What Fractured Jerusalem Needs Now: Cosmopolitanism, Diversity and Liberality

Adina Hoffman's 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City' is a captivating history of her adopted city, told through the lives and buildings of three 20th-century visionaries.

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Architect Erich Mendelsohn at one of the sites of a Schocken project, in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood.
Mendelsohn at one of the sites of a Schocken project, in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood.Credit: Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute, L.A.
Samuel Thrope
Samuel Thrope
Samuel Thrope
Samuel Thrope

“Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City,” by Adina Hoffman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $28

In the summer of 2014 Jerusalem broke apart, again. In those few bloody months, which began in April with the collapse of American-brokered peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and ended with a tense cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after another destructive confrontation in Gaza, the fragile openness in the city, which had come to feel almost normal, disappeared. Especially in the commercial heart of Jewish West Jerusalem along Jaffa Road, the Palestinian shoppers and restaurant-goers from East Jerusalem disappeared, their place taken by right-wing Israeli protesters shouting racist slogans and roving gangs of Jewish teenagers “hunting for Arabs” to attack and abuse.

Those events — and the continuing violence in the city — hang like a looming cloud over Adina Hoffman’s just published “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City.” The American-born, Jerusalem-based writer’s latest work is a beautifully written and captivating history of her adopted city during the tumultuous decades of British rule from 1918 to 1948, told through the stories of the lives and buildings of three representative architects: the visionary, German avant-gardist Erich Mendelsohn, the shy orientalist Austen St. Barbe Harrison, and the mysterious Spyro G. Houris.

Jaffa Road — which runs from the Jaffa Gate in the Old City walls, past Zion Square and the Mahane Yehuda market, to the traffic-clogged western entrance to the city — is the setting for much of the book’s architectural action; all three of Hoffman’s protagonists built symbolic structures there.

Hoffman’s first-person vignettes of life in the city today — not just her impressions of racism and urban neglect on Jaffa Road, but descriptions of a fortuitous encounter with a shy Palestinian researcher in the national archives or with an ultra-Orthodox American transplant in a Spyro Houris-designed house — could be dismissed as extraneous additions meant to supply local color or narrative continuity.

But the opposite is true in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem.” Hoffman tells the intertwined stories of these three architects in order to make a claim for what kind of city Jerusalem could and should be today. Because of how they built and who they were, Mendelsohn, Houris and Harrison are the perfect vehicles for a powerful political and cultural argument. As Hoffman stated more explicitly in a recent essay, the Levantine values of cosmopolitanism, diversity and liberality — qualities embodied by the book’s protagonists — are just what this fractured place needs most now.

Hoffman takes the epigraph for “Till We Have Built Jerusalem” from Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s poem “The City.” Though the city that Cavafy meant was his own beloved Alexandria, the poem’s dialogue between two conflicting voices — one voice who longs to abandon the place where he has ruined his life, and the other insisting that flight is impossible and “this city will always pursue you” — rings true for Jerusalem as well.

The simultaneous attraction and repulsion that Jerusalem inspires is evident in the case of Erich Mendelsohn, the famous and flamboyant architect whose story opens the book. A committed modernist, Mendelsohn had a successful career in Germany through the 1910s and ’20s, designing, among other projects, an observatory for Albert Einstein and department stores for business magnate, publisher and cultural patron Salman Schocken, who later moved to Palestine.

In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis, Mendelsohn and his wife fled Germany, eventually settling two years later in an old stone windmill, then on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s still-under-construction Rehavia neighborhood. Mendelsohn was responsible for planning some of the city’s most important buildings, including the Hadassah University Hospital campus on Mount Scopus, the Anglo-Palestine Bank building on Jaffa Road, and Shocken’s palatial mansion and library just down the street from his own home.

However, as in Cavafy’s poem, Mendelshon never seemed entirely at home in Jerusalem. Having first visited and been enchanted by the city in 1924, even after moving there a decade later, he refused to settle down and play by the rules of the Mandate-era Jewish establishment. The exacting architect — whose character pops out in Hoffman’s lyrical descriptions of his penchant to stop the car abruptly and hop out to sketch the lines of a village, or his insistence in designing all his wife’s evening gowns — sparred with the Zionist leadership over his plans, his appreciation of local Palestinian building styles and his affinity to the British Mandatory rulers, widely despised because of their restrictions on the immigration of Jewish refugees.

Increasing violence in the late 1930s, including Jewish terrorist attacks against British targets, only darkened his mood. Hoffman describes Mendelsohn’s reaction to a bombing by the underground Irgun militia of the central post office, designed by Austen St. Barbe Harrison, located next to his own Anglo-Palestine Bank building.

