Beyond Cement and Iron
Contextualizing Israeli Architecture in Africa
Master plan of Abidjan, in: The African Riviera Brochure.
Front page of the Afrique Nouvelle newspaper reporting on Golda Meir's visit.
At the opening of the Knesset's spring session on May 1963, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion devoted much of his speech to the significance of Israel as a “development expert.”1 This speech encapsulates the political dimension and the ideological mission of Israel's participation in development, planning and architecture projects in the developing world, including Asia, Latin America, Iran and, in particular, Africa. Beginning in 1957, once domestic security conditions and Israel’s international recognition had been stabilized, many African leaders visited Israel. Such visits were considered successes on all sides and expressions of satisfaction were echoed by African leaders as stated, for example, by President Modibo Keita of the Republic of Mali:
“Israel is becoming an object of pilgrimage for African peoples who seek inspiration on how to build their own countries. Israel has become (suggested) a human approach to building a new society of 20 million Africans.”2
Indeed, Keita’s fascination with Israel’s experience of constructing a nation and a territory highlights the main theme to be discussed in this article, namely Israel’s involvement (1956–1973) in architecture and planning in Africa. This discussion is based on my professional research3 and on the ISPADA (Israeli Planning, Architecture and Development in Africa) digital archive.
Subsequently, and highly relevant to the present subject, those elements that were perceived as constituting a successful development project—aesthetically, socially and in terms of territorialization—were reproduced as an ingredient of Israel’s foreign policy. Meir Vardy, an Israeli diplomat who wrote of the important role played by cultural exchange in Israel’s foreign policy, emphasized the the planning and architectural projects of Israeli architects in Africa.4
The Israeli government saw the decolonization of Africa as an opportunity and wished “to expand its geographical and demographic size by having international recognition,” and “to revive the notion that ‘out of Zion shall go forth the law.’”5 In 1958, Foreign Minister Golda Meir visited Ghana, where she participated in a special session at the convention of the first All-African Peoples’ conference, receiving a warm welcome from the leaders of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia and Senegal.6 Meir was one of the key politicians to encourage Israel’s involvement in Africa, aiming to construct the common fate of both Jews and Africans as de-colonized nations:
“(T)o the black states-in-the-making there was a great deal that Israel could and wanted to give. Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land… Independence had come to us, as it was coming to Africa, not served up on a silver platter but after years of struggle… We couldn’t offer Africa money or arms, but on the other hand we were free of the taint of the colonial exploiters because all that we wanted from Africa was friendship.”7
This statement did not occur in a vacuum; Israel had constructed its own national identity as one among the recently de-colonized nations which had struggled against colonialism in order to achieve independence;8 a discourse that was also prominent in speeches by African leaders.9
Creating New Identities: Israel’s Development Programs in Africa
African leaders of the time were fascinated by Israel’s development. As noted by the President of the Central African Community David Dacko: “… the development of Israel was rapid, towns were built in three years only … thanks to the known Master Plan … adapted to the historical and political conditions of this country.”10 Dacko’s reference to the “known Master Plan” was, in fact, an allusion to the founding national plan developed by architect Arieh Sharon, head of the Planning Division of the Prime Minister’s department. It reflected the centralized statehood that characterized the Israeli regime of the 1950s. Although deeply involved in the design of hundreds of public buildings, including housing projects, hospitals and university buildings,11 Sharon was best known for his role in shaping the Israeli territory and “planning a new land.”12
Arieh Sharon’s Kibbutz+Bauhaus book cover.
