How to Design a State, According to a Pioneer of Israeli Landscape Architecture

A book devoted to veteran landscape architect Ruth Enis offers a glimpse into a profession largely unfamiliar to the general public

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Ruth Enis, 1948. Pioneer of Israeli landscape architecture.
Ruth Enis, 1948. Pioneer of Israeli landscape architecture. Credit: The Ruth Enis collection, Avie and Sarah Arenson Built Heritage Research Center
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“We saw water, then, but nowhere in all the waste around was there a foot of shade, and we were scorching to death,” Mark Twain wrote when he visited Palestine in 1867. “Surely,” he added, “there is no place we have wandered to that is able to give it [the biblical description] such touching expression as this blistering, naked, treeless land… Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”

The quote appears in “Gardens of Her Own,” published by the Built Heritage Research Center of the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning. The book was launched last month as part of a conference at the Technion on “Gender Politics in Israeli Architecture and Landscape Architecture,” which focused on female landscape architects who were active internationally beginning in the first half of the 20th century. Edited by the landscape designers Nurit Lissovsky and Tal Alon-Mozes, the book inaugurates a series that compiles texts by selected researchers.

“Gardens of Her Own” is devoted to the work of Prof. Ruth Enis, who together with Dr. Shaul Amir and the architect Gideon Sarig were among the founders of the landscape architecture track in the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture in the 1970s. Enis has engaged in research, teaching, consultancy and design. The book also functions as something of a manual that explains what landscape architecture is – a profession that is barely familiar to the general public.

Sketch of Hebron Road, Jerusalem.
Sketch of Hebron Road, Jerusalem.Credit: The Ruth Enis collection, Avie and Sarah Arenson Built Heritage Research Center

Only 20 to 25 students graduate each year from the landscape architecture track, a field of study available only at the Technion. Nevertheless, it’s a vitally important profession: landscape architects are responsible for neighborhood gardens, for designing sidewalks, for creating the landscape environment through which roads run, and more. Because of the paucity of experts, many “regular” architects also engage in landscape planning. The new book can also be said to be a branding of the profession.

Values of nature

Born Ruth Weidenfeld to an affluent family in Romania in 1928, she was drawn to landscape and to flora from childhood, she tells me when we meet at Beit Yoles, a Haifa retirement home where she has lived in recent years. Her family arrived in Palestine in the 1930s and settled in the Kiryat Meir neighborhood of Tel Aviv. In 1939, on the eve of the war, Ruth and her mother went to visit her ailing grandmother. The war prevented their return, and in 1941 she was sent to Transnistria, at the western extremity of the Soviet Union. “There too I took an interest in plants,” she notes. In 1943, in the wake of efforts by her father, she was sent to Bucharest and from there returned to Palestine by an arduous route via Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.

She attended the school of the Youth Village at Ben Shemen beginning in 1944. Her time there influenced her fondness for landscapes. “I was in Ben Shemen for two years,” she recalls. “It was an exceptional school, and there I connected with plants and landscape.” Shimon Peres, who also attended the Youth Village school, remained a close friend of Enis until his death. The new book also quotes Peres: “It was an unforgettable experience. The place itself is beautiful, filled with greenery, hard by a forest, filled with flowers, with the smell of the barn and the smell of the fields.” Enis wrote something similar: “This Youth Village was a gorgeous gem, saturated with gardens, lawns, flowers and culture. Here, along with learning the language, becoming familiar with the country and learning to love it, I started to absorb values of nature.”

Ruth Enis.
Ruth Enis.Credit: The Ruth Enis collection, Avie and Sarah Arenson Built Heritage Research Center

She entered the Technion in 1949. One of her mentors was the German-born Prof. Alexander Klein, a leading urban designer of the time who taught in German at the institution. Enis, who speaks six languages, became his research assistant, translated his lectures into Hebrew and helped him prepare his publications. In 1952, she married Shmuel Enis. The couple settled in Haifa in a modest apartment where she lived for more than 60 years. Her son, Eyal, was born in 1955. In 1958, the young family took up residence in Delft, Holland, where Shmuel pursued his doctoral studies in engineering. Ruth took advantage of the opportunity to obtain a professional degree in garden architecture, a field of study that did not exist in Israel. “Although I had an undergraduate degree in architecture from the Technion,” she says, “I loved flora, and this was an opportunity to learn the profession.” Shortly afterward, she was invited to curate the Israeli pavilion of biblical flora at the Rotterdam Floriade in 1960. Her daughter Shulamit was born a year later.

After her studies in Holland, Enis was involved in planning projects there as well as in designing 40 playgrounds in The Hague and in creating the garden in the municipal museum. In Israel she planned playgrounds in Jerusalem, drew up a rehabilitation plan for the Hula Lake nature reserve in Israel’s north and crafted a landscape development plan for Ein Fesh’ha along the northern coast of the Dead Sea and for the Banias River on the slopes of the Golan Heights – two areas that became accessible to Israelis after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Gardens for living

“Gardens of Her Own” is a book about Ruth Enis, but to a certain extent it is a lexicon for Israeli landscape architecture. Interspersed in it are accounts of numerous gardens and landscape projects over the years that made the country greener than it was when Twain visited. A prominent aspect of the book is the view it provides of the large-scale transformation that has occurred in landscape architecture in Israel since the early period of the state. The first gardens were very geometrical; afterward, gardens in a freer style were built. Contemporary gardens are engineered and rife with regulations, tiling and fences.

Drawing by Ruth Enis of the Hula nature reserve.
Drawing by Ruth Enis of the Hula nature reserve.Credit: The Ruth Enis collection, Avie and Sarah Arenson Built Heritage Research Center

Enis distinguishes between different types of planning and architecture. For example, the world’s gardens are divided into two principal groups, she maintains. “The first group consists of utilitarian gardens, which are planted in order to provide concrete physical needs. These include vegetable patches, fruit-tree groves, medicinal herbs, spices, perfumes and others,” she writes in an article titled “First Steps in Designing Garden and Landscape,” originally published in 1994. The second group encompasses “the decorative gardens or pleasure gardens that are geared primarily to the ‘soul’ – for rest, tranquility, aesthetic pleasure and so forth.”

But there are exceptions – the kibbutz garden being a case in point. “It contains features of both groups,” she writes. “The kibbutz garden is not a place that people go to – it is a place that is lived in. It has many and diverse functions in daily life. The kibbutz garden is a necessary environmental foundation for the life of the kibbutz community.” She is pained by what has been wrought to the kibbutz garden, which in fact barely exists in the extensions of the original collective settlements.

In a 1988 article about landscape architecture in Jerusalem, Enis is rather critical of the city’s landscape style, a situation that has become more extreme in the three decades since the article was written. “Jerusalem never had the basic conditions to create a gardening culture and style. Today, too, a mix of peoples, religions and cultures reside in the city, who are divided in their opinions and beliefs and in some cases are also mutually hostile. In a place of such sharp contrasts, one need not expect the emergence of a uniform gardening style, which is actually an expression of cultural uniformity.”

A sketch of Einot Tzukim (Ein Feshkha), by Ruth Enis.
A sketch of Einot Tzukim (Ein Feshkha), by Ruth Enis.Credit: The Ruth Enis collection, Avie and Sarah Arenson Built Heritage Research Center

During my visit, Enis looked out the window at a nearby playground, whose base is made of synthetic material, which she abhors. She doesn’t like the new style of landscape design, which ignores the sources, she says. “One of the first things I did when I finished my architecture studies was to protect trees. I said that they must not be cut down. I am against the current trend of cutting down big trees. If a tree contributes to its surroundings, there is no reason to cut it down. ”