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Friday, December 31, 2010

Ancient Ruins, The Temple Mount, and Kibush

In the ancient world it was not uncommon to find ruins being used as sacred space or as memorials to the past. Ruins were common features in the landscape and were often connected to historical events. For example, Isocrates (436-338 BCE), an Attic Orator, commended the Ionians for not rebuilding temples destroyed by the Persians. Temples were supposed to be left undisturbed in war, so their destruction was particularly offensive. The Ionians
"Invoked the wrath of Heaven upon any who should disturb the ruins or should desire to restore their shrines as they were of old; and they did this, not because they lacked the means to rebuilt them, but in order that there might be left a memorial to future generations of the impiety of the barbarians, and that none might put their trust in men who do not scruple to commit such sins against our holy temples." (Panegyricus (4) 156)
A similar notion can be found in the work of another Attic Orator, Lycurgus, (396-323 BCE) who recorded an oath taken before battle: "I will not rebuild a single one of the shrines which the barbarians have burnt and razed by will allow them to remain for future generations as a memorial of the barbarians' impiety." (Against Leocrates, 1.81) Ruins were seen as powerful reminders of past events.

In other places we find evidence that people would gaze at ruins as a way of contemplating the nature of life or as a way of communing with the past. Julius Caesar is said to have "Walked around what had once been Troy, now only a name, and looked for traces of the great wall," and others, such as Alexander the Great and Xerxes, and Constantine are also said to have gone to visit the ruins of Troy. Cicero had a similar reaction to the ruins of Corinth (Disputations XXII). Historically, there are many examples of ruin appreciation. 

In the ancient Israelite world, similar notions existed. Ruins frequently appear in prophecies of destruction, as lasting memorials to sin. This is true both of the cities of "others" as well as Israelite cities. Jerusalem, for example, will be:
"A desolation and a reproach among the nations that are round about thee, in the sight of all that pass by. So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment to the nations that are round about thee, when I shall execute judgment in anger and in fury and in furious rebukes." (Ezekiel 5:13-15) 
 It is important to acknowledge this when considering the most famous of all Jewish ruins, the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem. A continuous chain of testimonies exists from the time of destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until today, showing how Jews have, for millenia, directed their prayers toward the ruins of the Temple. From an early date this was the accepted direction of prayer. Prof. Lee Levine, in his 700+ page tome, The Ancient Synagogue, writes that
"Synagogues were almost universally oriented toward Jerusalem. This custom, based perhaps on several scriptural references, was widely accepted throughout the Jewish world." He goes on to list examples: "The Dura Europos and Gerasa synagogues faced west; Apamea south; Delos, Priene, Aegina, Stobi, Sardis, Ostia and Naro east or southeast. Moreover, this was the norm in Roman Palestine as well. Galilean synagogues faced south, those in the southern part of the country north, and those in the southern Shephela northeast."(326-7)
The destruction of the Temple, the rise of prayer in synagogues, and the development of the prayer liturgy were all related to one another, and Levine writes that
"the memories of the Temple and Jerusalem, together with the introduction into the synagogue liturgy of expressions of hope to return and rebuilt the Temple and city, were undoubtedly additional forces that helped to forge a distinct and significant synagogue orientation."
Facing the Temple during prayer was thus seen as a way by which synagogue service could supplant the Temple as the central institution in post-70 CE Judaism.