Sharon immigrated to Palestine in 1920, and began his professional career as a European architect before the Second World War. A modernist architect by education—graduating from the Bauhaus in 1929—for a time he worked for his teacher Hannes Meyer, who succeeded Gropius as the head of the Bauhaus, even accompanying Meyer to work in the Soviet Union, where, he would say later, Le Corbusier’s ideas about planning received a more welcoming reception. Sharon's plan was thus heavily influenced by European ideas13 defining the three principles of development—land, people and time14—which facilitated the formation of the colonial geography of Israel. The plan included the construction of 30 new towns and about 400 new agrarian settlements, designed to replace a similar number of Palestinian villages and towns that were either destructed or “emptied” from their inhabitants that were expelled and became refugees. The plan aspired to provide housing for a Jewish population which had doubled during the first decade of the state. It enabled the construction of a new place and a new identity in a land that was being intentionally constructed as a “decolonized territory” in order to justify Zionist project, with the mission of transforming émigrés into “Israelis” through a process of modernization and Israelization.15 Sharon's professional experience, alongside his close relationship with David Ben Gurion and the other Israeli leaders advocating for a close relationship between Israel and the new African states, paved the way for his involvement in developing countries. Sharon's major project in Africa was in Nigeria, especially the planning and design of Ife University in southwestern Nigeria, which he saw as “the most important challenge” he faced.16 According to Sharon, Nigerian leaders were impressed by the Israeli university campuses he had previously designed, and found their scale more appropriate than European or American models. They invited Sharon, in partnership with his son Eldar Sharon and in collaboration with Harold Rubin, to take on this large-scale project. Designed and constructed between1960 to 1978, work on the university began with a regional survey where 16 towns were studied in order to determine the most suitable location for the future university.
The Ife campus.
What in Sharon's attitude toward architecture most attracted African leaders? Let me suggest that his methodology, rooted in modernist planning on the one hand and a regionalist vision on the other, was crucial to the successful “exporting” of his design experience to Africa. The regional survey found what “seemed to be the most appropriate site (for the university), considering the basic development factors and the existing services of water supply, electricity and tele-communication.” As part of his visit and in attempt to adapt his architecture within the given context, Sharon also documented the everyday life of the area’s local population.
The survey posed an initial dilemma to the Ife University Master Plan in that a question immediately arose regarding whether the campus should be centralized or dispersed. The final decision, similar to his approach in Israel, was that “the campus proper should be as compact as the climatic conditions allowed, while the residential quarters could be situated at some distance from the campus, [with] the students’ quarters within bicycle distance, and the staff quarters in motoring distance."17
Zalman Enav with his Ethiopian partner Mikael Tedros on the cover of The national Geographic special issue “Ethiopian Adventure”. April 1965. OR Zalman Enav and the Ethiopian Cesar Haile Selassie in front of a model of the Foreign Ministry Building, Zalman Enav archive.
Sharon’s preparation for the design of the Ife Campus also included visiting some buildings recently designed by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Josep Lluís Sert for Harvard and the MIT complex. And indeed, the influence of these Modernist architects is evident in the Ife project, such as the Faculty of Humanities (1962), the Halls of Residence (1964), the Library (1966), the Institute of Education (1970) and the Assembly Hall (1970). The rationale behind Sharon’s modernist mission in Africa is clearly expressed in a conference paper he gave in New York, where he explained:
“The urgent need for systematic and planned development in these (developing) countries is obvious. The greatest difficulty is to evolve a systematic approach and sound solution, which will bridge the deep chasm between the immense needs on the one hand and the insufficient means of financial support, manpower and human understanding, on the other.”18
This view, however, must be contextualized by referring to Sharon’s role in “planning a new land”—a project providing a lucid example of the colonial agenda that architecture and planning can serve. This includes not just a technical understanding of planning but also its moral meaning. As I have shown, Sharon's modernist roots combined with a desire for localism as a tool to construct a unified national identity also formulated the relevant principles he applied to the African context.
Tropical Architecture: From Israel to Africa
Zalman Enav’s involvement in Ethiopia illustrates a different direction through which architectural knowledge is transferred, reproduced and implemented, as he indicated in an interview with the author from 2009:
“In 1956 I graduated from the Technion and I left for the U.K. There I discovered the post-graduate programme at the AA (the Architects Association school of Architecture) in Tropical Architecture… It was a special programme with architects from the Third World, which at that time were called underdeveloped countries. … I specialized in architecture for humid climates and worked in an architects’ studio where I designed a school in Lagos.”19
In this case the flow of knowledge began in Israel and then moved to Britain, where the study of “Tropical Architecture” was established in the metropolitan circles of the 1950s. This was achieved through the dissemination of the term in books and journals, a conference and a course of professional specialization (the Architectural Association School of Architecture’s Department of Tropical Architecture)—an acknowledgment of the opinion voiced by foreign students that absences existed within the period’s architectural pedagogy.20 It is important to contextualize tropical architecture within a broader set of practices and forms of knowledge production, including medicine and hygiene, areas which constructed “the Tropics” in the eyes of the Europeans.21
Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Addis Ababa, Zvi Efrat Archive.
