Jews in Architecture? Technion Confab to Show Design Heritage

Haifa conference to showcase Jewish contributions to modern urban and rural planning and construction, in Israel and abroad.

A conference organized by the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology aims to disprove a widespread myth: that architecture and construction are not “Jewish” professions.

“Jewish architects and other Jewish people in the construction industry took an active part in the building of a unique Jewish space in the countries where they lived throughout the world. At the same time, they also participated in shaping the character of the urban landscape as a whole," says Dr. Marina Epstein-Pliouchtch, who chaired the organizing committee of the conference in Haifa, which will take place Wednesday (February 20), and is entitled "On the Verges of Modernism: Jewish Contributions to Local Architecture."

Jewish activity in both architecture and construction, in Israel and abroad – a subject that has been neglected for many years – is garnering renewed interest, she added.

For example, Epstein-Pliouchtch cited the collaboration last century of the renowned architect Louis Sullivan and his lesser-known Jewish partner, Dankmar Adler, whose work solidified the status of their city, Chicago, as the cradle of American modernism. Swiss-born Le Corbusier, who was actually known as an anti-Semite, worked with Jews because “he had no other choice,” she says, adding, “many entrepreneurs and investors in the construction industry at the time were Jews.”

Few people know that the Rothschild family financed the Haussmann plan for the renovation of Paris in the mid-19th century – the plan that, for better or worse, is responsible for the city’s appearance today, notes Epstein-Pliouchtch.

Specifically, speakers at the Technion conference will focus on “Jewish” design and building activity that spread in the last 150 or so years throughout much of the world, mainly Europe, the United States and the pre-state Land of Israel. Its so-called agents – architects, engineers, entrepreneurs and wealthy donors – left behind a spatial/design legacy, embodied by many types of construction. These ranged from villas for growing bourgeoisie sectors of populations, to public and communal structures, and to buildings used for industrial and commercial purposes during a period of rising urbanization and modern capitalism.

The idea that architecture was not a profession for Jews stems, in large part, from the mistaken perception that this field of necessity linked to specific locales. In her lecture, architect and researcher Dr. Shlomit Weller-Cohen will speak of the ways in which Jews, a people that had no land of its own for many centuries, created “alternative architectures and territories using a unique text, rich in spatial insight, some of which were [physically] constructed and some imagined.” Her research shows how Jewish architects in recent eras succeeded in making certain aspects of their public domain “Jewish."

Historian Dr. Ita Heinze-Greenberg, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, will analyze the work of German-born Alexander Baerwald, one of the major architects of the premodern era in the Land of Israel. According to Heinze-Greenberg, Baerwald advocated construction “in the spirit of the location.”

“He saw it as a cultural and aesthetic imperative, and also a moral imperative, to the same extent,” she explains, adding that he opposed the changing and complicated realities that made localism such a charged subject.

The concluding session of the event will be dedicated to the memory of Dr. Myra Warhaftig (1930-2008), a German-born Israeli architect and historian. Her life’s work involved documenting the work of hundreds of Jewish architects who lived, studied and worked in Germany until the Nazis came to power, and whose names are almost forgotten. Her research was received with discomfort due to the assertion that architects should not be classified by their national origins. To this, she retorted: “They were not the ones who wanted to be classified. They were marked as Jews.”

Moshe Gilad
Marina Epstein