Fell Off a Lorry - An Interview With Architect Avraham Yaski

As a dedicated junk recycler I couldnt resist stopping when a bundle of old newspapers fell off the back of a paper recycling

As a dedicated junk recycler I couldnt resist stopping when a bundle of old newspapers fell off the back of a paper recycling company lorry. Examination, a few days later, revealed the newspapers to be copies of 1950 annual edition of Ashmoret - the magazine of the Mapai Youth Guard in which all the whos who published their writings. I enjoy realizing, time and time again, the seriousness and depth with which the articles were written and that, although fifty years have past, almost nothing has changed: the spirit of the new born country still holds an almost frightening degree of relevance.


1950. The state is only two years old; the Technions Faculty of Architecture has already reached its first quarter century. A student publishes a piercing article under the heading 'Higher Education on a Lower Level'. After an apologetic explanation that the article expresses his personal point of view, he attacks. He lists and analyzes the many flaws of the Technion and in particular of the Faculty of Architecture, from which he is about to graduate.


'Many of the teachers make it a habit of being late to their classes, and often do not show up at all. Others arrive unprepared to lectures and find themselves straying from the subject, and there is no justice in the fact that the Technion has no method of auditing their teachers... lack of cooperation among the lecturers, and lack of supervision regarding the lectures and their subjects. There are teachers who are unsuitable to their position, either because teaching is a second job for them, and therefore limiting their dedication to the subject they are teaching, or as a result of a lack of pedagogical skill. It is nearly impossible to fire a veteran teacher, as a great deal of prestige, compensation, and so forth is involved. However, considering the Technions almost exclusive role in the development of building in the country, it is essential that a solution to the problem be found.' The students courage (and inertia) knows no bounds as he proposes, 'The only possible solution is that there be elected a special investigative committee of public figures and specialists, to observe the situation closely and to offer solutions. And the sooner the better.'


Signed, third year student, Avraham Yasky.


Impressive isnt it? By the way, in the same issue of the weekly Ashmoret from 1950, the topics discussed and argued include revising of the election system and the writing of a constitution. The former military chief of staff, Yaacov Dori, stresses, '...the importance of the army as an educational factor', and another student of architecture, signed 'Yoram P.', laments the miserable appearance of buildings in Israel and suggests, 'Every local municipality elect a local architectural committee of artists and architects that will require every building to fill certain aesthetic standards...this is the only way to salvage the countrys buildings from the criminal aesthetic anarchy.'


Fifty years have passed since the article was published. The unknown young writer, Avraham Yasky, has succeeded in fulfilling, over the years, almost all of his professional aspirations. Founder of one of Israels largest and most successful architectural firms, he has been president of the Architects Association and is a professor of architecture. Recently, he completed four years as Dean of the School of Architecture at Tel Aviv University.


At the time you wrote the article the country was only two years old. What has changed since?


In a quantitative sense, there has been, without a doubt, significant change. Today architecture is studied for five years as opposed to four; there are more fields to study; there are libraries, computers, and workshops. But in the direct encounter, in the studio, where most of the architectural instruction and forming of the creative cultural personality take place, not much has changed.


None the less, we have progressed...


In the general fields of architecture and planning there has been considerable progress in Israel. During the fifties architect Arieh Sharon prepared a National Master Plan that, despite its flaws, demonstrates correct and decisive thinking. Later on, attempts to improve the plan were made. Unfortunately, after the Six-Day War, when we were just beginning to believe we could do anything, effortlessly, the decline began. With the drastic change in government in 1977, there came the blind belief that the market would solve everything. Since then, bureaucracy has taken over, and local planning councils and committees rule in place of national planning. Although architect Adam Mazor has prepared a new plan, it still carries no weight as the redefining dynamics of kibbutz and agricultural land into residential neighborhoods and commercial centers, leaving no room for the creation of real cities and good surroundings. Its sad that after fifty years we are, once again, wallowing in the mud.


