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Yasir Sakr, The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn & the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem

David Vanderburgh
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Yasir Sakr, The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn & the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem, Hollister, CA: MSI Press: 2015

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Index géographique :

Asie, Moyen-Orient, Israël, Jerusalem
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Figure 1: Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem (Israel), second floor plan.

Figure 1: Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem (Israel),       second floor plan.

Source: Philadelphia (USA), University of Pennsylvania, architectural archive, Louis I. Kahn collection, call number 030.I.A.755.

1This reader’s first visit to Israel was in 2012, for a program evaluation at an Israeli university. In the course of that visit I spent a day in Jerusalem. It was unforgettable. I had known people of all three monotheistic traditions, but had never seen a place where they all converge and diverge in such fervent sensorial splendor. Hearing the church bells and the call to prayer at the same time was simply moving. It was also a tangible and explicit introduction to the complex intercultural history of the place.

2Yasir Sakr’s The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn & the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem is a deep and sometimes disturbing investigation into this cultural, political, and religious congeries. The architect Louis I. Kahn burst into the post-1967 context with ideas for the “restoration” of the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed during the 1948 conflict with the Arab Legion. His project was never realized, but according to Sakr it had a significant afterlife, influencing subsequent proposals by well-known architects such as Isamu Noguchi and Moshe Safdie, notably in relation to the Western or Wailing Wall. And after Kahn’s death, the Hurva again became the subject of a competition, over which the Kahn project cast a long shadow, attracting such international architects as Richard Meier, Aldo Van Eyck, and Denys Lasdun.

3The Subversive Utopia tells several interweaving stories, in which the Hurva reconstruction is central, but by no means alone. It begins with the history of the search for a national Jewish style. Like many other such quests, it stemmed from nineteenth-century Romanticism and historicism, a complex stewpot leading to many eclectic borrowings and imaginative reconstructions. From the search for a Zionist style in the early twentieth century and on through 1967, Sakr provides a rapid chronology of efforts to establish Israel’s legitimacy through the architecture of highly symbolic projects.

  • 1 Even though it is far from the principal focus of this book, it is worth pointing interes (...)

4Under the British Mandate, roughly the first half of the twentieth century, Sakr affirms that there was a fascination, in continuity with nineteenth-century eclecticism, with “Oriental” forms and motifs. Like Lutyens in New Delhi, British architects attempted a synthesis of different influences. However, if some of these attempts were successful, particularly as “archeological” approaches, things came to a head with Patrick Geddes’s project for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, around 1920. This project was scuttled by political and cultural tensions around Diaspora culture. Critics charged that Geddes’s design “represented a medieval Diaspora memory, interrupting the direct flow of the Zionist narrative from a biblical Jewish origin to a modern Jewish state.” (p. 23) The Bauhaus-influenced emigrant architects of the 1920s and ‘30s brought a new culture, from Europe, of Modernist architecture. This manifested itself notably in the so-called White City district of Tel Aviv, where flat roofs, strip windows, and sleek facades reigned.1 Among these emigrants, according to Sakr, Erich Mendelsohn was preeminent. An “ardent Zionist,” Mendelsohn was more sensitive than others to the cultural and physical context, and sought to reconcile tradition and functionalist concerns. His New Hadassah University Medical Center (1936-1938) was an isolated tentative synthesis of the local and the global. However, dissatisfied with the conditions he was offered locally, he emigrated to the United States. “Statism,” following the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, was not particularly successful as a stylistic movement, but did amount to an encouragement of archeological investigations. It also enshrined the division of Jerusalem, which David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister, admitted as “inevitable.” The complex history of Jerusalem was reflected in urban plans that confirmed the city as a “juxtaposition of autonomous nucleated communities” (p. 30). Sakr characterizes a final pre-1967 phase as a “New Zionist Style.” According to Sakr, this style is less universalist and more about protecting international Jewry from hostile forces of all sorts. The signature gesture was a new archeological/ideological importance attached to the Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which became a renewed symbol of Israeli unity: political, cultural and, for some, religious.

5The heart of this book is the invitation to Jerusalem of Louis I. Kahn, almost immediately after the 1967 war. In this complex context, an architect with Kahn’s sensibility was probably ideally suited to blend archaic and modern elements for the re-design of the Hurva synagogue site. Sakr judges his first efforts “paradoxical,” defying the parameters set by the client. Kahn quickly decided not to reconstruct the synagogue, but to preserve the ruins and accompany them with a new monumental complex, also establishing a pilgrimage route linking the Western Wall and the new complex, and a visual connection with the Dome of the Rock.

  • 2 Eugene J. Johnson, “A Drawing of the Cathedral of Albi by Louis I. Kahn,” Gesta, vol. 25, (...)
  • 3 On this topic, interested readers may wish to consult Sarah W. Goldhagen’s Louis Kahn’s S (...)
  • 4 John Lobell, Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Boul (...)

