Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Farrar, Straus and Giroux   2016


In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, American-born author Adina Hoffman creates a new genre: a mashup of cultural and political history and intriguing whodunit.

Hoffman focuses on three architects who worked in early 20th century Jerusalem: world-renown displaced German Jewish modernist Eric Mendelsohn; little-remembered Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the Chief British government architect in Mandate Palestine; and the tantalizingly obscure (verging on forgotten) local builder/architect Spyro Houris.

Not much connects these men beyond their profession, their working years (roughly 1920 – 1937), and the smallish number of Jerusalem buildings they designed. Hoffman, however, sees them as providing overlapping lenses on the holy city: “This book is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”

The chapter on Mendelsohn presents a chilly perfectionist fleeing the Nazis, unmoored from his rightful place as a leading light of international architecture. Much of Mendelsohn’s Jerusalem work was never realized, but he did build a modernist mansion for publisher Salman Schocken and part of a campus for Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The Mendelsohn chapter explores Jewish Jerusalem of the 1930s, filled with the politics of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) and rocked by Arab-Jewish unrest.

Austen Harrison’s section touches on Mandate Palestine from the British point of view. A modest, artistic, nominally Christian Englishman, Harrison was fascinated with Middle Eastern architecture and expressed it in landmarks that endure to this day—most notably the Rockefeller Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities and the Central Post Office Building in Jerusalem.

Hoffman’s third profile is filled with questions about someone with virtually no paper trail—just a few handsome Jerusalem homes and a set of commercial buildings with stones inscribed Spyro Houris, Architecte. Who was this man with the Greek first name and Arab surname? Why is there so little evidence of his once-flourishing practice? In an informal yet evocative chapter focused mainly on Hoffman’s posthumous manhunt for Houris, we glimpse another Jerusalem—the eclectic, multicultural city of Greek Orthodox monks and Armenian potters, Crusaders and Ottomans, Jewish archivists and Arab poets.

The book reveals much about Jerusalem’s roots. For example, until 1867 the city “had been …little more than a hilltop village contained by a wall…a cramped, dark, diseased, and by most accounts foul-smelling place whose gates were locked at night.” Hoffman also provides unsettling echoes of today, such as the 1921 rumors that Jewish inhabitants planned to tear down the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque and build a new Temple on the site.

The author, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Connecticut, has written other books on the Middle East, including Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. She clearly knows and loves this complex, confounding city. Hoffman also crafts witty sentences, calling one British high commissioner ‘the much decorated and extremely mustachioed Field Marshall,” and describing another as “a proud connoisseur of his own connoisseurship.” She offers biting assessments of noted contemporary architects Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie.

Ironically for a publication highlighting architecture, however, little attention is paid to visuals. Pages are dotted with interesting photographs, but many are too small. The photo captions are in the back of the book, which forces readers to flip back and forth. And it is most unfortunate that no map is included, as it would have clarified the relationship of buildings and neighborhoods being discussed.

But Till We Have Built Jerusalem delivers a rich portrait of the twentieth-century evolution of the city, its history and architecture. Readers interested in those topics will find much of value in this deeply researched, thoughtful book.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

  1. Till We Have Built Jerusalem is a portrait of three very different architects who helped to build the modern city of Jerusalem. Each of them came from somewhere else and brought with them certain ideas about building and life, even as they learned important things from the city itself. How would you describe what drew each architect to come and work in this context? What were they looking for, and how did they learn from what they found there?

  2. In the opening section, “Beyond Jaffa Gate,” Adina Hoffman writes of two different dimensions to her experience of walking around modern Jerusalem. She describes “what I see” and “what I don’t see.” What does she mean by these terms in relation to each other and the city? What doesn’t she see, and why doesn’t she see it? What does she see? How is this similar or different from your own experience of walking around and observing the place where you live? Is Jerusalem unique in terms of what is visible and invisible, or is what she’s describing true of every city?

  3. Why does Hoffman characterize the book as “an excavation” at the end of this opening section? Where and how does this notion return throughout the book, and what is the effect of this image?

