Reading the Book of Mormon on Mount Scopus

Viewed with suspicion when it was built in the 1980s, the Mormon University can be visited by all this weekend during Open House Jerusalem.

Since territorial continuity is somewhat problematic in Jerusalem, the city does not have what one might call urban continuity. Instead, Israel’s capital consists of enclaves of isolated communities. One of those enclaves is the Mormon University, or, as it is officially known, Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, which is located on a prime location on the southern slopes of Mount Scopus, adjacent to Augusta Victoria hospital.

The Jerusalem Center is a quiet enclave that overlooks the city’s stunning landscape, which includes not only the Old City of Jerusalem, Mount of Olives and Kidron Valley, but also cemeteries and the black water tanks on the roofs of houses in theneighborhood of A-Tur.

The late architect David Reznik wanted to incorporate Jerusalem’s landscape in the Mormon University project, which he planned together with architect Frank Ferguson of FFKR Architects in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The university will be open to visitors in the context of the Open House Jerusalem 2013 festival, which will be held this weekend, starting on Thursday in 120 sites in Jerusalem.

There was a storm of controversy over the erection of an academic center of the Mormon Church on a choice spot on the slopes of Mount Scopus. Although the planning began in 1980, it was completed only in 1987. Some circles in Israel, especially religious circles, had trepidations because of the Mormon Church’s missionary character, and there were demonstrations opposite the building site and everyone entering the site was photographed. Even today, there are those who claim that if one squints at the university from the direction of Mandelbaum Gate, it is possible to see a subconscious message in the form of a large cross that is created by its network of domes. This is a favorite conspiracy theory, although the cross does not play a central role in the Mormon religion.

In the end, the construction work on the Jerusalem Center was completed thanks to the intervention of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek (who died in 2007), and following the Mormon’s official commitment not to carry out any missionary work in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza.

The “Non-Proselyting Agreement” states that “Brigham Young University, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, have given assurances and made commitments to the State of Israel to the effect that no member of the Church, nor anyone affiliated with the University or participating in a University-sponsored program will engage in proselytizing of any kind within Israel and Pale tine (the West Bank and Gaza).”

'No missionary activity'

Naomi Weinstein, who has been working at the center for nearly 20 years as the director of its cultural programming, states that “there is no missionary activity; there never was and there never will be such activity. When people bump into Mormon University students in Jerusalem and ask them what is Mormonism, they invariably hear the reply, “Sorry, we are not allowed to talk about that subject.”

For Reznik, the planning of the Mormon University project had a heavy financial price tag.

“At that time,” recalls David Reznik’s son, architect Baruch Reznik, “he was working on a Hasidic neighborhood in [the Upper Galilean town of] Hatzor Haglilit, on a Talmud Torah yeshiva near the entrance to the town, and a large synagogue for that Hasidic sect. However, the moment he began working here [on the Mormon University], they [the leaders of the Hasidic sect] immediately canceled everything.” Baruch Reznik, who began working in his father’s architectural firm in the mid-1980s, points out that the Hasidim and the Mormons would pass each other in Reznik’s office without knowing the other’s identity on their way to meetings on parallel projects.

The Jerusalem Center functions as an academic institution, hosting students from other American universities, who stay there for three months. During that period, they participate in an academic program that includes ancient and modern Near Eastern studies and the different religions in the region.

The Mormon University serves as the home base for field trips throughout Israel, especially the north and Sea of Galilee, as well as in Turkey and Jordan. The program is richly varied and the students have at their disposal study rooms, a library, and two auditoriums for concerts and lectures. There are dormitories for both staff members and students; the dormitories are terraced on the slopes of Mount Scopus. Reznik and Ferguson created a structure that reflects the spirit of the architectural structuralism that was fashionable in the 1960s.

The planning of the structure, which is expressed more beautifully in the floor plan than in the outward appearance of the project, relies on a regular modulation of domes whose bases are set at intervals of six meters and which create a division into squares. The choice of the building materials has a great impact on the character of the structure, whose appearance combines the look of a monastery and a sense of prestige. In addition to Jerusalem stone, the architects used exposed concrete beams, as well as glass and mashrabiya lattice screens, which recur in different patterns in the exterior and interior of the Jerusalem Center.

From outside,
 looks like Hyatt

Outwardly, the Mormon University recalls the Hyatt Regency Hotel, now called the Dan Jerusalem Hotel, which the Reznik architectural firm completed during this same period. However, unlike the hotel, which towers over Mount Scopus, the university blends into its slopes. Perhaps the best way to understand the university’s structure, suggests art curator Sophia Dekel-Caspi, who curated a retrospective exhibition of David Reznik’s work in 2005, is to view it not as an actual structure but rather as a neighborhood:

“This is a neighborhood housing a very specific community and it has managed to spread itself over its site in an exquisite manner. The students have their own private balconies overlooking the Jerusalem landscape and there are many corners into which one can almost disappear; nonetheless, the complex still remains a dormitory structure.”

Despite the sense of hovering that the wafer-thin arches were perhaps originally intended to inspire, the image that is created, in the final analysis, is heavy, imposing and – most importantly – very Jerusalemite.

Nonetheless, behind the fences, the building is simple and modern, especially thanks to the wide, rectangular entrance that seems concealed behind a massive wall, as well as to the gentle outline of hills created by landscape architect Dan Tzur outside the university’s entrance. Baruch Reznik relates how happy his father was to produce the effect of a structure that is hiding a secret.

It is possible to see in David Reznik’s desire to fashion an open structure opposite Jerusalem’s slopes his reaction to – or attempt to correct – the adjacent Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in whose planning he took part in the late 1960s. “I don’t know,” says Baruch Reznik. “He was not deaf; he heard the criticism. Nevertheless, in his opinion, the Mount Scopus campus was his best work; he was very proud of it. "David Reznik’s design approach changed significantly in his later years.

Reznik, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, died a year ago, at the age of 88, one month before the death of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was his teacher and source of inspiration.

Among the most famous and best loved works of David Reznik, an Israel Prize laureate, are those projects that he planned on a relatively smaller scale and at an early stage in his career. They include the John F. Kennedy memorial in the Jerusalem Forest, known in Israel as Yad Kennedy; the dome-shaped synagogue on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus; and the Tel Hazor Archaeological Museum. He also did the planning for the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, and was criticized for such projects as the Mount Scopus campus and the Amir Center (sometimes referred to as Beit Agron or the Supersol Building), a residential building opposite Paris Square at the intersection of KingGeorge and Agron streets in the heart of Jerusalem.

Growing more 
complex with age

The clear shapes and clean lines that he incorporated in his earlier works were abandoned in favor of a formal complexity that increased in his later works, especially those he created after the Six Day War. Nonetheless, the unique architectural signature of David Reznik, who continued to be involved in the details of the structure, and the use of unique building materials, can be clearly seen in the structure of the Mormon University. One can visit the Jerusalem Center outside the context of the Open House Jerusalem 2013 festival. Visitors can view the university and its grounds every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. In addition, there are free concerts on Sunday.

Other attractions in Jerusalem recommended for a visit this weekend: tours of the National Library in Jerusalem and the Academy of the Hebrew Language, whose building was reopened this year after a major facelift.

Another interesting structure that should be seen is the Institute of Archaeology on Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus. In addition, there will be tours of the new Teddy Park and central Jerusalem, where the renewal of the downtown area is highlighted. Visitors can also see the Hansen Center, which has recently been inaugurated as a media center and as a site for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s graduate program.

Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart
Brian Negin