Hoffman (My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century, 2009, etc.) studies three very different architects responsible for the look of Jerusalem.
The author’s bond to Jerusalem is responsible for her quest in and around the Jaffa Road to find the versions and visions of the city initiated by these diverse men. She explains how they were drawn to build in this city and explores their difficulties, artistic foibles, and personal oddities that perhaps are what made them great. First is Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), an established international celebrity. He and his wife left Nazi Germany in the 1930s for Britain and eventually Palestine. There, he embraced the “oriental” Arab feel, designing buildings comfortable in their environment, with thick walls and small windows. In Jerusalem, he envisioned filling the entire ridge of Mount Scopus with a hospital, medical center, and university. The second figure in Hoffman’s narrative is Austen St. Barbe Harrison (1891-1976), who left England as a young man, never to return. He, too, was captivated by the feel of the East, borrowing elements from the Islamic and Byzantine traditions, from alternating light and dark stripes to geometrically ornamented door panels. The last and most curious man in the book is the mysterious, elusive, and obscure Spyro Houris. His buildings are distinguished by stylized characteristics: ornate railings, crenellated parapets, and the magnificent ceramics of David Ohannessian. The author’s frustrating search led her through archives, histories of Houris’ clients, and even a possible partner, but she discovered very little about the man himself. Hoffman effectively brings out Jerusalem’s diversity in the personages of the Jewish Mendelsohn, the Christian Harrison, and the Arab Houris. They worked in a period of political upheaval trying to build for committees that couldn’t make up their minds and wouldn’t provide sufficient funds. They are responsible for buildings atop layers of ancient civilizations, perhaps providing yet another tier in Jerusalem’s archaeological history.
Lovers of Jerusalem will feel right at home as Hoffman brings a small bit of its history to life.