In defending Harrison and the post office in a newspaper article meant to celebrate the bank’s opening, she writes, “he was, in a very real sense, also defending himself and the vision of a cosmopolitan Jerusalem that he and Harrison had aspired to create. As he did so, he was, too, standing up for a way of being in the world and with other human beings — not only other Jewish human beings — and of living outside the mental ghetto that this place was quickly becoming.”

Frustrated, Mendelsohn eventually left Jerusalem for the United States in 1941.

Making buildings speak

The British-born Harrison, who spent most of his life in Britain’s sunnier colonial outposts, was captured by the same love-hate relationship with Jerusalem, if in a less demonstrative way. Quiet and retiring, Harrison arrived in 1922 as the chief architect of Palestine’s Public Works Department already equipped with a deep appreciation for the architecture and landscape of the eastern Mediterranean. A career civil servant, Harrison built to order for sometimes-unsophisticated colonial administrators. However, his buildings, including the Government Printing Press in Jerusalem and the Central Post Office in Jaffa, are remarkably singular and beautiful, drawing from the best of local traditions and styles.

Hoffman devotes most of the section on Harrison to his design and construction of Government House, the British High Commissioner’s residence, now a United Nations compound, located near the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber, and the Rockefeller Museum, opened in 1938 as the Palestine Archaeological Museum, just opposite the Old City’s northern walls.

Hoffman makes the buildings speak, eloquently, of Harrison’s own vision for an ideal Jerusalem as a peaceful oasis, shared equally by all the cultures that claim it as their own. As she writes of the courtyard that he designed for the museum, “the space he had conceived as the building’s heart does seem to express a kind of bottled-up, unspoken desire for the strife just to stop, or at least to subside temporarily.”

Harrison, too, left Jerusalem for Cyprus in 1937, even before the opening of the museum that he had planned with such care.

While Mendelsohn and Harrison both left behind letters and documents that tell their story, Spyro G. Houris presents much more of a mystery. Some of the private homes and apartments that he designed bear his name chiseled into the stone, accompanied by the Francophone dash of his title, architecte, but others are only presumed to be his. These speculative identifications are based on a similarity of style: flowing Art Deco lines and vibrant ornamental tiles.

At the beginning of Hoffman’s investigation, even the most basic facts of his life, including his ethnic affiliation, his religion and the country of his birth, are unknown.

Accordingly, in the final third of “Till We Have Built Jerusalem,” the reader accompanies Hoffman in today’s divided Jerusalem as she rummages through archives and tracks down leads. While this could well have been a dry and tasteless appendix — nothing is less sexy than archival research — in her capable hands the search for Houris becomes a captivating detective story.

After many diversions and asides on the Armenian master ceramicist David Ohannessian, who made the tiles for the renovated Dome of the Rock (and a few of Houris’ houses), and the Palestinian intellectual, rebel, politician and diarist Khalil al-Sakakini – Hoffman reveals that Houris was born in Alexandria in 1883, perhaps to a Jerusalemite Greek Orthodox Christian father who moved to Egypt and married there.

As a young man Houris came to Jerusalem just before World War I – meaning that all the architects discussed here were, roughly, contemporaries – to build houses for Jews, Muslims and the Greek Orthodox Church; he seems to have met at least some of his clients through the Freemason lodge in which he was an active member. Houris died at 53 in 1936. But this incomplete information is not Hoffman’s real takeaway.

“Spyro Houris lived and built in a time and place where one’s own identity could be multiple, and where the bonds that stretched across what are now considered nearly impassable ethnic, national, and religious borders were not only conceivable, they were critical to what made the city the city,” she writes in a rhetorical revelation that is equally applicable to Mendelsohn and Harrison.

“Whether or not its twenty-first-century residents care to admit it, that multiplicity and those bonds — imperfect and often tense as they may sometimes have been — created modern Jerusalem. The dynamic ‘eclecticism’ that distinguishes Houris’ buildings was an expression of the city’s own dynamic eclecticism, which still lingers, though these days its severely endangered.”

Granted, Hoffman’s true and eloquent diagnosis of what ails Jerusalem today doesn’t address all of the city’s problems. Jerusalem is one of the poorest cities in Israel, and the high poverty rates, among both Palestinians and Jews, have a profound effect on city life and culture.

Reading “Till We Have Built Jerusalem,” one can’t help but notice that the Levantine values Hoffman advocates seem, in practice, to be restricted to the rich elite. Mendelsohn, Harrison and Houris were not themselves particularly well-off, but they executed their visions for wealthy clients and for the ruling powers. Cosmopolitanism is realized, on the whole, in swank parties attended by equally well-to-do Arabs, Jews and Englishmen. One wonders how such cosmopolitanism could be implemented broadly in a city as poor as this.

But that is a minor criticism. “Till We Have Built Jerusalem” is a passionate, lyrical defense of a Jerusalem that could still be, and a prophecy of the grim future that awaits the city if it continues on its current path. Our leaders would do well to heed her warning.

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