Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Till We Have Built Jerusalem' Blends Architecture, Identity, and History

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Till We Have Built Jerusalem' Blends Architecture, Identity, and History

Article excerpt

Almost as soon as workmen broke ground for the foundations of an archaeological museum in Jerusalem in 1928, they were forced to halt construction. Buried beneath the proposed site of the museum was a large Roman and Byzantine graveyard. The city's archaeological richness had interrupted efforts to house and display that same abundance.

Once these skeletons and their burial goods were excavated and catalogued, the building process resumed. But this would hardly be the last time that Jerusalem's past intruded on its present plans. The so-called Museum of Tolerance, a $250-million project currently under construction in Jerusalem, sits directly above part of a cemetery that dates to the 7th century A.D. and holds the remains of some of the Prophet Mohammed's companions. Despite controversy and international criticism, the project is still moving forward.

These are just two of many similar stories in Adina Hoffman's elegant new book, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City. A composite of biography, architectural and political history, and reportage, Hoffman's engaging book illustrates the intricate interplay between architecture, identity, and history in this ancient and troubled city.

Each of the book's three sections investigates the life and works of a Jerusalem architect active early in the 20th century. Her first subject is Erich Mendelsohn, a Jewish-German architect who called himself the "Oriental from East Prussia." Before settling in Jerusalem, Mendelsohn mingled with the cultural elite in Germany and Europe in the 1920s. When he wasn't designing expensive villas and buildings for high-profile clients, he spent free time sketching elaborate architectural fantasies as his wife played Mozart's chamber music with Albert Einstein and other friends.

By the 1930s, however, his own interests and the increasingly anti-Jewish culture in Germany propelled him and his wife to Jerusalem. German nationalists had begun criticizing buildings they deemed insufficiently German in appearance, and they were particularly suspicious of structures that suggested the architectural styles of the Mediterranean or Middle East. In Palestine, placed under British mandate in the aftermath of World War I, architecture was also charged with political significance in the interwar period.

Many Zionist Jews moving to Palestine wanted a distinct national style of Jewish architecture to legitimize their goal of establishing a permanent Jewish state in Palestine. Mendelsohn built a variety of private and public buildings in Jerusalem, but his most ambitious project was probably the hospital complex on Mount Scopus. …

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