Commentary Magazine

Jews in Modern Architecture
After a Late Start

If we were to look for a “Jewish architecture” as we might look for a “Jewish literature,” with a characteristic style, technique, spirit, and social function, we should not find it; it is not there to be found. Perhaps only in the most recent decades, with social planning in Israel, and the building of new synagogues and community centers in America, has the question of what could be specifically Jewish in architecture begun to be even seriously considered. But if we are just looking for Jews practicing architecture in general, then it is obvious that, after a tardy beginning in the 19th century, there is now, suddenly, a bewilderingly large number of Jews active in every form and function of building.

In New York, more than a quarter of those listed in the telephone company’s Red Book as “architects” are probably Jews. Most of these, of course, are engaged in small commercial practice, the alteration of stores and flats, etc., etc. But leaf through the encyclopedic four-volume work Forms and Functions of 20th Century Architecture, which is put out by Columbia University under the editorship of Talbot Hamlin, and you will catch a glimpse of the dimensions of the Jewish contribution to architecture in this century. Forms and Functions aims at covering the entire range of modern building throughout the world, and gives examples of excellence chosen by the authorities responsible for the different chapters. Volume III, for instance, contains chapters on the Individual House, the Apartment House, Hotels, Camps and Dormitories, Mass Shelter, Residential Communities, Acoustics, Churches and Synagogues, Theaters, Day Schools, Boarding Schools, Colleges, Libraries, Museums, Capitols, and Courthouses; and every chapter contains illustrations of about a dozen examples of each kind of edifice or construction.

In almost every one of these genres at least one example, and often more, is by a Jewish architect. (The Jewish representation is lowest in pure engineering, like bridges and railroads, but even here there is by no means a dearth of Jews.) To be sure, Forms and Functions was compiled on the basis of certain presuppositions about architectural excellence, and its bias is, we think, strongly American; nevertheless the evidence is clear that Jews are represented on a great scale in modern architecture. How has this come about?



A well-known observation of Veblen’s would seem to apply with peculiar appropriateness here. In his essay “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” Veblen remarks that “It appears to be only when the gifted Jew escapes from the cultural environment created and fed by the particular genius of his own people, only when he falls into the alien lines of Gentile inquiry and becomes a naturalized, though hyphenate, citizen in the Gentile republic of learning, that he comes into his own as a creative leader in the world’s intellectual enterprise.” This remark seems peculiarly appropriate, we say, because it touches on both the lack of any specifically Jewish architecture, and on the great number of Jews practicing architecture in general.

But what is “architecture in general”? Of all activities commonly regarded as “cultural,” architecture is the most rooted in the community, the most imbued with convention, tradition, and local and national spirit. Consider Veblen’s formulation as applied, say, to the physical sciences: since there is neither a Jewish nor an “alien Gentile” physics or chemistry, it is not surprising that, once emancipated from his own parochial prejudices and given access to universities, a Jew of genius should find his way into what is universal to all. The case is much the same with the social sciences—though there, no doubt, history has given to Jews the advantage of a certain detached standpoint of observation—and with at least some of the professions, medicine, for example. But with the arts, and perhaps even especially with architecture, it is hard to know what it means to be “naturalized,” to conform to outer standards and still to draw on an inner source of creative energy, and how to be “hyphenate” and still maintain artistic integrity. Architecture has been and continues to be peculiarly hidebound and exclusive in the tradition of its crafts and guilds, in the communal function of its chief monuments, in the historical spirit of its forms. How can one “fall into” alien lines like these in such a way as to be a “creative leader”?

We think that the solution of this paradox lies in the fact that the practice of architecture itself changed immensely throughout the 19th century, and almost completely by the 20th. Modern architecture is still rooted in the community and tied to its site, hut its crafts, conditions, functions, forms, and spirit are different from what they once were, and are such that they not only do not exclude Jews but in some respects are congenial to abilities and needs developed to a high degree in Jews by historical circumstances. We are not at this point making a value judgment on the modern condition of architecture—in our opinion some aspects of it are good and promising, others disastrous—we are insisting merely that, in order to explain the role of Jews in the architecture of the 20th century, we must speak both of Jews and of architecture.



