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Contested Zionism-Alternative Modernism: Erich Mendelsohn and the Tel Aviv Chug in Mandate Palestine1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 April 2016


In preparation for the 1994 celebrations of the ‘Bauhaus in Tel Aviv’, the newly renovated city was painted white. To its numerous visitors, Tel Aviv boasted the largest concentration world-wide of 1930s modernist buildings (Figs. 1, 2). The impact of this ‘live museum’ was compounded by an abundance of exhibitions and festivities that promoted the Mandate period ‘International Style Architecture’ as a national heritage. This new awareness of Israel’s modern architecture provoked scholarly consideration. In particular, attention has been directed toward the architects who shaped the landscape of the Jewish population in Mandate Palestine known as the Yishuv. Scholars, however, have not adequately questioned the relationship forged by architectural historians between Modern Architecture and Zionism. This paper challenges the uniform treatment of this juncture by exposing distinctions between the different Zionist ideologies embedded in the architectural production of the 1930s. I will illustrate such ideological tension by focusing on the work of Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine on the one hand and on the Tel Aviv architectural circle — known by the Hebrew word for ‘circle’, Chug — on the other.

Research Article
Copyright © Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 1996

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Firstly, I would like to thank the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain who awarded an earlier version of this paper with a prize. This paper was drawn from my graduate work at the History, Theory, and Criticism section of MIT Department of Architecture. I would like to express my gratitude to Royston Landau for his encouragement and guidence, as well as to Sibel Bozdogan and Akos Moravanszky for their insightful comments on different stages of this paper. I further benefited from the helpful comments of Mark Jarzombek, Gwendolyn Wright, Sarah Ksiazek and Zeev Rosenhek. I extend special thanks to Hadas Steiner.

Illustrations were drawn from the Zionist Archive (figs. 2–4, 8, 10), Isaac Kalter collection (figs. 5, 13, 14), Karmi family (fig. 11), the Archive of the Weizmann Institution (figs. 16–18), the Visual Archive of the Hebrew University (figs. 20–24), and Bruno Zevi–s Opera Completa (fig. 19).



2. The Yishuv, literally ‘setdement’, is the politically organized Jewish community in Palestine established by the Zionist waves of immigration since the end of the nineteenth century. A selected list of recent books about the architectural production of the Yishuv primarily during the Mandate period includes: Jeannine Fiedler, ed. Social Utopias of the Twenties: Bauhaus, Kibbutz and the Dream of the New Man (Germany, 1995); Herbert, Gilbert and Sosnovsky, Silvina, Bauhaus on the Carmel, and the Crossroads of Empire (Jerusalem, 1993)Google Scholar; Ingersoll, Richard, Munio Gitai Weintraub: Bauhaus Architect in Eretz Israel (Milan, 1994)Google Scholar; Kamp-Bandau, Irmel et al. Tel Aviv Modern Architecture 1930-1939 (Berlin, 1994)Google Scholar; Metzger-Szmuk, Nitzah, Batim min ha’hol (Tel Aviv, 1994)Google Scholar.

3. An exception would be an extensive book review: Daniel Monk, Bertrand, ‘Autonomy Agreements: Zionism, Modernism and the Myth of a ‘Bauhaus’ Vernacular,’ AA Files, 28 (1994), pp. 9498 Google Scholar.

4. This paper does not attempt to cover the larger picture of architectural production in the Mandate period, to which the books cited above contribute gready. Mendelsohn and the Chug are two significant examples with which I attempt to demonstrate ideological oppositions within the architectural community.

5. A representative list of influential writings on modern Israeli architecture in the 1950s and 1960s includes: Elhanani, Aba, ‘Directions in Israeli Architecture’, Handasa ve’Adrichalut (Engineering and Architecture), vol. 20, (Sept-Oct 1962), pp. 313-15Google Scholar; Ha’Shimshoni, Avia, ‘Adrichalut yisraelit’, Omanut Yisrael, ed. Tammuz, Benjamin (Tel Aviv, 1963)Google Scholar; English edition: ‘Architecture’ in Art in hrael, ed. with Wykes-Joyse, Max (Philadelphia, 1967)Google Scholar; collected writings of Yohanan Ratner reprinted in Sosnovsky, Silvina, ed. Yohanan Rattier: the man, the architect, and his work, (Haifa, 1992)Google Scholar. An exception would be: Gershon Canaan, Rebuilding the land of Israel, (NY, 1954). Canaan’s book, advocating a more regional modernism, was written in the US, with an introduction by Erich Mendelsohn. Answering his imagined audience, the author explains that the book was not written in Israel because there people were too busy building the state.

