Environment / From Utopia to Suburbia

It's easy to eulogize the kibbutz, but could it still create a unique spatial reality, asks the author of a new history of kibbutz planning and architecture.

Maybe the electric kettle is the culprit - the trigger that set off the cascade of changes culminating in the privatization of the kibbutz.

The arrival of the electric kettle in the kibbutznik's room in the 1950s was the first crack in the image of the kibbutz and a warning of what was to come.

Kibbutz Hefziba’s Beit Zvi
Yuval Yasky

"This small, legendary home appliance transformed a sink and countertop into a kitchenette. Over time, a mini-fridge, cabinet and countertop stove were added to it and eventually the little kitchenette became a full-fledged kitchen that addressed the desire of kibbutzniks to prepare [food] for themselves according to their tastes and at a time of their choosing." In the wake of this development, writes architect Freddy Kahana in his new book "Lo Ir, Lo Kfar," (Not a City, Not a Village ) about kibbutz architecture and planning, "the kibbutz shop, grocery and apartment began to expand to accommodate the need for a 'dinette.' Later on, with the downsizing of the dining hall services, the kibbutz apartment with its own kitchen was prepared to address the needs of the new reality." The next steps, the transition to children staying in their parents' homes (and not in the kibbutz children's house ) and self-service in the dining room improved kibbutzniks' quality of life but gradually weakened the role of the dining hall, "the main collective space" on the kibbutz.

The dramatic process of the privatization of most of kibbutz life, from manufacturing, to salaries, and consumption was just a matter of time and created a different kind of kibbutz: "the reinvented kibbutz" with differential salaries, ownership, private cars, new housing projects in a separate neighborhood and a move from collective, equal planning, to planning tailored to the new, privatized needs. The face of the community that was the kibbutz, writes Kahana, is changing and becoming unrecognizable. "The era of being unique is over, and a new social and spatial reality is emerging, one that is suburb-like."

"Not a city, not a village"

The uniqueness of the kibbutz, its love-hate relationship with the Zionist enterprise as is reflected to a large extent in its hybrid nature, is that it is - as the title of Kahana's new book indicates - "not a city, not a village." It is an agricultural settlement whose members are not farmers, a village that does not carry on any tradition, "a synthesis of the positive aspects of the city and of the village; a combination of the village and the factory. The lifting of the material and intellectual paucity of the village and the lifting of the stranglehold and crowding of the city," as the leader of the Ahdut Ha'avodah movement Yitzhak Tabenkin declared in a lecture in 1951 at the first course on kibbutz planning. The privatized kibbutz, which is how most kibbutzim can be defined today, is no longer that hybrid creation and in effect ended its role as a kind of community "that joins a long list of attempts to create a better, fairer and more humane world."

Kahana's book was released this week (by Yad Tabenkin publishing ). Due to unforeseen delays, it was a year late for the kibbutz's 100th anniversary celebrations last year. The book is presented as a complete bible, as befits a life's work. Its pages present a full picture of the physical expression of the kibbutz concept in all its details, from the planning of the total kibbutz space, to the different kinds of kibbutzim, the iconic public buildings, and the individual living quarters, the arguments that accompanied every stage in its life, and the architectural representations of the changes and upheavals. The book summarizes archival research into the history of kibbutz planning and construction from its inception in 1910 when "for the first time ever, someone sketched plans for a kibbutz on paper," until the closing of the kibbutz movement's planning department in 1990.

Kahana's choice of a date to frame the end of his book is not coincidental. The planning department was a central institution in the history of kibbutz planning and to a large extent for many years oversaw the translation of the ideology into concrete and cement. The department was established in order to enable kibbutz members who were professionals to take part in the planning of their communities. Kahana, a member of Kibbutz Beit Haemek, worked there in senior positions from the 1950s until its closure and transformation into a private planning firm in 1990, when he left for ideological reasons. He sees the privatization of the department as the end of kibbutz planning.

Kahana was born in 1927 in Czechoslovakia and as a teenager, upon the outbreak of World War II, fled to England. He is a graduate of the architecture department at London's Technical School, where he researched the history of communal planning in religious and secular communes around the world. In 1954, Kahana arrived in Israel, not because of religious or Zionist motivations, as he once said in an interview, but out of a desire "to take part in the building of a fair and just society."

During his years working at the technical department and at an office on his kibbutz, Kahana designed dozens of kibbutzim and kibbutz buildings. For the last 15 years, he has worked on setting up the Kibbutz Planning Archive, a computerized collection of over 10,000 documents that tell the story of kibbutz planning. The archive will soon be uploaded to the Internet in its entirety by Yad Tabenkin, and enable discussion of a recurring question in the book: Can any part of this still be relevant in contemporary Israeli society?