In addition to synagogue orientation, ruins were seen by Judaism as a way of repenting for sin. Interestingly, we find evidence of this both in Jewish and in Christian sources, as both religions viewed the ruined Temple as a sign of God's displeasure with the Jews. Jerome writes in his commentary to Zephaniah that Jews would gather in the ruins to mourn the Temple's destruction:
"You can see with your own eyes a piteous crowd gathering of the day that Jerusalem was captured and destroyed by the Romans. Woebegone women stand with old men who appear weighed down with years. Bodies and clothes demonstrate the wrath of God. This mob of wretches congregates and groans over the ruins of their temple..." (In Sophoniam 1.15-16)
Similar testimonies to this type of mourning are given by the Bordeaux Pilgrim (333 CE) and by Eusebius in Demonstratio Evangelico (VIII.9-15) In Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity we find a similar way of relating to the ruins of Jerusalem. One is supposed to tear ones clothes upon seeing both the ruins of Jerusalem and the ruins of the Temple, and specific verses are given for reciting on the occasion. (B. Moed Katan 26a) A famous story relates the reaction of a group of rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva, upon seeing the ruins. (B. Makkot 24a-b) We also have a Roman account of the ruins of Jerusalem: Josephus records that the ruins were left on purpose "to show later generations what a proud and mighty city had been humbled by the gallant sons of Rome."

So far we have seen evidence that the reason Jews face the ruins of the Temple when praying is primarily about history, repentance, and as a unifying factor. This is typical of ancient ruin usage, in line with the other Greek and Roman sources quoted above. We have also seen that it is something that has been going on for thousands of years. My father prays this way in North America. My grandfather prayed this way before 1948. My great-grandfather in the Ukraine prayed this way. 

Based on this analysis, I find it particularly offensive and misleading that a professor would equate praying toward the ruins of the Temple with the act of "kibush", the term used by liberal Israelis to refer to the aggressive attempt of Israel to conquer local Arabs and evict them from their land. This was recently claimed by a guest speaker in our studio, who pointed to the large window in the synagogue in Hebrew University of Mount Scopus as an act of kibush. Upon further questioning, she elaborated and explained that any prayer by Jews toward the Temple Mount (which incidentally, she claimed, has no connection to the Temple) is kibush. Anachronistic as this is, (as praying toward the Temple Mount predates Israel, the Hebrew University, and the religion of Islam), I think it is based on a profound misunderstanding of religious Judaism and prayer.

In the Amidah prayer, said three times a day, there is the following blessing:

"And to Jerusalem Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You rest within it, as You have spoken. May You rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal structure, and may you speedily establish the throne of David within it. Blessed are You, God, the Builder of Jerusalem." Rabbinic Judaism certainly harbors the hope that one day the Temple will be rebuilt. However, this is no way equates praying toward the ruins of the Temple with the physical action of going and rebuilding the Temple.

Praying in the direction of the ruins of the Temple does not mean that Jews are going to rise up, storm the Dome of the Rock, destroy the mosque and rebuild the temple. I do hope that one day the Temple is rebuilt, and I believe that this will happen one day; I can ask God to rebuild the Temple, and face the ruins of the Temple while doing so; but this in no way means that I plan on going and rebuilding it myself. If, as a non-religious person, you believe that prayer has no effect on the world, then I've done absolutely nothing, and it would be hard to describe this as a physical act of "kibush". If you do believe in prayer, and for some reason my prayer is powerful enough to influence God, and He chooses to rebuild the Temple, then it's hard to argue that God is wrong or that I am somehow guilty for influencing God. Prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple represents a spiritual goal, but is not a call to arms. Facing the Temple Mount in prayer reminds Jews of their roots, of all that unifies us as a people, of our spiritual goals and of our impiety. It is emphatically NOT kibush. 
Accepting this is one of the only ways that peace is possible. Muslims want to worship on al-Haram al-Sharif. Many religious Jews would like for there to be a Temple on the Temple Mount, and may hope that one day in the future, God will intervene and allow this to happen. For now, I - and pretty much all Jews worldwide - do nothing except pray for this to happen. In the meantime, the Temple Mount today is one of the few places in Israel that does not abide by The Protection of Holy Places Law, as Jews are not allowed to pray there. This is what we call "agreeing to disagree" and it's an important part of peaceful coexistence.