6. Michael Levine’s landmark exhibition had two catalogues: Levin, Michael, White City: International Style Architecture in Israel, A Portrait of an Era (Tel Aviv, 1984)Google Scholar, and White City: International Style Architecture in Israel, Judith Turner: Photographs (Tel Aviv, 1984).

7. Hitchcock, Henry-Russel and Johnson, Philip, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York, 1932), p. 21 Google Scholar.

8. For a concise and insightful analysis of Hitchcock’s approach see: Banham, Rayner, ‘A Set of Actual Monuments’, Architectural Review (April 1989), pp. 89–92 Google Scholar.

9. Leaders from Left and Right endorsed the style, but promoted it differendy. For Shimon Peres, for example, who was the Foreign Affairs Minister in the Labour government at the time of the 1994 celebrations, the style was the heritage of the Labour Zionism that founded the state. His opening speech at the 1994 conference is partially quoted in Monk, ‘Autonomy Agreements’. Roni Milo, Tel Aviv’s right-wing Mayor, found in the International Style architectural heritage a foundation for tourism and a springboard for future economic development of a city with a strong tradition. See Milo’s introduction to the celebrations of ‘Bauhaus in Tel Aviv’ in the accompanying brochure.

10. Recent scholarship confirms this bond. See Fiedler, Social Utopias of the Twenties: Bauhaus, Kibbutz and the Dream of the New Man, and Ingersoll, Munio Gitai Weintraub: Bauhuas Architect in Eretz Israel, above. Gilbert Herbert argued that the greatest influence on 1930s modernism in Palestine was that of Gropius, the Bauhaus, and the various Siedlungen projects. See: Herbert, Gilbert, ‘On the Fringes of the International Style’, Architecture SA (Cape Town, September-October 1987), pp. 3643 Google Scholar.

11. Ratner, Eugene (Yohanan), ‘Architecture in Palestine’, Palestine and Middle East Economic magazine, 7-8 (1933). pp. 293-96Google Scholar. Reprinted in Sosnovsky, Yohanan Ratner, p. 25e.

12. Ha’Shimshoni, ‘Adrichalut yisraelit’, p. 227.

13. The distinction to which I refer between cultural and political Zionism relates primarily to the conceptual difference between Ahad Ha-am’s aspiration to throw light unto the nations (‘or la’goyim’) and Herzl’s will to be a nation like all nations (‘am ke’chol Ha’amim’) as will be explained shortly.

14. Kirsch, Karin, The Weissenhofsiedlung Experimental Housing Built for the Deutscher Werkbund, Stuttgart 1927 (Stuttgart, 1993), p. 64 Google Scholar.

15. Sosnovsky, Yohanan Ratner, Hashimshony, ‘Architecture’; Elhanani, ‘Directions’.

16. Ha’Shimshoni, ‘Adrichalut yisraelit’, pp. 217, 224-28.

17. This wave of immigration is known as the third Aliyah (literally ascend), and is considered to be more motivated by Zionist sentiments than the fifth Aliyah of the 1930s, which was a response to the crisis in Europe.

18. Biographical information on individual Chug members can be found in the Architectural Heritage Research Centre at the Technion, Haifa, and in the following books: Sharon, Arieh, Kibbutz + Bauhaus (Stuttgart, 1976)Google Scholar; Shechori, Ran, Ze’ev Rechter (Jerusalem, 1987)Google Scholar; Kamp-Bandau Tel Aviv; Metzger-Szmuk, Batim.

19. Neufeld defines Organic building as a harmony between the needs of man on the one hand, and the built content and expression on the other, a harmony between social tendencies and form which ultimately results in a total architectonic organism. Neufeld acknowledges individual intuition but undermines the cult of ‘names’ who allegedly lead modern architecture. He rather advanced his belief in the Kuntswollen of his time. Neufeld, who interwove here the modern, organic, and beautiful, would rarely write for the subsequent publication of Habinyan despite his continued active membership in the Chug.