  4. How would you characterize Erich Mendelsohn? What is his relationship to building in general, and to building in Palestine in particular? How do the comments made by his wife, Luise, color your view of his character? How does the commentary from other people affect your sense of his personality and his approach to his work and to other people?

  5. This is a book about building in a literal sense—about construction in stone and mortar—but it’s a book about building in other ways as well. What other sorts of building are taking place in the “Jerusalemstrasse” section? Who are some of the other builders at work here, and what is it that they hope to construct? How are their visions of what they’d like to build similar to, or different from, plans like Mendelsohn’s? Are these “builders” able to construct what they’d envisioned? Was Mendelsohn? Why or why not?

  6. What is the basis of Mendelsohn’s critique of many of the other European-born Jewish architects working in Palestine during his time there? How does he characterize his visions for the architectural future of the country in contrast to theirs? What would he like them to understand about the country and the landscape that he feels they don’t? How do his ideas about architecture in this context relate to his political ideas about the future of the country?

  7. How does politics affect the process of building throughout the book? What are the effects of “current events” on the ability of the three architects to see their building plans through? How does each of the architects respond to these challenges?

  8. Austen St. Barbe Harrison is a very different sort of character from Erich Mendelsohn. How would you characterize him in relation to Mendelsohn? How are the quotations from his own letters tonally distinct from those Mendelsohn wrote and which are quoted in the book? What does this tell you about him?

  9. Consider the quote from the William Blake poem that appears on page 139. How does this relate to the section of the book about Harrison, (“Beautiful Things Are Difficult”), and how does it relate to the book as a whole? Why do you think the book has the title it does?

  10. Both Mendelsohn and Harrison left Jerusalem. Why? Why do you think Harrison uses the term “escape” to describe his leaving? What made things so difficult for him there?

  11. In the course of the book, we meet various supporting players who have an important role to play. These include Salman Schocken, Else Lasker-Schüler, Chaim Yassky, David Bomberg, Eric Gill, Heleni Efklides, Khalil Sakakini, Yom-Tov Hamon, E. T. Richmond, David Ohannessian, and C. R. Ashbee. What role do these different figures play in the story? How does this range of people from various backgrounds affect your sense of Jerusalem’s history and culture?

  12. Why do you think Hoffman’s quest for the traces of Spyro Houris was so difficult? What were the specific challenges she faced in trying to unearth his history that she did not face when writing about Mendelsohn and Harrison? Are there cultural, political, or personal reasons that his footsteps were so hard to follow?

  13. Hoffman sets out looking for Houris in the middle of the Gaza War in the summer of 2014. Why does the timing of her search matter? How does the presence of the war in the background affect her search for this forgotten figure? Why do you think the last section, “Where the Great City Stands,” lists two dates for its starting point: 1914 and 2014? What is important about 1914, and how does that relate to 2014?

  14. If you were looking for someone in your town or city who you knew had once been important but who had been almost entirely forgotten, where and how would you look? What kinds of records would you turn to? Who would you talk to? What other methods could you use to find her or him? How is a quest for someone like Spyro Houris, in a city like Jerusalem, similar or different? Are there particular challenges to such a search in the context of the Middle East?

  15. How would you compare the kinds of papers left behind by figures like Luise and Erich Mendelsohn, Austen Harrison, Ronald Storrs, Yom-Tov Hamon, and C. R. Ashbee and those left by Spyro Houris? How have these papers been preserved and why? How does the “Rock Paper Scissors” epilogue relate to this question?

  16. How does Hoffman’s description of Alexandria at the end of the book relate to Jerusalem? What is the connection she is drawing between these two cities? What are the dangers she is warning of?

  17. How does the portrait of the city in the book differ from or relate to the ideas of Jerusalem that you had before reading the book? How does it relate to the image of the city that one finds in newspapers? Were there things about Hoffman’s characterization of the city that surprised you?

  18. The book focuses on three architects, not one or two. Why do you think this number is important in relation to Jerusalem? Would the book have had a different effect if just two architects were featured? How would this alter the vision of the city that emerges from the book?

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