Stranded in Israel, Oscar Niemeyer Left His Mark on the Country's Architecture

Caught abroad when a coup broke out back home, architect Oscar Niemeyer designed projects for Israel’s major cities and for the Negev, though most were never built.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

In 1964, the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was invited to Israel by Yekutiel Federman, CEO of the Dan hotel chain, to discuss potential projects. He stopped by as part of a working tour that included Ghana and Europe and didn't intend to stay long. But then a military coup broke out in Brazil and the short visit became six months.

The extended stay is detailed in Niemeyer's memoirs, which were published in 1968 (the chapter about his visit to Israel was translated into Hebrew from Portuguese by Tania Melzer and published in Zvi Efrat’s book "The Israeli Project: Building and Architecture, 1948–1973"). While in Israel, he learned that the new Brazilian regime had stripped him of his political rights. Niemeyer, a communist and a prominent, admired man in his own country, became an outlaw overnight, wanted by the army and the police, who raided his office in Rio de Janeiro.

Niemeyer shut himself up in his apartment in Tel Aviv, frustrated by his inability to return to Brazil, and limited contacts to only those necessary for his work, which included the projects for Federman as well as the Housing Ministry.

“While there is no lack of excellent people in Israel, the infusion of a new kind of spirit that arouses thought and controversy will benefit us because we all want to improve the country’s landscape, including through architecture,” said then housing minister Yosef Almogi of Niemeyer in August of that year.

Despite the turmoil back home, Niemeyer made his six months here productive, designing a respectable number of projects with engineer Samuel Rawet and various other architects. The most prominent of them were the Nordia complex and Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv, Ir Hanegev, a city planned for Israel’s south, the Scandinavia Hotel, Federman House and the University of Haifa.

The hotel even honored his prolific output with an exhibit called “Six Months in Israel,” which displayed models, plans, texts and diagrams and other “examples of rationalist architecture based on professional certainty – projects that were unlike anything that had been done in Israel at that time, and were based solely on the firm rationale of architecture and urbanism.”

Fifty floors above the Negev

Niemeyer’s designs attracted a great deal of controversy and debate, particularly when it came to building high-rises. In the Ir Hanegev project – an attempt to examine new types of housing units in a schematic, unnamed city in the heart of the desert, which was never built – he was asked to design buildings of four to eight floors. Niemeyer, a devotee of progress, wanted to build a vertical tower city, and in the text he submitted with his proposal, he criticized the construction styles that were conventional in Israel at the time.

“The conservation of land has unassailable economic advantages: relinquishing the need for streets and pathways; relinquishing the need for hundreds of blocks of apartment buildings that cover an enormous area, create problems of traffic and transportation and put a strain on the water, sewage and electrical systems.... A project like this is an inevitable projection of the forward thrust of progress, technology and life itself.”

Niemeyer’s Ir Hanegev project is a utopian fantasy, a model that “can be implemented time after time along Israel’s main highways, together with the definition of areas for agriculture, industry and leisure, and bringing the spirit of progress into the country’s interior,” as he wrote. The city, which was planned to serve 30,000 to 40,000 residents, is a kind of circle without cars surrounded by a natural boulevard. Beside the boulevard would be parking areas, a railway station, taxi stands and a large commercial area. The residential buildings and areas for sports would be placed around an urban administrative center that contained the municipality building and buildings for commerce and leisure.

Much thought went into the planning of the residential buildings, which were intended to be 30 to 50 floors high. Niemeyer felt that such heights would enable the residents to avoid the desert dust and sandstorms, giving them clear air and a magnificent view. The apartments themselves received a great deal of attention in the planning. Inner gardens built on various levels led to the entrances. Niemeyer hoped that this style of building, together with the absence of vehicles, would result in quiet streets and centers protected from the desert winds, full of shade and pedestrian traffic.

Obviously, Ir Hanegev was never built according to this plan, as even Niemeyer himself doubted it would be. The plan’s critics complained that it forced a certain lifestyle on the inhabitants without considering the existing Israeli routines. They also feared that the city, which was intended mainly for new immigrants, would make the transition between cultures, which was already complex, unbearably turbulent. Add to that the claim that the Negev did not suffer from a shortage of land and the contention that trumped all: since Niemeyer’s method had not yet proven itself, it was too early to adopt an expanded version of it in Israel.