20. When the Chug launched the first architectural publication in Palestine, Habinjan Bamisrah Hakarov (Construction/Building in the Near East) in December 1934, it did not only localize the journal geographically, but addressed its audience in an editorial translated into Hebrew, Arabic and English. Motivated by the lack of’any effort towards analysis, direction or influence’ on ‘the building movement’, it was staged as a forceful tool for the advancement of modern architecture and professional interest. The publication was pluralistically modern with an emphasis on social, economic, climatic and technical discourse and professional administrative struggles.

However, the bias toward the Chug’s work and its underlying ideology was challenged by architects and engineers from Haifa, who took over the publication. Most conspicuously, they attempted to diversify and regionalize the journal to include neighbouring countries. The subtitle Itono shel Chug Adrichalim be’Eretz Israel (the Paper of the Architects’ Circle in the Land of Israel) was transferred to the more professional and less pluralist journal, Habinyan. A comparison between the coverage and the quality of the two leaves no doubt regarding the power and influence of the Chug. Habinyan focused primarily on housing and Zionist villages and lengthy articles demonstrated alternative layouts for the ultimate minimal apartment with which to accommodate the working family.

21. Herbert, Gilbert and Heinze-Greenberg, Ita, ‘Anatomy of a Profession: Architects in Palestine During the British Mandate’. Architectura (1992), pp. 149-62Google Scholar.

22. Posener, Julius, ‘One-Family Houses in Palestine,’ Habinyan 2 (1937), p. 1 Google Scholar.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Donner, Batia, To Live with the Dream (Tel Aviv, 1989)Google Scholar, English introduction.

26. Arieh Sharon, Kibbutz + Bauhuas.

27. Ibid., p. 29.

28. This position was offered to Sharon by M. Bentov, the minister of housing and construction, who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair (the young guard), the same organization to which Sharon’s Kibbutz belonged.

29. Zionist ideology not only repudiated the immediate past of exile-as-national-uprootedness but also endorsed the remote past by means of a leap into antiquity, when Jews last experienced ‘authentic’ national life on their promised land. A continuity between the biblical past and the premises of socialism, and eventually statehood would be necessary for the textual integrity of the Zionist narrative. For the uses of history and the formation of collective memory in the context of Israeli nationalism, see: Zerubavel, Yael, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago, 1995)Google Scholar.

30. Shapira, Anita, Beri: the Biography of a Socialist Zionist, Beri Katznebon 1887-1944 (Cambridge, 1984)Google Scholar, selections from the Hebrew edition (Tel Aviv, 1983).

31 Ze’ev Tzahor, ‘Ben Gurion Mythopoetics’, in The Shaping of Israeli Identity: Myth, Memory and Trauma, eds Wistrich, Robert and Ohana, David (London, 1995), pp. 6184 Google Scholar. For a general discussion of the relation of Labour Zionism to the ‘Arab question’ see: Gorny, Yoseph, Zionism and the Arabs 1882-1948: A Study of Ideology, (Oxford, 1987)Google Scholar; Shapira, Anita, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force 1881-1948 (New York, 1992)Google Scholar.

32. For a discussion of the relationship between Jewish nativeness in Palestine and the natural attributes of the land of Israel, see Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, pp. 28-29.

33. Posener, ‘One-family’, pp. 1-2.

34. Posener, ‘One-family’, p. 2.

35. Posener wrote: ‘Habinyan equally refrain from romantic glorification of the wholeness of the fellah village as well as from criticism and denunciation. We will not say: we should build in such a stable and traditional manner, nor will we say it is forbidden to build in such an odd and bad way. The Arab village does not serve us as a model for imitation, nor is it a contradictory position to any alternative, which determines: this or that, old or new style.’ See ‘Villages in Palestine’, Habinyan 3 (1937), p. 1.

36. Ibid.

37. Meyer, Hannes, ‘Building,’ in Bauhaus (Cambridge 1968), p. 153 Google Scholar.

38. Ibid.

39. Posener, Julius, ‘One-Family house in Palestine’, Habinyan, 2 (1937), p. 1 Google Scholar.

40. Whittick, Erich Mendebohn, p. 133.

41. Mendelsohn, Erich, Palestine and the World of Tomonow (Jerusalem 1940), p. 14 Google Scholar.

42. Translated in Herbert, Gilbert, ‘Erich Mendebohn and the Zionist Dream’, Erich Mendebohn in Palestine, Catalog of an Exhibition (Haifa 1987)Google Scholar.

