Crumbling, Along With the Ideology That Built It

An old planning decision decided the fate of Mishmar Hanegev's Beit Borochov cultural center. Will the kibbutz's renewal rescue the building from neglect?

Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev members are slightly embarrassed over the neglected state of Beit Borochov, a light-flooded, concrete building designed by architect Shmuel Bikels, which now stands locked and empty on the edge of the kibbutz. It commemorates the socialist leader Dov Ber Borochov and in front of the building is a well-tended lawn facing the kibbutz. The back of the building faces a dry field of thorns.

The place has been empty for several years, and even though it has been preserved in its original state, it suffers from terrible neglect. The troubles are not a result of the changes the kibbutz has undergone over the years, but actually of a single flawed decision made before it was built.

According to architect Avital Efrat, who is researching Bikels' legacy, as early as 1951 the architect presented the first plan for the culture center to be built at the top of a little hill in the center of the community, in accordance with his philosophy that a house of culture should serve as the center of the kibbutz's spiritual life. The center was designed as a large place meant to house the cultural programs the architect deemed vital for a growing community: a 1,000-seat theater, museum, library, classrooms, extracurricular classes, and meetings. However, the kibbutz members who believed residents of the surrounding area would stream in, asked to situate it far from the kibbutz's center, to limit vehicle traffic inside the kibbutz.

Beit Borochov is at the southern edge of the kibbutz and very dilapidated. In practice only a small part of the project was built - the main section including a library, archive and reading room. The theater was never built, because the members of the young kibbutz, who at the time numbered fewer than 100, had neither the aspiration nor money to build a cultural center on this scale. In retrospect, the members admit that locating the building far from the center of the community sealed its fate to remain isolated from the life of the kibbutz, and the efforts to liven it up as a social and community center failed.

Long walk to the library

"When people deliberate whether or not to come to the library because of the distance, that's a problem," says Amitai Ben Tzur, a veteran kibbutz member.

The building, which was dedicated in 1957, contained three wings. The central space had rounded walls housing the library and reading room, and along its two sides are square rooms, one a memorial and archive about Borochov, and an archaeological museum from the collection of David Alon, who was a kibbutz member. The main space is lit up by 20 long windows inset in the radius of the wall and the front, and the same number of sconces along the inner wall that illuminate the ceiling. The side rooms get soft light from a lowered ceiling over which are concealed openings to let in light. This lighting design is classic Bikels, who specialized in illuminating museum spaces, the most prominent example being the Ein Harod Arts Center.

Bikels (1909-1975 ) also designed the Lohamei Hagetaot Museum, as well as dozens of kibbutzim all over the country, including the homes, commercial and public buildings in them. In a research project on cultural centers in the Negev designed by Bikels, Efrat writes that the architect treated the isolated spot in Mishmar Hanegev with all due professional respect and invested his best efforts in the building. "In Bikels' perception, there is no center and periphery. Every spot in the land of Israel, small and remote as it may be, is for him a place for architectural experimentation, testing out ideas, renewal and investment."

Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev was founded in 1946 on the night of "11 Hanekudot" (11 points ), right after Yom Kippur. In early October of that year, 11 communities were settled in one night in an operation intended to bring the Negev within the future borders of the Jewish state. The kibbutz founders were members of the Borochovi Youth, a left-wing movement affiliated with Poalei Zion, who in the 1940s set up a settlement core group called Metzudat Borochov, next to Kfar Sava, that absorbed Holocaust refugees from France, Belgium and Poland. The group settled in Mishmar Hanegev after it was accepted by the United Kibbutz Movement. The dedication of the kibbutz cultural center in Borochov's memory was a natural move and made it possible to raise money for its construction with the help of party activists and kibbutz supporters. Bikels drafted the kibbutz's master plan and quickly became friends with kibbutz members, who referred to him affectionately by the nickname Milek. "He was a straightforward person, an artist," says Ben Tzur, who met him when he was designing the kibbutz's various buildings.

In planning the kibbutz, Bikels applied unique concepts such as surrounding the children's homes with the homes of the kibbutz members. In 1966 construction of the members' meeting place was completed and he situated it where he had initially proposed building the culture center. According to Ben Tzur, the members' meeting place is active today, and well-used by members who enjoy the light, air flow and aesthetic values.

Exodus and return

Beit Borochov, on the other hand, filled different functions and hosted conferences, classes and social events. The front courtyard has a statue of Borochov designed by the artist Mordechai Kafri. Next to it is a Holocaust monument, also designed by Bikels. The library itself moved to a more accessible location, next to the kibbutz dining hall. In recent years the place functioned as a youth center. The youth left and for the last three years or so, the only ones using the light-filled space are a few noisy pigeons who soil the floors. The building needs renovation, "and as usual, there is no money for renovations, so I don't know what will be. It will not be razed but it's not really in use," Ben Tzur says. "It's all a result of a conceptual error on our part that we built it too far away on the edge of the kibbutz."

The kibbutz was privatized in 1994, and Ben Tzur speculates that with time it will turn into a community settlement. "It's not pleasant to watch a kibbutz age," he says, adding that around 40 percent of the members today are over retirement age. However, there is hope for the revival of Beit Borochov as there is for the revival and rejuvenation of the kibbutz itself. About 100 meters away from the building, 20 new homes are to be built for children of kibbutz members who are returning, and this project will move the culture center closer to the spreading kibbutz. On the kibbutz's western side, over 30 homes were built for residents using the "build your own home" method, and a similar number will be built there in the future. The kibbutz, which has 700 residents, is rapidly filling up.

"This building should top the list of designated landmarks because it has all of the original elements and their condition allows for restoration," concludes Efrat. "The building had no additions added on and it represents the original architecture, refined and inspired."

Today the kibbutz administration is in the process of changing, and there is no one with whom to discuss the option of restoring Beit Borochov or conducting an engineering survey, according to Ofer Yogev, director of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites' southern district. But the bottom line, says a kibbutz member, is that "it's not up to the administration, it's up to us and to our taking responsibility. It won't help if they tell us that the building has to be fixed up - we know that - but there is no budget for it. Perhaps when this new neighborhood is built, the culture center will once again be part of the kibbutz."

Mishmar Hanegev’s Beit Borochov
Yael Engelhart
Mishmar Hanegev’s Beit Borochov, exterior, 50 years ago.
Bikels Archive/Ein Harod
Mishmar Hanegev’s Beit Borochov
Yael Engelhart