White Paint on Empty Sands

DOV FEINMESSER (M.Arch I, ‘16)

A Social Construction: Modern Architecture in British Mandate Palestine is an exhibit that first appeared in a smaller format at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is a snapshot of the fascinatingly illustrated, Architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate, 1917-1948, by Ada Karmi-Melamede and Dan Price.

At a recent gallery presentation and talk with Karmi-Melamede, it quickly came to light that, as with many in-depth academic treatises in architecture, the book from which this exhibit stems was the product of a long and laborious process of research on a narrowly defined subject. Encompassing three decades of work, the tripartite book deals with the architecture of a specific aesthetic and theory, Modernism, and a specific period in the history of Palestine, the British Mandate (1917-1948).

This focus, reflected in both the title of the exhibit and the book, is significant to Karmi-Melamede, since she is clearly curious about this period, its location, and the subsequent impact on an architectural style. The architecture analyzed therein was designed by individuals trained in the theories and ideologies of a new architecture that was rooted in utopian, social ideas, and a break from the past or ideas of context. But these architects were also pragmatic. They had fled wars and devastation and sought to use the Modern language of architecture to create the sort of cities that would reflect their social ideals. In Tel-Aviv, they built a city on purchased sand dunes, planned on British Garden City principles with a European Modern aesthetic, molded to the Middle Eastern climate, and forged by the limited technological advancements available to them in Palestine at the time. Every day in the “White City,” people still enjoy the fruits of their labor.

It is curious therefore, that in her short article titled White Paint on Old Stone, published in Paprika! Vol. 3, Fold 01: “Foundations”, my colleague Dima Srouji (M.Arch I, ‘16) asserts that the exhibition “doesn’t relate to its title nor its description.”

She asks: “Why is this exhibition not called Social Construction: A Zionist Architecture?” and adds that “The body of work of Palestinian architects active during this time period including Elias Anastas, Gabriel Khamis, and Anis Srouji is forgotten about and remains largely unrecognized,” positing that the exhibition’s title and accompanying book are complicit in an effort to whitewash the heritage of Palestine and “misrepresents Palestinian history.”

When asked about the lack of works by Palestinian architects in the book (and exhibition), Karmi-Melamede was quick to acknowledge the Modernist work of other Middle Eastern architects, not least of which, are Hassan Fathy and Sayed Karim, whose works she greatly admires. During the period in question, however, no local architects had yet adopted the Modernist ideology in architecture. Simply put, between 1917 and 1948, the vast majority of Modern architecture built in Palestine, and possibly all of it, was designed by immigrant architects, largely from Eastern and Central Europe—in other words, Zionists. This is not to say, Karmi-Melamede acknowledged, that there were not many Modernist works later developed, in Egypt and Lebanon in particular, by local architects; but, during the British Mandate in Palestine, this was not the case. Modernist architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate was indeed Zionist. Furthermore, the concept of starting new—of a tabula rasa approach—was not unique to the Zionist architects of British Mandate Palestine, and questioning why context is not part of an exploration of this manifestation of Modernism is akin to asking what part context played in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin.

In traditional fashion, the book explores Middle Eastern and British precedents and the work of the Modernists of 1917-1948, many of them obscure, through drawings and formal analysis. The book and exhibit occupy a wonderful niche in the ongoing archeology of Modern influences outside the European Masters. If you wish to learn about the advent of architectural Modernism in Palestine during the British Mandate, I would strongly recommend this work and the exhibition in question.