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U.S.-Israel Relations: History of Israel's U.S. Embassy

by Yeshaiau Mandel

In October 1968, the United States Congress decided to develop a site in Washington, D.C. designed to accommodate an international diplomatic center. Two years later, under the authority of the Secretary of State, the National Planning Commission approved a master plan for the center which was located on federally-owned land at the Bureau and Standards site on Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street, in northwest Washington. The site was to consist of 14 lots, housing chanceries of foreign governments as well as the international headquarters of the Organization of African States. The General Services Administration later prepared plans for streets, utilities and public space development which were also approved by the commission.

Israel was the first country to apply for a plot allotment. In 1973, Simcha Dinitz - then Israel's Ambassador to Washington - received in the name of the state, the corner lot at Van Ness Street and Reno Road, and with the assistance of Washington developer Robert Kogod, engaged a local architectural firm to prepare preliminary drawings for the new chancery building.

Both the National Planning Commission and the Washington Fine Arts Commission had to review and approve the plans submitted by each foreign government, first at the conceptual design stage and again in their final form. Appearance, height, colors, texture of materials and so on were subject to approval to ensure that all designs were compatible with each other and in harmony with the adjoining residential neighborhoods. The declared theme uniting the plans was "to design a contemporary structure which reflects the national heritage of each sponsoring country while also serving the many functions required by a chancery."

During 1976 and 1977, various alternative proposals were presented and reviewed by and Israel government inter-ministerial committee. Being almost purely functional in character, the proposals failed to fulfill the expectations of the committee which, at the end of 1977, decided to appoint an Israeli architect to assume responsibility for the design and to serve as consultant to the project. When this writer was appointed by the committee, the first question we asked ourselves was: What kind of structure will best reflect the national heritage of Israel?

As it transpired, the character of the entire complex is strongly Islamic, given the apportionment of six of the 14 parcels to Jordan, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen. While recognizing that orientalism had widely influenced Jewish thought, religion, philosophy, literature (including the later books of the Bible) and architecture, the first design decision was that a building representing the State of Israel should avoid the decoration and embellishments typical of oriental design and rely on other recognizable features of modern Israeli architecture - such as boldness and directness of concept and articulation - but at the same time should incorporate features characteristic of the old regional architecture - such as the breaking up of large masses into closely knit units, the use of recessed or arched openings, and the gathering of smaller masses around a multipurpose open space.

A digression is necessary in order to consider factors influencing the design team. A study of Jewish architecture of the past for inspiration brings into focus only synagogue architecture, based on public participation in a collective act of worship conducted around a focus inside the building. While the Temple in Jerusalem had a rich interior serving the ritual celebrated by priests only, the interior of early synagogues was kept deliberately austere, avoiding, as it were, anything which might distract the worshippers from study or prayer.

The architects of the early type of synagogue were probably trained in the local tradition of the Greco-Roman period, where the execution of the buildings was in the hands of local craftsmen, introducing a strong oriental element into the order of decoration and concentrated the splendor of the buildings in the interior, especially their mosaic pavements. In Israel, several examples of these can still be seen intact at Beit Alpha, Jericho and Hamat Gader. Just as Byzantine synagogues were influenced by Byzantine art, the existence of rich building traditions in the countries in which the Jews lived precluded the development of a specific Jewish art of building in those countries. When Jews adopted a type of building suitable to their needs, they generally borrowed from existing secular forms, even though some similarities with other religious buildings might have occurred in the details of the ornaments.

Only in the 16th century was a creative architectural answer found to the problem of a centrally located liturgical function, by emphasizing the central position of the bima (dais) with four pillars from which the service was conducted. Although it would have been possible to emphasize the centralized layout by other means, such as a dome, the four-pillared design was the central architectural feature of synagogues in eastern Europe. This style was quickly absorbed and further modified in Eretz Israel by adding a dome to the central space concept of four pillars, thus reflecting the local historical and climatic environment.

By the end of the 19th century, architects had come under the influence of new technologies and were reacting against the prevalent exuberant use of ornamentation. As in the past, Jewish architects continued to build in style contemporary to that era; the freedom of the period actually impeded the formulation of a style which reflected the Jewish national heritage or the continuity of a traditional type of building. At the same time architects in Palestine, while free to exercise their imagination in their search for appropriate evocative forms, looked to their surroundings for inspiration. Consequently, architecture mirrored the revival of the new Jewish nationalism in Eretz Israel by using the region's traditional forms and consciously striving for an idiom that would reflect the national heritage.

