Social constructs: a show of British Mandate Palestinian architecture

Social constructs: a show of British Mandate Palestinian architecture

At a major new exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the impact of European modernism on the architecture of British Mandate Palestine reveals the remarkably coherent connections between the new social order and the construction that was happening in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem in the early 20th century.

Focussing on the period between 1930 and 1940, ’Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine’ spotlights some of Israel’s most iconic buildings, representative of a distinctive regional interpretation of international modernism that emerged. The exhibition draws on architects Ada Karmi-Melamede and Dan Price’s book Architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate, 1917–1948, incorporating 40 beautiful interpretative drawings and 60 archival photographs collected as part of their unprecedented research over 25 years. ’They produced a remarkable body of knowledge that is [as] intelligent as it is beautiful,’ says exhibition curator, Oren Sagiv.

With limited resources and technology, and with only local materials available, ’the Zionist modern architects in Palestine were free to experiment and search for their own version of the modern language, which was neither inspired by European technological innovations of the time, nor enamoured with the picturesque local architecture and handicraft’, Sagiv explains.

Characterised by functional, geometric forms, as well as other prevalent features such as balconies, stairwells, double walls, pergolas and communal rooftop spaces, the buildings merge public and private spaces, optimising liminal spaces – in direct symbiosis with the social ideology, at a time of transition and turmoil, but also of great hope for a new nation. Sagiv’s approach is not nostalgic, however, but an attempt to redefine the way the public look at the buildings from this period, many of which are starting to vanish, with the proliferation of new construction projects in Israel’s cities.

The exhibition also illuminates the way in which cities developed. While European apartment blocks of the time were typically in contact, most of those in British Mandate Palestine were freestanding – a result of ’garden city’ inspired town planning. ’Yet they still came together as homogeneous urban façades,’ Sagiv continues. Typically three or four stories high, the cumulative designs produced a sense of ’horizontal continuity’. ’This contributes to an important aspect of the local modernist language: the urban modern space. [...] Unlike many places in the world, the modernist typology in Palestine actually developed into an architecture of streets and public spaces, creating an urban fabric that went beyond the singularity of individual buildings.’

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