August 26, 2020
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  • 10:54 am After the Bunker – Timothy Brittain-Catlin
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If you walk out to the northwestern edges of Kibbutz Nitzanim between Ashdod and Ashkelon you will find a remarkable building which better than any other expresses the traditional Israeli way of memorialising death and sacrifice through a building.

The Beit HaHantzahah or ‘commemoration building’ looks like a bunker that has raised its heavy head above the level of the grassy slopes on which it sits. Where the neck of this head should be there is a tunnel that runs through the building, and if you stand where this tunnel opens to the landscape on the western side you can look across to the former site of the kibbutz which stands between you and the sea. In a sense it is a view that tells you much about this country, not least because you can now also see the temporary housing for Israelis evacuated last year from Gush Katif in the Ghaza Strip. The commemoration building was designed by Nachum Zolotov and completed in 1966, and it is intended principally to commemorate those who fell in the battle for the old kibbutz, which was besieged and sacked by the Egyptians in the 1948 War of Independence; the tunnel walls and a small shadowy memorial area alongside it are intended as their memorial. But by way of a contrast remarkable to those unused to Israeli memorial architecture, the upper parts of the building were designed to house the kibbutz’ social centre, theatre, library and reading room.

The building at Nitzanim is interesting not only because it so blatantly expresses both the way in which the living and the dead have been housed together in Israeli memorial architecture, but also because the brutal nature of the building seems so naturally to meet this unusual programmatic requirement. The living defer, as it were, to the dead, in matters of style. The building caught the eye of Bruni Zevi, editor of L’Architettura Cronache e Storia, and he published a short illustrated account there in December 1968(1); a month later he featured the museum at Yad Mordechai kibbutz down the road, a similarly brutal concrete bunker designed by Arieh Sharon around an inconvenient plan grid of irregular hexagons and intended, like the Nitzanim building, to commemorate the fallen of the War of Independence.a The curious geometry of this building was no doubt primarily intended to exaggerate the massivity of the concrete; from any viewpoint one sees sharp edges pointing in all directions. Maybe the bunker has had a direct hit; but look, we’re still here and we’re alive.

Much the best of these buildings that combine the bunker with the sense of continuing and renewing secular life is the Yad LaBanim memorial site in Jerusalem, designed by David Reznik with Arthur Spector and Michael Amisar and built between 1974 and 1977.(2)It is based around a platform where soldiers can attend ceremonies; at one end there is a large hollow pyramid that looks as if it has been split open; at the other, an assembly of smaller and solid pyramidal forms which create a slightly disorienting entrance sequence. The large pyramid, lit by that great gash across the centre of it and lined inside with decorative bronze plates, provides the major commemoration space with its eternal candle and its book of remembrance; in this case it is in memory of all those who have fallen in the defence of Jerusalem. The small pyramids at the other end of the platform resemble nothing so much as the topmost parts of some vast hidden temple. Reznik thought of his design as being a kind of cenotaph that had collapsed; maybe he had in mind the pyramidal roof of the tomb of Zechariah in the Kidron Valley on the other side of the city; maybe the statute of Ozymandias. Maybe also there is an ironic reference to the pharaonic pyramids.(3)At any rate, there is a poignancy in the way in which symbols traditionally symbolic of strength are employed in so delicate and broken a way. Alongside the ceremonial platform outside and separating it from the houses of the city (and the bypass) there is long narrow pool with a curious sculpture by Bezalel Schatz, a series of metal pipes which resemble a handful of rifles that have been stuck into the water and left there; possibly, equally ironically, they recall the famous 1967 Life magazine cover photograph of Yossi ben Hanan, an Israeli soldier cooling off in the captured waters of the Suez Canal.(4)Immediately adjacent to this monumental sequence is the building designed by Reznik some ten years beforehand, the somewhat less sculptural local ‘soldiers’ house’ which provides various welfare services for those on military service. So again the living and the dead, or more properly, the vulnerable and their possible future selves, are set up side by side. At the time of the design of the memorial, the number of dead soldiers commemorated was approximately the same as the number of living soldiers who could stand outside on the platform. There is nothing Judaism, even the secular kind, likes so much as to see the cycle of life and death going on into infinity.

Many memorials of different kinds and in different places have continued to use the methods of these well-known memorials, even if there seem to be none that have the extraordinary poetic air of tragedy, that cautious balance between loss and digging in, that Reznik achieved with the Yad LaBanim complex in Jerusalem. In fact it is remarkable to what extent some of the best-known recent memorial structures have merely recycled the ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid 1990s Ram Karmi designed a new building alongside the holocaust memorial at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, a pavilion aimed at educating children called Yad LaYeled; it consists of a bunker with a plan mainly in the form a series of concentric circles, and the idea behind the building was described by its architect as ‘the possibility of emerging from a dark vortex towards the light outside’.(5)Moshe Safdie’s first intervention at Yad VaShem, the national holocaust site in Jerusalem, used darkness and light, too, to make its point: it was a children’s memorial designed in the 1980s, a dark and confined space lit by countless tiny lights. It was, in fact, a surprisingly daring approach, an optical illusion created by a kaleidoscopic mirrors; but the dark-and-light theme is so broadly accepted as the language of memorials that the idea was largely understood.

