Q&A: Adina Hoffman on Three Architects Who Built the Modern City of Jerusalem

In Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City, published this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Adina Hoffman tells the story of modern Jerusalem through the stories of three diverse architects who played a major role in building it.  Erich Mendelsohn was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Austen St. Barbe Harrison was a representative of the British Mandate, and Spyro Houris emerged from the local population -- though his precise origins are something of a mystery.  Hoffman answered questions from The National Book Review's Adam Cohen about her three architects, Jerusalem's wildly eclectic architectural landscape, and the future of the city.

 1.    In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, you write about three architects who built modern Jerusalem — one a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, one a British civil servant, one from the Greek-Arab world of the Middle East. It is not only a compelling story, but a powerful allegory. How did you come to this idea for a book?

Gradually. I’ve been walking the streets of Jerusalem for some twenty-five years now, and as I’ve walked, I’ve looked at buildings. It was really just a matter of time before my musing about the best of these structures turned to wondering about the people who had first imagined them—the people who’d helped build a cityscape that has, over the course of several decades, become a part of my own unconscious.

"Building,” it’s probably worth pointing out, is a particularly fraught notion when it comes to Jerusalem—politically, religiously, historically. By choosing to write about architects and architecture in this book I’m of course writing about actual, stone-and-mortar building, but in a deeper way I think I’m also circling the question of what it means for anyone to try to construct something positive in the context of a city like Jerusalem, a place where “the conflict” tends to swallow almost everything else.

2.     Erich Mendelsohn, the Jewish refugee, is a fascinating figure — he had a distinguished career as an architect in Germany before fleeing the Nazis, and then he found safety in England. What drew him to Jerusalem — and what would you say his lasting legacy is?

He’d been fascinated by Palestine—and by the wider Mediterranean—for years before he moved there. He was pulled toward it as both Jew and as architect, feeling almost magnetically compelled to try to build in that setting—though this sense of his racial bond to the place also unnerved him, and he hesitated for a long time before taking the plunge.

The situation changed abruptly in March of 1933 when he and his wife were forced to flee Germany with little more than a suitcase and a stamp collection. They eventually made their way to Jerusalem, where he opened an office in an old windmill and threw himself into various building projects. For all his enthusiasm about working there, though, his connection to the place was never uncomplicated. He was intent on learning from the local Arab vernacular architecture and envisioned a “new Semitic commonwealth” that Jews and Arabs would build together. These ideas didn’t exactly make him popular in mainstream Zionist circles, and in a basic way he would always feel himself an outsider there.

His lasting legacy is bittersweet. Half a dozen or so striking buildings remain in Jerusalem and still absolutely bear his mark. What’s absent, alas, is the wider sense of the fusions he believed were possible in this landscape—by which I mean the physical and human landscapes.

3.     Austen St. Barbe Harrison was the leading architect of the British Mandate. How would you describe what he brought to Jerusalem — how British was his architectural vision, and how Eastern?

It was absolutely both—and maybe not exactly either!—a singular kind of hybrid. He was a passionate student of Byzantine and Islamic building; he spent his whole adult life in the East, immersing himself in those traditions. He also had a very restrained English temperament and had been educated according to serene and stately Beaux-Arts ideas so that when he fused in a single building elements from, say, an Ottoman mansion, an Islamic tomb, a Crusader fort, a Palestinian peasant house, and the Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra he was taking his cues from what he saw as their essential forms and putting them together in a way that was almost abstract.

But it’s important to understand that this wasn’t all about East or West, being British or being an honorary Levantine. It was also about Austen Harrison and his own private sensibility, which was certainly shaped by all these cultural forces but which was also its own curious, refined, and quietly inspired thing. You would never confuse one of his buildings with an actual “native-built” structure—they’re much weirder and dreamier and grander than that—but that wasn’t the idea. He was working toward a kind of sui generis synthesis.

4.     The third of your architects is something of a mystery — Spyro Houris.  Why was it so difficult to figure out his national background — and what do you ultimately think it was? And how would you describe his influence?

It wasn’t just his nationality that was mysterious. I knew almost nothing about him when I set out in search of his traces: Where and when he was born, where and when he died, his mother tongue, and so on and on.

There are both personal and political reasons for this mystery. Houris built entirely for private clients, many of whom were part of the Arab, and otherwise non-Jewish elite, of the city at the time. Since 1948, that whole world has largely been erased in archival—and other, broader—terms.