In the last century, there have been a handful of attempts by crazed individuals to blow up stuff on the Temple Mount. I think that these events, along with a general ignorance of religion and an utter failure to understand that religion is nuanced and that religious Jews are not about to storm the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple. Praying in the direction of the ruins of the Temple is no more "kibush" than an Arab keeping the keys to his old house in Jaffo.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Window in Migdal Tzedek - Today and Then

This was meant to be posted right after our second visit to Rosh HaAyin in November, when we visited the Migdal Tzedek ruins, and the below images were fresh in our minds. However, no matter, these things cannot become irrelevant. When we visited the ruins of Migdal Tzedek, as we walked through some of the semi-ruined and now semi-restored rooms, we reached the restored window, pictured below on the left. This window was immediately recognizable from a recent trip to the Tza"hal Archives, where we saw the second picture below on the right, a magnificent photo from 1948 of a Haganah soldier silhouetted against the very window we were standing next to, in Migdal Tzedek.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ras el Ein Train Station

The history of the railroad in Palestine has been chronicled in several books, such as Paul Cotterell's The Railways of Palestine and Israel and a chapter in Gad Gilbar's Ottoman Palestine, 1800-1914. Proposals for railroad development date back to the 1830s, but the first line was only completed in 1892 - the French-built Jaffa-Jerusalem line.

The Ottomans, who controlled Palestine until the middle of World War I, do not seem to have made a priority of the Palestine Railway, but during the war some lines were extended for strategic purposes. The man behind these railways was a German, Heinrich August Meissner (1862-1940). Among the many kilometers of track for which he is responsible, I am mostly convinced that he built the first railroad line by Ras el Ain, a narrow-gauge line, roughly around 1915. Shortly thereafter, the British captured this territory, and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force began switching the track to Standard Gauge. They seem to have reached Ras el Ain at some point in 1918. The British renamed the system the Palestine Railways, which remained its name until 1948, when Israel was founded and renamed it the Israel Railways.
Map from Gad Gilbar's Book

The Ras el Ain station originally existed on a line between Lod and Tulkarem, with stops at Kfar Yunnis and Qalqiliyah on either side. The modern Rosh Ha'ayin station, which is north of the original one, is located on the Hod Hasharon-Rishon Letzion line.

Migdal Zedek Quarry, 1936

1921 Map. Red Lines may indicate RR lines

1925 Map by Abraham Brauer. Ras el Ain shown with Station

1929 Map of Majdal Yaba. Station clearly shown

Map of Ottoman Railroads
It is unclear if there was originally a train station at Ras el Ein. It seems that there has been a station at Ras el Ein since the track was originally laid, in 1915. At first I thought that it was likely that originally there was no stop at that location, and that the British only later added a stop when they built the pumping station in the 1930s. However, the 1929 map of Majdal Yaba certainly shows a stop, as does the 1925 map. The 1921 map, whose red lines I think denote the railroad, does not underline Antipatris, but since there is no key it is hard to take this as concrete proof that there was no stop. There is a spur that runs west from the Ras el Ain station toward Petach Tikva, so I then thought that the Ras el Ain station was originally built to allow trains to run off the main line to Petach Tikva. But in letters regarding the construction of the Petach Tikva line in 1920 the Ras el Ein station was said to already exist. Presumably, the station was built in 1915 for the Ottoman  war effort, as Ottoman troops were stationed in the fortress at Antipatris. The station influenced the location of the army base, built first in 1937. We also know that the quarries used the Ras el Ein station to transport their stone. As such, the train station is a crucial part of the history of Rosh Ha'ayin.

Today a new station has been built to the north of Rosh Ha'ayin. The old station still stands and looks fairly modern, but it is no longer in use. It is beginning to show some wear, such as broken windows and graffiti. When we visited, an alarm was going off. 
Ras el Ein Station. (David Ra'if, from Hagana Archive)

Ras el Ein Station. (David Ra'if, from Hagana Archive)
Modern Day Rosh Ha'ayin South Station, No Longer in Use

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pumping Station

On Thursday we took a trip to the archaeological site of Tel Aphek/Antipatris. The Ottoman fortress itself was interesting, though uninspiring as a ruin. The fortress is spread out and has been made into a tourist attraction, complete with roped-off areas. Walls have been reconstructed, facing stones have been replaced, all vegetation has been removed and in general we found in lacking.

