Changing Israel's Landscape, in a Very Literal Sense

A new book details the work of Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur - the top landscape architects of Israel's founding generation.

As a teenager, I lived in a housing complex surrounded by a garden designed by the landscape architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur, who transformed the eight plain apartment blocks on a barren limestone hill into a green and flowering landscape. The garden, which was planted in the 1950s, is still there and in almost the same shape - a testament to the planning wisdom and inspiration that enabled it to endure to this day, against all odds. The seasonal blossoming of the jacaranda and poinciana trees amid the grassy expanses is an incredible sight to behold. This personal example may be a minor detail, but it is representative of Yahalom and Zur's work, which is wonderfully documented in the recently published book "Arcadia: The Gardens of Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur" (Babel publishers, in Hebrew ) - a comprehensive and pioneering effort of unparalleled importance.

Yahalom (1913-2006 ) was born in what is now Belarus and grew up under the shade of chestnut trees and blossoming lilacs, as he put it, while Zur, who was born in 1926 on Kibbutz Tel Yosef, grew up amid the landscape of the Jezreel Valley and the orchards of the Sharon region. They are the top landscape artists of the state's founding generation, and the shapers of its image, no less than that. The book, edited by landscape architect Nurit Lissovsky and culture researcher Diana Dolev (in collaboration with Zur's daughter, Nirit Zur ) and beautifully designed by Michael Gordon, is a key to understanding the huge task of designing the Israeli landscape of English-style grass lawns, trees from Australia and Africa, and panoramas that recall Eastern Europe, which Yahalom and Zur skillfully and expertly domesticated and then persuaded us that this was all here before our arrival.

Yahalom and Zur are recipients of the Israel Prize for architecture, which was awarded to them during the state's jubilee celebrations. Their work together and separately lasted for more than seven decades. Without any formal training in landscape architecture they were able to understand and read the space and knead it into something new, not based on the dictates of trends or personal preference but as an act "stemming from an ideology of planting a new identity in the earth of the homeland," as the book's editors write, using words that are also untrendy and not politically correct, but accurate. Few landscape architects who came after them, even those who were influenced by them, achieved so much in terms of quality, variety, knowledge and sense of proportion.

The landscapes Yahalom and Zur created sprawl across hundreds of thousands of dunams of national parks, public parks, kibbutzim, memorial sites and residential areas. They are not just landscapes in the simple sense. Most of them are enlisted in the service of the nation, on more than one occasion erasing and replacing other landscapes, concealing them under lawns and between trees. If the time and place in which these landscape architects worked was filled with clashes and conflicts, you could say they also took part in shaping cultural and spatial polarization and a national political conflict.

'Gripped by heretical thoughts'

"The first to come here had little experience, were trapped in the fervor of activity, captivated by longings for the landscapes they abandoned in Europe and stricken by the blinding sun, and planted whatever was available here. They wanted the landscape not to be 'boring.' Do we have the right to judge them? But we should also not sanctify the mistakes," Yahalom told me in an interview for Haaretz (which is quoted in the book ) after he had already retired. After dozens of years of working, he often expressed reservations about his generation's feverish activity and desire for change, and did not hesitate to admit that "I was gripped by heretical thoughts. Today I don't think it was necessary to totally change everything that existed."

The book presents a broad overview of the effort invested and widescale changes made to the landscape in eye-opening articles by guest writers and invaluable visual and written documentation. This book naturally belongs alongside "The Israeli Project: Building and Architecture 1948-1973," architect Zvi Efrat's monumental historiography and poetic writings about filling the land with buildings and gardens. Yahalom and Zur were full partners in the Israeli project. The book about their work not only fills in the details but also places landscape architecture center stage, the place that corresponds to its importance nowadays in every respect - physical, ecological, social and political.

Along with the national and official goals their work was aimed at, the landscapes Yahalom and Zur designed were intended as arenas for human encounter, writes Lissovsky in her article on the national parks the pair designed. The spaces they created are generous, inviting and accessible and "don't need (like today ) 'attractions,' 'functions' and 'programs,'" as Lissovsky notes and as discerned by anyone who has ever visited any site they designed - from those in Beit She'arim, Caesarea and Sha'ar Hagai; to the National Water Carrier, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the two Hebrew University campuses in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva and Tel Aviv University; to monuments all over the country and the paradise-like garden in the housing complex of my childhood, and everywhere in between.

In his article in the book about Jerusalem's Sacher Park, designed by Yahalom and Zur, the architect and Haaretz journalist Noam Dvir refers to the park as one of the best meeting places in the city, and not just that - a site that attracts heterogeneous groups who gather alongside each other with hardly any friction between young people, families, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, amateur soccer players and politicians. The park, which is fairly immune to the ravages of time, became what it is, Dvir writes, thanks apparently to its neutral and unpretentious, flexible and completely accessible design, which does not feature any stylized flowerbeds or complex attractions or "places where you're not allowed to step."

With the enthusiasm to do and create change and build a new world and a new kind of person that gripped their generation in every area, Yahalom and Zur not only covered the existing land with gardens, grass and trees, they also moved mountains, overturned stones, diverted rivers and sculpted the land in order to create a completely "natural" artificial panorama - and all without the nearly superhuman effort even being perceptible. In the Hurshat Tal National Park, for example, they diverted the Dan River, built waterfalls that God did not create and dug an artificial lake. The natural pool at Sahne, which was surrounded by natural thorns and dusty raspberry bushes, was transformed into the green Gan Hashlosha National Park, a manmade paradise.

At the grave site of Paula and David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, Yahalom and Zur taught the Bedouin who worked with them "how to build a wadi." In order to make the access path to the site look like an authentic, ancient, desert riverbed, around 40 tons of earth and ancient stones were relocated. And the limestone hill of the housing complex where I lived was to Yahalom and Zur just "like clay in the hands of the potter," as architect Naama Shabtai writes in her article on landscape architecture in public housing complexes. The pair dismantled it into flowing little hills that look more natural than nature, and from which housing blocks emerge "as if they sprouted from the hill and burst into the landscape."

Unsolved riddle

"Arcadia" is a hidden treasure. In addition to the articles, it also includes an extensive botanical lexicon of plants and flowers in the gardens Yahalom and Zur designed and an awe-inspiring list of landscape projects they designed over the course of more than 70 years of working in different formats: Yahalom on his own in the 1930s, the Yahalom-Zur firm between the 1950s and the 1990s, Zur alone after Yahalom's retirement in 1993 when he turned 80, and the firm after 2006 when landscape architect Lior Wolf, who has managed the firm since Zur's retirement in 2010, became a partner. What could be dull and dry lists actually make for a fascinating read in and of themselves.

Within this vast collection of work, certain potentially fascinating points are notable for their absence. It could have been possible, for example, to compare the landscapes that Yahalom and Zur created to what was there before - the landscapes that were lost. It would also have been possible to delve into the professional and personal negotiations between the two landscape architects in their long-standing and close partnership, especially given the firm's continued operation after Yahalom's departure. This could also have been a good angle from which to tackle the unsolved riddle of how the modernist, secular Yahalom and Zur were able to design ritualistic kitsch like Yad Vashem's Valley of the Communities in Jerusalem, and why on earth many consider it their masterpiece.

Marcus Niling Photo-Design