In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, American-born author Adina Hoffman creates a new genre: a mashup of cultural and political history and intriguing whodunit.
Hoffman focuses on three architects who worked in early 20th century Jerusalem: world-renown displaced German Jewish modernist Eric Mendelsohn; little-remembered Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the Chief British government architect in Mandate Palestine; and the tantalizingly obscure (verging on forgotten) local builder/architect Spyro Houris.
Not much connects these men beyond their profession, their working years (roughly 1920 – 1937), and the smallish number of Jerusalem buildings they designed. Hoffman, however, sees them as providing overlapping lenses on the holy city: “This book is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”
The chapter on Mendelsohn presents a chilly perfectionist fleeing the Nazis, unmoored from his rightful place as a leading light of international architecture. Much of Mendelsohn’s Jerusalem work was never realized, but he did build a modernist mansion for publisher Salman Schocken and part of a campus for Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The Mendelsohn chapter explores Jewish Jerusalem of the 1930s, filled with the politics of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) and rocked by Arab-Jewish unrest.
Austen Harrison’s section touches on Mandate Palestine from the British point of view. A modest, artistic, nominally Christian Englishman, Harrison was fascinated with Middle Eastern architecture and expressed it in landmarks that endure to this day — most notably the Rockefeller Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities and the Central Post Office Building in Jerusalem.
Hoffman’s third profile is filled with questions about someone with virtually no paper trail — just a few handsome Jerusalem homes and a set of commercial buildings with stones inscribed Spyro Houris, Architecte. Who was this man with the Greek first name and Arab surname? Why is there so little evidence of his once-flourishing practice? In an informal yet evocative chapter focused mainly on Hoffman’s posthumous manhunt for Houris, we glimpse another Jerusalem — the eclectic, multicultural city of Greek Orthodox monks and Armenian potters, Crusaders and Ottomans, Jewish archivists and Arab poets.
The book reveals much about Jerusalem’s roots. For example, until 1867 the city “had been …little more than a hilltop village contained by a wall…a cramped, dark, diseased, and by most accounts foul-smelling place whose gates were locked at night.” Hoffman also provides unsettling echoes of today, such as the 1921 rumors that Jewish inhabitants planned to tear down the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque and build a new Temple on the site.
The author, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Connecticut, has written other books on the Middle East, including Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. She clearly knows and loves this complex, confounding city. Hoffman also crafts witty sentences, calling one British high commissioner ‘the much decorated and extremely mustachioed Field Marshall,” and describing another as “a proud connoisseur of his own connoisseurship.” She offers biting assessments of noted contemporary architects Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie.
Ironically for a publication highlighting architecture, however, little attention is paid to visuals. Pages are dotted with interesting photographs, but many are too small. The photo captions are in the back of the book, which forces readers to flip back and forth. And it is most unfortunate that no map is included, as it would have clarified the relationship of buildings and neighborhoods being discussed.
But Till We Have Built Jerusalem delivers a rich portrait of the twentieth-century evolution of the city, its history and architecture. Readers interested in those topics will find much of value in this deeply researched, thoughtful book.