What Does Function Say About Form?
One of the few “advantages” of being an architect is that your life’s work speaks for you after your death. As a professor of architecture, Yacov Rechter would say to his students: “Each project is a singular, once in a lifetime opportunity”. As an architect, his determination to create an individual architectural language for each project came at the expense of his own personal stamp. Rechter recently passed away, but his buildings will continue to express this ideas for years to come.
The two interviews here – one with his former partner, architect Moshe Zarchi, and the other with Gadi Heller, a senior architect in his firm, attempt to clarify the manifest formalism which characterizes Rechter’s buildings. Intervew with Moshe Zarchi
AI- How did you become acquanted with Yacov Rechter?
MZ – We met in 1936 at the school for children of workers, near Gan Meir in Tel Aviv. We were classmates for two years, joined the youth movement together, and both reached the Technion in 1939. At that time we, along with many others, enlisted in the British army. We were in the Royal Air Force, but as guards, not pilots. Our job was to guard the Stella Maris Base on the Carmel Mountain in Haifa, and so we were able to continue our studies at the Technion nearby. We studied during the day and guarded at night. And in 1944, in our final year of studies, I became Yacov’s brother-in -law, when I married his sister, Aviva Rechter.
There were only five of us in the Architecture Department. Studies were held in studio format, and connection with the teachers was amiable. Together, we tackled all aspects of the world of architecture at the time. When we completed our studies and army service, we both joined the office of Zeev Rechter, on Angel Street in Tel Aviv.
One of our first projects was a competition for expansion of the Jewish Quarter in Safed – a Jewish Agency-sponsored project. After that, we designed a residential building, under Ephraim Ben Arzi, the husband of Dora Gad. During the War of Independence, the office became a branch of the Science Division, which later became Rafael, the armaments development authority.
After the Independence war, I went to France to study urban planning and Yacov returned to Zeev Rechter’s office. I later became an associate to the firm, which then became Rechter- Zarchi-Rechter. Yacov and I were “the young ones”, and we would call Zeev the “old man,” which seems strange now because he died at the age of 60, and we are way past that.
AI – Your five most prominent projects during this period are the Binyanei Ha’Oma convention center in Jerusalem, the Rest Home in Zichron Ya’akov, the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv, Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, and maybe the most important of them all – the Tel Aviv cultural center, the Mann Auditorium. All these projects are widely known, so help me refute the many questions as to who was the architect responsible for each of the projects.
MZ –Yacov Retcher was responsible for the Zichron Rest Home and Kaplan Hospital, there’s no question about those two. I was the architect for the Binyanei Ha’Oma (until 1985). The Mann Auditorium was a joint project of Dov Carmi and Zeev Rechter, with Yacov Rechter as the project architect for our office. At the beginning of the fifties there was close cooperation among the offices of Dov Carmi, Arieh Sharon and Vitcover. There were many arguments around the project, which was at the time the most prominent. But then, of course, the entire atmosphere was different. Zeev Rechter died in 1960 and then Eliezer Peri joined us as an associate engineer – and he married Yacov’s other sister. From then on, until we split, the office was called Zarchi-Rechter-Peri.
AI – Why did the office split up?
MZ - After the completion of some important projects, we were inundated with new work. The office was too small, so we then purchased the buiding at 150 Arlozorov Street. We took one floor each and split up.
Ai - There is no doubt that Rechter-the man was a fine and cultured person. But how does he rate as an architect?
MZ – The talents Yacov was given are essential prerequisites for the creation of good architecture. However, the architect himself is measured also in terms of his background as a person. I am well aware Rechter drew his inspiration for his home, a very cultured one even in those times. A connection to art was a given, and his background enriched him way beyond the level of most architects. I have no doubt that the plastic arts were an influence on his qualities as an architect and further developed his strong tendency to grant great importance to visual and formal characteristics.
AI – And you believe this created a good architect?
MZ – There’s no question about it. Yacov was an innovator, and that’s not always popular. But there’s no doubt that he was a good architect.
AI – Did he have a tendency to be carried away by his innovations? Many of his projects imply that he decided on a basic concept and then let it take over the entire construction. In Tel Aviv’s Atarim Square, for example, the concrete shell overshadows its urban content, and at the Zichron Rest Home, the topographical lines and the scenic lookouts seem to be more important than the patients - not forgetting the Opera Building where an unlimited budget encouraged the use of every possible architectural form. Is there no danger that being swept away like this may cancel out the presence of the architect’s personal style?
MZ – I see it differently. In each of Rechter’s projects there is an idea. He was an adventurous architect, and he tended to follow the adventure through till the end. In the Keshev computer building in Lod, for example, the use of geometric shapes is the story line. Just as in the building with the “sails” he planned in the Technion. Not all his adventures were a success, but each has a beginning, middle and an end, and this is what I feel most characterizes his personal style.
AI – How do we recognize Rechter’s personal touch, a link that connects all his buildings, something like the climatic approach practiced by his father, Zeev Rechter, which was revolutionary in his time?
MZ – Despite all that’s been said, Yacov was not swept away by passing trends. It’s true that as soon as he pinpointed the major problem, he entered the plastic arts stage, which differs from one building to the other, but is very dominant in each of them. Are you asking what the most important part of a building is? I myself tend to emphasize the functional aspect. The plastic arts design is only one of a number of problems. Yacov was above all a man of values, it was clear in his attitude to architecture and you can’t say that of many people.
AI – What do you think about the nickname the press recently gave him, “man of concrete” ?
