Architect David Kroyanker writes definitive guide to the living museum that is Jerusalem
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Interview'I am trying to discover and expose the hidden Jerusalem'

Architect David Kroyanker writes definitive guide to the living museum that is Jerusalem

Foremost expert on Israeli capital’s built heritage publishes four-volume work on the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Modern design, ‘God Is In The Details’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • David Kroyanker and his archive on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, 2013 (Yossi Aloni)
    David Kroyanker and his archive on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, 2013 (Yossi Aloni)
  • Jewish design identity: Keeping Away the Evil Eye - A ceramic amulet at the entrance door of a house. 29 Shabazi Street. Nahalat Achim Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
    Jewish design identity: Keeping Away the Evil Eye - A ceramic amulet at the entrance door of a house. 29 Shabazi Street. Nahalat Achim Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
  • Modern design identity: Balcony railing of an Arab house, built in the 1920s. 19 Hildesheimer Street, German Colony. (Courtesy)
    Modern design identity: Balcony railing of an Arab house, built in the 1920s. 19 Hildesheimer Street, German Colony. (Courtesy)
  • Muslim design identity (Courtesy)
    Muslim design identity (Courtesy)
  • Muslim design identity: A large red rose “carpet” decorated the floor in Villa Aweidah (Courtesy)
    Muslim design identity: A large red rose “carpet” decorated the floor in Villa Aweidah (Courtesy)
  • Christian design identity: A large sculptured winged lion – the Lion of St. Mark, patron of Venice, on top of an office building built in 1935 by the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali. 1 Shlomzion HaMalka Street, corner of Jaffa Road, City Center.(Courtesy)
    Christian design identity: A large sculptured winged lion – the Lion of St. Mark, patron of Venice, on top of an office building built in 1935 by the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali. 1 Shlomzion HaMalka Street, corner of Jaffa Road, City Center.(Courtesy)
  • Jewish design identity: Floor tiles with Eight Stars of David and four Menorahs on each corner. Recycled floor-tiles in a renovated building. 22 Hovevei Zion Street, Talbieh Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
    Jewish design identity: Floor tiles with Eight Stars of David and four Menorahs on each corner. Recycled floor-tiles in a renovated building. 22 Hovevei Zion Street, Talbieh Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
  • Modern design identity: A 1930s Art-Deco balcony railing. 15 Even Sapir Street, Nahalat Ahim Neighborhood, West of the City Center. Flat iron profiles were fashionable in the 1930s. (Courtesy)
    Modern design identity: A 1930s Art-Deco balcony railing. 15 Even Sapir Street, Nahalat Ahim Neighborhood, West of the City Center. Flat iron profiles were fashionable in the 1930s. (Courtesy)
  • Muslim design identity: The Islamic crescent, the Ka’aba in Mecca, minarets, birds and palm trees feature in a Hajj painting in the Muslim Quarter, Old City of Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
    Muslim design identity: The Islamic crescent, the Ka’aba in Mecca, minarets, birds and palm trees feature in a Hajj painting in the Muslim Quarter, Old City of Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
  • Jewish design identity: Two Hamsas, a Star of David and the turquoise color protect a Jewish house in the Nahla’ot Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
    Jewish design identity: Two Hamsas, a Star of David and the turquoise color protect a Jewish house in the Nahla’ot Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
  • Muslim design identity: Windows of various shapes enrich the façade of the 1930s Al-Araj House, 3 Heleni-HaMalka Street, City Center (Courtesy)
    Muslim design identity: Windows of various shapes enrich the façade of the 1930s Al-Araj House, 3 Heleni-HaMalka Street, City Center (Courtesy)
  • Christian design identity: Complex design of the stone balustrade of the upper gallery in the German Church of the Ascension, built in 1910. The Augusta Victoria Compound, Mount of Olives. (Courtesy)
    Christian design identity: Complex design of the stone balustrade of the upper gallery in the German Church of the Ascension, built in 1910. The Augusta Victoria Compound, Mount of Olives. (Courtesy)
  • Muslim design idenity: Octagonal wooden ceiling painting (Courtesy)
    Muslim design idenity: Octagonal wooden ceiling painting (Courtesy)
  • Modern design identity: Villa Salameh is one of the largest and most elegant villas built in Palestine in the 1930s. The Art-Deco balustrades of Villa Salameh. Wingate Square (formerly Salameh Square). 22 Balfour Street, Talbieh Neighborhood. (Courtesy)
    Modern design identity: Villa Salameh is one of the largest and most elegant villas built in Palestine in the 1930s. The Art-Deco balustrades of Villa Salameh. Wingate Square (formerly Salameh Square). 22 Balfour Street, Talbieh Neighborhood. (Courtesy)

Unlike those who dig for remnants of cultures past, architect David Kroyanker looks for signs of them on buildings in present-day Jerusalem. Over the past 45 years, he’s taken stock of virtually every structure, accumulating a vast and deep knowledge of the urban texture of the city.