His latest and much more substantial building there, finished in 2005, consists of a reassembly of the Zolotov –Reznik ideas on a grand scale. Zolotov’s ground level passage emerging between the squeezing walls of the memorial towards the sea has become a staggeringly long underground shaft that positively explodes out over the landscape; the route through the building is intentionally complicated and winding; bunker-like forms pop up all over the roofscape, and things go on with light and shade. It is interesting to note that the nearby Central School for Holocaust Studies completed in 2000, by Guggenheim Bloch, is in spite of its bunker-like entrance not only a more sophisticated concept as a building but is also one that reflects the idea of holocaust memorialisation as being a continuous process of international education and enlightenment – if that is the right word here – in a greatly more sensitive and realistic way. It has orthogonal rooms; it has normal windows. It is designed much more as a school than as a memorial, but although it works as both, for the time being it will only be seen as the former.

The architectural profession in Israel can be very unforgiving, as it is in all small countries where there is insufficient criticism: it is too easy for simple ideas to become entrenched. In spite of the fact that allusions to bunkers and castles were until recently popular to almost every type of construction, from cultural centres in development towns to housing anywhere around Jerusalem, it seemed that people could not get enough of them and an architect who moved away from this, as many did in the 1990s, was asking for trouble. Anything that appeared light-hearted, or light in appearance, was often automatically criticised as being light-headed too. In those circumstances it was remarkable that Zvi Hecker’s design (in association with Rafi Segal) was that chosen to commemorate the fighters of the Palmach in 1992, that critical year in which Yitschak Rabin, the leader of the Labour Party which broadly supported compromise on international affairs replaced Yitschak Shamir of the nationalist Likud as prime minister; the result is one of the very few buildings of international importance that Israel has produced in recent years. (6)That building, the Palmach Veterans’ Memorial Centre, is the exact opposite of the life-goes-on bunker: this is uncompromisingly a wrecked bunker, an exploded bunker, a place which expresses the exposure and the vulnerability of the soldier. Not just the physical vulnerability either, but the vulnerability of the cause being fought for. Walls plow through an open landscape, leaving trails of destructions across an undefined space. Possibly it owes something to a highly regarded piece of landscape architecture at the Yad VaShem site, the ‘Valley of the Communities’ designed in 1979 by Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur: the memorial takes the form of an irregular canyon lined with the carved names of the lost Jewish communities of Europe. The effect is not that of a bunker; it is that of a blasted ruin. It is not hard to guess that the simple bunker allusion was no longer adequate for the questioning way in which Israelis had begun, in the light of the political changes of the 1990s, to question their basic assumptions about their role in their wars. Hecker’s was thus in a sense the first significant post-Zionist building, the one that has nothing stubborn or optimistic to say about the military enterprise.

The architect who can create new physical forms that express what he hears in society around him is a true artist; if, like Hecker, he can give them visual coherence too, he is also a genius, and his voice will be heard over coming generations. What is remarkable about the Palmach House is the way in which it raises the possibility that certain basic assumptions about memorial architecture might be overturned. The first is that the general form of the building, although geometrically derived, appears indeterminate: it relies on no easily derived metaphor, whether a bunker or anything else. The slicing form of the building replicates a kind of struggle with the land, rather than any victory over it. There is no sense, as there is with the later Safdie building at Yad VaShem that the building has been imposed as some kind of perfectly formed sculpture upon it. Furthermore, Hecker’s architecture relies more on a sense of progression through spaces than on a formal relationship between major rooms. The result is that the sense of memorialisation is divorced from particular spaces; it hangs in the air between them.

The critical success of the Palmach centre, indeed the very fact that so conservative a client chose Hecker’s scheme in the first place, may well indicate that attitudes to memorialisation in Israeli architecture are changing. The old nationalist assumption that there are categories of heroism in death and that these can be assigned appropriately heroic forms, possibly in a kind of hierarchical scale that ranges from the pyramid to the bunker, appears to be fading. The death of an individual in the conflicting political conflict in the Middle East is no longer one man or one woman’s death in the service of a cause but rather an ingredient in a continuous tragedy, the breath of which is perpetually in the air. A Jewish cemetery has always been a sacred place for all time: in a certain sense that is becoming true of public spaces as a whole. The day may well come when there is no more need for specific buildings to act as a memorial, for the memorial is perpetually around us, in the buildings that are bombed, in the houses that are bereft of their sons and daughters, in the hills and in the valleys, and in the streets that link the landscapes of the weary peoples.

1. L’Architettura Cronache e Storia, December 1968, pp 590-3; January 1969, pp 660-4.

2. ‘Yad LaBanim’ means ‘the memorial to the sons’. The biblical word ‘Yad’, otherwise meaning to structures that act as memorials to the fallen.

3. Reznik made his reference to the fallen cenotaph in an interview with this author, 17.11.1994. The building was also described with reference to historic pyramidal forms in Michael Levin et.al., Monumental Architecture in Jerusalem, Carta 1984 pp 70-3.

4. This was the cover of 23.6.1967, following the conclusion of the Six Day War.

5. Quoted in L’Architettura Cronache e Storia, October 1998, p 588. The name of the kibbutz means ‘The fighters of the ghetto’, and the memorial is called ‘The child’s memorial’.

6. I have described this building in detail, both in the Architectural Review, May 2000, pp 50-3; and also in a chapter entitled ‘Geometrical Wounds: Zvi Hecker in Israel 1990 & 2000’, in Constructing a Sense of Place: Architecture and the Zionist Discourse, edited by Haim Yacobi, Ashgate, Basingstoke (UK), 2004, pp 264-81.

Architect Dr. Timothy Brittain-Catlin (Boaz ben Manasseh) is an architect and a teacher at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. A regular contributor to The World of Interiors and The Architectural Review, he taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, for most of the 1990s while working as an urban designer in Tel Aviv.

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