MZ – The reality is different. Although we did use concrete in most of our projects, many of us are very disillusioned by it - not as a building material, but as a finishing material that ages rapidly. It is a global rather than a local problem. At the time, we were not aware of precautionary measures needed to protect the steel skeleton; many buildings located by the sea look like they are diseased. Many big companies are looking into ways of preserving and fortifying the concrete buildings of in the sixties – all in great need of restoration today.
Intervew with Gadi Heller
AI – How long did you know Yacov Rechter?
GH – I worked for him for thirty-three years, in later years as an associate. My first job with him came at the start of the Tel Aviv beach project. The team included the offices of architects Rechter-Zarchi-Peri, Yaski, Nadler-Nadler-Bixon and Niv-Reifer. Lipski was manager of the joint office until he left a year later and I was appointed in his place. When the job was done, Yacov Rechter offered me a position in his firm. Although I was short on experience, he took a chance and put me in charge of the Dan Panorama Hotel project.
AI – There’s a saying about the “old school” of architects (Sharon, Carmi and Rechter), goes something like, “From the sweat of the fathers, the sons created deodorant.” Although Yacov Rechter was greatly appreciated as a cultured man, opinions of him as an architect are are very mixed. What do you think about this saying, which was first heard around the time of the Atarim Square project?
GH – I think this saying was created to paint a picture of a “nice guy – warm personality, quite talented, but…” . It is a terrible wrongdoing to one of the most distinguished and important architects in the country. Rechter was a unique combination of culture and a sharp mind, but also an extremely creative and competent architect. The attempt to concentrate solely on his personality does Rechter-the-creator an injustice. He managed to produce a great number of high quality buildings, with a relatively small team in his firm. You mentioned Atarim Square - even this, his least successful project has “extenuating circumstances”. Its faults are canceled out by successes only a few architects in the country can boast.
AI – Still, many of Rechter’s projects are recognizable as the result of being swept away by an idea. When I asked his long-time partner Moshe Zarchi about how he recognizes the essence of Rechter among his many projects, he claimed Rechter granted much importance to form. What did Rechter think about architectural fashion trends?
GH – We know how easy it is to ruin it all with “a little too much.” Yacov usually knew the secret of minimalism and not getting carried away. However, he was always very eager to “swirl around” all the components of a program and reach a creative solution. His tendency to get “carried away”, as you put it, resulted from his attempt to find a better solution each time. Almost all his projects reveal a functional and contextual solution. Many solutions serve as models for others. Take, for example, the functional connection between the judges’ chambers and courtrooms developed by him in the Tel Aviv courthouse, or in the service hallways connecting hospital operating rooms. As for recognizing his personal stamp – as a native Israeli, he developed a strong sense of connection with the landscape. Yacov always tried to find a language that expresses location. He wouldn’t impose a personal signature to clash with the landscape, either subtly (as in the Zichron Yacov Rest Home), or more directly, as in the Acre courthouse.
AI – Rechter’s most famous projects –the Tel Aviv courthouse, the Hilton Hotel, Gan Ya’akov park adjoining the Mann Auditorium cultural center, and Atarim Square, are prominent in their consistent use of bare concrete...
GH - I am convinced Yacov would have been happy to be free of the “man of concrete” label. The use of bare concrete expressed both creative ability and a extreme lack of basic materials. In addition, there are other important buildings, such as the Mann Auditorium itself, the Zichron Ya’akov Rest Home, the stone constructions at East Talpiot, Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, and Acre Courthouse. Yacov was not really a man to be labelled. The label “man of concrete” which incidentally came from Haaretz newspaper, is typical of journalistic writing built upon catch-phrases. On this basis, you might also label Richard Rodgers as “man of steel” or Alvaro Siza Vieira, “man of plaster”.
AI – The Eliezer Frenkel Encyclopedia lists thirty-one buildings designed by Yacov Rechter. Isn’t that a small number in light of his fifty-six years of work as an architect -and his good start as son of Zeev Rechter?
GH – According to office records, over 100 projects were completed in Yacov’s day, some very complex and on a grand scale. When Frenkel asked Yacov to lists his achievments, he included (characteristically) only those which he valued personally. In contrast, some of the klutz architects who appear in the encyclopedia have gone to great lengths to list everything they have ever done in their lives, even minor projects of interior design.
AI – How would you list Yacov Rechter’s projects?
GH – My list would go according to the wide range of subjects Rechter tackled. In fact, in everything he did, he created memorable and outstanding architecture that few others can match.
Private houses: Home of the artist Cahana in Ramat Gan, the Shalit house in Herzlia Pituach, Cogen House in Tel Aviv.
Residential buildings: The academic staff residences at Weizman Institute, Apollonia apartment complex in Nof Yam.
Hospitals: Extensions to Hadassah Hospital (“An impressive demonstration of Yaacov’s ability to humble himself and enhance the important other” - Erich Mendelson), Carmel, Kaplan and Moriah Hospitals.
Hotels: Hilton Tel Aviv, Hilton Jerusalem, Laromme Jerusalem, Zichron Ya’akov Rest Home (awarded the Israel Prize in 1972).
Public buildings: The Mann Auditorium Cultural Center in Tel Aviv (associate architects Zeev Rechter and Dov Carmi), Tel Aviv Courthouse, Acre Courthouse, Herzlia Museum.
Landscape development: Tel Aviv Promenade, Gan Ya’acov Park in Tel Aviv.
Bridges: Pedestrian bridge across Rokach Boulevard, a bridge in Taibeh.
Urban design and planning: East Talpiot, Tet-Vav Quarter of Ashdod.
Hi-tech offices: Keshev Computer Center in Lod.
Industrial buildings: Tadiran in Holon.