A Lyric Force

"David Reznik: A Retrospective," curator and catalog editor - Sofia Dekel, Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv University.

Ziva Sternhell
Ziva Sternhell

"David Reznik: A Retrospective," curator and catalog editor - Sofia Dekel, Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv University.

It is no coincidence that Israeli architecture of the 1950s and `60s has become a hot research topic of late. For the last 20 years, this period has been a focus of interest all over the world. Now that we have the minimal historical perspective, and the dark blot that loomed over the tremendous building upswing after World War II, roundly panned by the postmodernists, has been lifted, researchers have made a mad dash to explore an array of topics never studied before. Within this international context, it is worth looking at the catalog put together for the retrospective show organized this year at Tel Aviv University's Genia Schreiber Gallery for veteran Jerusalem architect David Reznik.

The catalog, edited by curator Sofia Dekel and beautifully designed by Chava Mordohovich, establishes Reznik's niche in the history of Israeli architecture and accentuates his standing as one of the most important architects in the country in the second half of the 20th century. It also provides an excellent opportunity to study how ideas widespread in the international arena took root in the unique socio-cultural reality of Israel.

Reznik was born in Brazil in 1924 and studied architecture in Rio de Janeiro. Immigrating here in 1949, he quickly integrated into the intensive architectural activity of those years. He opened his own office in 1958. He has a long, impressive list of buildings to his name and even won the Israel Prize. And yet his Tel Aviv colleagues have managed to overshadow his achievements, and he remains almost unknown outside of his field.

Dekel is determined to give Reznik the credit due to him, and this catalog is a paean to the architect and his work. She avoids any outright criticism, and the projects chosen to represent his work are all large public buildings that highlight his contribution to consolidating the identity of the new state. The focus on 18 projects, however, of which at least two - the Gur Yeshiva and the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem - are not pinnacles in his lengthy career - shunts aside his accomplishments in the realm of private building.

The analysis of Reznik's outlook is not complete either, but as a preliminary study, Dekel has succeeded in laying a good foundation for our understanding of Reznik as a human being and a professional. We learn how the young architect, who edited his school's student newspaper and was invited to work in the office of Oscar Niemeyer, said good-bye to Brazil and moved to Israel to put his Zionist ideals into practice. He left Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, where he worked in the fields, after two years, but the sense of social commitment, he says, has remained with him to this day.

In Israel, Reznik's talent was recognized early on by two of the leading architects of the day. First he worked for Ze'ev Rechter in Tel Aviv, and then Heinz Rau asked him to go into a partnership with him in Jerusalem. The move to Jerusalem in 1955 was, in many respects, one of the most important steps in Reznik's career. The architect from Brazil became part of the connection between the architectural heritage of the British Mandate and the architecture of Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state.

Local landmarks

The partnership with Rau lasted only three years, but during this time Reznik helped to design two important buildings for the Hebrew University's new Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem: the Einstein Institute of Mathematics and the Israel Goldstein Synagogue. This synagogue was without doubt a landmark in local architecture.

At a time when most of their colleagues, steeped in the pragmatic approach to architecture, were deliberating how to design public buildings that were also infused with an element of spirituality, Reznik and Rau proved it was possible to convey spiritual symbols using minimalist language and modest dimensions. The synagogue has a white concrete dome that rests on eight arches, surrounding a glass enclosure with a floor of natural stone. It gives the impression of hovering in the air and being rooted in the ground at the same time - a totally modernistic building that exploits new technologies, but evokes local historical associations. While very different from the buildings around it, it blends in amazingly well.

If the Goldstein Synagogue, which won international acclaim, was Rau's swan song, for Reznik it was a promising debut. From the moment he struck out on his own, he took on design projects of all kinds - public institutions, housing projects, private homes, neighborhoods. In Jerusalem, he designed the Van Leer Institute and the Academy of Science (with Shimon Powsner), as well as the Kennedy Memorial, the Mormon University and the Soldiers' House/Yad Lebanim complex. He was instrumental in getting the Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus off the ground. He helped consolidate the master plan, and designed the student dormitories, the school of education and the school for overseas students there. Although his major projects are in Jerusalem, one can find Reznik buildings in other places, too. He designed the Antiquities Museum in Hatzor, Ben-Gurion University's faculty of mechanical engineering in Be'er Sheva, and private homes all over the country. He has planned neighborhoods in Kiryat Hasidim, Hatzor Haglilit, Modi'in and Beit Shemesh.