Some architects evoked the oriental style in a form more sentimental than functional, creating a style termed "eclectic romanticism;" this approach was abandoned when European architects brought to Palestine--during the 1930s--the International Style developed in the Bauhaus in Germany, and incorporated their new functionalist movement into the mainstream of modern Israeli architecture. They recognized conceptually that architecture has an international idiom; thereafter, buildings in Israel lost their traditional expression and possessed characteristics no different from buildings in other parts of the word.

Only since the creation of the state have legitimate regional needs dictated by climate, geography and topography been taken into consideration, albeit with little inspiration from historical oriental architecture. The eclectic influences in the architectural styles of Israeli building include Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Brazilian sun shades and Japanese "brutalism" in exposed concrete.

The design team for the new Washington chancery was fully cognizant of this historical background, but was aware that not enough time had passed since the foundation of the state to allow an indigenous architecture to crystallize, thus giving expression to the traditions and cultural experience of the new society. The final design was an attempt to incorporate the quality and vitality of the past in the architecture, not by exploiting historical sentimentalism or romanticism, but through the expression of contemporary materials and structural integrity.

In order to meet the requirements of the chancery and to comply with the Planning Commission limitation that the building occupy more than 30 percent of the parcel, we allowed the architecture to develop out of its own volition, only striving for a lack of pretense that would fit the Israeli mood of simplicity and directness. The building was planned to rise four floors above ground, with a large basement area for parking, mechanical and service facilities.

The final design which was presented for approval in the summer of 1978 featured a buff-colored brick exterior with deeply recessed windows crowned by arches on the top floor, with all floors facing inward onto a brick entrance atrium. The building provided 50,000 square feet of office space for diplomatic, consular, press, economic and military personnel, and a large reception hall for cultural and formal functions, abutting an open terrace for indoor and outdoor use. Although there was pressure on the part of security officers for a more massiveness and enclosure, the focal highlight of the building is the entrance atrium, reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture, which conveys natural light into the building from outside. Spatially it is filled with an interchange of stairs and arches, echoing the intimacy of the Mediterranean open courtyard. The atrium can thus become an informal gathering space for receptions or a formal sitting area; a quiet waiting area for visitors or an exciting exhibition space. The sun admitted through the upper windows gives a warm light to the interior and the corridors and galleries change in treatment and atmosphere as one moves along, creating a variety of moods throughout the building.

The designs were approved by the Washington Fine Arts Commission in November 1978, and structural, mechanical, piping and electrical consultants were brought in to complete the working drafts and to meet the schedule for groundbreaking on Israeli Independence Day, May 1979. While construction was in progress and the final landscaping and interior plans were being completed, it was decided to relate to the new chancery building as a showcase for Israeli art, no easy matter considering the restricted budget and the manner in which this problem had traditionally been tackled--relying on unsolicited gifts or loans of artwork, sometimes of dubious merit.

To solve the problem posed by the requirements of quality and quantity, a new approach was called for. With the help of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and later the Tel Aviv Museum, an arts program was initiated, in itself an interesting experience in unifying arts and architecture. Israeli architecture, like any other, tends to reflect the forces that go into the shaping of the surrounding society; but without the active participation of the arts, it cannot be fully representative of the creative spirit of the society. With this concept in mind the building was, from the outset, designed to include in its public and private spaces works of some of Israel's finest contemporary artists.

Although the chosen works of art, predominantly modern and western in character, were successfully integrated into the design of the building, and the menorah (candelabrum) as the traditional national symbol was reproduced ornamentally in the ironwork, a definite need was felt to incorporate elements of oriental Jewish symbolism which is so much a part of our historical heritage. In this, the Department of Ethnography of the Israel Museum was of invaluable help in selecting suitable Jewish motifs (inspired by the museum's collection of oriental carpets and the fine embroidered dresses) which were then used in the design of the atrium carpet of the chancery. The motifs in the carpet's pattern are found solely in Jewish ornamentation and in no other culture. The whirling rosette and the palmette have been employed for generations by Jews under the Spanish influence and are mystic symbols of continuity and afterlife. The carpet, woven in different shades of blue, and be seen from every floor of the building and is in itself an artistic expression of the continuity of the Jewish tradition and the rebirth of the State of Israel.

Sources: Ariel magazine, no. 61, Israeli Embassy