Sliding Up the Rechter Scale

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

Engel House, on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, is undoubtedly one of Zeev Rechter's best-known works. Rechter was a talented and prolific architect and one of the harbingers of Modernism in Israel. However, according to architect Matanya Sack, the public remembers mainly "the building that put Tel Aviv up on pillars," forgetting his varied work in cities, kibbutzim and villages. "At first glance Rechter stands out for the buildings that have been canonized," Sack says, "but I believe he is notable chiefly for his diversity."

Sack, 33, joined fellow architects Dana Mashiach-Gordon, 28, and Kerem Halbrecht, 31, to co-curate "Zeev." The exhibition opened last week in Tel Aviv, in cooperation with the Beit Berl College School of Art. It seeks to aims at reveal the diversity of Rechter's works through rare archival materials together with contemporary photographs of selected buildings. The result is a small and pleasant mini-retrospective, a kind of advanced exercise in archive work.

Engel House was indeed a one-off, with its story of columns that was open at both ends, expanding the space of the street and providing the residents with a shady green garden - until it was sealed off with stones. The exhibition shows the building in the perspective of a series of bourgeois residential buildings that Rechter designed in Tel Aviv.

"The subject of homes was very prominent among the materials [for the exhibition]," Sack says. "Our research showed that he would approach the design of a building via the blueprint of an apartment. That gave him a great deal of freedom and an opportunity to focus on the details."

From a faded file Sack pulls out the plans for the Fried house, on Tel Aviv's Ahad Ha'am Street, an attractive residential building whose ground-floor pharmacy is now home to Cafe Noah. The general condition of the building is decent, and its long balconies have barely been touched. The same cannot be said about Engel House.

"Rechter made the balcony a real outdoor room, an independent entity just like the kitchen or the living room," Sack says. "He searched obsessively for an ordinary, prosaic but high-quality apartment."

Rechter was born in the Ukraine in 1899 and immigrated to Palestine at the age of 20. He was hired by Sasha Hissin, an engineer. His first job was measuring what was to become Allenby Road. His first independently designed building was Beit Hakadim ("The vase house"), on the corner of Nahalat Binyamin and Rambam streets, in 1924. The eclectic, pseudo-European residential building got its name from the large vases on its cornices. He went on to design a number of residential buildings in Tel Aviv, and in the early 1930s he went to Rome and Paris for further studies.

After returning Rechter settled in Tel Aviv, together with his wife, Paula Singer, and their three children: Yaakov, who followed in his father's footsteps to become and architect, and daughters Aviva and Tuti.

Rechter considered architecture a central feature of the consolidation of culture in Israel. He, together with his colleagues Aryeh Sharon and Yosef Neufeld, established the "architects' forum," a lively and opinionated group that exalted professional architectural discussion and even published the first Palestinian architecture journal.

Rechter's social milieu included poets, artists and actors, the Tel Aviv bohemians. His social contacts with high society also helped attract wealthy clients. In 1927 he built a private home for the poet and writer Esther Raab, on Hagalil Street (now Mapu Street). When the Parisian sculptor Anna Orlov, who was friendly with Raab, visited the house she was very impressed and asked about the architect?" Raab pointed to Rechter, who was sitting with other friends in her living room. A year later he built a home for Orlov in Paris' 14th Arrondissement.

Rechter's career expanded in the 1940s, as did the scope of his work. He designed buildings for kibbutzim such as Tel Amal and Kfar Menahem, and for villages. He also designed the Beit Hapoel complex in Haifa's Hadar area, together with Sharon. It included the Galei Hadar municipal swimming pool, a movie theater, a club and a sports auditorium. The innovative combination of uses would be considered daring even today. Unfortunately this complex has been abandoned, a gloomy reminder of the time when Hadar was Haifa's main district, and Modernist architecture was more appreciated.

In his final decade, the 1950s, Rechter designed some of his most impressive projects: Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma (International Convention Center), the first state building in the government complex in Jerusalem; Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, together with Dov Carmi; the Sprinzak convalescent home in Nazareth; and the Kaplan and Meir hospitals, in Rehovot and Kfar Sava, respectively. These were extremely productive years, during which he focused on both the urban and the national scales while continuing his search for a local architectural identity.

Despite his great importance on the local architectural scene, Rechter has remained a fairly obscure figure. With the exception of an exhibition in his honor in Tel Aviv in 1961, one year after his death, and the biography written by Prof. Ran Shehori in the 1980s, the majority of his work is unknown to many, and even the iconoclastic Mann Auditorium is now fighting for its very future and identity.

The gallery hosting the new exhibition, Spaceship ("Hahalalit), at 70 Hayarkon St. in Tel Aviv, is in a building that was designed by Rechter in the mid-1930s. It was built as a luxurious apartment for the building's owners, the Deblitzky family, and in the 1950s it was converted into the architectural offices of Aryeh Sharon. In 2007 it was repurposed by Halbrecht and now operates as an independent cultural center with a gallery, apartments and studios for rent.

The curators note that most of the buildings in the exhibition (which will move at the end of November to Beit Berl, in Kfar Sava) were built in the 1930s and 40s, and hint at the early development of Rechter's style. "One of the salient characteristics of Rechter's that we discovered during the curating process was his ability to achieve something and then to try out a completely different direction," Halbrecht says. "That is a little of what we are trying to show."

On the gallery wall is a sketch for a luxurious Modernist villa that was never built. "There are moments when he sits down and suddenly designed a detached conceptual project," Mashiach-Gordon explains. "It is a design with no patron, and we don't know where to locate it in time, a kind of urban villa with all kinds of ideas together. On the one hand, pillars like Le Corbusier and on the other hand a ribbon window and a rounded wall. He has gathered many ideas into a single entity."

This fantastic drawing, like the other materials for the exhibition, came from Rechter Architects, now headed by Zeev's grandson, Amnon. An archive of this type is not merely a collection of beautiful freehand sketches or impressive perspective drawings from the mid-20th century. It is above all an important source of information, bursting with blueprints and original documents in inverse proportion to its accessibility to the public - and to architects.

When decades of fruitful activity remain without any thorough research, this has a direct influence on the condition and force of the Rechters' buildings. The challenge facing the three curators, together with Rechter Architects, is to use the momentum created by the exhibition to reveal more about this extensive activity. There is undoubtedly sufficient material in the archives for several more exhibitions on Zeev Rechter, to say nothing of the work of his son Yaakov and those who continue in his footsteps. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, which Zeev Rechter designed in the 1950s, with his son Yaakov and with Dov Carmi, would be a suitable location for this.