Nearly ninety years ago a ceremony was held in East Jerusalem to mark the inauguration of a Hebrew University. This article describes the involvement of two Scotsmen in a project central to the aspirations of the founders of modern Israel.
On 2nd April 1925, a foundation stone was laid on a site on Mount Scopus, to the East of Jerusalem, to mark the formal inauguration of the city’s Hebrew University. For one of the guests at the ceremony, the pioneer environmentalist, Professor Patrick Geddes, it was an event of particular significance. In 1919, he had been engaged by the Zionist Commission for Palestine to prepare preliminary plans for the University and advise on a number of other projects which the Zionists were initiating in Palestine.
In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had committed the British Government to the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, thus precipitating large-scale migration to the Holy Land by Eastern European Jews determined to start a new life free from the restrictions and periodic pogroms which they had suffered in the collapsing empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary. The idealism and dedication of the Zionist pioneers had captured the imagination of many non-Jews, Geddes among them. Geddes’ biographer, Philip Boardman, suggests that the Professor’s Presbyterian upbringing, with its Old Testament emphasis, made him particularly susceptible. However, Geddes also saw that the Zionist passion to renew both spiritual and physical contact with the soil of Palestine accorded well with the emphasis which his own social theories placed on restoring the economic and cultural links between communities and their historical environments.
Geddes began work on his proposals for the University during his first visit to Jerusalem in the autumn of 1919. He had discussed the project at length with the Zionist Leader, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and his subsequent report to the Zionist Commission was prepared with the assistance of his son-in-law, the architect, Frank Mears. While Geddes was primarily responsible for the overall conception set out in the initial report, over the ten-year period during which the two Scots were associated with the University project, the task of adjustment and realisation, through the preparation of detailed architectural drawings, was to fall increasingly to Mears.
For Geddes, the self-styled “critic of universities”, the project was a major opportunity to put his ideas for educational reform into practice, and he fell to the task with enthusiasm. He was immediately inspired by the commanding site on Mount Scopus, writing in a letter published in The Scotsman that it was “…one of the most magnificent in the world, on one side looking West over the most historic of cities, on the other, over that unique and tremendous cosmic spectacle – the perspective view of the desert hills, plunging down to the great rift of the Dead Sea and rising again into the Moab Mountains behind”.
Geddes was critical of previous European architects whose designs for institutional buildings on the hills around Jerusalem had incorporated high towers. These he regarded as being out of scale and inappropriate, dwarfing the landscape and lacerating the skyline. For the University, he proposed a series of simple, economical buildings which together would present a long, low architectural profile on the summit of Mount Scopus. Nevertheless, he regarded it as essential that there should be a strong central feature and he proposed that this should take the form of a hexagonal Great Hall, or “Aula Academica”, surmounted by a large dome which he dubbed the “Dome of Synthesis”. On either side of the Great Hall were to be ranged the various departments of the University, each carefully linked to its neighbours according to a scheme for the organisation of related fields of knowledge.
Perspective sketch of the Hebrew University by Frank Mears
Back in Scotland, Mears discussed the project with the Edinburgh Rabbi, Rev. Dr. Salis Daiches. David Daiches remembered discussions between his father and Mears and that, on at least one occasion, Patrick Geddes visited the family home. Mears also sought advice on modern laboratory design from Professor Francis Baily of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Heriot-Watt College.
The University project made little progress until 1924 when the Zionist Organisation set up a University Committee in Jerusalem and fund-raising began for buildings to house the University Library and an Einstein Institute of Physics. In April 1925, Geddes and Mears were appointed superintendent architects for the Library and Physics buildings.
The two Scotsmen had always believed that the detailed planning of the University should be undertaken by the staff and students of its own Department of Planning and Architecture and envisaged that work on the University and other projects throughout the territory would provide the foundation for a “School of Palestinian Architecture”. They responded positively, therefore, when, in the summer of 1925, the Zionists suggested that they should collaborate with local Jewish architects. After an exchange of correspondence, they agreed to work with Mr. Benjamin Chaikin, a Jerusalem-based architect who seemed sympathetic to their scheme. However, approaches to a German Jewish architect, Alexander Baerwald, met with a less congenial response. He replied that his experience in Berlin had convinced him that the sort of co-operation which Geddes and Mears proposed would involve an unacceptable compromise of his artistic integrity. Instead, he proposed that he should prepare his own design for the University Library, leaving detailed work to be completed by Chaikin. Mears was angered by Baerwald’s attitude and wrote a strongly-worded letter to his father-in-law, saying: “He [Baerwald] has the daring to reply to an invitation to co-operation with an attempt to scoop the job without the risks of competition. It is a priceless effort and I fear for any dealing with him. …he is really looking for trouble, it oozes out all through his letter and his weakness is that its not on behalf of his brother Jewish architects but for himself alone”.
From the middle of 1926 onwards, relations with the University’s promoters became progressively more difficult. Responsibility for various aspects of the scheme was divided amongst a number of committees and there were strong disagreements over policy between different factions in the Zionist Organisation. In October, Chaikin reported to Mears that the local Architectural Society, of which Baerwald was a leading member, had issued a statement to the Jewish press opposing the appointment of non-Jews to design the University. Similar criticism appeared in a letter from a “Mr. Berliner” published in the German Jewish periodical, Juedische Rundschau, in January 1927.
