In Israel, the International Style has become the national architecture. Its foremost architect is Arieh Sharon.
In half a century of incredibly creative and prolific work, Arieh Sharon, working during the past 15 years with his son, Eldar Sharon, has achieved what the Italian architecture critic Bruno Zevi has called "a symbiosis between modern architecture critic nnd Jewish renaissance."
Photographs of this symbiosis are on display at the American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Ave. Nw. through August 31.
Titled "Kibbutz + Bauhaus: An Architect's Way in a New Land," this show arrives at a time when Modern architectur is coming into disreptute.
The white stucco Bauhaus boxes suddenly look shabby. The concrete Le Corbusier sculptures (like Washington's Metro stations) are cracked and stained. The Mies van der Rohe glass towers are scorned. Disillusioned with the promises of the machine age, people in the technologically advanced countries pine for the good old, not so advances days. Modern architecture seems inhuman, overscaled and disruptive of historic continuity.
In Israel, however, the promises of technology still hold true. How else
can you forge a civilization, a new society, on penurious soil that does not even yield metal?
The challenge captivated Arieh Sharon when he was still a gangly youth whith socialist yearnings and Zionist ideals in a Polish-Galician "staedtele." He joined a kibbutz in what was then still Palestine.
In this remote, rural commune of young men and women, Sharon farmed, tended bees and built shelters. "The bees taught me about building," he told me the other day.
"Honeycombs provide both living and storage space," Sharon explained pointing at a chart in his exhibition. "Bees might build cubes, but cubes have sharp corners that make it uncomfortable for bees to turn around in. They might build cylinders, but a composition of cylinders wastes space and material because of the leftover interspaces between them.
"So the bees, being architectural geniuses, created a pattern of hexagons -- the most spacious, comfortable and economic solution."
As his kibbutz grew and needed more buildings, Sharon saw the need for further architectural lessons. He looked for them in Germany. "Like America today," he explained, "it was architecturally the most advanced country at the time." The time was 1926.
On the train to Berlin, Sharon came across a magazine that extolled the avant-garde art and design experiments of a new school named "Das Bauhaus," which had just moved from Weimar to Dessau. He switched trains to take a look.
"The great Walter Gropius was gracious," Sharon reminisced. But he worked more closely with Hannes Meyer, the Swiss architect, who later worked in the Soviet Union and in Mexico. Sharon was immmersed in the creative turmoil kept in frantic motion by teachers like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers, and Bohemian fellow students like Marcel Breuer. The exhibition includes a number of snapshots of Bauhaus frolics as well as some of Sharon's own student work -- a copper sheet structure -- which, says Sharon proudly, appeared on the cover of the Bauhaus magazine.
Tel Aviv was booming when, after five years, Sharon took his Bauhaus wisdom back home. Winning one architectural competition after another, Sharon gave shape to the boom with its housing projects, hospitals, schools and, eventually, skyscrapers.
Many Modern ideas that seemed arbitrary and abstract in Europe and America made sense in the Mediterranean climate of Israel. Putting buildings on stilts, for example, seems silly in Berlin or New York, but provides welcome shade and breezes in the hot sun Tel Aviv. Flat roofs only shock in gabled Paris, but are perfectly at home in Jerusalem.
The lack of steel and glass and the imperatives of economy, furthermore, curbed the abstract-artistic excesses of Modernism. Gone native, so to speak, Modern architecture also became sensible.
Sharon's most important contribution, however, is the planning of numerous rural communities, new towns, regions and eventually the urbanization of the entire country. For many years after Israel won independence, he worked closely with Golda Meir, then minister of Works and Housing, and Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister.
Sharons concern, often in bitter struggles with politicians and industrialists, was to avoid traffic congestion: overcrowding, noise, land and air pollution, and to protect the beauties of the landscape. By and large he succeeded. "It wasn't because we persuaded our opponents," sharon said. "They gave in because we seemed crazy to them, fanatic enthusiasts."
With son Eldar joining the Sharon firm, its work came strongly under the influence of Le Corbusier -- more sculptural and exuberant. And again, what seems eccentric and alien under the mostly gray skies of Berlin or Cambridge, Mass., appears perfectly natural in the hot sun of Haifa or Ife, Nigeria, where the Sharons have recently completed a large university. It looks somewhat like a huge Picasso, inspired by a "primitive" African sculpture.
Sharon's most beautiful building, in my view, is the Yad Mordechai Memorial at the edge of the Gaza strip completed in 1970. it commemorated the heroic stand of a small group of kibbutz members against the invading Egyptian army in 1948.
But it is not a war memorial. It is, rather, a museum dedicated to the ; Jewish struggle, particularly the partisans who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.
In a very complex structure, almost a labyrinth, the struggle is symbolized by utterrly simple means -- darkness and light, the flow of water, the pavement of a Polish town, and unexpected glimpse of the countryside.
Israel has many moving, modern monuments. But Yad Mordechai touched me deeply on a visit to Israel some years ago. I was glad to be reminded of it again in this exhibition which, for the first time, acquaints the American public with an important Israeli architect.
Arieh Sharon is capable both of the poesy of Yad Mordechai and the social idealism of a national plan for housing and new communities.