Israel has one of the largest concentrations of modernist architecture in the world. Much was built before the state of Israel even came into existence, during the British Mandate period, from 1923-1948, when political upheaval in Europe brought a new generation of modernist-trained architects to cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.
This extraordinary collection of architecture is the subject of the Israel Museum’s current exhibition, Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine. The show, inspired by the research of architects Ada Karmi-Melamede and Dan Price, and curated by Israel Museum Chief of Exhibition Design Oren Sagiv, uses an impressive collection of photos, drawings, and other resources, to analyze the built forms created by famed Bauhaus disciples like Eric Mendelsohn and Richard Kaufmann as well as by those trained in the newly emerging modernist language throughout the world.
Installation view of Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine. (Elie Posner / Courtesy The Israel Museum)
What they created, the show demonstrates, was something altogether original. It wasn’t meant to distance itself from existing forms, as modernism so often did in Europe, but to create a completely new urban context and social order. The buildings, points out Israel Museum Director James S. Snyder, create both an innovative separation of spaces for interior life, and geometrically-rich exteriors that take on a distinctly Israeli character.
“All of those things had to do with enlivening the exterior so it enlivened the public realm,” said Snyder. “The life of the façade became a continuation of the street life,” added Sagiv. “A new aesthetic language was crystallized, about a country that was starting from scratch.”
65 Hovevei Zion Street, Tel Aviv. Architect: Pinchas Hütt. Drawing by Ada Karmi and Dan Price. (Courtesy The Israel Museum)
Examples of the lively tectonic characteristics that the show examines include double walls, penetrating entrances, vertical stairwells, articulated balconies, and recessed horizontal fenestration. All played a role in knitting together this new urban fabric, both in the private and public realms.
In Tel Aviv, which has the country’s greatest concentration of Mandate-era modernism, their scale had what Snyder calls a “modest grandeur,” reflecting the emerging democratic values of the country. These buildings were designed to fit into the concept of a carefully-spaced, intricately-planted garden city.
It’s an awe-inspiring collection that hits home the substantial importance of the region in the growth of modernism, both as an architectural style, a city making movement, and a philosophy of living.