On the other hand, we saw some amazing ruins of the British Mandate pumping station. These ruins were clearly not the emphasis of the park, and the ruins only benefited from this. In one instance we found a ruin that didn't appear on any map and that we had to dig through brush to reach. In other building, we found the remains of machinery that lent a Piranesi-esque feeling to the room.

These two approaches were contrasted with a third ruin on site, the remains of a small theater (designated an odeon by archaeologists due to its small size). The theater was small and the stage area was left in place, half with flagstones and half without. The seating area, however, had been replanted with grass. Although this was clearly done on purpose, one still got a ruin-sense. You could tell that seating existed underneath, but it had been covered by vegetation. This perhaps represents a compromise between the previous two approaches - human intervention and preparation for tourists, yet in a way that maintained much of the site's ruin value.

Ruins as Event Architecture

Ruins can be a great setting for events, be they annual or one-off. This is one way that a locale can bring tourists to a site. Sometimes ruins develop their own grassroots traditions, while in other cases a municipality or country may choose to organize an event. Some categories and examples:

Concerts - Here in Israel we have a number of examples, such as David Broza at Masada or concerts in the Caesaria theater. Recently Elton John performed at Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruin.

- The Reading Abbey in England hosts an annual event, the Open Air Festival. A theater company in Winnipeg, Canada hosts an annual event called Shakespeare in Ruins. This may exist elsewhere as well.

- the Khajuraho Dance Festival takes place in India at the open-air auditorium in front of the Chitragupta Temple.

- the International Egyptian Marathon goes by the temple at Luxor. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the shot put competition was held in the stadium of Olympia, where the original Olympics took place.

Weddings -
we found many examples of wedding planners designing weddings in ruins.

Often this type of event can be far less intrusive than configuring a site to be a permanent tourist attraction year-round. When a ruin is turned into a tourist attraction, its ruin-ness pretty much comes to an end. An event, however, can be held without transforming the site. Although for one night it will be invaded, the living creatures can reinhabit the site quickly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

1948 Convoy Ruins at Sha'ar Hagai

Every time I'm on the bus coming back to Jerusalem from Rosh Ha'ayin, as we pass Sha'ar Hagai I think about the armored trucks along the side of the road. These vehicles were part of the effort to break the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. I don't know the exact history, but I think I remember that they used to be arranged in a haphazardly fashion, and at some point recently they were lined up and arranged to appear orderly.

The trucks in this memorial appear to fit our ruin criteria, but I'm not positive they are ruins. I have two qualms:

1) Can vehicles become ruins? These trucks are certainly ruinous, but I don't think they are the type of ruins we intended. Perhaps we need to add a new ruin criteria, that the ruin was once a building. Of course, this can lead to hair-splitting: what about R.V.s? Houseboats? They weren't buildings, but were inhabited. What about really large, yet movable installations? I don't know for sure.

2) The trucks were arranged deliberately. So long as they lay where they fell, they had a more ruinous quality. Now that the vehicles have been arranged, it's more like an art installation than ruins.

I am certainly interested in hearing other opinions on this matter.

Louis Kahn and Affordable Housing in Israel

Combining the subject of two recent posts, Louis Kahn and Cheap Housing in Israel, it is interesting to note that Louis Kahn was one of the architects who first addressed the problems of cheap housing for immigrants in Israel. In 1949 the Palestine Economic Corporation (PEC) invited 20 individuals, including Kahn, to a meeting in which the Israel Housing Survey Committee was formed. 400,000 houses would be needed to be built in the State's first decade at low cost. Kahn had been involved in affordable housing in the States and volunteered to help out. This spoke to Kahn's humanitarian side:
"Israel's housing crisis...offered an opportunity for an architect to alleviate human suffering and provide support for the emergence of a new, utopian socity. News of the staggering number of refugees coming to Israel must have been especially overwhelming, even shocking, to someone who had not been deeply enmeshed in the Jewish social-service world." (Susan Solomon, Louis I. Kahn's Trenton Jewish Community Center)
Kahn explored different technologies and felt that Israel could become a center for the prefabricated steel housing industry, supplying the whole Near East, while at the same time solving its own housing problems. He suggested using vacuum-formed concrete to cut down on the curing time.

