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From the ruins

A master architect's attempt to rebuild on sacred ground

THIRTY YEARS AGO this month, the body of an elderly man was found in a men's room in New York's Penn Station. Because the corpse lacked identifying papers, it took several days for it to be identified as the body of the architect Louis Kahn. Kahn, 73, had just returned from India, where his design for the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, was nearing completion, and he was in transit to his home in Philadelphia when he suffered a heart attack.

For many, the pitiful anonymity of Kahn's death has come to epitomize the strange career of a designer regarded widely as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. As famous as Kahn may be for the landmark structures he built -- among them the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.; Yale's Center for British Art; and the National Assembly building in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka -- he is remembered almost as much for the plans that didn't get built.

These unbuilt plans flash by in a brief montage in "My Architect," the poignant new documentary by Nathaniel Kahn, one of the architects's three children by three different women, all of whom grew up in Philadelphia without ever meeting during their father's lifetime. (The film, which has been nominated for an Academy Award, is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and West Newton Cinema.) At the time of his death, Kahn was a few weeks away from a trip to Jerusalem for consultations on what many regard as his greatest unrealized plan, for the reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the walled Old City.

The plan for the twice-destroyed synagogue gets only cursory treatment in "My Architect." But it comprises a crucial chapter in the saga of a site that through most of its history has housed not a structure but a ruin, one which encapsulates not only the long conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land but also the widely varying visions Israeli Jews maintain of their past and their future. And, as plans for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site move forward, it also raises broader questions about how to rebuild on a site defined in large part by a history of destruction.

. . .

Kahn was invited to Jerusalem to discuss the rebuilding of the Hurva shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan. The Jordanians had blown up the Hurva and 57 other synagogues in the area in `48, and Israelis were cut off from the Western Wall and the rest of East Jerusalem for nearly the next two decades.

It was not the first time the structure had been reduced to rubble. In 1721, an earlier synagogue was burned down by a group of Arab creditors of the bankrupt group of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews who had built the majestic stone structure around the turn of the century, and who were now forced to flee the city.

It was nearly a century before Ashkenazim received permission to resettle in Jerusalem, and only in 1856 did the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid I grant a permit for the rebuilding of the Hurva, according to a design by his official architect, Asad Effendi. The project was spearheaded by the British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and a Lithuanian-born rabbi and silversmith, Shlomo Zalman Zoref, who was himself assassinated by local Arabs before construction was finished.

After the reconquest of the Old City in 1967, plans were quickly drawn up to rebuild and repopulate the desolate Jewish Quarter. Leading the campaign to rebuild the Hurva was Zoref's great-great-grandson Ya'acov Salomon, a prominent attorney. Salomon turned to Ram Karmi, then one of the country's leading young architects, who magnanimously proposed Kahn for the job, instead.

Sometime after the war Kahn arrived to tour the site and the nearby Judean desert. As Ada Karmi-Melamede, Ram Karmi's sister and herself an architect, recalled in a recent interview: "He wore a bow tie and a Panama hat, and khaki pants, and he looked like a colonial." The group toured two isolated, Greek Orthodox monasteries -- St. George's, built into the wall of Wadi Kelt, and Mar Saba, a stunning turquoise-domed structure perched on the side of a cliff. At Mar Saba, the women waited outside while the men were given a tour. "When Kahn came out, he didn't stop talking for 12 hours," says Karmi-Melamede.

Ram Karmi, who toured the Old City with Kahn the following day, says he believes that Kahn insisted on preceding his visit to Jerusalem with a trek in the desert because he wanted to relive the experience of the ancient Hebrews, "who conquered the land after 40 years in the desert."

As "My Architect" makes clear, Kahn had come into his own as an architect after a year spent at the American Academy in Rome, in 1950-51, during which time he also traveled to Greece and Egypt. The power and dignity of ancient architecture, in which monumentalism was tempered by a sense of balance, and form was intended to elicit feelings of awe that were fitting to a building's function, had a profound effect on him. In its eschewal of ornamentation and its incorporation of squares, circles, and other simple geometric shapes brought to realization in lustrous concrete, the work Kahn created over the next two decades had a power that many have characterized as spiritual or mystical -- if not specifically Jewish.

I have heard people compare Kahn's plan for the Hurva to a ziggurat of ancient Mesopotamia, to the Egyptian Temple of Horus, and to the type of structure characteristic of Sephardi Jews from Central Asia. But for all of its historical associations, Kahn's Hurva would have introduced an atypically modern structure into the ancient city.

Between `68 and `73, Kahn presented three plans for the reconstruction, each of which would have left the ruins of the old Hurva in place as a memorial garden, placed the new structure on an adjacent lot, and constructed a majestic promenade, called "the Route of the Prophets," to connect the complex with the nearby Western Wall -- the only remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in AD 70. All three Hurva designs, says Ada Karmi-Melamede, were "connected to the same search, for a building that would work well whether it was many people coming to it, or just a single individual." In addition to serving a collective function for all the people of Israel, it had to work for a lone person coming "to speak to his god, in a scale that was right for him."

To this end, Kahn proposed a structure within a structure, the outer one composed of 16 soaring piers covered in golden Jerusalem stone cut in blocks of the same proportions as those of the Western Wall. In the bases of the four corners of the two-story, 12-meter-high structure delineated by the piers would be small alcoves for meditation or individual prayer. The inner chamber, made of four inverted concrete pyramids supporting the building's roof, would be used for daily prayer services, which could spill over to the outer margins on Sabbath or festivals. As one writer described Kahn's conception, "The fortress-like exterior surrounding the sanctuary echoes the building's ancient surroundings, creating the illusion of a miniature walled city within the walled city."

