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Jerusalem Architectural History: Under Israeli Rule

(1948 - Present) by Yishai Eldar

Following are descriptions of the architectural style of building in Jerusalem since 1948 as well as some of the more outstanding buildings designed and built in Jerusalem over this time period.

- Introcution
- Hebrew University
- Yad Vashem
- Hebrew Union College
- Israel Museum
- Knesset
- Center for Performing Arts
- Center for Middle Eastern Studies
- Supreme Court
- Jerusalem Municipality
- Belz World Center
- Preservation, Restoration & Renovation
- Landscape Architecture
- New Neighborhoods
- High Rise vs Urban Sprawl
- Looking Ahead


Contemporary architecture in Jerusalem is essentially Post-Modern, with lingering influences of the International Style (Bauhaus) and Functionalism. This trend was a late-20th Century reaction to Modernism, which itself was a post-World War One reaction against established forms and designs.

The International Style of architecture (flat roof; unornamented, sheer façade) developed at the Bauhaus School of Design, appeared in Jerusalem in the 1930s, and came to dominate architectural design for the next half century, partly because of its simplicity and low-cost. But it was tempered by the 1920 municipal ordinance requiring all buildings in the city to be faced in stone - including public lavatories and gas stations - and, because of climatic considerations, the architectural purity was further compromised by the addition of pitched roofs covered with the ubiquitous red Marseilles tiles.

The most severe examples of Functionalism in Jerusalem are the public housing projects constructed in the 1950s. So urgent was the need for housing the masses of new immigrants, that the requirement for stone-facing was waived for some projects and stucco façades can still be seen in the Gonen, Kiryat Moshe and Kiryat Yovel neighborhoods.

Constructivism, an extreme form of Functionalism, leaves exposed parts of the skeletal framework and infrastructure (piping, air-ducts) exposed. A suggestion of this style can be seen in the main building of the New Jerusalem City Hall complex where the structural steel lintel beams over the large window areas have been left unconcealed. Similar elements were used in a recently completed apartment building in Rabbi Akiva Street in downtown Jerusalem.

High-Tech architecture is riotously functional and brightly colored. It is also a case of "the inside being on the outside" so as to provide large, unobstructed areas. An example is the Teddy Stadium in the Manhat neighborhood. The facility is Jerusalem's premier league soccer stadium. When first opened in 1989, the stadium seated 12,000 spectators; after recent renovations, including raising the level of the playing field, the stadium now seats 21,000, with plans for an eventual seating capacity of 26,000.

Post-Modern architecture developed as a reaction against the severity and monotony of the International Style. In Jerusalem, the Post-Modern trend has somewhat resolved the 100-year conflict between continuity and modernity, incorporating, as it does, any number of historical styles and classical elements (arches, columns, domes, etc.). Examples are the David Citadel Hotel (Moshe Safdie, 1998), the Jerusalem Shopping Mall and the nearby Technology Park. Designed by South African architect Harry Brand, the Technology Park complex comprises seven buildings housing high-tech companies and also the Open University's computer sciences unit.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Opened in 1925, the Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus was inaccessible from 1949 to 1967, when the city was divided under Israeli and Jordanian rule and Mount Scopus was an isolated, demilitarized zone. For the first few years, classes were held in various locations in western Jerusalem; then a new campus was built at Givat Ram, which opened in 1958. Most of the buildings there are nondescript functional. An exception is the National and Hebrew University Library, which houses more than three million volumes, many of them rare books and manuscripts. The outstanding feature of the Library is not its architecture, but the monumental stained-glass window designed by Mordechai Ardon, which covers the entire east wall of the mezzanine lobby to the General Reading Room. Based on the opening verses of Genesis, the abstract design includes symbols from Jewish mysticism and modern physics.

Similarly, a series of stained-glass synagogue windows by Marc Chagall depicting the 12 tribes of Israel are the outstanding artistic feature of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Hospital at Ein Kerem. Built in the late 1950s to replace the then inaccessible facilities on Mount Scopus, the hospital complex includes the Hebrew University schools of medicine, dentistry and nursing.