The suburban development towns and the poor housing project neighborhoods were invented during the fifties. Neighborhood Rehabilitation, on the other hand, is a result of a Likud initiative.


Without getting into a 'Zionist' debate, without the political wisdom and professional recruitment during the fifties, we would not be today in a position to begin rehabilitation of the neighborhoods. We would be forced to clear huge slum areas, as in refugee absorption areas of other developing countries. These poor housing projects were, in effect, the infrastructure of the cities that made it possible for Menachem Begin to initiate the Housing Rehabilitation Project.


Today there is an inexplicable clinging to brutalist architecture, as if this is where salvation lies. As this trend has been responsible for the gradual worldwide destruction of the urban fabric for decades now, doesnt it seem pretentious for the sake of it, to you?


I dont know if anyone today looks to Brutalist architecture for salvation. But it is clear to me that your statement that it is responsible for 'destruction of the urban fabric' is meaningless. Brutalism, in my opinion, represents one of the most interesting periods in Modern architecture. Its a shame that its presence was so brief and its proper development stunted. Works of Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Kenzo Tange and Smithson, Tadau Ando and many others, are pinnacles of 20th century architecture. Concrete is a wonderful material that freed architects from the restricting column and beam, and enabled them to escalate and soar as far as the creative imagination wishes to travel. Take Candela, Meier and Calatrava. To call this, pretentious?! Because bare concrete is simple to manufacture and build with, the younger generation of the fifties, sixties, and seventies enthusiastically created an Israeli Brutalist architecture that gained international recognition. I am proud to be a part of this phenomenon and Im sorry it faded before its time. It is clear to me that these statements are a result of your romantic outlook.


Although I prefer minimalist architecture, I dont see any harm in being a romantic. In this sense Louis Kahn was a romantic too. One of the better periods of your architecture is an expression of the Brutalist style, although today one sees bare concrete in your buildings only during the first stages of the skeletal construction.


The first building I made of concrete was the dormitory for academics in Beer Sheva. Former Mayor David Tuviah sent for me one day and said: 'A wave of immigration of mostly Polish academic families is beginning - plan something with a little Ôculture - make something more humane than these asbestos huts.' I suggested, under the influence of Le Corbusier, that we construct a concrete skeleton and plant inside it the Housing Ministrys asbestos huts. When the building was finished. they decided the space was needed for Hebrew language schools, and a classroom unit was added. This is how the project became the first absorption 'Ulpan' in Israel. Acquiring the skill needed to build in concrete was not easy as there was no one to teach us. After we planned the model neighborhood in Beer Sheva, we began to feel how this simple elementary material allows for sculptural cultivation. At the end of the sixties, Beer Sheva University was designed. Here, the shapes have real functional value as well. These bare concrete buildings stand in all their splendor to this day, in comparison to buildings constructed of other materials. In arid Beer Sheva, the concrete looks strong and healthy, and it is genuinely pleasant to stroll among the buildings or along the open column floor.


As for my present-day buildings, the answer is two-fold. First of all, in Israel as in other places, the skill to create worthy bare concrete constructions has become extinct due to a lack of time, scaffolders and patience. On the other hand, the public demands shinier, lighter more transparent buildings. As in apparel - jeans and a T-shirt - the light and spontaneous are preferred over the heavy and serious.


Is it not possible that the building style dictates the concept? That in order to build in concrete, one must first clear the area with bulldozers?


The bulldozer policy was an essential part of the radical philosophy during most of the 20th century. The text of the Internationale anthem states clearly, 'An old world with a broad foundation, we will expand, from bent-over backs we will remove the burden, our world we erect, yesterday nothing, tomorrow everything...'. This sealing has nothing to do with Brutalism, which is established mainly on the use of bare concrete, but also on the integration of other natural materials such as brick, stone, steel and glass.


Still, you dont really do so anymore...what is your view on the integration of local architecture in international trends?