There is a variety of motivations and avenues of interest leading to architecture. First, architecture is an art of “masons, carpenters, smiths, plumbers, and glaziers” (the list is from Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe). Throughout the Middle Ages, and indeed from antiquity, it was from these craftsmen and their techniques that both structure and decoration—that is, all of architecture except the plan—derived. It is because architecture is so deeply rooted in these conservative crafts that buildings in great periods have such unitary style; they are all of a piece and the work, as it were, of the same hands. In the high Middle Ages, for instance, when there was an international Gothic style, the guild lodges of the building craftsmen, unlike those of other craftsmen, were very mobile and shifted from place to place wherever there was work to be done. Jews were excluded, and would have to exclude themselves, from the “conviviality” and the religious and often mystical rites of these corporations. Aside from such debarring factors, much of one’s apprenticeship was served in ecclesiastical workshops.

As we come into modern times, we find that there is still no Jewish building. Even where there are well-defined Jewish communities, as in Poland, building styles (e.g. the Polish wooden synagogues) come from the culture of the surrounding majority. Likewise, there is virtually no Jewish plastic decoration. One could say of the Polish Jews that they were visually starved; views of the old ghettos show no attempt at beauty or order. This, certainly, was in part because of stringent governmental regulations and inadequate space; and also again, in religious building, because of the need for prudent concealment rather than decorative exhibition. Even with the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, Jewish architects and painters could not spring up from the crafts below, as there almost immediately sprang up Jewish scientists, men of letters, and lawyers. This is one of the main reasons why Jews made little mark in architecture in the 19th century.

But conditions in the building crafts have now changed, though contemporary structure and style are still deeply rooted in the peculiarly conservative methods and materials of the craftsmen themselves. Consider first the United States. There is a host of new crafts; the shell of the building now claims less than half of the building operation. Enormously more design is done on the drawing board and more work in the factory, and in these jobs there are many Jews and Jewish “technicians.” (Curiously, Jews are still represented poorly among masons and carpenters, but strongly among electricians, plumbers, painters, and glaziers.) The building trades are highly organized in unions, but unlike the medieval guilds, these are secular, and their important fraternal, not strictly economic, aspect is likely to be toned politically and ideologically in ways congenial to Jews. In short, conditions in the crafts are now such that a Jew of talent can learn about building from the bottom up and develop into a contractor, an engineer, a builder, or an architect.

In Germany, the story was quite different. Even before Hitler’s accession to power, as late as 1932, Jews had not yet gained entry into the building or technical crafts, where feudal conditions still obtained. “You want to go into architecture? But that is not a profession for a Jew,” was a remark made to Fritz Nathan in 1909. In the first few decades of the 20th century there were a couple of hundred Jewish architects in Germany. Through religious, family, and art connections they built synagogues, theaters, department stores, and banks, but they were deprived of the multifarious practice that belongs to and supports builders. On the other hand, in the post-1918 Austrian republic, which had emerged from a polyglot empire where the crafts were not so monolithic, there were many more Jewish architects among a much smaller population.

In Czarist Russia, we see both extremes. In the north Jews were excluded; they had no artisans to compete with the Gentile ones. But in the Ukraine and along the Black Sea, where the Gentiles were mainly peasants, Jews lived in small towns and served as artisans. “All building contractors were Jews.” It is because of the reserve of trained intelligence they offered amid a very backward population that Jews since the Revolution have occupied (not without arousing resentment) so great a place in Soviet technical and intellectual activity, and in architecture.



During the Middle Ages the artisan became the master-builder; in the Renaissance he became an artist with a special, full-blown ideology; and since the Renaissance and especially in the 19th century (less so nowadays), architecture has been a gentleman’s profession. Among the fine arts it is the most respectable, the least bohemian.

This gentlemanly status, with the schooling that it entails, made it easier for rich, well-connected Jews to enter architecture in the 19th century: for instance, the English architect Joshua George Basevi (1794-1845) was a d’Israeli, David Mocatta (1806-82) came of an English banking family, the German architect G. H. F. Hitzig (1811-1880) was a Hitzig, the German architect Alfred Messel (1853-1909) had the best connections. (Many of these Jews had converted to Christianity.) A man of talent who once gained acceptance on this gentlemanly and school-tie level tended to be fully accepted professionally too. The Jewish architects of the 19th century, far from being discriminated against, were given civic, monumental, and ecclesiastical commissions, and were granted the highest honors by their professional compeers.

Basevi built on London’s fashionable Belgrave Square, was the architect of the Conservative Club, built St. Mary’s Church in Greenwich, and was killed while inspecting repairs he was making at Ely Cathedral. Hitzig constructed the princely Palast Revotella in Trieste and the big Deutsche Reichsbank in Berlin. Messel, Geheimrat and member of the Prussian Academy of Art, built the Wertheim department store, banks, the Hessisches Landsmuseum, and the villa of Eduard Simon (the mere list brings to life a whole social milieu). Perhaps a more interesting architect was Leopold Eidlitz, who emigrated from Prague to America in 1834, and who when he died in 1908 was called by the Architectural Record “the dean of our guild.” Not only did Eidlitz build a number of churches, including one—Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis (1867)—that Charles Kingsley called “the most churchly church in America”; he was also the architect of the old Temple Emanu-El in New York (1868), which was certainly one of the most notable buildings in old New York.

