The Last Brave Dreamer of Israeli Architecture

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art's exhibition on radical architect David Yannay is an invitation to examine up close the meeting of late modernist dreams with the concrete worlds of compromise.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Architect David Yanai presenting his design for the Yad Lebanim building in Haifa to Shimon Peres in 1970.
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

A slew of legal battles, primarily about copyrights and professional ethics, have turned the brilliant architect David Yannay into a sort of modern Michael Kohlhaas, the haunted hero tragically seeking justice. “Yannay was ‘religious’ when it came to copyright and intellectual property, and developed a pathological disregard for copycats who boast of achievements that don’t belong to them,” writes architect Michael Burt of his colleague in a catalogue on the exhibition “David Yannay: Architecture and Genetics,” a comprehensive look at Yannay’s work (1935-2006) that opens on Thursday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Yannay was a brilliant artist, teacher and respected mentor, critical and fierce as well as impatient and suspicious, a quarrelsome person who “no one could claim to know the depths of his raging mind,” wrote Burt.

“David Yannay was one of the last dreamer architects,” says architect Dr. Eran Neuman, the exhibition’s curator. Many architects from Yannay’s generation “woke up from the dream, and after realizing that reality is different, went for more communicative architecture, mainstream, less radical, and adapted themselves to the market,” continued Neuman, “while Yannay went his own way, did nothing to please. His architecture is not for ratings, but deep, valued architecture.”

The exhibition features about 60 of Yannay’s choice works in material models, as well as digital displays on computer screens, as Yannay was one of the first to use that medium for planning. The works reflect Yannay’s quest for his “method” for effective organization of the architectural structure and form “based on models that develop from a single cell duplicating itself genetically into a whole building complete with systems and functions.”

They are classified in 10 categories such as Mobius rings, apollonius circles and spirals, various different combinations and geometric shapes that the natural surroundings and humanity have a hard time containing.

Yannay’s work is overflowing with ideas and searching. It seems that there is no architectural issue that he did not try to solve in an organized and systematic way. He worked in building in different climates and maritime structures, as well as creating cheaper and more effective solutions for residences, transportation, the construction industry and much more. As the years went by, only some of his dreams turned into reality. Most of his ideas and proposals sent to planning competitions in Israel and throughout the world remained on paper.

Architecture on paper is an architectural category in and of itself, as many young architects need reminding. “Although it stays on paper,” says Neuman, “it is important in architectural discourse as raw material for research and drawing conclusions, and in the end also leads to action.”

As the head of Tel Aviv University’s Azrieli School of Architecture, Neuman makes it clear that “the message of the exhibition is not that people should do work like Yannay’s, but rather that architects and students should critically examine his work and the period in which he worked. I would recommend to young architects that they be as daring as Yannay.”

Neuman points to the “human element” in Yannay’s ground-breaking and controversial character as the primary reason, and says “since the controversy about the Beit Halohem veterans’ rehabilitation center, he was known as an uncompromising troublemaker. His work was immediately recognized in anonymous competitions as well, and even if his entries were favored, no one wanted to work with him and he would often win second prize or an honorable mention.”

The veterans’ rehabilitation center in Haifa is one of Yannay’s most celebrated structures. The building sits on the slopes of the French Carmel, and is known not only for its distinctive nature but also the controversy that surrounded it and Yannay, and was felt outside of the architecture world as well. In 1970, Yannay won the competition to plan the structure. During construction, he uncovered construction flaws as well as financial irregularities in the process, and filed complaints against the contractor. Controversy ensued and reached the courts at various times, marking Yannay as a troublemaker.

Yannay was born in 1935 in Jerusalem and studied architecture at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. After completing his studies in 1961, he began teaching in the department and retired in 2003, becoming associated with the Haifa institution’s closed image at the time. Aside from teaching and guiding students – be believed in close personal instruction – he worked in planning and research at his independent practice.

He was considered a “character,” always outside the mainstream in architecture. It seems that even Yannay himself did not bother to try and improve his childish image, as he made many radical defiant statements.

During a talk with him at an earlier exhibition at the Technion in 2003, Yannay pointed to the library door and admitted proudly that as a student in the 1950s he almost never went inside, and since then has done his best to stay away from professional journals. His excuse was that “architecture is not a fashion magazine, the page cannot be simply turned, because the results remain for many years.”

Speaking about that exhibition, he said it was not meant “to show a few buildings that David Yannay magnificently set up in Israel and abroad, but rather to point out the possibility for creating better and more important architectural systems.”

Style denied

Yannay liked to declare that there was no such thing as “style” in architecture, and that a structure’s shape is a function that results from its “genetic” development. In an article he coauthored with fellow architect Gadi Politi, he denounced the symbolism and metaphors in architecture tied to “phenotypic” (conservative) processes, and praised the universal “genotypic” and objective processes.

Yannay’s works illustrate just how much style does exist in architecture, how much a structure and its forms are a result of the architect’s choices rather than a function of genetic or objective development, and how much the architectural package is just a symbol and metaphor for a genetic or mathematical model, rather than the thing itself.

The exhibition on Yannay (Neuman stresses that it’s not Yannay’s exhibition) is the first in a series of exhibitions planned by the Azrieli Architectural Archive announced a year ago at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It is based on Yannay’s archive and a collection donated to the museum by his widow, attorney Daniela Gerzulin, and includes the body of his work dating from the 1950s until his death from heart failure in 2006.

A central component of the exhibition is “presentation” – a complete collection of works that Yannay began to develop in 2002 and updated until his death. The presentation, which has already been shown at exhibitions at the Technion and in Moscow, includes methodological analysis of his architectural theory alongside a compilation of almost all his works. The result is a hypnotic and chaotic series of geometric patterns. Neuman sees it as one of Yannay’s most important works, his opus.

Even though Yannay denied the existence of fashion in architecture, his ideas are tied to some extent to modern schools of thought, which came out against the modern mainstream after World War II. The “humanist” modernism of the previous era failed to uphold its promise to build a better world. Leaving behind that broken vision, architects of the post-war generation believed that science would help them create a new, wonderful world. According to museum curator Dr. Susan Landau, postwar architects, in an attempt to “scientize” architecture, drew inspiration from new studies in life sciences, mathematics, anthropology and cybernetics.

Neuman places Yannay’s work against a background of current trends in digital-genetic architecture, and in the context of a few recent international exhibitions that researched and mapped the digitalization of architectural planning. The recent exhibitions include a series curated by American architect Greg Lynn, a leader in the field, called “Archaeology of the Digital” on digital trends in architecture. The series presents the evolution of architecture following the advent of computerization. Yannay was a pioneer in this field and his works, according to Neuman, “integrate well in discourse about this local trend as well, archaeology within digital architecture in Israel.”

The opening exhibition, labeled as one of the most important architecture-museum events in recent years, is dedicated to “a central figure in Israeli architecture, who is no ‘prince,’” says Neuman, “and I’m happy that we have the opportunity to present his work and his figure in a complex and rich way, worthy of him and worthy of discussion and research.”

Yannay was a mythological figure, made of the stuff of architectural legends. He and his legacy are worthy of this museum exhibition at an institution like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and exposure to the public. It is also an invitation to examine up close the “dream” versus the “concrete world” in which architecture forces us to make compromises, for the good of all involved.

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