Surroundings / Spreading a Carpet of Gardens: Lipa Yahalom, 1911-2006

Last Saturday Israeli landscape planner Lipa Yahalom, one of the last giants in his field and an Israel Architecture Prize laureate, died at age 93.

Last Saturday Israeli landscape planner Lipa Yahalom, one of the last giants in his field and an Israel Architecture Prize laureate, died at age 93. Yahalom collaborated with Israel's most important architects and left his mark on every corner of the country. He helped lay the foundation for the modern Israeli, Zionist, national and architectural landscape following the founding of the state, and was a spiritual mentor for generations of landscape architects.

Yahalom and his partner, Dan Tsur, were largely responsible not only for designing the "Israeli landscape model," but also for inventing it - in dozens of kibbutzim, national parks, antiquities sites, public buildings, new immigrant towns in outlying areas, academic and research institutions, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. The image that he created for them is engraved in our collective memory. He brought to life a well-known line from Nathan Alterman: "We shall spread out carpeted gardens for you." How symbolic that he and Tsur received the Israel Prize on the country's 50th Independence Day!

Yahalom's landscapes are green shady paradises, softly enveloping the earth and looking so natural, they seemed formed without human help, as if they had been there forever. They were planned down to the last detail, with a clear worldview and ideological motives. In addition to their aesthetic value, they carried weighty socio-political significance.

In his book "Dreaming Gardens," American landscape architect Kenneth Helphand notes that Yahalom's creations were never conceived simply as landscapes, but rather as conscripted landscapes, serving the army and the civil service and were ordered to "mold the spirit of the people and express the fact that we are here," sometimes at the expense of landscapes that were destroyed and covered over by lawns and trees.

Reconsidered his principles

Yahalom was one of the designers and creators of those landscapes, but as the years went by he was also one of their most outspoken critics. He recanted basic principles that he had previously advocated, such as planting lawns and pine trees everywhere. He expressed reservations about "the enthusiasm in work and the roar of the bulldozers." He developed respect for leaving well enough alone.

Yahalom did not hesitate to admit publicly that "after 60 years of work I was seized by heretical thoughts." The importance of the doubts he raised concerning the design of open spaces is on par with that of his practical work.

"I plan gardens and I presume to create a new landscape," he said, "and when shade was needed in the Negev, I created shade, and when they wanted grass, I planted grass. But today I think that what was there already should not have been totally altered."

In a lecture he said that the early pioneers who came here were caught up in the enthusiasm of doing, captives of their yearnings for the landscapes left behind in Europe, and were stricken by the blinding sunlight, so they planted a lot of whatever they could lay their hand on. They wanted landscapes that were not "boring" and brought the beauty of Yefet to the tents of Shem (a reference to Noah's blessing to his sons in Genesis 9:27). "Could they have avoided mistakes and failures? Do we have the right to criticize them?" he asked, and immediately added that we must also "not sanctify their mistakes."

Yahalom was a White Russian. "When I left the landscape of lilacs in bloom and exchanged it for the Persian lilac tree, it broke my heart," he said, "until the day came when I identified with the local villages and King Solomon Street and the hoof beats of the overburdened camels on their way to Jaffa.

Kitsch on the mountain

Like many in his generation, Yahalom worked mainly in the public sector, including scores of public and state sites, many of which have become an integral part of the national narrative: Gan Hashlosha (Sahne) National Park, the antiquities sites of Beit She'arim, Caesarea and Beit She'an, dozens of kibbutzim in the valleys and the Negev, from Sha'ar Amakim and Mishmar Ha'emek to Dorot, Saad and Nitzanim; the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem and the workers' hostels in Tel Aviv, to name just a few.

In 1955 he and Tsur designed the beautiful gardens surrounding the "anonymous" tenements in the housing project where I grew up in Givatayim, providing some compensation for the loss of the Sharon landscapes of my early childhood. Every spring the jacaranda trees that he liberally scattered "lit up with purple light," as Yahalom described them. In summer the Poinciana trees blossomed in flaming red. There is space and hidden places, grass and shade, slopes and plateaus, and thanks to his planning wisdom, the garden flourishes to this day, even under less than optimal maintenance.

Yahalom also helped plan David Ben-Gurion's burial site in Sde Boker and the original Memorial Mountain at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, which has since undergone many changes. The most noteworthy of these changes is that the construction of the Valley of the Communities, which the Israel Prize judges defined as an exemplary work. Yahalom said that he was not completely satisfied with the Yad Vashem complex and the memorial ritual in general.

During the planning stages he waged a struggle with Yad Vashem "over the value of modesty, of not saying everything" in the Valley of the Communities, and he protested the kitsch that he felt had taken over the mountain. As he stated in an interview afterward, he was only partially successful in this struggle. "The only thing I can say about myself in connection with this is that like Noah, who was righteous in his generation, I too was righteous, but perhaps only in my generation," said Yahalom.

Yahalom was born in 1913 in the agricultural community of Antopol. At age 20 he immigrated to Israel with a Hashomer Hatzair youth group that was among the founders of Kibbutz Kfar Menahem. Most of his education was informal - his professional training was doing practical work in the office of landscape architect Yehiel Segal, where he watched his teacher and mentor and became his partner until opening his own office in 1942. For 40 years, starting in 1953, his office partner was Dan Tsur. The two worked together in total agreement until Yahalom's retirement in 1993, when he was 80.

Even after his retirement, Yahalom continued to be an influential figure, always up to date with his field, a fascinating, broad-minded and provocative conversationalist. Many came to visit his home - a heartwarming and modest house designed by architect friends, Ora and Yaakov Yaar, with a lovely garden that he designed himself. Years after he had ceased to be involved in planning and was losing his eyesight, he said, "I still dream gardens." Yahalom is survived by his wife, Leah, two daughters, a son, grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.