances, constraints, coincidence. The firm in which I worked for six years gradually shrank after the second intifada, until in the end the boss – a smart and wonderful man and friend who offered a great deal of support and help to get this book published – closed the business and switched to high-tech. I left with him.”

Sharon Raz at the Heichal Cinema in Petah Tikva, under threat from developers.

At first, Raz tried to find another job. However, because he wasn’t expert enough at the AutoCAD software, which has become standard for architects, he gave up. “I discovered that the firms were looking only for someone who can man a computer post and draw quickly,” he recounts. “In light of the fact that I had no experience with AutoCAD and everyone was working with it – and taking a course didn’t help because they wanted experience – an absurd situation was created. I made a few attempts that were unsuccessful in terms of output and speed, and then I really lost it completely and told myself that if nobody checks to see if I’m even a good architect, they don’t deserve my talent. In any case, I was tired of the practical aspect.”

The story he relays is one about Israeli architecture, which in recent decades has become primarily a financial and real estate industry. It’s also a story about someone who was unable to survive in a field that has moved away from its cultural roots. Over the past 15 years, he’s struggled to make a living, holding down many odd jobs that were “uninteresting and unprofitable,” in his words.

“Making a living is a sensitive point,” he says. “I was supposed to be in an entirely different place in my life financially, but both personal matters and circumstances also caused that.” He says he’s paid a price for his stubbornness and perseverance in publicizing “the existence of the quiet, ashamed, neglected, disappearing and silent buildings. I identify with them.”

The "Crater" Stadium in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. It was closed in 2009 and demolished a year later.

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