The Object of Zionism. The Architecture of Israel

Efrat, Zvi
Leipzig 2018: Spector Books
Anzahl Seiten
950 S.
€ 62,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Joachim Nicolas Trezib, Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum für europäisch-jüdische Studien, Potsdam

It is rare for an academic book to gain renown even before its publication, but this was the case with Zvi Efrat’s monumental work The Object of Zionism, published in English in late 2018. As its title suggests, the study seeks to grasp the history of Zionist nation-building as a process for which its spatial formation represents both its material and political „object“. Contesting the notion that the State of Israel emerged as a result of emergency measures, speculative ventures and war-time exigencies, the study interprets this process as a singular modernist planning project, involving architecture and urban and regional planning, as well as their related fields of social, economic and spatial engineering (such as infrastructure planning, afforestation, agriculture and irrigation schemes, and population dispersal), as key disciplines. It thus offers a comprehensive critical review of the architecture and physical planning of Jewish Palestine and the State of Israel from the early decades of the twentieth century to the 1960s and 1970s.

The point of departure for the current work dates back to the year 2000, when Efrat presented a Tel Aviv Museum exhibition on the architecture of his home country under the title Ha-Projekt Ha-Israeli, showing a wide panorama of Israeli building production since the foundation of the State until 1973. It was based on a vast collection of photographies, plans and other original documents that Efrat had collected during painstaking research lasting several years, and it was accompanied by a substantial catalogue in Hebrew. The extraordinary resonance generated by the exhibition was not only a result of the sheer quantity and quality of the material shown, but also of the critical perspective that it assumed. The exhibition and its catalogue sparked numerous academic works, by such scholars as Haim Yacobi, Hadas Shadar and Yael Allweil, focusing on individual aspects of Efrat’s groundbreaking work.

But while parts of the exhibition were presented in different formats at various venues over the years (most notably in the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basle in 2011), and fragments of the catalogue appeared as essays in English, access to the whole body of research remained limited to Hebrew speakers. The English translation of the work constitutes, therefore, a highly anticipated academic desideratum.

However, it must clearly be pointed out that Efrat’s new publication is not merely a translation. Although its general scope and line of argument reiterate the premise of the original catalogue, most of the content has been updated and revised to include more recent findings. Moreover, the book has been remodelled into an entirely different editorial format, presenting all of the content in just one volume, instead of the original two.

It might be presumed that this editorial choice would make the outcome less manageable for readers, but in fact, the opposite has been achieved and the work has gained in clarity. Broadly, the book is composed of a cycle of 15 detached subjects, each of which constitutes a different aspect of Israeli space-making. The first of these subjects sets out the epistemological perspective. It discusses the „topic“ of the inherent quality of Zionist nation-building – as Efrat characterizes it with reference to Martin Buber’s reflections on utopian Socialism and the biblical Exodus – vis-à-vis the concretisation of nationwide spatial planning as laid down in the National Physical Plan of 1949/51, formulated under the aegis of Bauhaus architect Arieh Sharon and providing a comprehensive framework for the spatial development of the Jewish State. It also delineates the theoretical ties of this blueprint of Israeli planning to contemporary models of planning, most notably those of Walter Christaller’s totalist Theory of Central Places.

The following thematic sections comprise such different topics as the attempts of modernist Jewish architects like Erich Mendelsohn at creating a distinctly „Jewish style“, the aesthetics of the Levant fair, Gartenstadt and Kibbutz architecture of the 1930s and 1940s, the collective visual legacy of warscapes, immigrant transit camps and military memorial culture, afforestation schemes, natural preservation and landscaping as a means of identity politics, filmographic inlays like Pasolini’s travelogue, the emergence of new towns and public housing schemes, and Brutalism and Structuralism as „national“ forms of architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. The list of topics seems endless.

It might initially appear impossible to give structure to such a wide spectrum of issues and make them appreciable for the reader. The way this is done, however, defines the qualitative benchmark of this book. In fact, it avoids a strict chronological order or narrative rationale, as the issues addressed may be regarded as variations of the introductory section, which sets the keynote of the argument and resurfaces throughout the work. The individual narrative sections are arranged in an almost loosely associative way and accompanied by a so-called „dossier“, which includes original documents and adds further depth to the argument. Each dossier is set apart from the main text by a subtle colouring of the background page, thus serving as a structuring element.

The result is quite remarkable – while the main text may be read as an ongoing, subtly essayistic narrative, each section of the book is immediately recognisable as a clear entity, and it is simply a pleasure to browse the book horizontally and delve into its thematic dossiers. Clearly, this book is set apart from most other scholarly books by its whole outlook and meticulous editorial layout, and it should therefore not be measured by scholarly standards alone. Inevitably, in such a voluminous book, some minor slips cannot be avoided. The name of architect Heinz Rau is erroneously spelt „Heintz“, for example, and Leopold Krakauer’s dining hall in Kibbutz Beit Alpha is mistakenly described as an „unidentified structure“. In view of the tremendously substantial and dense content of the book, these slight imperfections are negligible. Much of its inherent quality is without doubt defined by the fact that its intellectual agenda is driven by someone who – being an active architect himself – takes a stand as an involved professional and as a witness of the architectural practice of his country. In correspondence with the visual character of the subject, the aesthetic quality of the publication and the attention to detail is exceptional. Bibliophiles will notice with satisfaction, for example, that the cover of the book, with its linen texture, quotes the Sharon Plan edition of 1951.

In spite of this unusual effort, the literary and editorial style of the work defies any over-burdened erudition and ostentatious intellectual bravado. It appears almost as an architect’s project report that is still in progress, and it draws its imaginative and speculative power from its character as ongoing research into the concrete matter of its historical and socio-political subject. This being said, Zvi Efrat’s The Object of Zionism is not primarily intended for a popular audience – it is an academic work with a full-blown apparatus of sources and references.

This brilliant book is a classic and sets the standard. It is an invaluable contribution not only for those interested in the history of architecture in Israel, but also for those who aspire to a wider understanding of Zionism as a political idea and practical concept at large.

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