Following re-unification of the city in 1967, the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University was reopened, restored and expanded. The law school returned to its original building, but the humanities, the social sciences, the school of education, a new undergraduate library, various student services, the university senate and a residential faculty club were relocated in a long, inter-connected, fortress-like series of buildings (humorously referred to by some as the "Maginot Line"). Meant to protect students, faculty and visitors from the winter winds and rain, the warren has already provided the setting for at least one "who-dunnit" murder-mystery novel.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, was established in 1953 by an act of the Knesset to commemorate the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the years 1933-1945. The Authority also commemorates the heroism and fortitude of the Jewish resistance fighters in the ghettos and the camps, the Jewish partisans, and the "Righteous Among the Nations" (non-Jews who risked their lives in the effort to rescue Jews from the Holocaust). Located on Har Hazikaron (Heb., Hill of Remembrance), a ridge on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem Memorial and Institute includes commemorative monuments, a historical museum, a central archive and research center for the documentation of the Holocaust and an educational facility.

The main memorial is the Hall of Remembrance, designed by Israeli architect Arieh Elhanani. The severe concrete-walled structure with a low tent-like roof stands empty save for an eternal flame. Engraved in the black basalt floor are the names of 21 Nazi concentration and extermination camps and killing sites in central and eastern Europe. A crypt in front of the flame contains ashes of victims. The monumental entrance gates were designed by artist David Palombo.

Approximately 1.5 million Jewish children perished in the Holocaust. They are specially remembered in the Children's Memorial, an underground cavern in which the flickering flames of five memorial candles are reflected in an infinity of tiny lights within the prevailing darkness. This memorial was designed by Moshe Safdie.

The two-and-a-half acre Valley of the Destroyed Communities commemorates the Jewish communities of Europe destroyed during the Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators. Designed by Israeli landscape architects Dan Tsur and Lippa Yahalom, the canyon-like passages are inscribed with the names of some 5,000 towns, cities and villages.

The educational task of Yad Vashem is to perpetuate the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. The International School for Holocaust Studies, designed by Jerusalem architects and town planners Guggenheim/Bloch includes halls and classes for study sessions, teacher training courses and research by educators around the world.

Hebrew Union College

The synagogue and original classroom and administrative buildings of the Jerusalem Campus of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion were designed in 1963 by Heinz Rau. The building (with white limestone facing and an entrance staircase) is a fine example of late International Style. When the facilities were expanded in 1989 with a library and additional classrooms, the successor architect, Moshe Safdie, abandoned his signatory half-circle Roman arch in favor of a linear, Mediterranean-style that compliments the severity of the earlier architectural elements. Safdie's courtyards, covered walkways and stairs are also adapted to the hillside terrain. The school and its parent institution in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the principal rabbinical seminary of the Reform Movement in Judaism.

The Israel Museum

Completed in 1965, the main buildings of the visually magnificent Israel Museum complex were designed by A. Mansfeld and D. Gad to sit atop a ridgeline, like a Mediterranean hill-top village. The museum is in fact several "museums" in one, housing several major collections, such as Judaica, archeology, ethnography and fine arts. The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls, was designed by Frederick J. Kiesler and Armand Bartos. The white-tiled dome replicates the lids of the ceramic jars in which some of the scrolls had been hidden. Most of the shrine is subterranean, and the stylized entrance corridor is deliberately cave-like.

The Billy Rose Sculpture Garden was designed by the Japanese-American artist and sculptor Isamu Naguchi.

The popular success of the Israel Museum, with its ever-growing number of visitors, has required several expansions - all of which have given rise to controversy, as might be expected when the building itself is considered an aesthetic treasure. The currently proposed new entrance facility is a case in point, with objections raised within the Association of Architects amid charges that some of the suggested renovations would violate the architectural integrity of the original design. To allay such fears, the Museum has invited public comment and suggestions.

The Knesset

Inaugurated in 1966, the building housing the Knesset, Israel's unicameral parliament, was designed by Joseph Klarwin in a modern, functional style that suggests the Classical. The pillars (actually the pre-stressed supports for the roof) which frame the building suggest the colonnades of the Greco-Roman style so often favored in republican civic architecture - especially in the design of buildings housing legislative assemblies. Initial construction was made possible by a contribution from the Rothschild family.