In contrast to the old architecture that was rooted in the medieval crafts, this post-Renaissance and 19th-century architecture of the gentleman-artist had a somewhat superimposed style and feeling. It was as if a façade—this was the “architecture”—overlay the structure made by the builders. The “style,” an eclectic combination of older styles refined and studied as art history, replaced indigenous styles. For such an eclectic architecture, learning, travel, and good taste were most valuable, and these an architect like Basevi had as much of as did the American Stanford White. The French Jew, Emmanuel Pontremoli, who became director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, laid every stress on good taste in his teaching.

When used in connection with this kind of architecture, Veblen’s phrase about “a naturalized, though hyphenate, citizen in the Gentile republic of learning” makes good sense. Here again Eidlitz was more interesting in that, an immigrant, he never forgot his childhood home in Prague, and as he became more relaxed and sure of himself, he more and more allowed the freshness and color of the Old Country style to break through his studied eclecticism.

In general, the status of architecture as a gentleman’s profession has saved aspiring Jews of talent from the more virulent forms of anti-Semitism that might be met in engineering or some of the crafts. By and large, there has been little exclusion or quota monkeyshines in schools of architecture. In getting commissions to build, of course, friendship and family connections have always been important, but this has worked for Jews at least as much as against them. Many Jews have been in a position to be clients, perhaps less in heavy industry or agriculture, but then more in law, civic, and philanthropic enterprises, and in merchandising. The Rothschilds’ mansions in Paris were built by Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe; and (as mentioned above) the large Wertheim department store in Berlin by Alfred Messel. The mansion of a rich Jew was likely to be built by a Jew who was a gentleman. Finally, friendships between architects would often override exclusion; one is struck, in this country at least, by the number of famous Jewish-Gentile partnerships: Adler and Sullivan, Weiner and Sert, Kohn and Butler, Stonarov and Kahn, Harrison and Abramovitz, Mayer and Whittelsey, Stein and (Henry) Wright.



Architecture and the stage are the community arts par excellence. (If we consider the architectural plan as extending into and embracing the streets, the squares, the neighborhood, we may say that architecture is the over-all arrangement of all external behavior.) In medieval and Renaissance Europe, when the community was organically religious and its political structure closely cemented with indigenous family ties, architecture was closed to the outsider. Jews could hardly be expected to construct the community buildings whose use they did not or were not supposed to understand. The church was compact of arcane symbols that were not to be profaned by non-communicants. Even if they knew how, Jews could not make fortifications when they were not required or allowed to be soldiers. Nor could they lay out the squares of a city when they lived in its ghettos.

During the 19th century, the time of individual enterprise, when architectural skill came to consist largely in the application of good taste in the choice of styles, the community meaning of building lapsed; it was then not strange for anyone at all to build anything at all.

In our time, however, there has been a resurgence of the community approach to building and a correspondingly vast literature on city-planning. But the idea of the community has changed under the impact of political, economic, and technological change. In its present form, the community spirit is not only open to Jews but is even peculiarly congenial to them, envisaging as it does sociological reform, slum clearance, garden cities, clinics, settlement houses—in other words, the architecture of general welfare regarded as the responsibility of society. The Jews, whose history has made them a critical minority prone to messianism and steeped in public law, have been leaders in reform and radical politics, in trade-unionism, social work, philanthropy, public medicine, psychiatry, progressive education, and the social sciences. All these activities feed into the architecture of the modern community.

In Israel, which from its Zionist beginnings has developed in such a “sociological” atmosphere, we would expect the forms and functions of this new architecture of the general welfare to be pervasive. And when we look elsewhere at similar phenomena, it is not surprising to find that Jews are prominent. Some of the best workers’ housing was done as early as 1911 by Michel de Klerk in Amsterdam. The famous Karl Marx Hof in Vienna was designed by Josef Frank and Oscar WIach. Radburn, the pioneer garden city in America, was designed by Clarence Stein. The most earnest architect of hospitals in America is Isadore Rosenfield. The experts on American public law for reform housing are Charles Abrams (a frequent contributor to this magazine) and Nathan Strauss. Arnold Brunner pioneered in American city-planning in Baltimore, Rochester, Albany, and Denver. Sam Ratansky is the chief architect of the New York City Housing Authority, and Herman Stitchman was Director of Housing for New York State. Or consider the list of patrons “who have advanced the study of housing problems” as given in the Museum of Modern Art’s description of an international exhibition of architecture in 1932: out of fifteen, seven were Jews.

