Book Review: Till We Have Built Jerusalem; Architects of a New City

Evan Risch, Yale University

What did Erich Mendelsohn, Austen St. Barbe Harrison, and a mysterious man named Spyro Houris have in common? Not much. They came from disparate backgrounds, designed in very distinct architectural styles, and did not share ethnicities or faiths. However, they were all architects forced to deal with the same challenge: the harsh climate – both in weather and politics- of British-Mandate Palestine. In her new book, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City, Adina Hoffman studies the lives of three early twentieth-century architects working in Jerusalem.

The first and most famous architect is Erich Mendelsohn. Born in Prussia well before the turn of the twentieth century, Mendelsohn entered his architectural prime just as the modernist movement began to develop. Hoffman emphasizes that Mendelsohn was a visionary from the outset, and his sketches demonstrate whimsical structures that at the time could exist only in dreams:

“He had always experienced what he called ‘visions.’… If he was a kind of Prussian Martian, these visions that gripped him were like radio transmissions from that far-off planet. They seized him at odd moments and seemed to take control, to possess him.”[i]

Mendelsohn’s dreamlike way of thinking about architecture drew him toward both the Bauhaus and Expressionist styles. After periods of inspiration from both camps, Mendelsohn solidified his architectural ideas in a form he named “dynamic functionalism,” in which he attempted to synthesize the lively dynamism of Expressionist architecture and the scientific rigidity of the Bauhaus. Mendelsohn’s innovative style secured him a position of popularity in the high echelons of German artistic and intellectual culture, until Hitler rose to power. In 1933, after having dreamed up and realized so many amazing and popular designs, Mendelsohn fled Germany by night train with his wife, daughter, and stamp collection.

After a few years wandering around Western Europe, Mendelsohn eventually decided to settle in Palestine. He had visited a few times before, but having had a successful practice in Berlin, he had no reason to emigrate. When a few of his important German clients–who had fled Germany as well–moved to Palestine and requested that he design villas and other edifices such as those he designed for them in Germany, Mendelsohn felt that the time was right to settle in Palestine, in the city that Hoffman refers to as “Old-new Jerusalem.”

Until an influx of Jewish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth-century, Jerusalem had been a crowded, disease-ridden city realizing the desolation and suffering foretold by the Prophets. The city was still enclosed within its ancient fortifications and surrounded by empty hillsides. In 1867, the Ottomans built a road from Jerusalem to Jaffa–the “Jaffa Road”–that opened up trade and commerce to Jerusalem. The city soon expanded beyond its walls, and by the time of the establishment of the British Mandate, it had grown from a clustered city of eight thousand to a metropolis of over fifty thousand.

Having left their clean, modern lifestyle back in Berlin, the Mendelsohn family entered into a tougher existence in the land of their ancestors. For Mendelsohn, this new environment posed unique challenges: harsh heat and sunlight precluded the use of expansive glass; building materials were limited mostly to Jerusalem stone; and clients and builders–both Jewish and Arab alike–did not come cheaply. Mendelsohn’s grand Herzlian visions to redesign and to build up Jerusalem into a modern city were less than compatible with his new home. Quoted here by Hoffman, Mendelsohn wrote:

“‘The principle home of the Jewish people is the building of its national home in Palestine…A great part of this building is of economical character. The world, however, will not judge us by the amount of citrus fruit exported, but by the spiritual value of our spiritual contributions.’ But perhaps the truth about the world’s judgment rested somewhere between their well-stacked orange crates and his lofty metaphysical aspirations, a compromise Mendelsohn–for all his vaunted vision–could not see.”[ii]

Ideologically, Mendelsohn enjoyed the challenge of merging his European style with a more toned-down “Oriental” one, but his design ideas still required an appreciation for aesthetics–for which Jerusalemites were too distracted to care. Jewish financial boards nickel-and-dimed the slightest details in every design. There was no time for elegance: Jerusalem had become a city of terror and turmoil. In 1939, just next door to Mendelsohn’s Anglo-Palestine Bank, the Irgun detonated a bomb in the newly-constructed Central Post Office, killing the British soldier trying to defuse the bomb and destroying much of the main lobby. Beauty was relegated to the background as the city fought for Jewish survival and sovereignty.

As the decade came to a close with the onset of the Second World War, many of Mendelsohn’s friends and supporters began to leave Palestine: Austen Harrison fled Jerusalem in the night, the British High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope announced his resignation, and Mendelsohn’s long-time patron and friend, the publisher Salman Schocken, immigrated to New York. With Schocken gone, Mendelsohn felt more alone than ever. The board overseeing his most important project in Palestine–the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus–reneged on its contract and stopped payment for the project. Rommel and his Nazi troops edged ever closer through Libya, perhaps intending to make their way into Palestine. It was time for Mendelsohn to flee yet again. He traveled to New York and shortly thereafter to San Francisco, where he had a quiet career that ended in 1953 when he died of thyroid cancer. While it has been somewhat obscured, his legacy in Palestine remains: Chaim Weizmann’s House in Rehovot, Hadassah Hospital, and the Anglo-Palestine Bank building still stand.