Kahn's design for prefab housing in Israel looks similar to the British structures in Rosh Ha'ayin, and is far from the traditional-looking houses of Amidar. In this light, it is interesting to note that some of the British buildings in Rosh Ha'ayin are today being used for residential purposes.

Amidar Houses and other State-Built Structures in Rosh Ha'ayin

The modern city of Rosh Ha'ayin was built on a former British military base, Ras el Ain, which was established in 1937. The influx of immigrants streaming into Israel after 1948 pushed the new State to its limits, and quick solutions were needed to house the new arrivals. The base already had paved roads, electricity, and a number of existing buildings on site. When Operation Magic Carpet overwhelmed the housing supply, the State quickly decided to establish a new refugee camp in Rosh Ha'ayin, and in about a week prepared the grounds for the influx of Yemenis.

At first the camp was divided into four camps of tents (in what is today the Rambam Neighborhood) and was intended to be temporary. However, the residents demanded that they be allowed to stay, and in the early 1950s it was decided that Rosh Ha'ayin would become a ma'abara and a permanent settlement. This meant that permanent houses needed to be built.

In 1949 Israel set up an organization, Amidar, to build housing cheaply and quickly. In Rosh Ha'ayin, like in many other locales, Amidar went to work, and by 1953 there were 1,208 government-built houses in Rosh Ha'ayin. First four, and then an additional two, neighborhoods were started, known at the time as Neighbhorhoods aleph (543 dunam), bet, (650 dunam) gimmel (725 dunam), daled (805 dunam), hei and vav (combined 550 dunam). (Today these neighborhoods have been renamed: Aleph= Tzahal; Bet= Aviv; Gimmel=Shabazi; Daled=Rambam; Hei is part of Aviv as well; and Vav=Harekafot) Daled/Rambam was the location of the tents, which explains why it was the last of the original four neighborhoods to be built - the tents first had to be evacuated. Aleph and Gimmel were started in 1951, while Bet and Daled began in 1952.

Although tens of thousands passed through Rosh Ha'ayin, a far smaller number settled there permanently. In 1956, approximately 5,600 lived there. The first wave of permanent houses were cheap and spartan, with only a two rooms, built with two houses sharing a wall. They did have indoor plumbing, however. Most sources state that these houses were 24 sq.m, but it seems more likely that they were actually 27.5 sq.m, as shown in the plan from David Zuslavski's Shikun Olim B'Israel. Several types of support buildings were also constructed, and the book shows pictures of a state-built synagogue (98 sqm), clinic(275 sq.m), tipat halav (86 sq.m), kindergarten (64 sq.m) and day care center (149 sq. m) in Rosh Ha'ayin. A chart shows that by 1953, Rosh Ha'ayin also had 3 state-built stores of 65 sq.m and a convenience store of 158 sq.m.

Rosh Ha'ayin is an excellent example of Amidar's work in building up settlements and providing first-stage houses for immigrants. Many examples still exist, some in their original state and others with many additions; some in good condition, and others in ruins. These buildings certainly have significance in the story of Rosh Ha'ayin, but they also have significance in the story of Israel.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ruins in Moshe Ibn Ezra's Poetry

by Moshe Ibn Ezra

I have seen upon the earth spacious mansions,
Palaces of ivory with lofty chambers
and pillars upon carved pedestals
houses richly adorned and filled with things of beauty.
And, as in a twinkling, I have seen them
heaps of ruins where in none might dwell.
Tell me, where are they that built and inhabited?
Where are their souls and where their bodies?
And what hope is there for man, save to await death,
With the grave ever before his eyes
For time is a herdsman, and death
like a knife, and all that live are sheep.