6The project is not without precedent in Kahn’s oeuvre, something Sakr does not elaborate on extensively. Whether for the mosque at Dhaka (1962-1982), the library at Exeter (1965-1972), or the unbuilt Mikveh Israel synagogue (1961-1972), the parti of a rectilinear plan with hollow corners is recurrent in his work, as is the idea of a central space surrounded by niches for secondary functions. Eugene Johnson considers the fortified Albi Cathedral (1282-1480) in France to be one of Kahn’s fundamental inspirations.2 The Hurva project also reflects Kahn’s constant preoccupation with confronting reinforced concrete, symbolic of modernity, with more traditional materials–in this case with Cyclopean masonry, by analogy with the stones constituting the Western or Wailing Wall.3 After Kahn’s stay at the American Academy in Rome and his visits to ancient ruins, his take on the materials of architecture took a turn toward a blend of the archaic and the modern. Many will recall Kahn’s famous remarks about what the brick wants. But he was quite open to the potential of all materials: “You can have the same conversation with concrete, with paper or papier-maché, or with plastic, or marble, or any material. The beauty of what you create comes if you honor the material for what it really is.”4 It is perhaps odd that Sakr doesn’t make more of this phylogenetic development, but his concern is more centered on the political and symbolic insertion of the project in the development of the Israeli state.

7Sakr’s analysis of the fortunes of this finally-unbuilt project is detailed, and based on admirable archival work, and a deep understanding of the political/cultural context. Three warring currents–the Zionist secularists, the Diaspora culture, and the rising religious right–were at odds about the identity of the new state, and their conflicts found a symbolic focus in debates around the reconstruction of the Hurva Synagogue. If Sakr’s arguments are sometimes hard to follow, it is no doubt in part because the situation was so complex.

8Sakr considers the project as a “negational” metaphor of the idea of the Jewish state (and thus rich in ambiguity). The project, embraced at first by the Labor government, which sought to establish a strong continuity with the biblical origins of Jerusalem, according to Sakr, nevertheless added a “metonymic mask”–the stone pylon exterior screen which “projected an appearance of worldly relevance and traditionality [sic] onto the state” (p. 150). In the end, despite or perhaps because of its cleverly subversive nature, the project was abandoned.

9Hurva was the crux of an ongoing crisis of legitimacy, which can’t fail to recall more recent debates around Jerusalem, and the highlighting of Jewishness at the cost of erasing the Arab cultural and political claim on the city. Here is where Sakr considers that Kahn’s project was influential long after the government had relinquished its realization. “It was exactly at the time of its perceived demise that the power and promises of Kahn’s heresy were confirmed, surfacing as a utopia” (p. 150). However, as with all proper utopias, it was influential only indirectly. What underlies Sakr’s further qualification of the utopia in his title as “subversive”? It would seem that this comes from the project’s complex and multiple references to history, both that of multicultural Jerusalem and that of the Jewish Diaspora in general, and even architectural history in general. Working for clients of various religious traditions, Kahn was resolutely neutral concerning spirituality. Likewise, he was nonpartisan politically, regardless of his client’s political persuasion. In this, one could consider that he wished to subvert such divisions, hoping that architecture could represent spirituality, or the polity, without taking sides.

10The denouement of the story is that the Hurva Synagogue was finally restored in its Ottoman form in 2010, according to a strict reconstructionist logic. The debate about its use, whether as a traditional synagogue or as a more secular monument such as a museum, appears to be ongoing. Nothing is simple in Jerusalem.

11On the level of empirical detail and political analysis, this book is thorough and fascinating, and well worth reading. This reader had a bit more trouble with the theoretical scaffolding, in which concepts such as metaphor and metonymy are wielded with varying transparency and efficacy. It seems to me that analogy might have been a useful complement to metaphor in order to tease out the complex mimetic relationships between the various projects, notably Kahn’s, and the diverse models that he and other architects found in their universe of local and other references. However, Sakr is quite right to cite the seminal work by Paul Ricoeur, La Métaphore vive, whose central tenet is that a “living metaphor” both is and is not the named thing. Thus, Kahn’s project both refers to and distinguishes itself from such references as the mythical Temple of Solomon.

12The book, published by MSI Press (Hollister, California, usa) in 2015, is somewhat underwhelming in its graphic presentation. The small format (15cm x 23cm) does not particularly lend itself to the clear understanding of drawings and photographs that need to be examined for their often very rich content. The writing is also somewhat uneven, although it is clear that the author has worked hard to make the complex content comprehensible, and the text has been fairly thoroughly proofread by the competent staff of the Press. Only a few minor errors appear.

  • 5 For example: Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, Israelizing Jerusalem - The Encounter Between Architec (...)
  • 6 Kent Larson, Louis I. Kahn : Unbuilt Masterworks, New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 2000.
  • 7 Susan Gross Solomon, Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the (...)