43. Hienze-Muhleib, Ita, Erich Mendebohn, Bauten und Projekte in Palastina (1934-1941) (München 1986)Google Scholar. This is the most comprehensive study on Erich Mendelsohn’s work in Palestine.

44. For Agnon’s writings on Mendelsohn look at S. Y. Agnon, ‘Ad hena,’ in Ad hena, pp. 83-85; ‘Pitche dvarim’ and ‘Misha melech Moav,’ in Pitche dvarim, pp. 121-23, 150, 92-96. I would like to thank Avraham Vachman for drawing my attention to these writings.

45. In 1914 only 1.5 per cent of German Jews were Zionists, a situation that changed radically only after the Nazis seized power. See Lavsky, Hagit, Before Catastrophe: The Distinctive Path of German Zionism (Jerusalem, 1990)Google Scholar. Mendelsohn, however, is mentioned in 1919 in a list of potentia immigrants to Palestine (I would like to thank Ita Heinze-Greenberg for this information).

46. An English translation is included in Glatzer, N., ed., On Judaism (New York, 1976)Google Scholar.

47. Erich Mendelsohn sent this book to Louise in 1915, writing that in it he identified ‘the strict confession of my Jewishness. And indeed exacdy at the mixture Buber attempts to realize.’ Letter of 2 April, 1915, in Briefe eines Architekten, ed. Beyer, Oskar (Munich, 1961), p. 35 Google Scholar.

48. Buber’s involvement in the Munich art circles is described by Weiss, Peg, Kandinsky in Munich: The FormativeJugenstil Years (Princeton, 1979)Google Scholar.

49. For Buber’s early thought see: Mendes-Flohr, Paul, From Mysticism to Dialogue: Martin Buber’s Transformations of German Social Thought (Detroit, 1989)Google Scholar.

50. Excerpts from Buber’s early political writings are in: Buber, Martin, A Land for Two People: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, ed. Mendes-Flohr, Paul (New York, 1983)Google Scholar.

51. Mendelsohn, ErichThe Problem of a New Architecture,’ lecture in the ‘Arbeitsrat fur Kunst’, Berlin, 1919, reprinted in Erich Mendebohn: Complete Works of the Architea (New York), p. 20 Google Scholar.

52. Erich Mendelsohn, The International Consensus on the New Architectural Concept, or Dynamics and Functions, reprinted in ‘Complete Works’, p. 22.

53. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 15.

54. Mendes-Flohr, Paul, ‘Fin de Siecle Orientalism: the Ostjuden, and the Aesthetics of Jewish Self-Affirmation’, Divided Passions: Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity (Detroit, 1991), pp. 77132 Google Scholar.

55. Scholem, Gershom, On Jews andJudaism in Crisis (New York, 1976),p. 138 Google Scholar.

56. Martin Buber, ‘The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism’ in Onjudaism, pp. 77-78.

57. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 19.

58. ‘A New Architecture in Palestine: an Interview with Mr. Erich Mendelsohn’, Palestine Review (Jerusalem, 20 August 1937), p. 318.

59. Ibid.

60. Beyer, Oskar, ed. Erich Mendebohn: Letters of an Architect (London, 1967), particularly pp. 4043 Google Scholar.

61. Ibid., letter of 9 July 1918, p. 44.

62. Mendelsohn, ‘The International Consensus’, p. 24.

63. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 6.

64. Ibid., p. 9.

65. Mendelsohn, Erich, ‘Il Bacino Mediterraneo e la Nuova Architettura’, Architettura (December 1932) pp. 647-48Google Scholar.

66. To the social content of much of the modern architecture of his time Mendelsohn was largely indifferent. Seeing architectural production as a great spiritual deed, he did not express much interest in housing projects either in Europe or in Palestine.

67. Whittick, Erich Mendehohn, p. 133.

68. Hoffmann, Josef, ‘Architektonisches aus der Östereichischen Riviera’, Der Architect 1 (1895), p. 37 Google Scholar, reprinted in Mallgrave, H. F., ed. Otto Wagner: Reflections of the Raiment of Modernity (Santa Monica, 1993), p. 221 Google Scholar.

