Thursday, May 26, 2016

Q&A with Adina Hoffman

Adina Hoffman is the author of the new book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City. Her other books include House of Windows and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation and The Washington Post. She lives in Jerusalem and in New Haven, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and for focusing on these three particular architects?

A: When I’m not sitting at my desk, I’m often walking and looking around me. I’ve spent some 25 years in Jerusalem, in fact, more or less alternating between those modes—sitting, walking, looking.  

Since I tend to think biographically, it was really only a matter of time before my musing about the shapes of the various buildings I was seeing on those walks gave way to wondering about the architects who’d conceived what I think of as the most striking buildings in the modern cityscape.

Where had these men come from? What ideas had they brought with them and what had they learned from the stones and the sunlight, the people and ethos of the place? What future had they each envisioned for this endlessly compelling, endlessly trying place?

Q: One of the architects you examine has left very little biographical trace. How did you research that part of the book, as compared with your research for the first two sections of the book?

A: The first two architects I write about accumulated a great deal of paper in the course of their rich and busy lives, and much of that paper has, thankfully, been preserved.

The modernist maverick and German-Jewish refugee Erich Mendelsohn worked mostly for institutions or politically powerful Jewish patrons with ample secretarial staffs and spacious filing cabinets, and his wife was obsessive about saving every scrap on which he wrote or sketched.

During his Jerusalem years, the deeply private public servant and British expat-in-the-East Austen St. Barbe Harrison built exclusively for the British Government. Even though he burned some of his own correspondence later in life, I still had a lot to work with because of a certain English fixation on posterity and paperwork.

So when it came to writing about those two, it was pretty clear to me which archives I’d need to explore.

The Greek-Arab Spyro Houris, meanwhile, left very few footprints that were evident to me when I set out looking for him in the summer of 2014, in the midst of Israel’s latest war in or on Gaza.

There were both personal and political reasons for this absence. Houris built entirely for private clients, many of whom were members of the non-Jewish elite of the city during the late Ottoman and early Mandate periods.

Much of the history of those communities has been erased or pushed underground since 1948. As a result, I had to be fairly relentless and, well, improvisational in thinking of other places to hunt for his traces: I did root around in various archives, but that was just the start of it.

Throughout that hot, violent summer, I haunted graveyards and consulates, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and ecclesiastical court in the old city’s Christian quarter, ancient churches and newer-fangled cultural centers.

I talked my way into homes and offices and also spent a great deal of time just squinting at his buildings, trying to read them for clues about who Houris was and what he meant to say with his buildings.

Q: Do you see particular themes that link all three architects' work in Jerusalem?

A: In one way or another, they were all devoted to a kind of hybridity—buildings that fused east and west, old and new, foreign and local. They each evolved syncretic forms and variations on a vision of the city that was itself profoundly mixed: they saw Jerusalem as historically and potentially a polyglot, polymorphous, essentially plural place.  

They were also each mavericks, people thinking and designing not primarily in the name of some ideology or political party but, first and foremost, according to their own, hard-won notions of what a particular building—and the city at large—might be.

Q: You write that during Houris’s lifetime, "the bonds that stretched across what are now considered nearly impassible ethnic, national, and religious borders were not only conceivable, they were critical to what made the city the city." How has the city changed since the time of these three architects, and what is their legacy today?

A: Jerusalem is still a terrifically diverse place—but that diversity has become severely endangered.

The entire conversation that surrounds the city has devolved in recent years to an often brutal and reductive game of nationalist tug-of-war. You’re either pro-Israeli or you’re pro-Palestinian; the city is either Jewish or it’s Muslim; you’re either with us or against us; and so on.

Those blunt either/or terms are, frankly, not only thin, they’re a travesty, given the cultural abundance and complexity of the city’s very long and very varied past.

It’s hard to use grand terms like “legacy” about these architects, who have been pretty much forgotten as individuals by modern Jerusalem and its residents—though their buildings remain some of the most recognizable and beloved in the city. Does such an unacknowledged presence count as a legacy? I’d like to think so.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short biography of Ben Hecht for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives Series. Hecht was one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, a highly energetic novelist, an important member of the Chicago Renaissance, accomplished playwright, old-fashioned, cigar-chomping, big-city newspaperman, and charismatic propagandist for Israel’s pre-state Jewish terrorist underground, the Irgun.

He called himself a “child of the century” and he was just that: he drank with, ghostwrote for, dashed off letters to everyone from Harpo Marx to Menachem Begin, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Lotte Lenya, H. L. Mencken, David O. Selznick, George Grosz, and Marilyn Monroe, and he led what we might call a great big Jewish life—or in fact multiple lives, Jewish or no.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That Jerusalem is infinitely more interesting than you’d ever know from reading The New York Times. It’s amazing how anemic and repetitive the story is that most journalists tell about it—amazing since the city itself is brimming with fascinating historical layers and forgotten lives. It’s those layers and those lives I seem to spend much of my time trying to unearth.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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