Dekel does not analyze Reznik's work in chronological order, but according to key subjects: fortress-like architecture, mega-structures, high-rise construction, integration in the landscape. She tries to correlate between the influences streaming into Israel from the international arena and the reality of 50 years of rapid construction, punctuated by periods of economic crisis and mood swings.

Reznik, the author points out repeatedly, came here with "baggage" from Brazil. The combination of traditional academic education and a passion for modernism inherited from Niemeyer, during a period considered the golden age of Brazilian architecture, definitely left its stamp on him. Indeed, Reznik did better than most architects in Israel when it came to monumental architecture that incorporated both symbolism and the latest technologies.

This is especially evident in buildings like Yad Lebanim and the Kennedy Memorial, whose whole reason for being was symbolic. But even in lesser known works, also worthy of inclusion on the list of his local architectural masterpieces, such as the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, the Antiquities Museum in Hatzor and the Israeli Embassy in Brazil, Reznik shows his knack for investing his buildings with a special lyricism.

Spirit and poetry

Analyzing the blueprints of these and other buildings, in quite a few cases we find clean, rectangular structures with carefully preserved symmetry - evidence of the persistent influence of his academic training and work with Niemeyer. Traces of it can even be seen in the much-maligned residential building above the supermarket on Agron Street in Jerusalem. Only in the last few years has its image been rehabilitated to some extent. This cubistic building, sitting on a raised platform and resting on diagonal pillars, can be seen as a kind of "temple" to the repetitious and industrial residential housing in the age of mass construction.

Dekel points out the diversity in Reznik's work, with each building imbued with its own special character. She traces his development from closed, "fortress-like" buildings, typical of his early years in the country, such as Van Leer and the embassy in Brazil, to buildings in the late 1970s that open up to the landscape, particularly the Hyatt Hotel.

Indeed, as one peruses the catalog, one is almost deterred from seeking a common thread in buildings so different from one another. Alongside low, sculptural buildings that seem to hug the landscape, and neighborhoods that "sprout" from the ground, as in Hatzor Haglilit, there are faceless concrete towers like those that line Stern Street in Jerusalem. Biomorphic, undulating designs like the memorial room at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim contrast sharply with the geometric shapes found in so much of his other work.

But the diversity that comes to the fore in the catalog is actually the key to understanding Reznik's outlook and the broader contexts from which his work sprang. The architect, steeped in the legacy of monumental Brazilian modernism, who integrated so successfully in the building of a new country, also adopted the organic principles paramount in the avant-garde architecture of the second half of the 20th century. The construction that characterized the era of rehabilitation after World War II has been harshly criticized, yet during those same years, the international architectural elite was searching for a way to reintroduce the spiritual and emotional dimension that had been excised from modern architecture by mass construction.

Niemeyer, for example, who had such an influence on the young Reznik, is labeled a "rationalist" by Dekel, and was perceived in this country as a strict modernist. Yet he was a representative of the wave of neo-expressionism architecture that swept the architectural world at the time, and he believed in the need to create a modern national identity. Back in the 1950s, he lambasted functionalist architecture, with its standard, universalized features, on the grounds that architecture was not just a feat of engineering, but also spirit, imagination and poetry.

Actually, the response to the myth that grew up around the house as a "living machine" harks back to the 1930s. But after World War II, the idea of nature as a source of inspiration that could rescue modern architecture from alienation and "mechanical functionalism" was taken even more seriously. Local context was reinstated, and biomorphic design cropped up everywhere.

But with the advent of cheap mass construction, people forgot that many of the leading architects of the time, among them Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, believed the quest for "deep structure," linking man and nature and creating unity in diversity, would also imbue mass architecture with internal logic, a deep rootedness to place and even spiritual meaning.

These principles, which were the basis of modern architecture from the start, and were accompanied in the 1950s and `60s by a sense of optimism, help to shed light on the work of David Reznik. By establishing himself in Jerusalem, which embodies the spirit of modern, organic architecture more than any other city in Israel, a natural bond was created between his work and that of architects like Rau, Erich Mendelssohn and Leopold Krakauer.

Even if Dekel has not plumbed the depths of Reznik's approach or recognized the broader significance of his organic philosophy, she has made a valuable contribution to the study of Israeli architecture. Today, when the sword of unscrupulous renovation hangs over buildings like the Van Leer Institute and the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, the importance of research like Dekel's is greater than ever.



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