Architecture in Israel

Integrating the European and the Middle Eastern.


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Israeli architecture over the past century has developed in response to centuries of historical building styles and prevailing international design trends. While notably eclectic, modern Israeli buildings can be classified into several distinctive styles that combine traditional materials and motifs with the needs of modern, urban populations.

The Early Years

In the late 19th century, communities immigrating to Israel replicated the building styles of their homelands. In Jerusalem, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore established the first neighborhood outside of the Old City in 1860. The hillside settlement of Mishkenot Sha’ananim (translated as “tranquil dwellings”) is made up of terraced rowhouses with red roof tiles–a style that was influenced by a Mediterranean vernacular and became a prototype for Jewish residences all over Israel.

Nearby, wealthy Arab families began building European-style mansions and villas that integrated Islamic decoration. West Jerusalem is still a reflection of how various groups carved out separate neighborhoods–the Bukharan Quarter, the Russian Compound, and the German colony–each using the city’s signature Jerusalem stone, but adding on distinct architectural elements. Jerusalem stone, a white or cream-colored marble, is found in the hills surrounding the city and became a required building material under the British mandate.

Far less eclectic in its influences, the “white city” of Tel Aviv was built initially as a reproduction of Eastern European cities like Odessa, Moscow, and Warsaw. The architects of the city’s first buildings did not consider the climatic conditions of a warm-weather sea-side town and retained the wide windows, attics, turrets and towers of a more temperate environment. But later, during the early 20th century, Jewish builders and craftsmen of all kinds became influenced by Orientalist style. Local Arabic ornament, desert motifs and images of Bedouins conjured up the ancient Biblical Mediterranean for the immigrant Jews who were trying to re-establish their autonomy in the land of their picturesque past.

Notable buildings from this period paired European monumentality and function with Orientalist motifs in a style occasionally termed “Eclectic Romanticism.” Tel Aviv’s first public building, the Herzliya Gymnasium designed by Yosef Berski, looks like a stately imperial building, but its colorful interior is enhanced with Arabic ornamentation. Haifa’s old Technion building, designed by Alexander Baerwald, along with the Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv and the YMCA in Jerusalem combined eastern elements into western exteriors, creating a new fusion style with Byzantine domes, Moorish arches, Islamic tessellations and art deco elements added to multi-story concrete buildings.

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Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.

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