The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem
By Yasir Sakr
MSI Press, LLC
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Jerusalem remains the epicenter for a tumultuous region. Long held as the sacred city for the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it also connects three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). What does this have to do with architecture? When applied to a capital city, its function is to create a physical manifestation of a nation’s dreams, ideals, and ambitions. Hence the monuments and government buildings in Washington, D.C. designed to imitate Greek and Roman temples. Big Ben and Parliament were built in the Victorian era, but hearken back to an idealized vision of Merry England in medieval times. The Neo-Gothic spires and design reminiscent of a bygone era. On the other hand, Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is modernist, forward-thinking, and antiseptic. The former Portuguese colony sought to wipe the slate clean and create a new nationalist style unattached to colonial stereotypes and coast congestion. With Israel, things get further complicated by opposing strains of secularism and religiosity. The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Style in Jerusalem by Yasir Sakr seeks to unravel the convoluted strands of religion, politics, and art.
The Hurva Synagogue was destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The state of Israel sought out the architect Louis Kahn (1901 – 1974) to design a new synagogue from the ruins. What Kahn proposed sparked controversy and touched a nerve. During the Fifties and Sixties, Israel worked hard to preserve a secular and modernist perspective. The nation wanted to make a clean break from the superstition and persecution of the European Jews. Sakr explains how Kahn’s design embraced both an avant-garde modernist aesthetic and a Utopian interpretation to the Jewish religious experience. The temple design had the outside of the building supported by wide pillar, reminiscent of Egyptian temples. The interior had twelve niches and centered around an open space. It was simultaneously historical and ahistorical. To cap the provocative design, it would have a narrow passage leading from the Western Wall. In terms of geography, it would be in the sight line to the Dome of the Rock.
Sakr tells about how Kahn’s vision upset the staid building authorities and the mayor of Jerusalem. New governments come and go and Israel participates in more wars against the Arab nations that surround it. Still, the Hurva synagogue remains unbuilt. Throughout this history, Sakr follows a parallel course with the development of the Western Wall. While the Western Wall has the significance of something eternal, it came about through the destruction of the Moroccan Quarter during the Six-Day War in 1967. As with other projects, the authorities vacillated between modernist and classical designs. While any city deals with urban renewal and creative destruction, everything is exacerbated in Jerusalem. Every square inch of rubble and every brick is potentially freighted with millennia of history. Everything is contested.
Overall, it was a fascinating read. As a self-described architecture nerd, I enjoyed reading about competing building designs and the contested urban spaces. This gets a low score, not because of its execution, although Sakr isn’t a native English speaker and it shows in the text. The low score is because this is highly specialized book. It is basically a Ph.D. dissertation turned into a book. So unless you really, really like architectural history and are interested in the snarled interconnections between avant-garde aesthetics, modernist architectural design, and Israeli domestic politics, this might not be for you. On the other hand, it is a topic ripe for a treatment aimed at a popular audience.
Out of 10/7.0; or 9.0 if you’re an architecture nerd or someone looking for a unique perspective on the history of the Middle East.