The Israeli Architectural Great With a Le Corbusier Complex

Sam Barkai was a disciple of the French-Swiss master, as is Avi Mayer in his new book on Barkai.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Israeli architect Sam Barkai's Aginsky House, 1935.
Israeli architect Sam Barkai's Aginsky House, 1935. Credit: Sam Barkai
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

Avi Mayer’s Hebrew-language book “Sam Barkai: The Architect of Right Dimensions” turns the spotlight on an outstanding Tel Aviv architect who helped bring modernism to prestate Israel in the 1930s. Barkai worked during the golden age of Israeli architecture, which indeed can be described as advocating right dimensions.

Barkai was a founder of a group that made the International Style local and turned it into that era's reigning architectural stream in the country.

Barkai mainly designed villas and apartment buildings in the private market, unlike many of his colleagues who also worked for the establishment in so-called nation-building efforts. Barkai was a good architect, a rare thing in these parts nowadays, just as the right dimensions disappeared from the landscape and left it wide open to any whim.

The book on Barkai’s work — designed by Magen Halutz — shows that research on architecture and the architects of that period has not been exhausted, even when it seems everything has already been researched, said, written and made cliché.

White City architecture has been a target of criticism from all sides and become politically incorrect, and today it’s a lever for raising housing prices. But the last word has yet to be said.

Israeli architect Sam Barkai during the 1960s.Credit: The Sam Barkai archive

In general, almost entirely missing from the Israeli architecture bookshelf are works on architects from all the historical periods, even the most prominent. The image of those who designed the face of the country for generations — their work, lifestyles, relationships, loves, hates — has remained something of a mystery.

Barkai was born in Novorossiysk, Russia, and arrived in British Mandatory Palestine in 1920. At the start of his career he worked in the construction industry without any proper training, designing dozens of villas and apartment buildings in Tel Aviv. In 1931, during a recession in Tel Aviv’s construction industry, he left for Europe, like many architects in the country at the time.

Barkai studied architecture in Paris and did his internship in Le Corbusier’s atelier. Upon returning to Palestine in 1934, “he began to work according to Le Corbusier’s method,” Mayer writes. His peak period was 1934 to 1939, when he designed Villa Lubin and the Aginsky House, which are considered his most outstanding works.

Between 1947 and 1973 he designed dozens of villas in Tel Aviv (many of which were demolished) as well as public buildings including the Sharon Cinema in Netanya and Beit Hashiryon — the Armored Corps House — a soldiers’ hostel in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood.

The book about Barkai is based on an exercise by Mayer when he was preparing a portfolio of documentation for the Aginsky House on Tel Aviv’s 5 Engel St. that Barkai designed in 1935. The portfolio was part of Mayer’s studies in building preservation for a master’s degree in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion. The exercise turned into a thesis and a book on Barkai’s work and his period; the research and writing took about a decade.

Israeli artist Arieh Lubin in a building designed by architect Sam Barkai, 1937. Credit: Sam Barkai

A great internship

Mayer places Barkai’s work against the backdrop of the modern revolution in architecture in Palestine and Europe, focusing mainly on Le Corbusier’s strong influence on Barkai’s work. The emphasis on the Le Corbusier imprint stems both from Barkai’s view of the Swiss-French legend as his teacher and mentor, and from Mayer’s great admiration for Le Corbusier's work.

Barkai wasn’t the only one to be influenced by Le Corbusier and also intern at his firm. Barkai interned at Le Corbusier’s atelier for only two monthsl; his work there was marginal but he made sure to stress it in his résumé.

Mayer says of himself: “I have a Le Corbusier syndrome, I research him obsessively, visit all his buildings and keep track of everything written about him and anyone connected to him.”

The obsession is evident in the book. Le Corbusier is the main character no less than Barkai. Barkai’s work is assessed largely based on his interpretation of Le Corbusier’s principles and his loyalty to them — or deviation from them.

Israeli architect Sam Barkai in 1926.Credit: The Sam Barkai archive

A good example is the detailed description of Villa Lubin, the residence and atelier designed by Barkai in 1937 for the family of painter Arieh Lubin in Ramat Gan’s Tel Binyamin neighborhood.

In Villa Lubin, Barkai included “the main features of Le Corbusier’s Purist philosophy while making broad use of his dictionary of architectonic forms,” Mayer writes. Nor does he spare details; the stained glass window in Lubin’s atelier is similar to the one on the top floor of Le Corbusier’s Maison Guiette in Antwerp.

The origin of the staircase leading to the atelier is Le Corbusier’s theoretical project Maison Citrohan from 1922. The villa’s strip windows, the round columns, the roof garden “are borrowed from Le Corbusier’s five principles of modern architecture.” The access to the atelier “is Barkai’s version of the ‘architectonic promenade’ that was a favorite of Le Corbusier.”

Bauhaus beats Purism

In addition to his interest in Barkai and Le Corbusier, Mayer’s book aims to uproot from the architectural lexicon the ostensibly scientific term International Style and the popular term Bauhaus. The former “has adhered to the European avant-garde movement, to its detriment. The movement included many and varied streams and sub-streams that were sometimes even hostile to one another.”

The second term, Bauhaus, is a deliberate mistake, says Mayer, and even worse, “today it’s the name of a real estate firm.” The correct term, which according to Mayer is more local and Mediterranean, is Purism, which Le Corbusier defined as “the elementary truth that determines that anything of universal value is worth more than anything of merely individual value,” cites Mayer. But with a name like Purism, the architecture of the period would never had come as far as with the winning brand Bauhaus.

Mayer’s book combines research and historical background with a precise architectural analysis both of Barkai’s buildings and Le Corbusier’s, adding telling behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

A conversation with Mayer about the book spills over into the complex relationship between Le Corbusier, the architect with the worldwide reputation, and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who was basically the one who implemented Le Corbusier’s ideas but who remained far behind.

The picture of the relationship is wonderfully illustrated by a photograph of the two. At the right stands Le Corbusier, five feet eight inches tall, and next to him, or actually in his shadow or below him, stands Pierre Jeanneret, five feet two.

Mayer owns a design firm in Tel Aviv that does urban construction and architecture. He is the grandson of Shalom Meir, a pioneer of industry in Israel and a Zionist activist. He’s also the son of Mordechai Meir, who with his brothers Benjamin and Moshe completed Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower in 1965, the country’s first skyscraper.

Mayer is also the nephew of architect Yitzhak Pearlstein, who helped design the Shalom Tower with architects Gideon Ziv and Meir Levy. Pearlstein, a pioneer of prefab construction in Israel, to a great extent fulfilled Le Corbusier’s vision of industrializing construction. Pearlstein deserves a study no less than Barkai and others in the generation of the right dimensions.

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