The situation in Israel is, of course, especially interesting, since, for “economic, social, and defense” purposes—the bold concept of a master plan for the country as a whole has been advanced. For patent historical reasons, practically every kind of socio-economic arrangement—from “absolute community” (as in certain kibbutzim) through cooperatives and individual enterprise to government authority—exists in Israel. And perhaps the chief problem facing the Israeli masterplanner is to get the best out of this social pluralism rather than simply to override embarrassing elements in the interests of “efficiency” or even “necessity.” The formal problem of Israeli architecture is perhaps a related one: how to integrate the wealth of incoming cultures with something peculiar to the terrain and its history.



Architecture can also be a business for private profit, an adjunct of real estate. When land was plentiful in Europe, family occupancy almost permanent, the possibilities of exchange stringently entailed, and local needs strongly differentiated, architecture meant something equally permanent, generous in its use of space, tied to family traditions, and marked by local peculiarities. Real estate was not then, except under special circumstances, a rapidly exchangeable commodity, and the exchanges, hampered by liens of all kinds, tended to be political rather than commercial.

In such a system of land tenure Jews had little part and were not its architects. It was not until late in the 18th century that entailment of landed estates began to be legally discouraged. The modern situation is very different. Land is scarce, its occupants mobile, their needs and interests similar on a national and international scale; exchanges are necessary, easy, and rapid. Real estate has now become a major field of commercial speculation, and into this field Jews have moved as equal participants. Many varieties of architecture—office buildings and “tax-payers,” apartment houses and suburban developments—and every kind of renovation depend directly in function, structure, and form on speculative commercial considerations. These varieties are the bread and butter of the vast majority of architects, especially in urban centers, and in this majority, as in the real estate business itself, Jews are strongly represented. (The situation in pre-Hitler Germany again offers a striking contrast: in the big cities Jews were great brokers of real estate but did not themselves build the buildings because they were neither artisans nor owners.) Naturally, the aesthetic value of this commercial architecture does not often rise above the limitations that current economic mores place upon it. To cite the private remark of a venerable Jewish architect who was for a time perhaps the foremost builder of office buildings and luxury apartments in New York City: “I know the building code so well that I can plan for more rentable space per floor than anybody else.”

Since commerce and community spirit combine in a curious way in the fields of entertainment and merchandising, Jews have taken these avenues into architecture in large numbers. Whether we consider theater-builders in the grand style, like Oskar Kaufmann (who built the Volksbühne and the Hebbel Theater in Berlin, the Stadttheater in Bremerhaven, and rebuilt the Kroll Opera House where Hitler’s Reichstag met), or the builders of the innumerable movie theaters everywhere in the Western world, we find a large number of Jews. Or whether we consider huge department stores or little shops, Jews have been extremely apt at creating the setting for fashionable display. (Let us mention only Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfus.) In America, public welfare housing itself becomes a form of enticing packaging, combining philanthropy and profits, so that, for example, the Levitt Brothers and William Zeckendorf have become master planners.

Like all other aspects of architecture, engineering has undergone a revolution in the past hundred years; with the coming of steel and reinforced concrete we can be said to be in a new architectural period altogether, the first such fundamental change since the flowering of Gothic in the 12th century. In engineering the case is not as with community or commercial building, or with some of the building crafts; here Jewish participation seems to be, rather, that of isolated individuals. Moreover, at least in this country, there has been persistent evidence of anti-Semitism in schools of engineering (though this is vanishing), and in employment in heavy industry, transportation, and communications.

Nonetheless there have been, again in this country, individual Jews whose contribution to engineering has been truly outstanding. Louis Sullivan’s partner and engineer was Dankmar Adler, and the firm of Adler and Sullivan is imperishably linked with the origins of the skyscraper and the modern concept of functional style. (Frank Lloyd Wright worked in that office.) Whatever Henry Ford’s estimation of the Jews may have been, his chief architect-engineer was a Jew, Albert Kahn; Kahn built River Rouge and almost, we might say, the city of Detroit. And in civil engineering there have been few administrators so famous as Robert Moses.