Thus equipped with new ideas about architecture, in 1959 Enav embarked for Ethiopia, where his two brothers had started a factory in partnership with the authorities. According to Enav, his first design in Ethiopia was a housing project; a commission which formed the basis for his decision to open an architecture firm in partnership with Mikael Tedros, an Ethiopian architect. As detailed in a special issue of the National Geographic Journal, the partnership was fruitful. Enav and his partner worked on many projects, including the H.S.I. University Classroom Building, the Mapping and Geography Institute, and the apartment building for Her Imperial Majesty and a hospital extension, also in Addis Ababa.
Though the firm’s “close relations” with Emperor Haile Selassie were key to securing these commissions, Enav was also involved in designing speculative rental housing, as well as low-cost housing projects and schools for rural areas. For the latter he developed a planning manual he still regards as a reflection of his social responsibility as an architect.
In the spirit of the AA’s Department of Tropical Architecture, Enav's fascination with the aesthetic of labor-intensive architecture was expressed in three large-scale public buildings. The first is the university building in Addis Ababa, whose façade was covered by locally produced red granolith cladding. Another impressive project, notable for its scale and technological innovation, is the Filwoha Hotel and Baths complex (“that was the largest one in the world at that time”), built using pre-fabricated concrete units. The third building is the headquarters for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Addis Abba:
“The prime minister asked me to design a building similar to the UN building in New York … I told him that it was out of the question, since I wanted to design an ‘Ethiopian’ building. But he insisted, telling me, ‘we want to be Modern’ … I finally designed a large model and I took it to the Cesar who asked me: ‘Why it is not built with glass?’ I answered him: ‘Don't you see? The façade is made of units that resemble the star of Solomon, the Ethiopian symbol…’ Only then was he convinced by my idea.”22
Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan, Zvi Efrat Archive.
By the end of the 1960s, Israel’s involvement with Africa was in crisis. Though a detailed discussion of the reasons for this difficulty is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that wider geopolitical developments played a crucial role in Israeli-African dynamics. Although Israel’s involvement with African states continued after the Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its presence in the region nevertheless encountered serious political difficulties.23 The outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War forced many African leaders to choose between their commitment to the Arab world, on the one hand, and their political ties to Israel on the other. The outcome was that many African states chose to sever diplomatic relations with Israel: only a few African countries with well-established ties to France and the United States maintained contact with Israel, and these contacts were often informal.24
Zalman Enav returned to Israel in this period, though he continued his professional involvements in Kenya, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda. Upon his return to Israel, Enav imported his professional experience—rooted in the colonial British tradition—back to his home country. To be precise: Enav contributed his planning expertise to Israel’s colonization efforts in the Occupied Territories.
From Africa to Israel
The work of Thomas Leitersdorf, one of present-day Israel's leading planners, in the Ivory Coast clearly illustrates the significant association of private entrepreneurship to both transnational relations and the Israeli authorities. Like Enav, Leitersdorf was educated at the AA. He then went on to work with the architect Bill Perera on town-planning projects and tourist developments in the United States. Later, he became involved in planning the city of Abidjan, thanks to a family connection with the Mayer Brothers, Israeli developers who operated on an international scale.
The Mayer brother’s entrepreneurial activities in Africa began in 1959, when they became involved in constructing several dozen buildings across the continent.25 The Mayers’ investment in Africa was linked to the development of Israeli foreign policy, with the Israeli state even providing financial guarantees for the brother’s projects, including direct financing for the company. Part of the “deal” between the Israeli government and the Mayer brothers involved the export of materials as well as construction industry professionals from Israel to Africa.26 Indeed, Africa was attractive for those who managed to develop close links with African leaders:
“(Shay) Mayer, as a businessman, decided that there was a future in Africa, exactly at the time that others were afraid to go to Africa. He went there, and despite the language difficulties, a friendship developed between him and Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the President of the Ivory Coast. … The President was interested in architecture. … He had a vision and knew exactly what his new state demanded."27
Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan plans, Zvi Efrat Archive.
Houphouet-Boigny had assumed that attracting developers from abroad would help the economic progress of his country and thus gifted 1000 dunams to the Mayer’s in Cocody, at the outskirts of Abidjan. The Mayer’s started with the design and construction of Hotel Ivoire, as part of a so-called African Riviera in Abidjan.