אשר בנה עלי-ארץ מעונים
ובתי שן והכין בם עליות
ועמודים עלי בתים רצופים
מרוחים ומחמדי שכיות
לפי-רגע ראיתימו כגלים
בלי ישב וארמוניו שאיות
אמר איה אשר בנו ושכנו
ונפשותם ואיה הגויות
ומה-תקוה לאיש מות ייחל
ועיניו אל-שאול כל-יום תלויות
כאלו הזמן נקד ומות
כמלאכת וכל-היקום כשיות

Moshe Ibn Ezra was a Jewish philosopher, linguist and poet during the Golden Age of Spain. He was born in Granada around 1055, and died around 1140. He is one of the all-time great Jewish poets.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Operation Magic Carpet

Along with our ruin research, we're going to be focusing on the history and development of Rosh Ha'ayin. This was bound to lead to a post about the dramatic Operation Magic Carpet, so here goes.

Between June 1949 and September 1950, nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel secretly, following pogroms and looting that stemmed from the UN Partition plan of 1947. Famously, many of the Yemenite Jews knew nothing about airplanes, but boarded the DC-4 or C-46 aircrafts when they were reminded of the biblical verses about being returned to Israel "on eagles' wings." Many thousands of these refugees passed through Rosh Ha'ayin between 1949 and 1951, with about 8,000 settling there permanently. The city crest of Rosh Ha'ayin bears a pair of wings and the phrase "on eagles' wings" as a result.

The airline that took part in Magic Carpet was Alaska Airlines, and on their website they proudly tell a number of stories from the operation. One article tells of Warren and Marian Metzger, he an airline captain and she a stewardess, who served on the mission. Warren Metzger explained that:
"I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none. It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants flying in those days. Navigation was by dead reckoning and eyesight. Planes were getting shot at. The airport in Tel Aviv was getting bombed all the time. We had to put extra fuel tanks in the planes so we had the range to avoid landing in Arab territory."
Another posting tells of Stanley Epstein, who volunteered as a pilot, and a narrow escape by Bob Maguire, who was forced to land his plane in Egypt but managed to convince the Egyptians to refuel his plane by telling them the passengers had smallpox. Maguire's obituary appeared in the New York Times in 2005. Yet another article tells of James Wooten, then the president of Alaska Airlines, who "was the driver behind Alaska's participation in the airlift, and he played a key role in the logistics of the nearly year-long operation that made the mission successful despite many challenges."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Georg Simmel's "The Ruin": The Importance of Nature in Ruins

In a recent presentation, we listed our various Ruin Criteria. We included among them that ruins must show signs of the invasion of nature; in particular, we said, flora is an important component. After our presentation, there were some comments that this criterion was misplaced, with references to sites that may be ruins yet do not have invasive nature.

In another post about the Carmel Fires, a reader commented that fresh ruins like these have been termed "immature ruins." I think that properly captures the spirit of the matter. These ruins are ruins-in-the-making, and in a surprisingly short time nature will invade. But for now, they are prepubescent.

Returning to the question of nature, this is a good opportunity to reference an essay by Georg Simmel, aptly titled "The Ruin" (translated by David Kettler.) Simmel was a great advocate of nature as a central factor in ruins. He describes architecture as a struggle between man and nature, and a completed building as a temporary triumph of man over nature.
"This unique balance - between mechanical, inert matter which passively resists pressure, and informing spirituality which pushes upward - breaks, however, the instant a building crumbles. For this means nothing else than that merely natural forces begin to become master over the work of man: the balance between nature and spirit, which the building manifested, shifts in favor of nature. This shift becomes a cosmic tragedy which, so we fell, makes every ruin an object infused with our nostalgia; for now the decay appears as nature's revenge for the spirit's having violated it by making a form in its own image."
Simmel explains that this gives a ruin a unique position in the art world. Normally, once a work of art is destroyed it ceases to have meaning. But with architecture, a ruin carries a significance: "Where the work of art is dying, other forces and forms, those of nature, have grown." The work of man is combined with the work of nature, the building becomes a natural phenomenon. Additionally, Simmel writes that we appreciate ruins as manifestations of the saying that "all that is human is taken from earth and to earth shall return." Thus ruins are tragic, but not necessarily sad, since it is part of the natural order, "the realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed."