During the fifties, sixties, and seventies when minimalism was dominant and there was social responsibility of the use of natural materials, it was possible to demonstrate ability on an international scale. In the past few decades the society of abundance deals more and more with the emphasis of wealth - more expensive materials, complex technologies and so forth. Everything is now dependent on the import of materials and technologies and of ideas. Aside the fact that the country is distanced from the focus of cultural and technological activity, we do not have enough awareness of the idea that good architecture is measured not only in the quality of the buildings, but is also, if not mostly, expressed by the quality of its public surroundings - its environment.


Although your buildings are found today all over the country, it is difficult for me to understand how you detach yourself from the need to create fashionable architecture, and concentrate mainly on the development of public areas. What would you do, for example, if you were given an opportunity to re-design Tel Aviv?


A good city is recognized, first and foremost, by the quality of its open spaces. What you design today is passé in a few years, but the open spaces remain and they must be the focus of attention. It is important to lay down the ground rules and not the constructed mass - size, location, and their relation to each other. Here I fully subscribe to Rem Koolhaas outlook that there should be no separation of a building from its surroundings. Contemporary architecture must be an integration of the two. As for planning Tel Aviv, the answer is long and complex. First, one must establish the rules of the game in certain areas of the city - where it is permitted to crowd and build to a higher altitude, and where it is forbidden. The attitude towards renovation needs to be defined and reformed. In my opinion, there is usually more value given to the renovation of the personality of the areas than the actual individual building.


In addition, the main axes of activity such as Dizengoff or Ben Yehuda Streets must be redesigned and reconstructed, and public spaces improved. The environmental reality of the streets is simply unbearable. On this my views comply with those of architect Israel Goodovitch the recently appointed city engineer. It will not be an easy task, but it is necessary to redefine the status and image of Tel Aviv as a city. If we dont begin to 'crowd and condense', the flight to the suburbs will increase and we will lose what little land reserves we have.


Why, in spite of all this, is Tel Aviv internationally considered a good city?


I think it is due to the scale of the open spaces. The relatively narrow Tel Aviv street is proportionate to the height of the buildings, and this creates a rather pleasant scale. Take, for example, Geula Street - raise the buildings a few floors and the result will be completely different proportions and a city of different character and scale. That, by the way, was architect Herzbergers response, when called upon to design Tel Aviv port, with Moshe Tzur, 'The scale is outstanding and should not be touched.'


How does this sit with your proposal to 'crowd and condense' the city?


If the fabric is handled with caution and the scale not ruined, it is definitely possible to plant towers among the buildings.


You once stated that architects produce unexecutable plans. Are you a 'cautious' architect who limits his plan to standards set by its executors?


A responsible person limits himself to the executable. When I sit down to plan something, warning signals are triggered repeatedly and boundaries are created. We architects are not allowed to submit a flawed product because of an adventurous impulse. We are allowed to be innovative and contemporary, but never irresponsible.


As head of the school of architecture at Tel Aviv University, you had the opportunity to alter anything that had room for improvement. The first class has recently graduated - will they be better architects?


The school of architecture in Tel Aviv is part of Tel Aviv university, with all that goes along with this sort of public framework - appointments, curriculum, etc. Despite all this, we have founded a good school that will continue to improve with time.


How do you manage to supply jobs for over fifty employees? Havent you heard of the recession?


I maintain a large office because I reached the conclusion that problems are solved only with cooperating forces. You need a computer specialist, a good model builder, municipal licensing experts, someone to take care of each card we are dealt. Without this you cannot give good service and you cannot create good architecture.


Taking into account all the appreciation and respect you receive from the architectural community, you also are subject to quite a bit of criticism. You have also earned the reputation of one who does not accept projects begun by other architects.


Architecture is a liberal profession. A client can choose an architect, just as he can choose his doctor or lawyer. The only important thing is to abide strictly by the rules of professional ethics. I have always done this without room for compromise. All the rest is gossip.




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