Designing Utopia

A new book discusses the origins of kibbutz and moshav architecture and wonders how much of the aesthetic is borrowed from European utopian ideals

The kibbutz movement is celebrating its centenary this year, but it isn't an especially happy birthday. Stricken by the continuing privatization process and exhausted by sharp ideological disagreements and internal disputes, the historically collective communities stand at a crossroads in their search for a new identity and a new form.

There are kibbutzim which have decided to disband; others have turned to different cooperative models and some have constructed suburban subdivisions of dazzling private homes on former farmland.

Of the over 250 kibbutzim in Israel, only some 85 remain completely collective today. Perhaps this is a surprisingly positive statistic in light of the privatization overtaking the Israeli economy and the complete de-legitimization of socialism and the left expressed by recent Israeli governments.

"Architecture and Utopia: Kibbutz and Moshav" is the name of a new book by architects Bracha and Michael Chyutin recently published in Hebrew by Magnes Press that tackles the connection between the aesthetic and ideological aspects on communal life.

The Chyutins, a married couple who work together, are known for a series of public buildings including the Haifa District Court, the Ben-Gurion University Senate building, and the Givatayim Theater.

They have been prominent in their profession for 30 years, and teach in architecture schools. The book is a continuation of a previous one written in English and published by Ashgate in 2007 called "Architecture and Utopia: The Israeli Experiment."

The new effort is a broad survey of the architectural planning of pre-state and Israeli kibbutzim and moshavim (cooperative farm communities ) "in the broad historic context of utopian social trends and the planning of ideal settlements."

At first glance the work looks like a geometry book. Its 300 pages are crowded with sketches: plans for kibbutzim and moshavim, traffic and density diagrams, maps, detailed apartment plans and a seemingly infinite number of tables.

Its strength is the connection it makes between utopian communities around the world - whether realized or not - and Israeli kibbutz-moshav architecture.

For further reading:

The Kibbutz at 100 / But does it have a future?
The Kibbutz at 100 / Dead and dying
Hebrew Fiction / Her memories are mine

The grounds of Kibbutz Geva, for example, are presented here next to depictions of a building of the Essene sect in Qumran, and the New Harmony community in Indiana designed by utopian thinker Robert Owen.

The breathtaking rings of Moshav Nahalal are also presented alongside an industrial French city planned at the end of the 18th century. Housing for workers on a typical German farm harkens back - unsurprisingly - the homes of members of Kibbutz Degania and Kibbutz Gan Shmuel.

Obvious connections between the architecture of utopian groups in Israel and other utopian societies around the world immediately raise the question of the originality of the kibbutz, and how much it was influenced by imported ideas.

A living model

In this case the answer is clear. The power of kibbutzim and moshavim comes from the fact that they were not just one isolated test case that petrified over the course of history.

Whether we are talking about the so-called kibbutz ring model or the moshav "towel" model, which planted stretched out villages along rural roads, hundreds of these communities reflect the fascinating development of architectural ideas, and so the book is best described as a study guide to the planning of kibbutzim and moshavim.

In addition to the international context, the Chyutins are very good at giving examples, in words and graphics, of the basic elements that comprise the familiar green kibbutz aesthetic: a combination of developed social ideas and utopian visions influenced by historical European garden design.

"Just as the social utopian seeks a world with order and clear, inviolable social balance, the utopian architect seeks the ideal geometric order that expresses completeness and balance."

They note that all throughout history, thinkers like Plato and Ebenezer Howard were concerned with the connection between the ideal society, its realization, and geometric forms. The physical layout of the kibbutz represents a continuation of the same ideological line, with architecture and landscape employed in the service of ideology.

The architect Richard Kauffmann, the founder of village planning in the Land of Israel, said that, "The desire to produce a new society requires a unique architectural language. Cooperation is the most significant principle in kibbutz life and it must be expressed in the architecture of the kibbutz."

What the book lacks is a human touch. It is worth asking how the book would look if the Chyutins had been kibbutz members and not city folk from Givatayim.

True, the wonderful structures of Kauffmann, Shmuel Buklis and their friends lay the foundation for the growth of utopian society, but how was this expressed in developing Hebrew culture and prattle in the communal laundry?

The sterile treatment received by the settlements depicted in the book, as details in a petri dish, misses out on part of the essence of planning and the spirit of place which makes the kibbutz what it is.

In light of the centennial, and perhaps as a kind of unofficial burial ceremony, the kibbutz has been chosen to represent Israel in the international biennial of architecture opening here at the end of August.

The exhibit, "Kibbutz: Architecture without precedent," curated by architect Yuval Yaski, and Dr. Galia Bar-Or, considers "How architecture provided an answer for a social concept and not only expressed the ego of the architect," a well-known syndrome in the contemporary world of architecture.

There is no doubt that the Chyutins' new book makes a handsome addition to the exhibition.