As a parting shot, Simmel points out the innate tension that exists within ruins, a tension we in our project have noticed as well. Rather than try to resolve this tension, the ruin preserves it:

"Thus purpose and accident, nature and spirit, past and present here resolve the tension of their contrasts - or, rather, preserving this tension, they yet lead to a unity of external image and internal effect."
The importance of nature in ruins is thus fundamental. Although it is possible to argue with Simmel and explain ruin-fascination in another manner, it seems to us that the struggle between man and nature is latent and vital in ruins.

Louis Kahn, Ruins, and the Hurva

Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the last generation, was heavily influenced by ruins. His career blossomed after he spent four months during his fifties in Rome, where he studied the great ruins of the ancient world and decided that they would henceforth inspire his work. This process culminated with an unbuilt project of his - the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, which occupies a singular place in the collective ruin-loving mind of Israel.

In the fascinating book, Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks, Kent Larson explores this connection as he virtually recreates this unfinished project. The book examines two of Kahn's obsessions: sunlight and ruins. Kahn used his architecture to filter light. In his unbuilt U.S. Consulate in Luanda, Angola, he wrote that he was faced with the problem of controlling the harsh African sun.
"So therefore I thought of the beauty of ruins...of things which nothing lives behind...and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings; you might say encasing a building in a ruin so that you look through the wall which has its apertures as if by accident...I felt this would be an answer to the glare problem." (Interview, Perspecta 7 (1961); 9-18)
These were not, of course, literal ruins, but they do demonstrate a certain mode of thinking about ruins and their potential architectural uses.

Kahn's commission for the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem was a
"An extraordinary opportunity to express his most deeply felt ideas about architecture. This was his chance to build the great Jewish monument at the religious center of the new Jewish state...In addition, Hurva was Kahn's first and only opportunity to build in the context of ancient ruins." (Larson, p129)
For the first (and third) iteration of this project, Kahn employed 16 massive "ruin" piers along the perimeter. These piers, though intended to mimic the temple, look similar to the Temple at Luxor. Larson writes that "The pylons are both the sun walls and the ruins of Hurva." In the third iteration, Kahn incorporated a memorial garden built around the ruins of the old Hurva. This was an attempt to juxtapose the new synagogue with the ruins, keeping it separate but with an homage to the past.

Kahn once said that
"In every thing that nature makes, nature records how it was made. In the rock is a record of how the rock was made. In man is the record of how man was made."(Kahn, quoted in Between Silence and Light by John Lobell)
In the context of ruins, this makes absolute sense. Ruins are records of nature's intervention in a building. Preserving a ruin acknowledges this history and maintains that record, teaching us about the history of the site and about nature.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Samuel Bak - Holocaust Art - An Art of Ruins

Samuel Bak was born in Vilna, in 1933. At age 8 the Germans occupied the city and he moved with his family to the Vilna Ghetto. From there they were transported to the labour camps, from which he was smuggled and hid until the end of the war in a monastery. At the end of the war, only he and his mother were left alive out of an extensive family. In 1946, a year after the end of the war, young Samuel Bak refused to celebrate his barmitzva, as it seemed that he questioned his faith in God with a confusion that stays with him until today. Aged 15, he came to Israel to start anew, and began to take his artistic talent more seriously, and went to study in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. In 1956 he left and went to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, after which he painted and travelled, exhibiting his works around the world. Today, aged 76, he resides in America. Bak's childhood in Vilna, his experiences in the Holocaust, his survival, his aliya and the rest of his life spent as a wandering Jew, alone and yet a part of the collective memory of the Jewish People, all had significant influence on him and the art he created in the last 60 years.

This art reflects the Holocaust as Ruins. In his art we see ruins, fallen houses, barren stone, damaged metal, discarded wood, reconstructed debris and various other marks of trauma are found on all objects, specifically those of human making. The ruins, reflect the trauma, the broken world of his childhood and that of the Holocaust.