69. Sekier, Edward F., Josef Hoffmann: the Architectural Work (Princeton 1985)Google Scholar. Krimmel, Bernd, ed. Joseph Maria Olbrich 1867-1908, Exhibition Catalogue (Darmstadt, 1983)Google Scholar.

70. Liane LeFaivre and Alexander Tzonis, a talk in Jerusalem, March 1996.

71. Mendelsohn, Erich, ‘Il Bacino Mediterraneo e la Nuova Architettura’, Architettura (December 1932) pp. 647-48Google Scholar. Piacentini, the editor of the magazine previously published Mendelsohn’s work in his book. Publishing Mendelsohn’s piece in 1932 was part of updating the magazine to encounter the pressure of the Rationalist group. To this effort Giuseppe Pagano, a young Jewish Italian architect who admired Mendelsohn’s work, contributed. Architettura was the official architectural magazine of the Fascist party. However, in 1932 it was not connected in the German public opinion with the local emergence of the Nazis. For the Mediterraneità discourse in Italy see Brian McLaren, ‘Carlo Enrico Rava, mediterraneitá and the architecture of the Italian colonies in Africa in the 1930s’, forthcoming in Environmental Design.

72. Echardt, Wolf Von, Erich Mendelsohn, (New York, 1960), p. 24 Google Scholar.

73. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 7.

74. Ibid., p. 5.

75. Ibid., p. 6.

76. Fuller, Mia, ‘Mediterraneanism’, Environmental Design 9-10 (1990), pp. 89 Google Scholar.

77. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 9.

78. Whittick, Erich Mendelsohn, p. 147. This statement was eliminated from the later edition which postdated the foundation of the Israeli state.

79. Mendelsohn, Palestine, pp. 13-14.

80. Ibid., p. 14.

81. Ibid., p. 11.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. Whittick, Erich Mendelsohn, p. 133.

85. Ibid., p. 14.

86. Palestine Review, p. 318.

87. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 11.

88. Letter to Schocken, 27 July 1936, in Erich Mendehohn: Letter of an Architect, ed. Beyer, Oskar (New York, 1967), p. 145 Google Scholar.

89. Letter to Louise, 1 August 1936, Ibid., p. 146.

90. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 11.

91. Heinze-Greenberg, Ita, ‘The impossible Takes Longer’: Facts and Notes About the Weizmann Residence in Rehovot’, Katedra 72 (June 1994)Google Scholar.

92. Whittick, Erich Mendehohn, p. 133.

93. Ibid.

94. Mendelsohn, Erich, a letter in Habinjan Bamisrah Hakarov, 3 (February 1935), p. 4 Google Scholar.

95. Posener,’The Villages,’ p. 1.

96. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 7.

97. Carl Rubin, Habinjan Bamisrah Hakarov, 4, p. 1.

98. Brith Shalom (the Convent of Peace), the principal group to support a bi-national solution for Arab and Jewish co-existence, was initiated in 1925 by Arthur Rupin, the principal planner of Zionist settlement policy. Rupin brought Richard Kauifmann to be the architect in charge for this undertaking. Kauffmann, who studied with Mendelsohn in Munich under Theodor Fischer, played an important role in bringing Mendelsohn to Palestine in 1923 and 1934. Many members of Brith Shalom were part of the Hebrew University, a circle in which Mendelsohn interacted both socially and professionally as the architect of the Hebrew University.

99. Gorny, Yoseph, Zionism and the Arabs 1882-1948: A Study of Ideology, (Oxford, 1987)Google Scholar.

100. Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (New York, 1957), p. 51 Google Scholar.

101. Mendelsohn, Palestine, p. 12.

102. Much of the activity of the Chug and the Association of Engineers and Architects within which it operated focused on professional struggle. See for example Habinjan Bamisrah Hakarov 4, p. 16, 5-6, p. 2, and particularly the editorial of issue 8, which declares the great achievement of incorporating the architects’ representatives into the Tel Aviv Municipal Construction Committee. The same issue features Ratner’s article: ‘The Influence of Building Regulation of the Architecture in Eretz Israel’, in which he explains the power of prohibition and creative building regulations to control and manipulate the architectural image.

103. Palestine Review, p. 317.