The hotel was a grandiose project that included an ice skating rink, a casino and congress hall, while in the garden several swimming pools were designed as pavilions resembling African huts. The heavily decorated public halls were outfitted with “impressive chandeliers and an Italian plaster ceiling painted red.”28 The design of Hotel Ivoire and the tourist attractions around it were not targeted to the local population but rather towards Europeans; Mosheh Mayer envisioned the place as an attraction “like the Salzburg Festival in Austria” as well as a site for “Olympic Games” and “water games and walking beside elephants.”29 The opening event of Hotel Ivoire indicates the significance of the hotel as a symbol of cosmopolitism in the eyes of the Mayer’s:
“The celebration continued for two days, with the participation of hundreds of guests from abroad and from Abidjan. … (A)t this occasion the Mayer Brothers received from Felix Houphouet-Boigny … the honorary medal of the Grand Officier de l'Ordre National.”30
High rise building in Abidjan. Architect Lietrsdorf, in: The Israeli Architects and Engineers Journal, No. 14, 1955.
The successful construction of the hotel led the President to invite the Mayer’s to develop the entire “African Riviera.” They hired architect Bill Perera, who invited Leitersdorf to work with him on this project. The Abidjan master plan had to incorporate a new planned city serving European expatriate communities and tourists while also taking into consideration the needs of the local African villagers in the area. The project area was designated as a tourist destination and dispersal center, integrated with a garden city for 200,000 inhabitants. During his ten years working in the Ivory Coast, Leitersdorf was also involved in other tourism and housing projects under the umbrella of the Mayer’s.
For Leitersdorf, Abidjan was a laboratory for large-scale planning—undertaken within the context of an autocratic ruler, and serving the interests of Europeans—and his experience there informed his involvement in the next “planning boom” in the Isaeli occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The Abidjan “French Riviera” master plan, I would argue, served as a laboratory for this undertaking, the experimental results of which were later verified and implemented in Israel, when Leitersdorf planned settlements in the occupied territories in general, and Ma'ale Adumim, located approximately eight kilometers south of East Jerusalem, in particular. Much like the Abidjan master plan, which was supposed to accommodate the post-colonial “African village,” to some degree the “Palestinian village” became a still life in the Israeli-colonial context, a source of inspiration that—following the tropical architecture program, though in a different geographical context and subordinated to Israel’s regionalist and nationalistic discourse—became an object of Orientalist desire:
"The beauty of an Arab village is due to the duration of construction. You see generations of construction that slowly developed, and the development was not always rational … It started with a donkey trail. Someone built a house, and then he had a son. The son grew up and got married, so they had to add some space for him, which was constructed at the expense of the street, since the donkey still had enough room to pass. Then came the cars, but there was no room at all for them, and so it evolved … In actuality, what is an Arab village? They have no D9 or D10 (bulldozers). They build on the hill the way ants do …"31
In conclusion, throughout this article I have presented a wide range of architectural development projects, revealing the affinity that existed between Africa and Israel and Israel and Africa up to the late 1960s. First there was the work of Arieh Sharon, which was foundational to the architectural vision and planning institutions that formed the territorial thesis of the new nation-state, facilitating the geographical “whitening” of Israel through modernization and Judaization. Sharon's involvement in Africa re-confirmed this comprehensive, rational planning methodology. It pretended to be neutral and reliant on climatic observations and regional surveys while at the same time serving as a modernist planning/architecture manifesto, wherein planning and development was viewed as the key to modernization. Zalman Enav's prolific work, founded upon precepts learned at the AA’s Department of Tropical Architecture—itself a product of colonial history—indicates another migration route of architectural knowledge which traveled from the core of London to Ethiopia, and from there to 1970s Israel, where colonial development projects initiated in the West Bank provided yet another opportunity to define the link between architecture and “locality.” Thomas Leitersdorf's work also reinforces this association. His search for “locality” in the Occupied Territories, an attempt to prove a native connection to place, was based on his experiments in the African laboratory, in which the native’s affiliation to territory was deemed unquestionable.
- 1 David Ben-Gurion: “Statement to the Knesset by Prime Minister.” (6 May 1963): Vol. 1–2: 1947–1974 available at: http://www.mfa.gov.il (Hebrew). (Accessed in 2012)
- 2 Modibo Keita (president of the Republic of Mali): Israel-Africa: A story of Cooperation. Page number not indicated.