Not a City, Not a Village

In his book, Kahana repeats what is known to many, that the kibbutz is a unique phenomenon in the world, but places it within a historical context of similar, and no less controversial, attempts motivated by the urge to create "a genuine alternative to the capitalistic city." The essence of the "genuine" alternative is rejecting the capitalist city's right to exist and replacing it with egalitarian, communal, socialist values that are relevant ambitions today. This is in contrast to the ideal cities in the tradition of the Baroque and the Renaissance where a change in the historical context transformed them into experiments in structure alone.

Utopian spatial experiments

Along with the kibbutz, other notable examples of improving the world through spatial planning are the Ebenezer Howard's English social garden city and Soviet urbanism. The three are rooted in the principle of collective ownership of the land, creating a community of a size that can be managed "efficiently, fairly, democratically and inclusively," and in the connection of the communities to an ideological network.

The experiments were distorted. Howard's garden city turned into a bourgeoisie garden city venture after being embraced in a bear hug by the capitalist establishment and became responsible for many of the ills of modern urban planning. The revolutionary Soviet experiment was shattered by the cruelty of the Communist regime.

The kibbutz is the alternative that lasted longer than the other options. The 100 years of its existence were years of constant change, up until the last one which was one change too many. The privatization, writes Kahana, in effect ended the experiment. At the same time, there remains an opening for hope and that is the key argument in the book - that is, a way will still be found to "create a new spatial reality that will distinguish the kibbutz from the urban, metropolitan space, not as a suburban appendage, but as a parallel and unique entity."

The kibbutz was also a central issue on the public agenda, and much has been written about its economic, social and security aspects. However, very little has been written about the unique spatial expression of the concepts of cooperation and socialism it reflected. Even when sadly the scenery it created is about to change unrecognizably the kibbutz is the biggest piece missing from the planning scene in Israel and in the ongoing architectural discourse. The kibbutz has not received the place it deserves in the national master plans since the establishment of the state, Kahana says, so much so that this unique type of community "is becoming irrelevant" and is absent even from the large concluding exhibition on local architecture, "The Israeli Project."

Paradoxically, the privatization process actually placed the kibbutz on the architectural agenda, or more precisely, the preservation agenda.

The concern over the disappearance of the kibbutz moment and the destruction of architectural icons that were emptied of content following the privatization increased awareness of their importance and the urgent need to preserve them, as historic and architectural assets.

A World Heritage Site?

This concern over the loss of tangible evidence of the kibbutz's existence as a unique form of settlement prompted a proposal several years ago to approach UNESCO with a request to recognize the kibbutz as a protected world heritage site. Kahana, who was a member of the UNESCO consulting team, is hesitant about the approach to UNESCO and rejects the very, Disneyland-ish idea of preserving "the kibbutz."

"The buildings themselves are not important, as interesting as they may be," he writes, "but the essence of the kibbutz as an alternative to the historical city and village." Instead of the physical preservation option, he suggests perpetuating the kibbutz via a documentary study and instilling its legacy in future generations. On a practical level, his response to preserving historic kibbutz buildings is the continued existence of the kibbutz as a relevant alternative and not as a museum piece.

Recently, the kibbutz movement's documentary and research center at Yad Tabenkin formed a multidisciplinary planning team to reinvigorate kibbutz planning with the goal of finding ways to ensure the continuation of its spatial uniqueness and to extricate it from a peripheral suburban existence.

The spatial implications of the privatization of kibbutz lands are no less serious than the legal and social impact of privatization. This is the last chance to halt planning errors that will have steep financial, environmental and social costs.

The kibbutz debuts at the Venice Biennale

The kibbutz was presented for the first time last year at the noted international architectural exhibition at the Architecture Biennale in Venice. This took place about 30 years after Israel's first appearance at the exhibition, and 100 years after the establishment of the first kibbutz, making this almost a post-mortem for the kibbutz.

Dr. Galia Bar Or and architect Yuval Yasky, curators of the exhibition "Kibbutz: unprecedented architecture," faced a dilemma: It was too late to present a living and relevant phenomenon, and too early to consider it from a historical perspective. The curators chose to show renewed interest in the kibbutz, not as a eulogy nor as nostalgia, "but as a presentation of what we have and still exists," as Bar Or, herself a kibbutz member, said ahead of the exhibition.

When Yasky started to become interested in kibbutz planning in the middle of the last decade as part of the architecture classes he taught at the Bezalel Academy of Design, "the kibbutz was already a thing of the past," he says. While working with the students, and later on at the exhibition, it turned out that "the death was not complete," and there are things that can still be done "that will not just be mourning what was or embracing the attempt to preserve every stone."

At the exhibition, the curators sought to present the kibbutz as a modernist idea whose essence is constant change and as an entity that still exists. They expressed confidence in the "intelligence of the kibbutz expanse" which will be able to adapt to new circumstances. Given this confidence in the kibbutz's adaptability and resilience - and in light of its place on the map of utopias - its absence at the summer's social protests raises some questions. (Esther Zandberg )