Architect Abba Elhanani, who was Niemeyer’s partner on several projects, including the proposal for the Nordia complex and Kikar Hamedina, along with Yisrael Lotan, said that architecture had already been in crisis for a century as far as urban planning was concerned. The failures in construction throughout the world showed Niemeyer’s ideas in a new light, he said, since it would be impossible to build any worse than what had already been done.

But Niemeyer was not swayed by his critics. “I sought to work only out of loyalty to my own personal ideas and produce unique and varied works that would please me and justify my stay in Israel,” he said.

His relationship to Israel was complex. On the one hand, he admired the new country’s socialist spirit and the optimism and rationalism that informed it ideologically and in terms of planning. On the other hand, he saw the low, suburban construction that was steadily filling the country as a developmental obstacle that stemmed from conservatism and prejudice. For Niemeyer, the idea of constructing high-rises was the right solution for a country where land was so scarce and costly.

The great-grandfather of Dizengoff Center

In contrast to the ideological pioneering spirit that was supposed to characterize Ir Hanegev, Niemeyer realized that the Nordia complex, the project Federman asked him to design, which was to be built on the ruins of the rundown neighborhood in downtown Tel Aviv, was motivated by financial considerations. Its purpose was to make maximum use of the land area. Niemeyer’s plan was to build three towers of 40 floors each: a residential apartment building, a hotel and an office building. Beneath them, he planned a large two-story commercial area with shops, restaurants and cinemas.

Critics said the project would be an enclave for the wealthy, which would have a detrimental effect on the social polarization of the city. But the reasons it was rejected were mainly financial. The land was later sold to a group of Canadian investors who proposed building two high-rises of 20 floors each, half as high as in Niemeyer’s plan. This proposal also failed because of a shortfall in funds. In the end, the land was sold to contractor Arie Pilz, who built Dizengoff Center, a commercial center with office and residential high-rise buildings above it, in the late 1970s.

Onward to Haifa. Niemeyer's design for the University of Haifa placed a small number of structures on a large rectangular expanse of concrete with a large space separating them. All the classrooms, the library and study rooms were concentrated in one large horizontal building. Eshkol Tower, the university’s administrative section, rises like a ship’s mast facing Haifa Bay. Another building, shaped like an upside-down pyramid, was not built in the end. But other buildings, whose connection to the original plan is weak at best, were built on the southern part of the campus. Eshkol Tower, the most dominant element of the project, shows the style of Niemeyer’s design to some extent, though in the end the tower was built according to Shlomo Gilad’s design in 1978.

Despite the differences in use, location, context and the way the buildings stand, the project draws inspiration from the convention center that Niemeyer had designed in Brasilia four years before. Niemeyer’s detractors complained that his proposal for the university failed to take into account the urban environment or the landscape of the Carmel mountain ridge. Abba Hushi, the mayor of Haifa at the time and a supporter of the project, was criticized harshly for encouraging the construction of high-rise buildings on the mountain range. Niemeyer saw such construction as a necessity.

Searching for a Brazilian spirit

Niemeyer’s work sparked a debate in Brazilian modernism on the search for a “Brazilian spirit” in architecture, inspired by the colonialist Baroque style, the area’s tropical character and the topography. What was left out was the local context, which rarely served as a deciding factor in the design, but got a symbolic nod at best.

In his memoirs, Niemeyer wrote that Israel left him with a positive impression, calling it “an amazing land full of contradictions and beauty.” He was most impressed with the Negev desert and Eilat, and also with the lively city of Tel Aviv. Among his friends were Federman and the architects David Resnick, Elhanani and Lotan. With a sure hand, Niemeyer sketched a fertile vision for a country that, in the 1960s, was trying to find its way. But fulfilling that vision, which frequently clashed with the new country’s aspirations, was beyond his ability.

After leaving Israel, Niemeyer stayed mostly in France and other European countries, traveling to Lebanon and Algeria as well. He returned to Brazil in the 1980s, where he continued working almost until the day of his death. He died on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, just ten days before his 105th birthday.

A model of Kikar Hamedina, as envisioned by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.Credit: Yosef Meir
Oscar Niemayer, in his younger days.Credit: Eliyahu Kaminer

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