Pevsner in Jerusalem

 File:Panorámica de Jerusalén desde el Monte de los Olivos.jpg 

  In 1970 Pevsner was invited to take part in one of the most important international exercises in post-war urban planning.  The Jerusalem Committee had been created by Mayor Teddy Kollek as his personal advisory body, to test and reflect international opinion on Israel’s plans for the redevelopment of its capital city. Kollek’s vision of Jerusalem was as a world spiritual centre, where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live in harmony, and he supported the Master Plan produced by professional planners, which proposed a staged development over forty years.  

 The Israeli government, on the other hand, was anxious to build on the hills surrounding Jerusalem as quickly as possible to establish the unity of the city under Israeli rule in the wake of the Six-Day War. Kollek called his committee together to consider the Master Plan, presumably with a view to their endorsing it and strengthening the city planners against encroachment both from commercial interests and from the central government – but he was in for a shock.  

 The Committee was a large one of some thirty people, each distinguished in his own field and none a shrinking violet. It included, besides Pevsner,  architects Max Bill, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn, landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Isamu Noguchi, historians Lewis Mumford and Bruno Zevi, and Isaiah Berlin as all-purpose wise man. 

Pevsner revelled in what was his first visit to Jerusalem. The committee members were shown all over the city, by air, by bus and on foot in groups, but he also got up early in order to explore the Old City on his own.  The business side of the trip, however, was more trying. He  liked committee meetings to move along briskly— at the Victorian Society, he was notoriously impatient with points of procedure and speeches masquerading as questions— and he was made uncomfortable by the high emotions which the Master Plan provoked in some of his colleagues. 

What was being proposed by the Israeli planners was a new, functional high-modernist Jerusalem, eight times larger, with a green belt surrounding a heavily built-up centre. The Old City would be pedestrianised; there would be a new business centre around the Damascus Gates and a hotel on the Mount of Olives.  A ceremonial expressway would run from a western suburb to the Jaffa Gate, halting in an underground car park. The members of the international committee were aghast. Diverse as they might be in their professional perspectives, the majority shared a belief in the unique status of Jerusalem as a spiritual centre, and they saw many aspects of the Master Plan as a threat.   

File:Philip Johnson.jpg

Philip Johnson. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

Philip Johnson, not a man to hold his tongue, felt the proposals were timid and pedestrian.     ‘Let’s make big plans. You have to dream big. Once when our country was young and energetic like Israel, we had crackpots who dreamed.’ There was no grand idea, no aspirations for Jerusalem as a depoliticized world capital or a centre for education, let alone a spiritual centre. The plan appeared to be dictated by roads rather than buildings, cars rather than people, and it lacked definition. ‘ Action is imperative in Jerusalem,’ steamed Johnson, ‘before American sprawl starts dribbling the city out into the hills.’

 The public was allowed into the final sessions in which the committee presented the results of their deliberations on the Master Plan, and Arthur Garmaise, a Canadian lawyer living in Jerusalem, recalled the atmosphere. ‘ “For God’s sake, don’t mess it up!”  It did not take the form of these exact words, but this would be an accurate paraphrasing of the choked utterances of Bruno Zevi crying ‘chaos’, ‘insult’, and Lawrence Halprin crying in frustration in his hotel room. It was Louis Kahn asking repeatedly for the ‘theme’ of the city to be expressed, for the ‘unmeasurable’ to be evident and Buckminster Fuller talking explicitly of humanity’s love for Jerusalem and of the ‘centrality of this place for man’.  ‘It is ironical,’ observed Garmaise, ‘that Israel, founded on a dream as powerful as any that have stirred men in the 20th century, should, at this point in time, have to be lectured by outsiders on the value and importance of dreams and visions…  The irony is underlined by the fact that this warning came mostly from Americans, whom it has been the fashion for decades to call the ultra-materialistic, super-pragmatic of the nations.’

Lawrence Halprin in 1970. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

  Fuller spoke of synergy, the mystery of mass phenomena, Kahn ‘a mystical sense of theme, a pith, a life-blood not derived from an advantageous present’ . Halprin wanted a more ecological approach, based on the harmonic principles of light, land and hills. The Israeli planners, he felt, were relying on European functionalist ideas that were now outdated rather than relying on their own indigenous models which were in fact beginning now to be emulated in other countries – ‘the Mediterranean cluster of buildings organized into intricate three-dimensional architectural villages, dense, urban, related to the landscape, inward-turning, environmentally sound’.

None of this was exactly how Pevsner would have put it; but it was with Bruno Zevi that he had the biggest problem. Although, as Zevi’s obituary (see link above) makes clear, they had several tastes in common — a resistance to classicism, for instance — temperamentally they could not have been more different. Pevsner saw Zevi as a professional provocateur, and took particular exception to his near-hysterical denunciation of the Master Plan. ‘Collective hara-kiri,’ Zevi called it, ‘an instrument against Israel ready for use by its enemies… the architecture of cowardice….an architecture of abdication’.  ‘If [Zevi] hadn’t been there, escalating himself into these inflammatory speeches, tolerance would have had a better chance,’ fumed Pevsner.   

But he too felt strongly about the need to preserve the ancient character of the city. When the Committee reconvened in 1973, he chaired some of the architecture and planning sessions in which the group called the Mayor to account on the actions that had been taken — or not taken — on the recommendations that had been made in 1970.  The Committee had been most outspoken against the impact of high-rise building on the Old City. High building, they argued, should be limited to eight storeys in the Central Business District, and mostly four storeys in residential areas, getting lower towards the ancient city walls. The walls themselves should be bordered by a park. Some attempt should be made to find a coherent architectural idiom for new housing estates; and no cars other than emergency vehicles should be allowed into the Old City. Teddy Kollek had been taken aback, and not a little angered, by the Committee’s first response. ‘The criticism presented was much more devastating than anyone expected,’ he admitted. ‘Anyone who says he likes criticism is a hypocrite,’ said Kollek, and he retaliated: ‘You would like to drive up in big cars but you want us in Jerusalem riding on donkeys.’ Nevertheless, once called ‘the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod’,  he would be heavily influenced by his Western advisers in his beautification of Jerusalem, and Pevsner would remain a friend until his death.   

The panorama of Jerusalem is taken from Wikipedia, licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

  1. Monica Pidgeon (nee Lehmann) – editor of AR’s competitor, AD – also discovered she was Jewish later in life. Her father was horrified by the discovery, but she was agnostic about it. She ended up being on this committee too. Haven’t looked into her views on it though, but she corresponded with Teddy for a while.

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