Sunday 15 April 2018

Josef Berlin - Modernism in Tel-Aviv

Josef Berlin was born in Mogilev in today's Belarus in 1877. He studied at St. Petersburg Academy of Art graduating  in 1911, going on to win several architectural competitions. He designed at least a dozen buildings for various municipalities and banks before making Aliyah (emigration to Israel) in 1921. Once in Israel he obtained work as the Chief Architect in the Public Works Department of the trade union Histadrut. During his three years there, he designed a number of buildings in Tel-Aviv including the Electric Corporation on HaHashmal Street, a textile factory and a number of private houses. These included the Shapira House in Bialik Street which later became a synagogue. In recent years the building has been surrounded by hoardings, awaiting renovation.

Former Ha'aretz print works, 56 Mazeh, built 1932
When Berlin arrived in Tel Aviv the prevalent architectural style was Eclecticism which combined elements of art nouveau with Oriental and Biblical motifs. Although influenced by this style, he did not adopt it in its entirety. He preferred to work with elements of classical architecture whilst using locally available materials including concrete and lime mortar. Leaving the Hisadrut in 1924, he formed a partnership with Richard Pancovsky, a civil engineer from Czechoslovakia. Together they founded the Association of Engineers and Architects operating out of the Twin Building a 7-9 Mazeh Street which was designed by Berlin and included his family home. Today the building houses a bookshop and a cafe.This new venture initially included a school of architecture under Berlin's direction but it closed after one year. Pacovsky had trained in Prague and he may have introduced his new partner to the work of Skupina, an influential Czech avant-garde movement.

Former Moghrabi Cinema, completed 1930
Berlin's iconic Moghrabi cinema was completed in 1930. For this project he pioneered the use of silicate bricks and from then onwards dropped all classical references. Examples of his work with this material can still be seen at 46 Allenby and in his son, Ze'ev's work at the fabulous former home of the poet Ravnitzki at Ahad Ha'am 80. Sadly, the Moghrabi was damaged by a fire in 1986 and was demolished. Many older Tel-Aviv residents still have memories of it. Another of his designs, the Ohel Mo'ed synagogue on Shadal Street, was completed in 1931.  This building which still stands, is best admired from the inside where you can look up into its mesmerising dome. The Ravnitzki house, built in 1929, is currently under restoration and hidden behind hoardings.

Ravnitzki House, 80 Ahad Ha'am, completed 1930.
Dome interior, Ohel Mo'ed Synagogue, Shadal Street, completed 1931.
Ze'ev Berlin was born in 1906 and trained as an architect in Brussels. On his return to Tel-Aviv in 1932 he worked in partnership with his father and then, in 1936, moved to Haifa and established his own practice. During the period of their partnership, they designed several buildings in the city including the recently restored apartment building at 82 Rothschild and my favourite Berlin structure
the former Ha'aretz newspaper print works. This modernist gem tucked away at 56 Mazeh, was built in 1932 to the designs of father and son. Mazeh is primarily a residential street and would have been completely so at the time the print works were constructed. It is surprising that permission was granted for a noisy industrial unit that may well have operated through the night, printing the next day's edition.

Ha'aretz left the building some years ago but the current owners have retained the original facade, maintaining it in excellent condition. It has strong features, with extensive use steel framed glass, rounded balconies and balustrades and a cantilevered roof. However the highlight for me is the glazed corner stairwell that gives views into the zigzag staircase, adding drama to the design. Its squared-off corner contrasts with the curves of the rest of the balconies. It is possible to peep through the door and see a reproduced image of the building back in the 1930's. The only significant difference is that it still bore the name of the newspaper on the facade. 

Some commentators have compared the former print works to the early works of Bauhaus luminary Walter Gropius and those of Erich Mendelsohn who deigned the de la Ware pavilion in Sussex. But I feel that this is Berlin's own style drawing on his experience to create a modernist masterpiece - small but very beautiful. Josef Berlin designed at least 83 public and private buildings in Tel-Aviv, several of which can still be seen. He died in 1952 aged 75, whilst Ze'ev lived on until 1961.

Apartment building, 82 Rothschild, completed in 1932, restored 2013.



  2. I think they DID create the former print works in the style of Walter Gropius' early works and other Bauhaus, or Bauhaus-influenced, architects. But the Berlins had something special that suited Tel Aviv beautifully.