- 3 Haim Yacobi: Israel and Africa: A genealogy of moral geography. Routledge, London 2015.
- 4 Ariel: A Review of the Arts and Sciences in Israel (5), Spring 1963. Jerusalem: Cultural Relations Department, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- 5 ISA: HZ\945\2: “Israel-Africa memorandum” (Dec. 1960). Israel Defense Force Archive (hereafter IDFA) IDFA 1671\92\22, ’Acts of aid of the IDF and the Ministry of Defense to foreign countries’ (27 October 1964).
- 6 IDFA (Israeli Defense Force Archive): 176\92\110, “Collection of Newspapers Reports.”
- 7 Golda Meir: My Life. Futura Publications, London 1976, p. 264. (emphasis added)
- 8 Reuven Bareket: “Opening Lecture of Cooperation.” In: Hanan S. Aynor und No’am Kaminer (eds.): The Role of the Israel Labour Movement in Establishing Relations with States in Africa and Asia – Documents. The Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1989 (1958), pp. 2–3 (Hebrew).
- 9 “Press Conference of the President of the Central African Community, Mr. David Dacko”: IDFA 1508\93\291 (June 1962).
- 10 “Press conference of the President of the Central African Community, Mr. David Dacko.” IDFA 1508\93\291, (June 1962). See also: “Mission d’experts Israeliens a Brazaville.” Afrique Nouvelle, 18 January 1961 (note 35).
- 11 “These projects were done in partnership with architect B. Idelson. For further details see: Arieh Sharon: Kibbutz + Bauhaus: an architect’s way in a new land (Chapter 6), Karl Krämer Verlag, Stuttgart and Massada 1976; and Reuven Bareket: “Opening Lecture of the International Cooperation Conference,” pp. 2–3. In: The Role of the Israel Labour Movement in Establishing Relations with States in Africa and Asia – Document, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1958 (reprinted 1989).
- 12 “Arieh Sharon: Physical Planning in Israel. Government Printing Office, Tel-Aviv 1951 (Hebrew).
- 13 S. Ilan Troen: Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs, and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement. Yale University Press, New Haven 2003; Zvi Efrat: The Israeli Project: Building and Architecture 1948-1973. Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv 2004. (Hebrew).
- 14 Arieh Sharon: Kibbutz + Bauhaus 1976: chapter 5.
- 15 Haim Yacobi, ‘Architecture, Orientalism and Identity: a Critical Analysis of the Israeli Built Environment’, Israel Studies 13/1 (2008), pp. 94–118.
- 16 Sharon: Kibbutz + Bauhaus. p. 126.
- 17 Sharon: Kibbutz + Bauhaus. p. 140.
- 18 Archive of Smadar Sharon: “Planning and Building of System Hospitals in View of Building Techniques and Climatic Factors.” Presentation by Arieh Sharon, Nairobi 1971. No page indicated.
- 19 All citations from Zalman Enav in this section are taken from an interview with the author, 10 February 2009.
- 20 Hannah Le Roux: “The networks of tropical architecture.” In: The Journal of Architecture, 8:3 (2003), pp. 337–354.
- 21 Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile & Nigel Thrift: Handbook of Cultural Geography. Sage Publications Ltd., London 2003.
- 22 An interview with Zalman Enav, 10 Feb. 2009.
- 23 Susan Aurelia Gitelson: Israel's African Setback in Perspective. The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1974, p. 9.
- 24 For a detailed analysis of the relations between Israel and Africa after 1973 see: Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, 1988. The Israeli Connection. London: I.B. Tauris and Co., pp. 72–75.
- 25 Shay Mayer: The Story of the Mayer Brothers. Kavim, Tel Aviv 2009, p. 98.
- 26 Ibid, p. 144.
- 27 Quotations of Architect Thomas Leitersdorf in this section are taken from an interview conducted on 4 March 2009.
- 28 Mayer: The Story of the Mayer Brothers, p. 143.
- 29 quoted in Mayer: The Story of the Mayer Brothers, p. 127.
- 30 Mayer: The Story of the Mayer Brothers, p. 137.
- 31 Eran Tamir-Tawil: “To Start a City from Scratch,” pp. 151–161. In: Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman (eds.): A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture. Verso, New York 2003.