Adina Hoffman has lived in Jerusalem for 25 years. Her latest book pays homage to the place through the work of three architects who left their artistic stamps on the city. Hoffman has written about these three men—Erich Mendelsohn, Austen St. Barbe Harrison and Spyro Houris—in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City.”
She will be at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, April 13, at 7 p.m. to discuss her book.
How did you get from “House of Windows,” a portrait of your Jerusalem neighborhood, and “Sacred Trash,” about the Cairo Geniza, to writing about three distinct architects in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem”?
All those books are attempts to account for the reality of the Middle East in the tactile, startling, rich, sometimes distressing and often poignant way that I experience it daily, living in Jerusalem. It’s a street-level view of the place and its people, especially the ones who are often left out of the morning headlines and the nightly news. In the case of “House of Windows,” those were my mostly North African, working-class Jerusalem neighbors. In “Sacred Trash,” Peter Cole, my husband and co-author, and I were reckoning both with the otherwise-forgotten people who made up the remarkably vibrant Arabic-speaking Jewish world of medieval Mediterranean Judaism and also with the little-known stories of the modern scholars responsible for unearthing the papers left by those people.
In “Till We Have Built Jerusalem” I’m focusing on these three architects, whose names have largely faded from local, and in fact almost everyone’s, memory, but whose buildings are still some of the finest and most celebrated in town—and buildings that most Jerusalemites consider essential to the landscape, whether or not they’ve ever given a single thought to who first imagined them. By delving into the time these architects spent in Jerusalem and the buildings they left behind, I was working as a kind of literary archaeologist—scrambling to uncover another cluster of hidden lives that have helped to make the city what it is. Although standard journalistic accounts of the place tend to be numbingly predictable, Jerusalem strikes me as, in fact, pretty endlessly fascinating, and this book is an expression of my own fascination with several of its overlooked layers.
How did you decide to write about these three particular architects—Erich Mendelsohn, Austen St. Barbe Harrison and the elusive Spyro Houris?
It wasn’t exactly scientific: In the course of walking the streets of Jerusalem and looking around me for several decades, I’ve come to especially love the work of these three. And as I began to root around in their biographies, and to see what it was that compelled them to come to Jerusalem and to build there as they did, I was drawn into the very different worlds they each came from and the way they were each attempting to bring something of those other worlds to bear on the Jerusalem landscape. They were also each deeply absorbed with what we might call the “spirit of the place,” and it was that combination—what they brought from afar and what they learned from what they found there, how they grafted those elements—that I think drew me to them in particular. It’s interesting that what was once deemed “foreign” is now considered absolutely integral to the place.
Erich Mendelsohn had a thriving career in Weimar Germany that was cut short by Hitler. How did he make the transition from working in Germany to London and then Jerusalem?
He was certainly inspired at first by the context in which he found himself working in Jerusalem: he was thrilled by the possibilities of creating an architecture that was new yet informed by the old, that was eastern and western at once. He was riveted by the vernacular Arab architecture he found in Palestine—and was determined to learn lessons from it, about how to handle the hilly landscape and hot sun, how to build dynamically in stone, and so on. At the same time, he was enraged at what he considered the travesty of the architecture put forth by many of his peers, who he felt were simply imitating what they’d done—and especially what he’d done—in Europe and who were completely oblivious to the architecture that already existed in Palestine, which, he pointed out, “is not a virgin country insofar as architectural tradition is concerned.”
It wasn’t, of course, just architecture he was talking about. He saw architecture as part of a wider social and political vision; he considered it critical for the country’s Arabs and Jews to work together to create what he called a “new Semitic commonwealth.” Neither of these visionary plans of his made him very popular in Palestine, to say the least, and he was increasingly isolated and frustrated by the angry politics of the place—the violence of the nationalism all around him made it harder and harder to construct. To construct in stone, that is, but also to construct something positive in a social sense. Or in the social sense he had in mind.
Austen St. Barbe Harrison was a fascinating character. As a private man, a descendant of Jane Austen, how did he express his creativity when his work was largely confined to designing mostly bureaucratic buildings? Was that creativity more fully expressed in his building of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, now the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, in East Jerusalem?
The Rockefeller is one of my own very favorite buildings in the whole city—a mysterious, surprising, strange, somehow witty and even wise structure that I think deeply reflects Harrison’s own personality, the incredible refinement, playfulness and spatial alertness that made him who he was. I write in the book of his “time-traveling, quietly kaleidoscopic imagination,” and the building seems to me absolutely to express that. That said, the museum’s patrons didn’t need to know that: they could just admire the building for its impressive courtyard, quirky tower, airy galleries and graceful domes. He was expert at that—at smuggling his own private touch and taste into these grand “official” buildings.
We know very little about the third architect, Spyro Houris. Going by his first name, he seems to be part Greek, as well as Arab. But he’s only mentioned in passing in a few history books. In the section about him in your book, you become a kind of detective, inserting yourself into the narrative to search for him. Why was he so hard to find? And what does his seeming deletion from the architectural history of Jerusalem mean?
There are various reasons his traces were so hard to find—some personal, some political. I won’t go into the personal ones here, since I didn’t know those when I set out on my quest and I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet read the book. The political reasons are more obvious and distressing: the culture and the social ethos he represented have, for the most part, been driven out of the city and its official historical memory. While Mendelsohn built for institutions and politically powerful Jewish clients and Harrison worked for the British government—all of whom kept abundant records—Houris built entirely for private clients, many of whom were part of the Arab, and otherwise non-Jewish elite, of the city at the time. Since 1948, that whole world has largely been erased in archival—and other, broader—terms.
It’s also important to say, though, that it isn’t just a matter of Houris being “an Arab.” In fact, his own identity was much more fluid and flexible than that, as was the city itself in his day. In the context in which he lived and worked, it was possible to be Greek and Arab and Palestinian and Christian and a French-speaker and maybe also Ottoman and so on. It was also possible to work closely and peacefully with people from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Unfortunately, that kind of multifaceted identity and those kinds of relaxed connections are rapidly vanishing from the far more rigid rhetoric that dominates contemporary Jerusalem. Now, increasingly, everyone seems to feel that they must declare themselves either this or that—Arab or Jewish, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, with us or against us—full stop.
You’ve told a history of Jerusalem through these three architects. What do you want readers to learn about Jerusalem as a city through their stories?
That the city is, or has been, a multitudinous place, built by many hands and minds and cultures and not just by one people, dominating all the others. That the beauty and the ugliness of Jerusalem both are a direct reflection of the way the people of the city choose to treat one another. That surfaces and depths are profoundly linked.