Be'er Sheva, the Capital of Brutalism

Move afoot to brand the southern city the 'gray city' for its raw concrete buildings from the '50s and '60s.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

A new initiative is trying to brand Be’er Sheva as the Capital of Brutalism and do for the gray city what Bauhaus did for Tel Aviv. Will the architectural remnants of the welfare state of the country’s early days also transmit a social message or merely style and nostalgia?

Will the gray city of Be’er Sheva be a sufficient counterpart to the White City of Tel Aviv? Is Brutalism the new Bauhaus? Will architecture based on raw concrete find its way into the hearts of those currently repelled by it?

Who knows? Just a decade or two ago, people sneered at Bauhaus. Will the architecture of the country’s first 20 years join the Israeli pantheon to take its place next to the architecture of the pre-state British Mandate era in the preceding decades?

In the meantime, the plan to promote the architectural heritage of raw concrete in Be’er Sheva, undertaken by architect Dr. Hadas Shadar and architect Omri Oz Amar, calls on turning the capital of the Negev into Israel’s capital of Brutalism.

“The state built the modern city of Be’er Sheva during the first two decades of statehood, plain and simple. The city has some architecturally daring creations in the Brutalism style that no private developer could ever have achieved with the same kind of impact,” says Shadar.

“Developers never loved it and neither did the public at large. Our idea was to use Brutalism as a way to brand the city and point to the city’s unique concrete architectural heritage on a national scale.”

Several months ago, Shadar and Oz submitted a multi-year proposal for the project to the Be’er Sheva municipality. The city itself had long ago identified the potential in the legacy of the local Brutalism, according to city architect Yosefa Dabara. About two years ago, the city commissioned a survey of Be’er Sheva’s structures from that period. The proposal to brand the city as the capital of Brutalism submitted by Shadar and Oz Amar “fell on fertile ground and matched the city’s intentions. We decided all parties would work cooperatively,” says Dabara. November’s Operation Pillar of Defense interrupted the project’s progress, but it is back on track (although it will be postponed just a little longer because of the October municipal election).

Based on the successful precedent of branding Tel Aviv as the White City, a series of festive events focused on Brutalism is planned for 2014. The city will host an academic conference on Brutalism and its preservation, a museum exhibition, architectural tours, and street events for the public at large. Within the next few days, the municipality will issue an open call for participation in events. According to Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, “Given the process of branding the city as Israel’s ‘capital of opportunities,’ the city sought to include the impressive Brutalist structures as part of the branding Be’er Sheva as an opportunity for architecture too.”

The White City is certainly a model worthy of emulation, although it is doubtful such branding can be recreated without resources not only financial and the Sisyphean efforts required to make it happen. Even in Tel Aviv, the move is far from simple or complete. The splendid preservation program and UNESCO declaration of the White City as a World Cultural Heritage Site are now threatened by greedy litigants, ostensibly motivated by fallen property values, and new building projects are threatening the White City’s existence. On the other hand, unlike Bauhaus, Brutalism is now considered trendy and cool in the right circles. Therefore, one may assume that those who accused the white architecture of Tel Aviv of being a fabricated, counterfeit and whitewashed myth will certainly tip their hats to the absolute truth of the architecture of gray cement.

Brutalism played a large role in the construction of the country, its planning and the establishment of its institutions. The style originated in the 1950s in Europe as a radical protest on several fronts architectural, urban and political against the Modernist model that reigned supreme before World War II. It was also a protest against the nationalist state institutions associated with Modernism. In Israel, ironically, it was co-opted for use by the state, and it served the state well, though not without some resounding flops. Israeli Brutalism “is certainly not local, but it’s authentic in every sense,” writes architect Zvi Efrat in his book “The Israeli Project: Construction and Architecture 1948-1973.”

Brutalism was converted by state architects until it became Israelism, as Efrat calls it. It opened the door to local Israeli architecture, as opposed to local native architecture, and presented a new, even patriotic, horizon to the country’s Israeli-born architects, a stark contrast to their biological and philosophical parents’ Bauhaus cosmopolitan style imported from the Diaspora. The architecture of concrete, a relatively cheap construction material, spread throughout the country. Be’er Sheva, a concentrated Brutalism lab experiment with a rich periodic architectural treasure, hurried to claim the crown of Israel’s undisputed capital of Brutalism.

The list of buildings in the proposal submitted by Shadar, whose doctoral thesis dealt with the effect of the Housing Ministry on Be’er Sheva’s urban development, and Oz Amar, a social activist and former Be’er Sheva resident, speaks for itself. The buildings were designed by the best architects living in Israel at the time the state was established and present an impressive, hypnotic and terrifying collection of neighborhoods and residential and public buildings that won as many accolades in Israel and internationally as it won condemnations, especially from those fated to live their lives in the ambitious architectural experiment, and who had to experience the errors and flaws of the style on their own flesh.

Brutalism and its varied concrete features were seen as an allegory for the young, Israeli-born Jew rough, direct, aggressive, just like cement itself. The architects of Brutalism were themselves native-born, young contemporaries of the state. Their character and vision overlapped with the allegory to a remarkable extent. The great irony is that their buildings were constructed mostly for newly arrived immigrants whom the state was sending to the country’s far geographical periphery to live in its Israeli-conceived concrete works. The architects themselves, of course, didn’t follow.

The Brutalism lab in Be’er Sheva includes the Altshul House designed by Yasky/Alexandroni, the Drawers Tower and Pyramid House designed by Lupenfeld-Gamerman, the Be’er Sheva City Hall and Zalman Aranne Library at Ben-Gurion University designed by Nadler-Bixon-Gil, the Music Conservatory designed by Rechter-Zarhi, the Negev Center and student dorms C designed by Ram Carmi and Partners, the Negev Brigade Memorial designed by artist Dani Karavan (many Brutalist structures look like memorials or forts themselves), and many others.

And, of course, the so-called Model Neighborhood, the crowning glory and catastrophe of the genre, designed for the Heh neighborhood of the city by six young architectural firms led by Avraham Yasky. “The Model Neighborhood in Be’er Sheva was and remains the most experimental, innovative and ambitious project in the history of the country,” writes architect Sharon Rotbard in his book “Avraham Yasky: Concrete Architecture.” Especially prominent is the quarter-kilometer long building, the longest building in the country, planned by Yasky-Alexandroni and which became a symbol both of the city and of Israeli Brutalism.

The design principle steering city planners of the modern Be’er Sheva in those early decades of statehood, and still the city’s mantra, made the city into an Israeli invention of neighborhoods separated by empty stretches and highways. Suburban shopping areas empty the city center of contents, yet they continue to be built. The city spreads over a vast area 117 square kilometers for a mere 196,000 residents, compared to 52 square kilometers for Tel Aviv with a population double that size but continues to build on new land. The recently restored ancient city is in many ways the cherry without the ice cream sundae.

A blast from the '50s and '60sCredit: Haaretz
Dated residential architecture in Beer Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Dated residential architecture in Beer Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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