A Patriarch of Israeli Architecture and the Legacy He Left

Yaski’s death is a reminder of the old aesthetic. 'No serious architect would have dared to utter the word 'beautiful,’ he recalled.

Yaakov Agur

Avraham Yaski, who died last week at 87, belonged to the first generation of architects of the state and of the Israeli project. “He is the personification of the Israeli project,” architect Zvi Efrat said at the funeral on Sunday. Indeed, Yaski’s architecture reflects and is reflected in nearly every juncture and period of the state since its inception.

Together with his partners, Yaski had a hand in all building types: public and private, commercial and corporate, gray concrete and shining glass, government-funded immigrant tenements (“shikunim”) and residential construction for the private market, hospitals and shopping malls, homes for the poor, the wealthy and the very wealthy, one-family houses and high-rise apartment houses and office buildings. He also designed Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Yaski’s firm paid due respect to every detail - every step, every window frame, every bolt. Not necessarily out of a belief that God is in the details. Presumably, he and his partners did not believe that responsibility for details lay with God. Instead, they believed that being responsible for the small things was architecture’s way of fulfilling its purpose, to serve society. “I think that I live in a society, and must serve it,” Yaski said.

“What made him not just another good or successful architect, but rather a key figure in Israeli architecture, lies in an ‘impersonal,’ ‘objective’ quality,” wrote architect Sharon Rotbard in his book, “Avraham Yaski: Concrete Architecture. “He knew how to be a medium of the power, to give it form, and to do it beautifully,” wrote Rotbard, “with wisdom, with understanding, with fairness and with fluency.”

Many of his colleagues interpreted these characteristics as a lack of originality. When Yaski was awarded the Israel Prize for Architecture in 1982, it met with some disapproval.

Yaski himself was proud of his sources of inspiration, from whose waters he sometimes drank quite deeply, as he himself put it, and from which he created his own, Yaskian architecture. He viewed architect Arieh Sharon, for whom he worked on salary early in his career, as a father figure and spiritual mentor. The young partners Yaski and Amnon Alexandroni worshipped the French architect Le Corbusier, “our Bible and our Shulhan Arukh,” referring to the codification of Jewish religious law. Sharon and Le Corbusier influenced Yaski and Alexandroni’s best work, as well as their less-than-best.

IBM House,Tel Aviv. Photo by Ran Erde

The great, gray years

Yaski looked back on those first, concrete-gray years as the best in his professional career and in Israeli architecture alike — before the crisis of the postmodern period, which “blew the mind and confused everything,” as he told me in a “spiritual stock-taking” interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “It was the same internationally. Many

architects, like me, fell into that trap, which so quickly became a joke.”

Eulogizing his father at the funeral, architect Yuval Yaski related that the family’s apartment on Tel Aviv’s Shmaryahu Levin Street changed his life. The apartment, he said, filled him with joy and taught him an important lesson in architecture. He added that architecture can have a positive effect on a building’s inhabitants, and there is no stronger experience than living within it to make him recognize the extent to which his father, as a human being and as an artist, was free of mannerism and whose only purpose was to bring people happiness.

The apartment building in question was one of many bourgeois Tel Aviv homes that Avraham Yaski designed in the 1950s and ‘60s with his then-partner and

close friend, Alexandroni. It is a masterpiece, due to the elegant manner in which the facade is composed — as an arrangement of shutter panels that changes with the strength of the sunlight and the direction of the sun; due to the clever (but not overly so) response to the local climate, and due to the quality and the aesthetics, as in the majority of Yaski’s work. The architectural accomplishment rests solely on the solution to the climate issue, as well as the precise proportions, of course, and it stands alone.

Yaski-designed building where his family lived. Photo by Avraham Yaski

It should also be noted that the building is also beautiful, but Yaski would surely raise an eyebrow at the use of that adjective in connection to such a serious architectural work. Time and again, in interviews and conversations, he would say, “We were a different generation of architecture. Then, it was forbidden to speak of form. Modern architecture was socialist in essence, and no serious architect would have dared to utter the word ‘beautiful.’” Yaski said more than once that “a building must live, and if there is no air in a room or if a window can’t be opened, then I don’t care if it’s beautiful.”

Yaski was born in Kishinev, Moldova and immigrated to Palestine with his parents in 1935. He grew up in central Tel Aviv and studied architecture at the Technion. In the mid-1960s he opened his own firm, which existed in various permutations until 2006, when Yaski-Sivan merged with Moore Architects and went in a different direction. Yaski was already in poor health, and his involvement in the new firm, now called MYS Architects, gradually declined. For years Yaski also held influential positions in the professional, educational and civil spheres, and was the founding head of Tel Aviv University’s architecture school. He lived and worked in Tel Aviv throughout his life; Rotbard sees his work as “Tel Avivan,” precisely because of its “general,” impersonal, not place-specific character.

No preservation devotee

National Library at Hebrew University. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

Yaski was not overly excited about the building preservation/restoration movement in Tel Aviv. “It’s all right to renovate here and there in the heart of Tel Aviv,” he allowed. He stressed that in Tel Aviv no thought is given to the long term with regard to transportation, infrastructure or residential building, and believed that high-rise construction was a necessity. “The solution is presumably a mixture of low- and high-rise buildings,” he said, at around the time that his firm was designing Zion House, the first office tower on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. That building created a precedent in zoning variances granted to developers, but, despite the hostile reactions, contributed a great deal to the street’s current prominence. Since then, Yaski’s firm designed dozens more residential and office towers. Yaski also believed in enclosed shopping malls, a red flag to all contemporary urbanists, and his office has been designing them for decades now.

Even though many of his firm’s high-rise buildings are on their way to becoming an inseparable part of Tel Aviv’s mixed urban fabric, they are nevertheless seen as a symbol of an urbanism that has lost its way, of cynical, hierarchical, polarized capitalism. The influence of MYS Architects on the high-rising of Israel in general and Tel Aviv in particular is overwhelming in its presence, its social and environmental implications, and the hostility it engenders in both the public and the

professional (zoning and planning) debates. Yaski supported building up rather than out not only for architectural or commercial reasons, but also from a sense of responsibility, as he understood it.