But I’m not just saying that “he was an Arab,” and that Arab culture and history have been or are being excised from the official Israeli record. That’s certainly true, but ultimately the discovery I came to wasn’t a simple “he was X” or “he was Y.” What I found instead was that Spyro Houris’s identity was much more fluid and flexible than that, as was Jerusalem itself in his day. In that context, it was possible to be Greek and Arab and Palestinian and Christian and a French-speaker and maybe also Ottoman and so on. It was also common for someone in his position to work calmly with people from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. That kind of flexibility and openness are very much at odds with the contemporary city and the either/or terms of the conversation—or really shouting match—that unfortunately now surrounds it.

His influence? It’s ironic, but as forgotten as he is in biographical terms, certain buildings he designed are absolutely essential to the Jerusalem cityscape. Most of the mansions with elaborate Armenian ceramic panels set into their facades are Houris’s; the main block of graceful balcony-fronted buildings that define the commercial hub of what’s now known as West Jerusalem, right around Zion Square, seem also to have been his handiwork. Almost no one knows this, but his fingerprints are, in secret fact, all over the modern city.

5.     As these three men’s stories suggest, the influences on Jerusalem’s physical landscape have been very diverse — and they also include ancient buildings and ruins, and very modern buildings.  Given all of this, how would you sum up Jerusalem’s architectural look today?

I think the technical term is “a mess.” There are still little pockets of beauty in various nooks and courtyards and back alleys. But the general direction is bleak, as various political and economic forces are if not exactly conspiring then at least converging to turn the city into an especially vulgar and crowded theme park.

This is a product first of a kind of megalomaniacal nationalism, which manifests itself in heavily symbolic, hubristic, and/or kitsch architectural plans meant to assert Israeli dominance over the city. It also takes the shape of fortress-like Israeli settlements being driven violently into the hearts of poor Palestinian neighborhoods. But the new ugliness isn’t all about national politics and the occupation: it’s also about big money and the aggressive scheming of developers to make a buck on every square inch. “Holy land” is, after all, prime real estate. So there are fancy high rises going up all over and humble but gracious old neighborhoods being transformed rapidly into high-end if ticky-tacky ghettos. The idea is to sell expensive new apartments to wealthy foreigners, mostly religious American and French Jews, who might come spend a few weeks in the city every year. That’s bad for the place physically; it’s also terrible socially. Who is this city being built for?

6.     A theme of your book is that time has not been kind to some of your architects’ greatest work — a lot of it is surrounded by sprawl and clutter, or security barriers. Do you think Israel lacks appropriate appreciation for architecture in general, and its own most distinguished buildings in particular?

Actually, there’s a whole “White City” industry in Tel Aviv, and a fascination with the Bauhaus (or really mostly Bauhaus-style) buildings that were constructed there by Jewish architects during the Mandate and early years of the state. But this is a very selective, and ideologically driven, awareness of the built landscape.

Jerusalem is another story. Those concerned with such things as architectural preservation generally consider Jerusalem too “eastern,” too poor, too religious to really bother with, and the residents themselves tend to have other, “more pressing” things on their minds. That distraction has left an opening for those same sharkish developers to move in and commandeer some of the finest buildings in town. The sleek modernist villa that Mendelsohn built for the publisher, cultural patron, and businessman Salman Schocken in the mid-30s—the careful planning and construction of which I describe in the book—has been threatened for years with demolition and replacement by luxury apartments. There are also plans afoot to alter beyond recognition the elegant seven-story building he planned as the Anglo-Palestine on Jaffa Road. That’s slated to become a five-star hotel.

But it’s not just a matter of architectural masterpieces that are at risk: the developers have set their sights on ordinary buildings and neighborhoods too, including the one where my husband and I have lived since the early nineties. Most of the houses there were built in the late Ottoman period. Dignified and proportional, many of them once opened onto small gardens filled with fruit trees. Now various investors are scrambling to heap multiple stories onto any rooftop they can grab. Where there once were lemon and olive trees, they’re blasting underground to make space for parking garages.

7.     One review of your book concluded that it showed “why Jerusalem’s divisions now seem intractable.”  Do you agree, or can you offer up any more optimistic vision of the future?

Those divisions certainly seem more extreme now than at any time I can remember—but if I’ve learned anything from living in the Middle East all these years it’s that one should think twice before making grand declarations about what will be, or about certain processes being “irreversible” One should probably also avoid the use of words like “intractable” since this city, of all cities, is always evolving—it’s the product of several thousand years of both slow and sudden change—and if things can keep getting worse and worse, it seems at least conceivable to think they might also one day get better.