There seems to be no special link of Jews in the West to engineering, and there has been a certain amount of exclusion. Yet where they have been accepted they have sometimes excelled. In the Soviet Union, however, things have been different. As we have already pointed out, because of their historical background as townpeople and artisans in a peasant mass, Jews had a head start as technicians, and in some cases they have been able to maintain this lead despite Soviet anti-Semitism. Thus the Kremlin’s chief administrative engineer, Lazar Kaganovich, may be said to stand for a great number of Jewish technicians, well out of proportion to the number of Jews in the population of the USSR as a whole.



In any history of architecture, it is the monuments of distinction and extraordinary appropriateness, of grace and power, that are most worth talking about, for they prove our common humanity and enhance it, by giving us a new bond of communication. (Then we see how some stroke of a solitary artist that seemed so bizarre at its initiation spreads in the succeeding generation and becomes our common experience; the bus station you wait in today, whose proportions and color and furniture seem so simple, pleasant, and sensible, looks like that because some Dutchman unknown to you—Piet Mondrian—painted colored rectangles thirty years ago.) In such initiation only excellence counts and endures, and the kinds of considerations we have been adducing to explain how Jews came to appear in great numbers in modern building are irrelevant in this context; here the first thing would be to evaluate as works of art the architecture in which Jews have had a hand.

The historical problem seems to be this: up to modern times there was no plastic art among the Jews, no painting, no sculpture, no architecture. A Jewish museum of plastic objects has pitifully little to show. In modern times, however, there have been a small but perhaps a proportionately adequate number of Jewish masters in painting, sculpture, and architecture—at the level at which, say, Lipchitz and Mendelsohn are masters; but further, especially in the present generation, among the very large number of respectable talents in modern art, Jews are probably more than proportionately represented. To put the problem sharply, it is as if Jews had traditionally repressed their humanity in this area and have just now returned to reclaim it.

The former Jewish absence from the plastic arts might be attributed to a variety of causes: a philosophic attitude that involved a certain disregard of the body and the senses; exclusion from the guilds of artisans; not belonging enough to a countryside to absorb its sun and scenery; not being sufficiently at home in a community to want to celebrate and decorate its walls and streets; perhaps even a noble but questionable taboo on accepting a permanent situation and making the best of it. These considerations help explain why there is no indigenous Jewish architecture in the sense that we speak of French, Italian, and now American architecture. Even so, here too the formula of Veblen is inadequate: that the Jews have come to the fore by “falling into the alien lines of inquiry.”

For modern plastic art has been for a century and a half an avant-garde art; and the avant-garde means always the rejection of conventions that have become stifling and academic, and the attempt to find a new vitality in what is nearer to primary perception and more spontaneous in expression. The avant-garde is always both clearing the decks and reasserting what has hitherto been unacceptable. It comes into being when the community and its standards do not really satisfy, when there is a conflict of values underneath, and yet there is enough wealth and safety for experimentation; and such is the condition of our century. Avant-garde belongs neither to Gentile nor Jew, but is the plight of everybody who must rebel in order to breathe again, and in that number there are plenty of Jews. So in the avant-garde in architecture during this century, whether we consider Art Nouveau or De Stijl or Expressionism or the International Style or the school of Wright or Urbanism or the Bauhaus, there are many Jews among the disciples and a few among the leaders.

To explain how it is that from nothing, as it were, Jews have come in little more than a hundred years to occupy a foremost position in modern architecture, it is not sufficient to say with Veblen that they have become “naturalized, though hyphenate” to the Gentile lines of inquiry, for it is not in the nature of creative excellence to spring from conformism and adjustment. Rather, it is necessary to show that there have been changes in the field of architecture itself that have made it receptive to the entry of Jews; and, as we have shown, this has been the case in the building trades, in the status of the architect, in the idea of community, in real estate, and in the modern aesthetic (if not particularly in engineering). The absence of a native, traditional plastic art among pre-Emancipation Jews explains their slow start in architecture and the fine arts in the 19th century as compared with their rapid strides in science, law, literature, and music. The condition of the art in which they have now succeeded is not “alien” to them but, is a human condition, good and bad, shared by modern peoples everywhere.

The question remains whether, on the basis of this modern art, the Jews will go on to develop a characteristic style of their own. If so, we would expect it to occur in either America or Israel or both; it would spring from the peculiar needs and functions of relatively stable communities. Such a style could not develop otherwise than from the matrix of the universal modern style—as, say, “universal” Gothic deployed into German, English, Italian Gothic. Creatively, that is, the process of “naturalization” goes in the opposite direction from what Veblen thought: it is not that a man, a community, or a people is naturalized to the style of the milieu, but that the style of the milieu is naturalized to the peculiar needs of the man, the community, or the people.


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