Tuesday 16 October 2018

Moshe Gerstel and Haifa, City of the Future

During the 1930's Haifa was often referred to as the "city of the future". It underwent significant development in the inter-war years when the Hadar HaCarmel neighbourhood was established with Modernism as the dominant architectural style. Perhaps the most iconic of the new buildings was the market hall of Shuk HaTalpiyot on Sirkin Street.

The shuk was built in response to the events of the Arab revolt of 1937-39 which caused the Jewish residents of the mainly Arab lower city area to flee the area and Jews from across Haifa to no longer feel safe to visit the markets there. Consequently plans were made to build a major market in the centre of Jewish Hadar. The site selected was extremely challenging, located on a steep slope on rocky ground. Nonetheless a design competition was held and architect Moshe Gerstel, working with engineer C. Cohen submitted the winning entry. His design was judged unanimously to be the best as it addressed the difficult issues of the site and required only local materials. Construction commenced in 1939 and the building was inaugurated in April 1940 when the city's Mayor praised the architect who "with imagination and ingenious creativity gave this city of the future a structure in which she can take pride". 

Gerstel's design included a rectangular structure at the front of the  building and a circular market hall to the rear. The stalls were arranged over three floors underneath a glass roof that flooded the building with natural light. There were also to be stalls on the ground floor and in the basement. Horizontal ribbon windows covered the surface of both parts of the building, giving views over the city and the bay. The exterior is striking due to the bands dividing the levels and the decorative fins above the main entrance. The fins are separated by a glass ladder, allowing even more natural light to flow in. The shuk quickly became a focal point for Haifa's Jewish residents. Nissim Levi describes it as "...the biggest and fanciest shopping centre in the Middle East...The central structure was roofed with a brilliant glass ceiling and the sunlight that seeped inside glittered on the fresh fruits and vegetables and created a colourful celebration that the eye can never get enough of". He also recalled  the wide range of products available and the songs and slogans made up by the vendors to attract customers.

Sadly the building has been allowed to deteriorate terribly and when I last visited two years ago only the basement remained in use for the sale of produce. The ground floor had a few low quality stalls and the upper levels were sealed off. Many of the windows were broken and feral cats roamed about. Netting had been installed to prevent pigeons causing further damage but serious action is required if the building is to survive. 

Gerstel was an extremely interesting character. Born in Galicia, Poland in 1886 he studied in Lviv and Vienna, saw active military service in the First World War and then lived and worked in Bucharest from 1922 to 1935, where he designed many buildings. He made aliyah in 1935. Settling in Haifa, he established a life long friendship with Hajj Tahir Karaman, a successful Arab businessman and deputy mayor of the city. Although Karaman was an Arab nationalist he was not opposed to co-operating with Jews and recommended Gerstel to several other wealthy Arab families who commissioned him to design homes for them. Their friendship was so strong that when the Gerstel family were in financial difficulties, Karaman not only took them in but added four rooms to his own home for them. Gerstel designed a house for his friend in the same street as the Shuk and continued designing for the family even when they left Haifa after 1948.

Karaman's recommendations resulted in commissions for three adjacent residential properties on Tchernikovsky Street on Mount Carmel. These include the Agnes Khouri house at number 29, built in 1937 and which has a spectacular glazed curved corner. One of the three properties is now divided into two with a Jewish family living in one half and an Arab family in the other, perhaps continuing the architect's tradition of good inter-communal relations. Gerstel's star began to fade in the 1950's but he remained in Haifa until he died in 1961. Several of his buildings have survived until today.


  1. I know a lot about Tel Aviv architecture but not about Haifa. So it was fun to read HAIFA BEFORE & AFTER 1948, which covers Gerstel in great detail. However I cannot find whether Gerstel studied at Bauhaus or not.

    1. he studied at Lviv (begun 1908) acording to "Adrichalim" page 63