13How to situate this book in the broader literature? Apart from some omissions which probably stem from the rather long timescale in transforming a dissertation into a book, I am nonetheless surprised not to see cited the work of Alona Nitzan-Shiftan of the Technion in Haifa, who has been working on similar topics, and several of the same architects, since the 1990s.5 On the subject of Kahn’s unbuilt works, it would have been interesting to respond to the interesting work of Ken Larson.6 Larson has painstakingly modelled and commented on a number of Kahn’s projects, including Hurva. There is also the work of Susan G. Solomon, who has intervened more broadly on the subject of Kahn’s “Jewish architecture.”7

  • 8 See, for example, Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad and Dhaka,” ABE Jo (...)

14I am less surprised that the book does not cite the work of Kathleen James-Chakraborty and other scholars who have questioned the idea of “great” architects as sole authors of influential projects.8 Sakr is quite pointedly in opposition to this point of view: for Sakr, the Hurva project “can be seen as an undeniable achievement testifying of [sic] the architect’s power to shape national identity” (p. 5). The project, according to Sakr, “challenges the current widespread notion in architectural theory [and, one might add, history] that denies the ability of a single architect or project to create new symbols that shape the social perception of reality” (p. 151).

15This is no doubt worth debating. In this reader’s opinion, Sakr is convincing on one point – the influence of the project – but less so on the question of the man himself. As far as the Hurva project goes, it was clearly influential and needs to be analyzed on its own terms: blending the archaic and the modern, confronting different materials and spatial strategies in a masterly way. It was a remarkable exercise in the mature Kahn oeuvre and deserves the emphasis that Sakr gives it. Although it was thoroughly entwined in the political, cultural and religious context of the time, it would be wrong to reduce it to these factors. On the other hand, Kahn himself was manifestly permeated by many influences, which is why his architecture retains our interest: archaic precedent, numerous talented collaborators, and of course the context in which he worked, which is particularly pertinent to the Jerusalem project. It seems to me that the question of “influence” is interesting only if it goes both ways.

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Notes

1 Even though it is far from the principal focus of this book, it is worth pointing interested readers to recent historical debate on the issue of the White City. See among others: Nitza Metzger-Szmuk, Des maisons sur le sable, Tel-Aviv: movement moderne et esprit = Dwellling on the Dunes. Tel Aviv: Modern Movement and Bauhaus Ideals, [First published as Batim min ha-hol: adrikhalut ha-signon, Tel-Aviv: Keren Yehoshu"a Rabinovits le-omanuyot Tel-Aviv: Keren Tel-Aviv le-fituah, 1994. Translated by Véra Pinto-Lasry and Vivianne Barsky], Paris; Tel-Aviv: Éditions de l’Éclat 2004; Jörg Stabenow, Ronny Schüler, Vermittlungswege der Moderne : neues Bauen in Palästina (1923-1948) = The Transfer of Modernity: architectural Modernism in Palestine, 1923-1948, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlage, 2017; or Sharon Rotbard’s White City. Black City. Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, [First published as ʻIr levanah, ʻir shehorah, Tel-Aviv, 2005. Transtlated by Orit Gat], Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

2 Eugene J. Johnson, “A Drawing of the Cathedral of Albi by Louis I. Kahn,” Gesta, vol. 25, no. 1, 1986, p. 159-165. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/766911 . Accessed 8 June 2020. DOI: 10.2307/766911 .

3 On this topic, interested readers may wish to consult Sarah W. Goldhagen’s Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

4 John Lobell, Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1979, p. 40.

5 For example: Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, Israelizing Jerusalem - The Encounter Between Architectural and National Ideologies 1967-1977, Ph.D. Dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, 2002; Idem, “Capital city or spiritual center? The politics of architecture in post-1967 Jerusalem,” Cities, vol. 22, no. 3, 2005, p. 229–240. URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2005.03.011 . Accessed 27 July 2020; and Alona Nitzan-Shiftan’s most recent book Seizing Jerusalem: The Architectures of Unilateral Unification (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017 (Quadrant Book)), only appeared after the publication of Sakr’s book under review here.

6 Kent Larson, Louis I. Kahn : Unbuilt Masterworks, New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 2000.

7 Susan Gross Solomon, Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue, Hanover; London: University Press of New England; Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2009 (Brandeis series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life).

8 See, for example, Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad and Dhaka,” ABE Journal, no. 4, 2013. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/abe/3385 . Accessed 17 June 2020; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.3385 .

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem (Israel), second floor plan.
Crédits Source: Philadelphia (USA), University of Pennsylvania, architectural archive, Louis I. Kahn collection, call number 030.I.A.755.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/7948/img-1.jpg
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David Vanderburgh, « Yasir Sakr, The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn & the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem »ABE Journal [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2020, consulté le 23 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/7948 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.7948

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David Vanderburgh

Professor, Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

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