Ada Karmi-Melamede has an interesting connection to Manhattan Modernism. I first interviewed her 25 years ago, upon the completion of her Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem. At that time she was keen to discuss her strong architectural heritage, namely her father’s Bauhaus style, originating from his education in Ghent, Holland, and her brother’s more rebellious vocabulary, directly influenced by the New Brutalism of England. Whilst her education had taken place in the radical Architectural Association, London, she was less influenced by her familial giants in Israeli architecture and more directly affected by her subsequent time in New York.
“I was living in the Sates for a period of about fifteen years and during that time I worked with Aldo Romaldo Giurgola who built the Parliament in Australia.” Interestingly there are many strong similarities between Giugola’s Parliament and Karmi-Melamede’s Supreme Court Building, with pyramids emerging from the roofscapes and the structures sited within the landscape rather than imposing upon it. “I worked with Giurgola for two years and then we taught for thirteen years in the same class at Columbia. I also had an office in New York and did a lot of work for City Planning Commission. I did a lot of work on an urban scale at that time.”
Although her brother had been “terribly rebellious against the Modern Movement” by the time Karmi-Melamede had started her education, the parameters had changed. “It was only a difference of six years, but there were no sacred cows anymore. Corbu (Le Corbusier) was gone, Frank Lloyd Wright was not there, Aalto was not around, so there was nobody other then Louis Kahn. Louis Kahn came with another kind of logic.”
Kahn’s influence in Karmi-Melamede’s work is undisputed. “Louis Kahn was a very close friend of my father” . She explained that he would have been her teacher in Philadephia, had she not had to return to Israel due to the death of her father. Kahn’s obsession with axis and geometry, memory, light and structure are all major themes which Karmi-Melamede continues and reinvents, presenting her own Modernist language. Similarities can be noted between her contextual northwest approach, with its terraced gardens hugging the hill, to Kahn’s recent posthumous dedication to Franklin D Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal, for which Kahn was eternally grateful. Four Freedom’s Park memorial on Roosevelt Island was recently completed (below) according to his 1970s design, though he did not live to see constructed.
Yet Karmi- Melamede’s project is at least, if not more, historically loaded, and dealing with the context of Jerusalem in her Supreme Court project (below),
she strove for similar qualities that Kahn had successfully conveyed in his projects. Aiming for “the softness of light” as it filtered through Absalom’s tomb, seeking shade from Jerusalem’s “glare that is impossible to ignore” she plastered the wall of the internal arcade.
Twenty five years later, her architectural connection with Jerusalem continues, as she designs a politically charged Visitors’ Centre for the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
With other projects outside of Jerusalem, it is clear that light and shade remain of the upmost importance to Karmi and she particularly values the conditions in Southern Israel, in the Negev desert, where the rawness of the light and the sanctuary of shade dictate the lines. She describes her current projects for Alei Negev Children’s Hospital, for Ben Gurion University and for the relocated Sodastream, as “buildings looking for roots”.
It is important that Karmi’s architecture “speaks in more than one voice”. In her own words, she “aims for the poetic” and in that she succeeds. She laments the loss of craft “dying and declining”, respects preservation, but insists that it has to be done respectfully. Critiquing the blind preservation and commercialization of entire neighborhoods, such as Sorona, with its lack of significant architectural relevance, she also laments the lack of sensitivity along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, where modern towers emerge from neglected Bauhaus buildings. Her frustration is evident as she explains that the New York adopted concept of “transfer of air-rights” has been adopted too late in Tel Aviv, with historically low-rise Bauhaus neighborhoods already compromised.
When discussing architectural legacy, Karmi-Melamede states
“Don’t start from zero. Better buildings have some kind of echo“.
It is that echo that one hopes will reverberate across her current projects and remain at the heart of modern Israeli architecture, nudging it into a more responsible, respectful direction. And if that is not enough, her book “Architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate: 1917 – 1948 ” (published in 2014 by The Israel Museum) should do the trick.
A phenomenal accomplishment this is an academic masterpiece, twenty five years in the making and described by Karmi-Melamede as “an obsession”. Meticulous axonometric line drawings notate her thorough three-part thesis, commencing with architectural precedents, leading to the emergence of a modernist language and concluding with the representation of “the hybrid, that search for something else.”
Only by understanding the history of modern architecture in Israel can one hope to possibly understand the intellectual striving of Ada Karmi- Melamede and her elevation of the architectural discourse. That she succeeds in raising the architectural standards, encouraging debate, and challenging the ferocity of the commercial developers is reason in itself to buy the book. And if you can get to the Kahn designed Yale School of Architecture this week on Sept 14th, you might just get the chance to meet her in person and to congratulate her.