 

Hoffman then turns her attention to Austen St. Barbe Harrison (b. 1891). Harrison never liked being in England, despite his refined English taste. Leaving the country as a young man, he wandered the Mediterranean coasts and never returned. Having fought in and witnessed the horrors of the First World War, Harrison was a devout pacifist and was disgusted by the violence rampant in British-controlled Jerusalem, for which he was chief architect from 1923 to 1937. Fairly reclusive by nature, Harrison lived alone in a three-room stone house with a garden and a view of the Arab village below, a landscape he spent many hours attempting to capture with pencil and paper. His travels around the Mediterranean–Italy, Greece, and Transjordan–instilled in him an obsession with archaeology, and with architectural ruins in particular. Like any good Englishman, Harrison enjoyed seclusion and staidness, and quiet, long walks. He took inspiration from the sites that he encountered while hiking around Palestine:

“As he worked, he walked and looked, and he was always working, walking, looking–sketching, scribbling, roaming wadis and roof-tops and back alleys on his days off. He often did this alone, as on the weekend when he trekked some forty miles from Jaffa to Caesarea on foot, or the Sunday he walked by himself for hours from Ramallah to Jericho and almost collapsed in the heat.”[iii]

Like Mendelsohn, Harrison was a dreamer. He saw himself as Palestine’s grand architect, and his designs reflected this self image: they were too large, ostentatious, complicated, and costly for Jerusalem’s preoccupied populace. His grandiose schemes were largely unpalatable for most clients, who sought to maintain visual neutrality and minimize costs. Harrison’s design for the Jerusalem Archaeological Museum was no exception. The board overseeing the project repeatedly disapproved of his designs, claiming that his plans were too extravagant and would offend the local population. After a long debate, Harrison won over the board and his final design (a softened version of the original Southern-European and Middle-Eastern hodgepodge) passed by a narrow margin. Another setback occurred when unearthing a Roman and Byzantine cemetery while digging the museum’s foundation:

“So extensive was this field of scarabs and skeletons that a month after the digging began, Harrison called a halt to the foundation work ‘pending further investigations.’…It would take almost a year for the excavating to resume…”[iv]

The appointment of the pro-Zionist Arthur Wauchope as High Commissioner in 1931 paved the way for Jewish architects–such as Erich Mendelsohn–to enter the Jerusalem building scene. Whereas previously Harrison was given a near-monopoly on major construction works in Jerusalem, he now had competition. Harrison eventually left Palestine to wander along the Mediterranean coastline once more. He fled in the middle of the night, leaving behind his house and possessions. He visited Egypt and Cypress, and eventually made his way to Athens, where he lived until his death in 1976.

 

Finally, Hoffman introduces us to Spyro Houris–or at least attempts to do so. She admits that there is little documentation of the life of this mysterious architect, who was responsible many of Jerusalem’s residential buildings:

“It may already be too late. He is, after all, no more than a ghost. But he’s a ghost whose traces I’ve become somehow desperate to find before they disappear completely, as if by doing so I might hold him here–hold something of his city and its waning worldliness here–a bit longer.”

Hoffman approaches her search for Houris by discussing relevant historical events and figures from his time. She infers that his name is likely derived from the Arabic, Khoury or Khouri, meaning priest, but can find no concrete sources. After long hours sifting through manuscripts and records, she finds one pile of unsorted documents tucked away at the Central Zionist Archives. It contains letters to, from, and concerning Houris, who appears to have been a Greek Orthodox architect practicing in Jerusalem before, during, and after the First World War. Hoffman explains:

“[It] seems safe to say that while he didn’t discriminate on the basis of race or religion, he designed buildings only for those who stood at the top of the city’s social and economic ladder.”[v]

Hoffman spends far more time discussing details around Houris than about him; she tells of the life and work of an Armenian potter and ceramicist, David Ohanessian, and his potential ties to Houris. At long last, a surprise email from an archivist who had contributed to Hoffman’s search into Austen Harrison’s past reveals several concrete facts. Houris was born in 1883 in Alexandria, where he became a freemason in 1910 and immigrated to Jerusalem sometime before 1914. He had a younger sister, Maria, who married his architectural partner, Nikephoros Petassis, in 1925. Houris himself never married, and died in Jerusalem in 1936.

All three architects dealt with the hostility of pre-independence Jerusalem in different ways. Mendelsohn and Harrison both fought against unsympathetic supervisory boards, attempting to carry through large projects in their own, often unappreciated styles. Houris became a part of the upper class of the city, creating non-controversial, unobtrusive houses for his friends and acquaintances. Mendelsohn, a visionary and a stickler for doing things his way, eventually lost heart in his grand schemes for architecture in Palestine, and left Jerusalem permanently. Harrison, finding his talents no longer needed, also departed and never returned. Houris remained to the end of his life, yet faded into near-complete anonymity to this day. As Hoffman writes, “Jerusalem has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.”[vi]

Hoffman thoroughly explores the stories of three architects who spent critical and formative periods designing in Jerusalem. Writing in a lively and informal tone, she interweaves her own research experiences in the present with the architects’ experiences in the past. Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City presents a well-researched and knowledgeable account of how Jerusalem impacted three significant architectural figures.

[i] p. 37

[ii] p.47

[iii] p. 141

[iv] p. 175

[v] p. 259

[vi] p. 5