In a letter to his clients in Jerusalem in 1969, Kahn wrote that the "idea motivating the design," through which he felt he had been "honored to express the spirit of history and religion of Jerusalem," had come from "inspirations never before felt." Kahn once made a famous if cryptic remark about "ruins wrapped around buildings." But his vision for Jerusalem could just as easily be described as "building wrapped around ruins," since he put the Jewish Quarter as a whole on his drawing board.

"You have to remember," says Ada Karmi-Melamede, "that when Kahn saw it, the entire Quarter was destroyed. All that was no longer existed, and what existed was just traces. Lou Kahn wanted to build something that was connected to learning and memory."

Kahn died before he could complete his plan, which itself died through a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic timidity. In Nathaniel Kahn's movie, former mayor Teddy Kollek says that it was the "quarreling" of the Jews that prevented it. Art historian Michael Levin of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, says the design was "too radical" for government officials, and that as a consequence "we missed out on one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century."

Kollek wrote candidly to Kahn in 1968 that "the decision concerning your plans is essentially a political one. Should we in the Jewish Quarter have a building of major importance which `competes' with the mosque and the Holy Sepulchre, and should we in general have any building which would compete in importance with the Western Wall?" Says Karmi-Melamede, "Because Kahn wasn't from here, I think he had no inhibitions about proposing something big and glorious," including a synagogue taller than the Muslim Dome of the Rock.

"Of all the conquerors of Jerusalem," she continues, "the Israelis were the only ones who were intimidated by it. There was artistic consensus on the [superior] quality of Kahn's design." But at the political level, says Karmi-Melamede, the Israelis were "scared." Even Ya'acov Salomon, who labored on behalf of Kahn's plan until his own death in 1980, may have been expressing some ambivalence when he wrote to Kahn, in `68, that it was "far greater than anything I had in mind."

. . .

Today, a 16-meter-high stone arch erected by two architects in 1978 spans the space where the Hurva once stood, serving, together with the in situ remains and explanatory plaques, as a stark reminder of what was destroyed.

But Kahn's plan hasn't been totally forgotten. In the mid-1990s, MIT architecture professor Kent Larson used Kahn's 1968 design and new software to create dramatic color images of what a finished Hurva might have looked like, both from inside and out, complete with lighting and shadow. Paul Goldberger wrote of Larson's images in The New York Times: "The Hurva simulations are astonishing and utterly convincing." In a recent interview, Michael Levin said that "if such tools had existed when Kahn was living, it would have been clearer what a masterpiece we were being offered."

But instead of Kahn's awe-inspiring monument, it is a version of Asad Effendi's 19th-century design that will soon rise above the Jewish Quarter. Two years ago, the government-funded Jewish Quarter Development Corporation convinced the Israeli government to allocate $6 million for the reconstruction of the old Ottoman synagogue. Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer was given the commission, and was told to hew as closely as possible to the 19th-century design. As of this month, the Meltzer plan has received most of the necessary approvals, and the Israel Antiquities Authority is close to completing a salvage excavation at the site.

The former head of the company, Jerusalem-born accountant Dov Kalmanovitch, sees the synagogue as an important national symbol. Kalmanovitch was burned over most of his body when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his car in 1988, making him the first Israeli victim of the first Intifada. Today he says that the injury just gives him the "push" to work for the ongoing resurrection of Jewish Jerusalem. "As long as we can't rebuild the Temple," he explains, "at least we can rebuild the structure that is seen as a symbol of the destruction of Jerusalem."

Most Jerusalemites, however, don't even know the project is about to happen. In Kahn's day, the Old City was still a place of pilgrimage for Israelis of every political and religious stripe, and the original redevelopment plan of the Jewish Quarter was specifically intended to attract a large percentage of secular Jews, including artists and academics. Today, however, the neighborhood is almost completely Orthodox, and there is no longer even a national consensus on whether the Old City should remain under Israeli sovereignty.

But some advocates of the Kahn plan think it would have a better chance of serving all of the city. What the city needs, says Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, and a niece of Ya'acov Salomon, isn't "just another shtiebel" (the Yiddish term for a neighborhood synagogue) in an area already crowded with them, but "a structure for all Jerusalem, for community activities."

Moshe Safdie also laments the idea of doing a "shlock rebuild" of the Hurva. The Israeli-born, Boston-based architect, who has built extensively in Jerusalem and trained with Kahn in Philadelphia, says it's "absurd" to reconstruct the Hurva "as if nothing had happened. If we have the desire to rebuild it, let's have the courage to have a great architect do it."

Ram Karmi contrasts the failure of nerve on the Hurva with the decision of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to commission a $150-million plan from Frank Gehry for a "Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance" in the Israeli capital. Kahn's Hurva, declares Karmi, was "a product of the desert, in the footsteps of the two monasteries he saw there." Gehry's proposed building, with his signature curves and audacious asymmetrical shapes, says Karmi, "is laughing to the sky. It's full of joy and laughter, but with no relation to Jerusalem."

Says Karmi, "Two Jewish architects came: One is like Moses with the Ten Commandments, full of fire from the desert. The other is like a fiddler on the roof. And the fiddler won."

David Green is the arts editor of the Jerusalem Report.

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