"Window Stories" in Gan Hasus, Jerusalem. Olivier Fitoussi

See It Before It's Gone: Jerusalem's Castle of Shattered Dreams

Before his death in March, artist Yoram Amir oversaw the design of a stunning ‘summer palace,’ which is constructed from the windows he obsessively collected in his beloved city

A beautiful installation opened recently in Jerusalem’s Gan Hasus (Horse Park): “Window Stories,” a two-story tower built from 550 windows that were part of a collection of 2,500 items scavenged and saved by the late Yoram Amir.

Amir, who died in March at age 55, was a familiar figure in the capital: An activist, urban photographer, wedding photographer, poet, philosopher, anarchist-conservative and romantic — according to his friends and followers.

The project is part of the city’s Mekudeshet festival and runs through September 21.

Before visiting this unique summer palace, Haaretz went to the final place where Amir lived, with his daughter Shalem and partner Sharon Gradstein. The old house on Mesilat Yesharim Street is a reminder of times past in an area undergoing massive real estate development. It too will disappear at some point, like many of the buildings Amir lived in and whose demolitions angered him.

Olivier Fitoussi
Olivier Fitoussi
Olivier Fitoussi

The house is full of all the good things Amir left behind, including some of the windows he collected over 20 years from abandoned historical buildings or buildings about to undergo renovation. These include a window composed of squares collected in the city’s Schneller Compound, or a decoration full of engravings that was collected from the courtyard of a hotel in the Old City and hangs above the kitchen cabinet.

Another work, created from a collection of window handles, hangs by the entrance to the house. Some of the windows were originals due to be replaced by exact replicas in buildings undergoing preservation. “He didn’t preserve the building itself but created a kind of museum,” observes Gradstein.

Price tags hang from some of the works, which is also typical of Amir: It is not clear where the house ends and the gallery begins. In the courtyard, next to Amir’s possessions, you will find Gradstein’s secondhand store, featuring recycled works she created — such as plants in milk cartons. “I buy almost nothing,” she says.

It was in this courtyard that they jointly operated a pop-up restaurant called Ta’aruha (a combination of the Hebrew words for “exhibition” and “meal”), in which you could eat almost free of charge if you were an artist or pay twice as much if you were, say, a lawyer.

Among the piles of paper in the house is a brochure entitled “The Jerusalem Windows Law.” Alas, it’s a law that doesn’t actually exist. Instead, Amir wrote it, stipulating among other things that time should be devoted to every window that is built, since “that’s the least we can do for the Holy City. We can easily understand how much time was invested in the Jerusalem windows that were built by the Christians, Arabs, Armenians and Jews in the past — and how we build today.”

Next to Amir’s “law” rests another piece of paper on which he sketched decorative windows, like those with Turkish, Christian and Muslim designs. Each is unique. He also drew a boring rectangle window and called it “A Nightmare Window” to reflect what he saw as “the Israeli window.”

Olivier Fitoussi

“Windows today are copy-paste,” says his partner. “Yoram thought that, for the same money, far better things could be created. He believed the city deserved to have more invested in its windows.”

Amir seemingly hated most of the city’s new architecture. “He thought the Israel Museum was the first problem, because it brought the ‘white cube’ to Jerusalem. He thought that construction in Jerusalem, which is a historical city, should continue to be traditional,” Gradstein adds.

Entering the frame

Work on the Gan Hasus summer palace began a year ago. “I was sitting in [Amir’s] house and didn’t have any work at the time,” recounts Kobi Frig, a cultural entrepreneur and old friend of the artist. “We thought about what to do with his collection of windows sitting in a warehouse in Givat Yeshayahu after he used to transfer it from one home to the next. That was the point he realized that the product he sold, an artistic photograph framed in an old window, was no longer unique — it’s something the Chinese sell,” says Frig.

“We started to turn to all kinds of organizations, but about seven months ago [Amir] discovered he was suffering from advanced cancer and the entire process took on a new twist. We realized there was a very urgent project here, and all of Yoram’s friends and admirers got to work. I then attended a meeting with Mekudeshet, with which I had worked on all kinds of projects, and it progressed from there,” recalls Frig, who went on to become the installation’s project manager.

Olivier Fitoussi
Ranit Amir Geltzer

It was at this point, in November 2018, that Mekudeshet’s artistic director, Michal Vaknin, entered the frame. She was already aware of Amir as an artist, and recalls how he told her “about his activity, gave us precise instructions and an outline of the structure’s appearance. He was amazingly relaxed throughout the process.

“Yoram kept track of the city’s preservation and non-preservation processes not because he had a specific assignment — he took this quixotic role upon himself privately, as a citizen, as a lover of Jerusalem, as an artist,” notes Vaknin. “For him, the windows were frames for pictures, a framework for a story, and over time they became the story itself.”

The artistic team LiLi_X_Faluja (Lior Peleg and Itamar Paloge) then boarded the project. “They came to us when Yoram was already ill and told us they wanted to do something with his collection,” explains Paloge. “Right from the start, there was a very strong connection with him, and we knew the process would be accompanied by a farewell.”

Before they set to work designing their summer palace, the artists were introduced to Amir’s vast collection and became acquainted with the history the windows.