The interior decorations include mosaics and tapestries designed by Marc Chagall, and various Israeli artists, among them Reuven Rubin and sculptor Danny Karavan. The modernistic, monumental entrance gates were designed by Israeli sculptor David Palombo, who also designed the eternal flame monument in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers, which stands beside the entrance to the building. The main structure contains the Knesset Chamber, which seats the 120 members of Knesset as well as a visitors gallery. Other areas of the building contain the State Hall (used for official ceremonies), offices, committee rooms, members' and visitors' dining rooms, etc. In 1982, a wing was added to provide more offices. An annex is now planned for additional offices and committee rooms. Care has been taken that the additions blend into the architectural landscape.

The Jerusalem Center for the Performing Arts

Located in the elegant Talbieh neighborhood, the center was designed by Shulamit Nadler, Michael Nadler and Shmuel Bixon. The stone and textured concrete building was constructed in two stages. The 900-seat Sherover Theater was completed in 1971. Later construction added the 750-seat Henry Crown Symphonic Hall (home of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra), the 450-seat Rebecca Crown Auditorium; and the 150-seat Little Theatre. The walls of the theater lobbies are used for exhibitions of art and photography. The Center is the venue for the annual Israel Festival of the Performing Arts.

The Jerusalem Center of Middle Eastern Studies

Situated on the southern slope of Mount Scopus, the Jerusalem Center of Middle Eastern Studies was built in 1988 as a branch of the Latter-day Saints Church-affiliated Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah). The step design takes advantage of the situation and view, especially in the glass-walled concert hall, where the audience looks out on the Old City and the Temple Mount. The complex also includes a library, classrooms and living accommodations for students and faculty.

The Supreme Court Building

Considered the finest achievement in contemporary Israeli architecture, the Supreme Court Building was opened in 1992. It was designed by Israeli architects Ram Carmi and Ada Carmi-Melamed.

Constructed of local limestone, the eclectic, post-modern style incorporates various historical references that reflect the continuity of law in Jewish history and tradition (just as the positioning of the court building on a hilltop above the Knesset was a deliberate emphasis on the supremacy of the law). Israel's Supreme Court actually sits as two courts - as the Supreme Court; and as the High Court of Justice, which hears petitions against government bodies and agencies. The building contains five courtrooms, chambers and a library. The entrances to the courtrooms are framed with monumental blocks of limestone in architectural reference to the gateways that once gave access to the Royal Stoa. The courtrooms replicate a Roman basilica with columns and a vaulted ceiling. The inner courtyard is bisected by a narrow water channel.

The Jerusalem Municipality

The new Jerusalem Municipality complex and plaza (Safra Square) was completed in 1993. Located just outside the walls of the Old City near the old, British-built municipal building, the new complex includes two new office blocks and ten renovated historic buildings which house municipal offices. The project was designed by Jack Diamond and Ofer Kolker & Associates.

The new municipality building is a successful blend of old and new. The arcaded, six-story main building - a Post-Modern structure of stone, smoked glass and structural steel - contains suggestions of traditional design, including the decorative use of alternating bands of white and red limestone (in the characteristic Mamluk manner). At the east end of the plaza, a canopied stage frames The Mount of Olives. (The plaza and stage are used for public events, concerts and exhibitions.) The project included the renovation and preservation of several 19th- and 20th-century public and private buildings, including the former Imperial Russian Consulate General and the old City Hall. All the buildings are now interconnected below ground level, and the large central plaza covers an underground parking garage for 800 vehicles. Subterranean facilities also house the city archives and the Jerusalem Center for Planning in Historic Cities and its 1:500 scale model of the city center, which is used to judge the visual impact of proposed construction. The initial model was built by Richard Harvey with the help of students of architecture at the Technion in Haifa; it took 15 years to complete (see photo on page 15).

The Belz World Center

The monumental, ten-storey Center in the Romema neighborhood was dedicated by the Rabbi of the Hassidim of Belz in April 2000. The design, by Jerusalem architect Isaac Blatt, includes elements reminiscent of the synagogue of Belz (Poland), which was built in the 19th century and destroyed during the Holocaust.