The London-trained Kroyanker began his career in Jerusalem’s post-1967 urban planning unit under legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. He’s written more than 30 books on Jerusalem’s architecture and cityscape, and has raised awareness among Israeli citizens and leaders of the importance of historical architectural preservation.

Along the way, he amassed an extensive private archive containing some 140,000 items, including drawings, photographs, maps, and articles. Also an avid photographer, Kroyanker has a collection of 150,000 negatives of images he personally captured of the Israeli capital over the decades.

“I am an archeologist of the present. I look just at what is on the surface. I’m a detail hunter,” Kroyanker said in an interview with The Times of Israel about his latest publication, a four-volume set titled, “Jerusalem Design: God is in the Details.”

The title is a nod to the spiritual nature of Jerusalem, where Kroyanker was born 78 years ago to German Jewish immigrant parents. However, the atheist Kroyanker chose the expression — attributed to pioneering modernist architect Mies Van Der Rohe — because it implies that the quality of any product hinges on the attention invested in its subtleties. Kroyanker felt the axiom fitting for this new, cumulative work focusing on the design details of Jerusalem’s buildings spanning from the Mamluk period in the 12th century to the end of the 20th century.

According to Kroyanker, no other city has such a variegated collection of building styles and design features.

“Different nationalities, cultures, religious and ethnic groups have built Jerusalem for generations, and their design identities are engraved on the city’s stone walls,” he said.

‘Different nationalities, cultures, religious and ethnic groups have built Jerusalem for generations’

“Jerusalem Design” devotes a volume each to Jewish, Christian and Muslim influences, providing hundreds of examples and thousands of illustrations of Jerusalem’s uniquely multicultural architecture. Only 50 copies of the privately published limited set are available through the Israel Museum. An abridged 520-page Hebrew version has been published by Keter Publishing House.

A partner website designed and powered by the Center for Educational Technology provides interactive online access to much of the book’s contents. An exhibition based on the material will be mounted at the Israel Museum in the fall of 2017, and a film on Kroyanker and his work is also forthcoming.

The Times of Israel sat down recently for a wide raging conversation with Kroyanker at his home in Tel Aviv, where he moved several years ago with his wife Leorah (who assists him in his work) to be closer to their children and grandchildren. He spoke about how this new book builds upon his previous research, why he avoids politics, and what it’s been like to enjoy a lifelong career based on a personal passion for the city of his birth.

'Jerusalem Design: God Is In The Details' four-volume set by David Kroyanker (Courtesy)
‘Jerusalem Design: God Is In The Details’ four-volume set by David Kroyanker (Courtesy)

After more than 40 years of research and 30 books on Jerusalem, is the multi-volume “God is in the Details” your magnum opus?

Magnum opus? I don’t like these big words. It is a summary of my work from a visual perspective in a condensed way of what I’ve done over 40 to 45 years, looking at Jerusalem’s urban textures in five main categories: Functional everyday features, decorative ornamental features, traditions, religious beliefs, and typical ways of life of those who engraved their identity in Jerusalem’s neighborhoods and buildings.

‘One lives — not only in Jerusalem, but especially in Jerusalem — a day to day life in a chaotic, anonymous, urban environment’

I couldn’t have done this without the knowledge that I accumulated over the years and the illustrations in my previous books. What’s different about this work is that it includes the main visual features that characterize the city in terms of its ethnic identities.

I am trying to discover and expose the hidden Jerusalem, those different design features that are unknown to most people. I want to make people understand them, and above all appreciate them. To appreciate doesn’t mean you have to love, or even like, them. I mean, to appreciate them in terms of the living museum in which one lives. One lives — not only in Jerusalem, but especially in Jerusalem — a day to day life in a chaotic, anonymous, urban environment. You have commercial signs, the noise of cars, you have all sorts of signs of time and dirt, and suddenly what appear are the “jewels” that are located behind all of this.

In this work, you focus solely on what can be seen on the walls of Jerusalem’s buildings. But you have also been interested in the lives of the people who lived behind those walls.

That is exactly the difference. My other books were mainly the history of buildings and the people who built them and lived in them. I wrote about the changes these buildings and neighborhoods underwent over the years. I wrote six volumes dealing with periods and styles of architecture in Jerusalem. I researched why and how certain buildings and neighborhoods differed from one another in different periods, and also in the same periods. Take for example the differences between Mea Shearim, which is very similar to the ghettos of Eastern Europe of the late 18th century and 19th century, and the Muslim Quarter, which is really casbah architecture. Rehavia was built as the garden city of the 1930s, and the adjacent Talbiye was built more or less at the same time. Talbiye [with ornate mansions] was built by well to do Arabs, for whom showing off economic wealth was very important. By comparison, the Jews who built Rehavia, although some of them were also wealthy, were less interested in exhibiting their wealth.

Were there new things you learned while working on “God is in the Details?”

