The Israeli Architect Who Planned the Entire Country

In a new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the hand of the creator Arieh Sharon plays the leading role

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“Arieh Sharon: Architect of the State” at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
“Arieh Sharon: Architect of the State” at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of ArtCredit: Yael Aloni
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

In the soccer world, some may still wonder whether the “hand of God” played a part in Diego Maradona’s legendary goal in the 1986 World Cup, or whether the midfielder’s human hand achieved the miracle. But in the Israeli world of architecture and planning, it’s indisputable that the hand of Arieh Sharon (1900-1984) planned the country – without divine intervention.

Any lingering doubts on that score are definitively refuted by a photograph of the architect in the exhibition “Arieh Sharon: Architect of the State” at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (curator: Eran Neuman). The image shows Sharon at Haifa’s Technion technology institute, against the backdrop of the university’s Forum complex, which he designed. His chest taut, his gaze direct and penetrating, Sharon’s right arm, fist clenched, is raised high triumphantly. He’s projecting determination, power and unshakable confidence in the bold new world he fashioned with his own hands.

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The persona embodied in the photograph is manifestly a visual representation of the notion of “the architect of the state.” It’s also a metaphor for the vast influence Sharon exercised on the national space, and a symbol of the intoxication of power and the hubris of architects.

Sharon’s raised hand is undoubtedly a fitting image for the unimaginably huge scope of his work, even by a world standard. On display in the exhibition are hundreds of projects planned by his firm over a career spanning almost half a century. With various partners, Sharon took part in every form of construction – residences, hospitals, public and government buildings, universities, and above all, upon Israel’s establishment, he was put in charge of its master plan as head of an extensive team of planners and other experts.

The “Sharon Plan” – which urged the dispersal of the country’s population and gave rise to the so-called development towns – is a boundless reservoir of naive faith in the rightness of the chosen way without any signs of hesitation but with plentiful signs of the sin of pride that flexed the architect’s muscles.

As far as is known, Sharon is the only architect in the world to plan an entire country. That heavy burden requires at least a clenched fist to grasp it, and sure enough, Sharon’s raised fist (his left hand is also in a fist), is the most spellbinding exhibit in the show, an interpretation worth a thousand interpretations, an image etched in history.

Sharon’s hand also stokes thoughts about the mythic status of the hand in the world of architecture. Seeing Sharon’s pose, many architects will undoubtedly associate it with Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale of proportions: a generic human figure with the left arm raised, exemplifying the new system developed by the god of architecture in the 1930s.

The system, based on the human body’s proportions, aimed to create a new harmony amid a chaotic world marked by industry, rapid population growth and a need for mass housing. The proportions, based on the golden mean, allowed for unity of scale in all realms, from the design of a chair to urban planning.

Arieh Sharon, Le Corbusier and the Modulor merge in another photograph in the exhibition: Sharon is seen imitating the Modulor’s pose in a relief on a concrete wall at none other than the Housing Unit that Le Corbusier deigned in Marseille. That building is the prototype for the post-World War II housing blocks that assumed multiple versions in Israel in Sharon’s time. Truly a cosmic coincidence.

Sharon imitating the Modulor’s pose in a relief on a concrete wall at none other than the Housing Unit that Le Corbusier deigned in Marseille.Credit: Courtesy of the Sharon family

Another link in the chain of hands, once more involving Le Corbusier, is seen in an unforgettable photograph of his hand floating above a miniaturized model of the Radiant City – the Swiss-French architect’s proposal for a high-rise neighborhood in the center of Paris and for foisting the modernist order on the historical chaos. The proposal was a deliberate provocation with the aim of honing the idea, but alas it has materialized around the world in thousands of sterile compounds of towers. Paris itself was spared.

Another item relating to the myth of the hand is Le Corbusier’s Open Hand Monument, a sculpture he designed in honor of the new Indian city Chandigarh, which he planned. This was originally a small, pleasing painting. Translated into a sculpture, it swelled out of all proportion and looms over the city’s Capitol Complex like a threatening, graceless metal giant. The hand has been replicated in the form of millions of souvenirs and cheap gadgets for visitors.

It was Le Corbusier’s organic hand that planned Chandigarh based on the principles of the Modulor, the proportions and the Radiant City. The result is an orderly urban area, more organized than any other city in the subcontinent, but also hierarchic, layered and void of urbanism – another model that spread around the world for good and for ill.

A mythic hand in its own right in the architecture world is the “free hand,” which holds a soft pencil or a thin marker and produces drawings of graceful buildings all on its own. In the past, skill at free-hand drawing was a source of pride and a gauge of professional excellence.

Since computerized drawing began in the 1980s, and more intensively with the emergence of three-dimensional digital software, the free hand has given way to the mouse. The process has been accompanied by tempestuous disagreements between those who argue that computerization leaves more time for thought and enables more efficient planning, and those who lament its infringement on freedom of imagination and spontaneity. Which era has produced better architecture is an open question.

World-famous architect Le Corbusier,seen in his office in Paris January 18, 1949. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Be that as it may, and even as the arguments become raucous, it turns out that the free hand hasn’t yet faded into oblivion: They’re becoming collectors’ items. They’re displayed in museums and galleries at prices almost comparable to the footage of the buildings they depict.

A kind of second ‘Israeli Project’

“Arieh Sharon: Architect of the State” is the most comprehensive architectural exhibition here since “The Israeli Project” in 2000. That show, which set forth the foundation stones upon which the state was planned, was held at a time when architecture criticism was in its infancy.

The current exhibition is a close-up of the central figure in the “Project” and is on view amid a trenchant public discussion of its themes. It’s an impressive show that’s drawing a decent audience for an architectural exhibition. Still, it doesn’t stir the emotions.

All the same, Sharon’s work overall, and the “Sharon Plan” specifically, are more than a collection of historical materials. They’re relevant for the here and now, related to planning crises that are still occurring, to the social polarization that sprang from it, and to the national conflict. But the exhibition doesn’t exit from history and remains in the realm of architectural, national and Zionist nostalgia.

Against this backdrop, the exhibition’s loop screening from the documentary “The Ancestral Sin” (the Hebrew title translates as “Salah, this is the Land of Israel”) emerges as a perfunctory gesture. On October 25, two days before the exhibition closes and too late to pick up the gauntlet, a “closing event” will be held that should disrupt the order a little, in which the exhibition catalogue will be launched.

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