“We had two main sources of inspiration for the design,” says Paloge. “The first was the Jerusalem neighborhoods that were built layer upon layer and comprise many details such as balconies, air conditioners and other additions — another room and another floor; a patchwork quilt of architecture.

Olivier Fitoussi
Emil Salman

“The second was the city’s religious structures: synagogues, churches, mosques — magnificent and symmetrical buildings. The combination of the two characterizes the project.”

The stunning summer palace features two floors and a dome. The first floor is narrow and hexagon-shaped, while the second floor rests upon it almost as a type of balcony. Atop that sits the dome, pointing toward the sky. The second floor is accessed via a connecting bridge from the street (the park itself sits below street level), making the structure accessible to the disabled and wheelchair users.

“We’ve been working with a hexagon shape for many years,” says Peleg on the structure’s eye-catching design. “It’s a geometrical shape that can always be connected to another shape. When we looked at the park, it was clear to us that this was the appropriate shape.”

The structure features two types of windows — square and rectangular — that make up the bases of the hexagons and parapets. More unconventional windows, arched and pointed, appear in more prominent places. The windows are assembled on a pine wood construction that completes the structure. All of the windows underwent a restoration and glazing process by Yoram Amir’s son, Bar.

Paloge and Peleg note that Amir was able to see a preliminary volumetric model of the structure before he passed away. Their last meeting with him was after they had catalogued all of his windows and shown him their “treatment of his life’s work. He brought a bottle of Cognac and we celebrated,” they recall. “It was a very emotional moment.”

Olivier Fitoussi

The installation’s windows were taken from all over Jerusalem. One comes from a public works building on Hanevi’im Street, and there are windows from Sergei’s Courtyard in the Russian Compound. Frig says of the latter: “They had restored the original windows there and didn’t want to give them to Yoram, but he bribed the driver of the container truck and took the windows from the garbage dump.”

The Palace Hotel (now completed renovated and renamed the Waldorf Astoria) was the installation’s main source of windows. “The owners of the hotel actually invited [Amir] to take the windows they dismantled, and they invited him to create a permanent exhibition in the hotel with photos of the building during its various stages,” says Frig. “Yoram thought the Palace Hotel is a good example of preservation.”

Other windows were taken from the city’s historic railroad complex — now transformed into The First Station — and Saidoff House (which contributed a window featuring the Star of David).

Somewhat ironically, this “shrine” in honor of Amir was built in a manner that contrasts with his independent and partisan approach. The installation, which cost some 1.2 million shekels ($340,000), was funded with the assistance of Eden — the Jerusalem Center Development Company.

Artistic warrior

Yoram Amir is remembered, among other things, for the time he ascended a crane in 2007 during the construction of the Chords Bridge at the city’s western entrance. He stayed there for five hours and actually threatened to commit suicide — all in the name of the beauty of Jerusalem. At the same time, his co-protesters distributed flyers calling on then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.

“Yoram said that Jerusalem should get something special and not a bridge designed by [Spanish architect Santiago] Calatrava when there’s a similar one in Petah Tikva and in another 30 cities worldwide,” recalls Gradstein.

Olivier Fitoussi

Amir was born in Jerusalem in 1963, to Moroccan-born parents, and grew up in the Baka and Talpiot neighborhoods. He spent his high school years on Kibbutz Gal On, and later served in the Paratroopers Brigade and as an officer in the first Lebanon war. He received a camera prior to his army discharge, and became addicted to photography during a trip to South America. Afterward, he married and had three sons with his first wife, Avigail.

In 1997, he opened a photography shop in the Mahane Yehuda market and chaired the local merchants’ committee. His first activist activity took place in 1999 during the city’s infamous garbage strike, which saw people being forced to trudge through trash in the marketplace. He made a film about it, calling it simply “Garbage Film.” He later established the Shame Underground to combat what he saw as destructive capitalist greed, organizing exhibitions and tours.

His artistic activities were characterized by acts of defiance that featured plays on words. In 2003, for example, he organized the exhibition “Red Princess or Ecological Whore — the Story of a Tomato,” about genetically engineered tomatoes. Four years later, he organized a festival without electricity in part of the Nahlaot neighborhood, with the lighting being generated by hundreds of candles and torches.

That same year he started the Shodedei Yam Gallery, which operated from his various residences. In 2010, after participating in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, he initiated the “Rubbish Architecture Biennale” in Jerusalem. He founded Jerusalem’s Story and Tower Museum in 2011, and in 2014 created the exhibition “Ethics, Tactics and Mathematics in Israeli Architecture in Jerusalem.”

Along with his artistic activism, Amir also continued to work as a wedding photographer. “2,372 Weddings” illustrated the dissonance between that work and his underground activity. Or, as he told Haaretz correspondent Uri Blau in 2007: “At night I photograph ‘If I forget thee O Jerusalem’ [part of the Jewish wedding ceremony], and in the morning ‘I have forgotten you, Jerusalem.’”

Now, thousands are getting the chance to remember Amir’s passion for conservation. Paloge recounts a sentence the activist liked to repeat: The buildings are the jewels of the city and the windows are the diamonds. “He gave us his diamond collection, and we built an ancient-modern jewel in honor of the city of Jerusalem,” the designer concludes.

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