There were things that I had seen and looked at, but never knew their meaning until I investigated them for this book. I hadn’t put them in the right place and given them the right meaning before. I hadn’t put things in the framework of a visual vocabulary. I’ll give you a few examples:

There is a part of the brain, the pineal gland that looks like a pinecone. I saw this image on a Christian building in Jerusalem. But I never paid much attention to this and didn’t know that this had any meaning. Then my wife and I were traveling on Lake Como in Italy, and many of the villas along the lake had huge gates with posts topped with pinecones. When I returned to Jerusalem, I saw the same image on the façade of the Schneller Institute [an orphanage and school built by Protestant Germans]. I researched the image and discovered that it is used throughout the Vatican and that in Christian tradition it is a symbol for the center of knowledge, wisdom and the soul.

I saw a scarab, or cockroach, on an iron gate on the fifth station on the Via Dolorosa. Then I saw the same one on the gate of St. George’s Cathedral on Nablus Road. I started asking myself what is this, and learned that it is a symbol of the Resurrection.

How does one identify a Jewish house from a certain period when it doesn’t have a symbol like the Magen David or the Stone Tablets? I realized that in many places you have the Hebrew letters instead of numbers on dwelling units.

Many of the items included in the book no longer exist in Jerusalem. They’ve been lost to development, lack of preservation and theft. Do you worry that more of these design identities will disappear?

Sure. I worry that even more will be gone in the future. I think the big blow in terms of these changes was in the last 35 to 40 years. It’s because of the growth and development of Jerusalem since 1967. Until then it was different. Before that there was no development in the city.

What do you imagine will be the future of architecture and design identities in Jerusalem?

This physical ethnic identity that was very relevant until the 1920s slowly evaporated. Then you had these global, universal fashions that became relevant for the last hundred years. The day-to-day aspect of religious imagery is finished with. Architecture is a fashion just like clothes and cars. That doesn’t mean that certain older styles will not be recycled again in a slightly different manner.

The main thing that has changed in terms of architecture in Jerusalem is the move away from the exclusivity of building in stone. Builders are using more global materials like glass and metals, and I am very much afraid that in 20, 30, 40 years time Jerusalem will basically [except for what will remain from earlier periods] lose its stony identity.

You deal with Jerusalem “as exists on the ground” and distance yourself from matters of archeology, which are politicized. But is it really possible to stay out of the political fray when it comes to Jerusalem?

I don’t try to prove anything about who is here, or was here. I look at things as they are, as they exist. It is true that in Jerusalem, anything can be given a political interpretation. The fact that the Muslim volume [among the four “God is in the Details” volumes] is largest could be used as a political statement.

‘I am aware all the time of the sensitivity of the issue, but you cannot avoid it because someone will say this or that’

Objectively, it is the thickest volume because the Muslim design entity is dominant in Jerusalem because of the length of the historical period and the fact that Muslim culture and religion emphasize decoration and ornamentation. If you talk about visual ethnic identities, you look at something that is objective. You can give it an interpretation, but that is your own business.

I am aware all the time of the sensitivity of the issue, but you cannot avoid it because someone will say this or that. It’s not my interpretation. It’s theirs. The subject I am dealing with is by its very nature apolitical, but Jerusalem — because of its sensitivity — can be viewed from so many perspectives, including political ones. People can do whatever they want with my objective presentation.

What are your plans for your extensive and unique archive on Jerusalem?

I agreed with the Ben-Zvi Institute to scan the selected illustrations in my archive. I have to take them all out and select the images. I started a year ago, but I haven’t had a lot of time. I’ll get back the originals. People can use the scanned images in the future. I don’t care about the rights. I have ideas about what to do with the archive, but I haven’t decided anything yet.

Do you miss living in Jerusalem?

I miss those days in which I would go to the Old City and walk the alleyways. Certain parts of Jerusalem are really amazing. Even Mea Shearim is damn interesting. The view from Mishkenot Sha’ananim of the national park that stretches from the Cinematheque to the Old City walls is fantastic.

In Tel Aviv I don’t go anywhere. I went once to [the gentrifying south Tel Aviv neighborhood] Florentin to look at the graffiti. Sometimes I do miss Jerusalem. To be honest, sometimes I do.

David Kroyanker, 2013 (Yossi Aloni)
David Kroyanker, 2013 (Yossi Aloni)

What has it been like to be able to make your life’s work something you have loved and been so passionate about for more than four decades?

I can only say that I am very privileged to be a person whose profession and whose career are based mainly on my interest. I do what I like, and I like what I do. There are not many people who have this combination. Some people say that I sucked this lemon dry. I could suck it drier if I had more years. There are so many perspectives you can look at.

When I go, I hope there will be other people. I will be very glad if someone will continue based on what I did. The city develops and changes. Maybe there will be a war. Anything can happen, especially in Jerusalem where the situation is very fragile. It is one of the most fragile cities in the world. Because of this, Jerusalem’s future is unknown in every respect, be it politics, planning or architecture.

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