Within the Center is the synagogue, four storeys high and with a seating capacity of 5000 - making it the largest synagogue in the world. The interior is splendidly decorated in abstract designs, and the acoustics allow the voice of the cantor to be heard without the aid of microphones (the use of which is forbidden on the Sabbath and Holidays).

The building at present under construction, which will house the Ministry, is located in Kiryat Ben-Gurion (the government complex) near the Knesset. The building comprises separate units for the different functions of the Ministry. In the outside walls of the formal reception hall, plates of onyx have been included, which diffuse an amber light. The designers, Jerusalem architects Kolker, Kolker and Epstein in association with Diamond, Donald, Schmidt & Co. of Toronto, were awarded the prize for excellence in architectural innovation by the Royal Institute of Architects of Canada, in June 2001.

Preservation, Restoration and Renovation

Any discussion of contemporary Jerusalem architecture should include mention of efforts to preserve historic buildings through restoration and renovation. One such project involved the reconstruction of the Four Sephardi Synagogues in the historic Jewish quarter of the Old City. The inter-connected complex includes the Ben-Zakkai Synagogue (1610), the Prophet Elijah Synagogue (c. 1625), the Middle Synagogue (c. 1830), and the Istambuli Synagogue (1857) - all of which suffered severe damage and neglect during the 19 years when the Old City was under Jordanian rule. Restoration of the synagogues was guided by photographic records. The new residential buildings in the Jewish quarter were also designed to blend in with the older architectural elements, rather than replicate them.

The Post-Modern interest in traditional elements has also resulted in the renovation and alteration of older, late-19th and early 20th-century buildings, and their adaptation to new uses. In some cases this has involved the physical incorporation of the old façade into a new building. In this category can be included some of the buildings and facilities of Jerusalem's "Cultural Mile", where several cultural institutions are situated along the western edge of the Valley of Hinnom, across from the walls of the Old City: the Jerusalem Music Center for advanced musical education; the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Guest House; the Jerusalem Cinemateque and Israel Film Archive and the Khan Theater (a late-medieval caravansary).

The Yemin Moshe neighborhood, built on the western slope of the Hinnom Valley facing the Old City, was the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the city walls. It was established in 1860 with the construction of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim housing project (a communal block of 16 apartments for indigent Jewish families). Restored with alterations in the 1970s and again in 1999-2001, the complex serves as a guesthouse for visiting writers, artists, scholars and musicians.

The renovation of architecturally interesting private buildings has also been carried out in various neighborhoods of the city. In some cases, only the façades of the original buildings could be preserved; in others, where walls could be strengthened, additional storeys have been added to the original frame, with details and materials matching or complementing the older elements. The results are not uniformly successful, but in most cases at least part of the architectural legacy of the older structure has been preserved. Such efforts have also contributed to a renewal of some neighborhoods - Nahalat Shiv'a in dowtown Jerusalem, the Nahlaot near the Mahane Yehuda market, along the tree-shaded streets of Rehavia and the equally tree- shaded and now "yuppified" Emek Refaim area with its coffee houses, shops and monthly "slow-food" market.

Landscape Architecture

Jerusalem has more than 350 parks and landscaped gardens of all sizes. Some, such as the Rose Garden in Talbieh, date from the 1920s, other parks and recreational areas are of more recent creation. Of special note are the Gavriel Sherover and Haas Promenades, the Jerusalem National Archeological Park near the walls of the Old City, and the Valley of the Destroyed Communities at Yad Vashem.

The Gavriel Sherover and Haas Promenades are a series of paved paths and lookouts along the ridge extending south and east from the Hill of Abu Tor, with a view over the Kidron Valley toward the Temple Mount. Designed by the renowned landscape architect Shlomo Aronson, the paved paths, pergolas and lookouts are landscaped with indigenous trees, bushes and wild grasses.

The Jerusalem National Park around the walls of the Old City was established after the 1967 Six Day War and the reunification of the city. The preservation of a green belt had been suggested in part by the American architect Louis Kahn, who advised then mayor Teddy Kollek to keep the roads around the Old City as far away from the walls as possible. Development of the project included a series of preliminary archeological surveys and excavations. Many of the finds were incorporated into the landscaped walkway, which includes the preserved and sign-posted elements of earlier walls and buildings from all periods of the city's history.

