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edition 1 (165)
January 2012

Forgiving architecture

Zvi Hecker's continuing search for architecture that matters

Mladen Petrov

He started drawing at the age of six. A few years later, Polish-born Zvi Hecker became an architect without realising it. Today, at the age of 80, Israel's most eminent architect, now based in Germany, is still doing what he loves most

Mladen Petrov, 'Eurobuild CEE': What's your first memory of thinking about buildings?
Zvi Hecker, architect: It's very simple. Between the ages of 11 and 14, during the Second World War, I was in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and the art teacher was an architecture student who couldn't finish his studies due to the war. He was very skilled at drawing. In the afternoons he would take me to draw the ruins of the incredible Islamic architecture in Samarkand. After a couple of years, by the age of 14, I could say that I was already an architect - even though I didn't know it yet.

What were your parents like? Did they also have a thing for art, an eye for beauty?
I don't come from a strictly artistic family. My father was a lawyer, but it was my mother who was the one with the artistic touch. My family owned a bakery, actually the biggest one in Kraków. So we made bread for a living and for me bread represents the best of innovation. I am fascinated with bread - how flour, which we cannot eat, is transformed into delicious bread. It is the same with glass: at the beginning it is only sand; its beautiful transperancy is made of opaque sand, another miracle of transformation.

You mentioned during one class that the architect is an artist. This sounds exactly like how you were characterising bakers...
Architecture, like many other professions - medicine for example - has many specialisations. I came to the conclusion that actually, no matter what the profession, you can always be an artist at what you do. So that's why I consider myself an artist whose profession is architecture. There are cook artists and politician artists. In every profession there are many opportunities to be artistic, even when you expect it the least.
There is so much ugly architecture around. I think we need more artists. Who is to blame for the ugliness that surrounds us? If we take the 19th century, for example, it's hard to understand how in this period architects were not that well-known and yet they left behind fantastic houses, beautiful tree-lined streets, pavements and friendly spaces for everyone. How could this have been possible, we ask ourselves, since these days a genius seems to be needed just to make a decent house? One possible explanation is that the value of land has become disproportionally high compared to what it was in the 19th century. Therefore it is not surprising that profit and how we choose land have become such major issues for the investor. Today I have the impression that whatever is being done is not so much for the public good, but for the good of the investor. This wasn't an issue in the 19th century, when land was much less expensive. Nowadays we have individual projects. We can build very high, due to the technology we have, but projects don't communicate with each other anymore because they belong to different investors. And we eventually became fixated with exploiting the maximum from the land, which comes at a certain price, naturally.

Interesting. Expensive land is also often given as one of the main reasons for the popularity of skyscrapers. Tel Aviv, a city you've spent most of your life in, is increasingly becoming a city of skyscrapers. How do you feel about this?
From the 50s onwards, Tel Aviv has always been in the hands of the so-called ?kablanim'. In Hebrew this word means both investor and builder. The city was basically built by them. They would hire an architect to do something, but they were the ones that decided what to do. The more money you have, the higher the building. It's as simple as that.

I sense you are not a big skyscraper fan...
I don't like high towers in low neighborhoods, because they disrespect the people who live around them. They overshadow everything else, they dramatically change the area, and those who live nearby don't have the same quality of life. Skyscrapers exploit the land to the max with their multi-storey underground car parks. Those who happen to live in such buildings enjoy a good living standard, but in the city we also have to think about those who don't own an apartment in a skyscraper.

How old were you when you arrived in Israel?
I was 18 years old. I started my studies in Kraków, but after the first semester I moved to Israel and started my studies over in Technion in Haifa.

...eventually becoming one of Israel's most recognised architects. How would you describe contemporary Israeli architecture?
Contemporary Israeli building activity has very little to do with what one can call architecture. Banality is preferred by the political system, which happens to be the largest investor. Personally I find it very depressing, nothing I would associate with the art of architecture. Early buildings in Israel were a different matter. We didn't import architecture, but we tried to export it. It was fresh, totally independent. Don't get me wrong - there have always been investors with their own agenda and there has always been political pressure, but architects have become tired. In the past they would build less, but their output would still be significant, whereas now it seems to be the other way around.

Is this why you eventually moved to work in Germany?
Many things in life can't be planned. I never planned to work in Germany. I won a competition and then I won two more contests. At some point I understood that I was not there simply because I had won a competition. Also, it was interesting to build in Europe after having been active for many years in Israel.

Winning the competition for the first Jewish school in Berlin after the war, did you go through a personal struggle as a Jew working in Germany?
I was with my family away from the horror of the Holocaust in Uzbekistan. First Stalin sent us to Siberia, and though it wasn't his intention, he saved us from the Nazis. I, like everyone else, lost relatives in the Holocaust. In my opinion it is wrong to punish generations that are remote from what happened. Forgiveness is also a kind of punishment. My project for the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is for an open square, where people can sit down and enjoy themselves. I would call the place the Jewish Square, so people would know what the meaning of this place is. I would never turn a beautiful place into a cemetery.

Some of your projects are also synagogues. Does an architect need to be religious in order to design such buildings?
Listening to your question I recall my work on the Palmach Museum of History in Tel Aviv. Palmach was the underground Jewish military organisation that fought for the independence of Israel. At the opening of the museum I heard old Palmach members saying that it resonates perfectly with their ideals. I have never been a member of the Palmach nor do I have any precise knowledge of their activities. One probably doesn't have to be Christian to build a church, or Jewish to build a synagogue.

You are also a painter. What should a good architect do or read in order to expand his or her horizons - you know, something different from the professional literature...
He should always follow three important rules for making great architecture.

What are they?
That's the thing! No one knows.

Zvi Hecker: the journey
Zvi Hecker's architecture is where geometry, modularity and asymmetry come together. A couple of well-known examples of Hecker's geometrical approach are the Spiral Apartment House (1981-1989) in Ramat Gan, Israel and the Heinz-Galinski-Schule (1992-1995) in Berlin, which are both noted for their high degree of complexity. Due to its expressiveness, the work of Zvi Hecker has been compared to that of Antonio Gaudi. Since starting his own practice at the end of the 50s, Zvi Hecker has completed many projects, including museums, educational and religious projects, memorials, public buildings and housing - both in Israel and abroad. He has also lectured in Canada, the US, Israel and Austria. His projects include the Jewish School in Berlin, the Palmach Museum of History in Tel-Aviv, the Berlin Mountains, the Army Museum in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Jewish Cultural Center in Duisburg. In Poland, he created the concept for the Amber Baltic Apartments residential project in Międzyzdroje and took part in the competition for the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews as well as the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Art Museum in Kraków and the European Centre of Solidarity in Gdańsk.

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