New Neighborhoods

The Psalmist speaks of Jerusalem as a city that is built "compact together" (Psalm 122), but archeological evidence indicates that urban sprawl was underway by the 8th century BCE (possibly owing to the influx of refugees from Samaria and Galilee, following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom).

Mass immigrations and housing shortages in the first years of the State led to government financed low-cost housing projects and the creation of several new neighborhoods, among them Kiryat Hayovel and Gonen. Infrastructure included commercial space for grocery shops and other small businesses.

Construction of new housing estates again took place after the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. One such project was the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, built along part of the former "No Man's Land" that had divided the city. Planning included small parks, tree-lined streets and avenues, a neighborhood health clinic and a small commercial center with a supermarket. Most of the new apartment buildings were limited to a height of four storeys (five storeys would have required a compulsory elevator). Construction included the use of prefab elements, but the outside wall units were faced with a veneer of "Jerusalem" stone, so that architecturally the new neighborhood was considered more "up-scale" than the housing projects of the 1950s. Even so, the close proximity of the buildings and the relatively young age of the buyers (families with children) again created the problem of high population density.

In an attempt to avoid some of these pitfalls and ensure a better quality of life, the Ministry of Construction and Housing established a committee of experts for advise and planning before starting construction of the new Gilo neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the city. Areas were again allocated for parks, educational facilities, shopping centers and other urban requirements, including a community cultural center; in one award-winning housing project, the apartment buildings were built around a park-like central courtyard.

Despite such efforts, the neighborhood remains very much a "bedroom suburb" dependent on vehicle transport even for local shopping. Nor did all developers make adequate provision for on-street parking, with the result that passage is sometimes difficult in narrow side-streets. Similar problems can also be found in the neighborhood of Talpiot Mizrah, and in the new suburbs built on the northern outskirts of the city at Ramot and Pisgat Ze'ev.

High Rise versus Urban Sprawl

Since the creation of the first master plan for Jerusalem by the British in 1918, the question of how the city should develop has continued to be a matter of debate. There are restrictions concerning building height in and around the "scenic basin" of the walled Old City, but controversy continues to rage concerning the necessity and/or desirability of tower blocs in other parts of the city. Planners and architects are divided, and the issue is complicated by the limited availability of building sites, high real estate prices (among the highest in the country) and the cost of construction on terrain where foundations and basement levels must be cut and blasted out of bedrock. Proponents of high-rise buildings argue that Jerusalem's increasing population necessitates growth either upward or outward. Opponents say Manhattan-like tower blocs would have a long-term negative effect on the environment, the economy and the character of the city.

Looking Ahead

Since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, various advisory forums have been created to discuss urban planning and development. The first of these, the international Jerusalem Committee, was established in 1968 by then mayor Teddy Kollek. The Committee, which meets in Jerusalem every two years, comprises some 70 prominent architects, urban planners, historians and academics, who serve as an advisory council to review and advise on municipal plans for the restoration and development of the city. They are especially concerned with the preservation of Jerusalem's specific character and unique heritage.

The Jerusalem Seminar on Architecture, established in 1992 by Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation in Israel), is an international forum for public deliberation on significant topics in architecture and urban design. Held every two years, the seminars allow broad discussion of major issues in contemporary architecture through the presentation of individual case studies. One recent seminar addressed the effect of large public buildings and commercial institutions on the urban landscape. The proceedings of each seminar are video-taped and are available for rent or purchase.

The Forum for Mediterranean Cultures was founded in 1995. A joint project of Mishkenot Sha'ananim (the Jerusalem guest house for visiting writers, artists and musicians) and the Jerusalem Van Leer Foundation, the Forum initiates and conducts academic seminars, artistic workshops and other cultural events to facilitate cultural dialogue among the peoples of the Mediterranean basin. One of the four discussion groups is devoted to architecture and the preservation of historic buildings in contemporary urban planning and development.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Yishai Eldar is a journalist, resident in Jerusalem.