In early 1926, Mears heard that a wealthy American widow, Mrs. Rosenbloom, had announced her intention to provide funds for the erection of buildings for the University. In March, the Rosenbloom Trustees invited Geddes and Mears to prepare detailed plans for the Great Hall and an Institute of Hebrew Studies. Difficulties soon arose, however, over the design and location of the Great Hall. Many of the Zionists were unhappy with Geddes’ “Dome of Synthesis”, taking the view that domes were a feature of Moslem rather than Jewish architecture. Mears was sympathetic to this criticism, and made efforts to modify the design in order to overcome it without detracting from the Hall itself.
By September 1926, a new problem had arisen. Mears received word from the University Principal, Dr. Magnes, that the Hebrew Studies Council had pressed on Mrs. Rosenbloom the importance of their Institute being the principal building of the University and she had agreed. In fact, Magnes had himself been instrumental in securing the establishment of the Institute of Hebrew Studies and was strongly committed to it.
Mears travelled to Paris for a hurriedly-arranged meeting with Mrs. Rosenbloom and Dr. Weizmann. The Zionist Leader was concerned that the religious lobby was exerting too powerful an influence on the development of the University, so that it “ran the risk of becoming a theological seminary”. He and Mears argued that, important though the Institute of Hebrew Studies was, it should not be allowed to displace the Great Hall. A central location was unsuitable for a major department which would require room for further expansion. Weizmann also stressed that the Great Hall would serve a vital role as the living centre of the University. Recalling Geddes’ Report of 1919, he pointed out that, in the context of the Zionist struggle, it would not be just another University hall such as one might find on any American campus, but a Hall for gatherings of Jews from all of Palestine and the world beyond.
By the end of the meeting, Mears was convinced that they had won Mrs. Rosenbloom over, although she would not give a decision before consulting her Trustees. He seemed to have been proved correct when, in November, he received a letter saying that the Trustees had agreed that he should proceed with his plans for the Great Hall and the Institute of Hebrew Studies and that Mrs. Rosenbloom was willing to provide a little more money if necessary. Early in the New Year, however, the Rosenbloom Trustees reversed their decision and Mears received a cable from the U.S.A. stating: “Aula idea abandoned. Substituting central building for Jewish and Oriental Studies with adequate University Hall, await letter”.
It was the symbolism inherent in Geddes’ conception of the Great Hall which aroused the suspicion of many of the Zionists. Geddes claimed that the domed central hall represented “the great Unity which it is the glory of Israel to have first realised and taught, and which Christian and Moslem alike, despite all their hostility have the candour to confess they have thus inherited”. However, its detractors argued that it could be interpreted as a commitment to the political unity of the various religious communities in Palestine, and this they were not prepared to countenance. Geddes afterwards contended that it was intended to have only spiritual and not political significance. While it is difficult to separate the political from the spiritual considerations in Geddes’ writings on the subject, there is evidence that Weizmann regarded the domed Hall as important from a purely political standpoint. In 1925, Mears wrote that the Zionist Leader intended it to give assurance that the older domes of the historic city, those of the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, would remain safely in Moslem and Christian hands.
The University Principal, Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes, was one of those who were hostile to the symbolism implicit in the concept of the Great Hall and afterwards Mears wrote that: “Dr. Magnes never disguised his dislike of Dr. Weizmann’s ideas for the University. I had a most difficult task. My first loyalty was to Dr. Weizmann, and I felt it a duty to maintain what I could of his great conception. Whenever I hinted Dr. Weizmann’s ideas, Dr. Magnes showed a bitterness, and indeed anger, which led me to avoid the subject most carefully. Thus we had no real guidance and no-one to whom we could turn for instructions as to policy”.
However, Mears tried to make the best of things and agreed to Dr. Magnes’ proposal that Chaikin be given the position of architect while he and Geddes acted as consultants. In November 1927, Mears accepted an invitation to return to Jerusalem to prepare plans for a centrally-located Institute of Hebrew Studies incorporating a scaled-down University hall. In the following January, he returned to the city for the last time and spent three months working on plans for the Institute of Hebrew Studies based on a schedule of accommodation supplied by the Principal’s office. In accordance with the wishes of Dr. Magnes and the Rosenbloom Trustees, the central dome was abandoned in favour of a stepped roof design.
The final blow fell in May 1929, when Mears received a letter from the University’s lawyer informing him that the Board of Trustees had decided not to avail themselves any further of the services of Geddes, Mears and Chaikin in connection with the design of the Rosenbloom Memorial Building. The letter blamed the architects for repeated delays and claimed that their design had finally been judged “not acceptable”. The Rosenbloom Trustees felt that “no useful purpose would be served by any attempt to modify or improve the existing design”.
Mears wrote to Magnes that he was quite at a loss to understand the statement that the design had been found unacceptable. He had kept very closely to the plan approved by the Principal and Mrs. Rosenbloom and taken great care to incorporate the suggestions of the University staff. Any delays, he claimed, had arisen out of repeated alterations to specifications initiated by the promoters of the University themselves.
Geddes believed that the decision to terminate their engagement had been taken arbitrarily by Dr. Magnes and the Rosenbloom Trustees and hoped to be able to appeal to the General Body of the University which had originally appointed them. However, although Geddes’ Zionist friends in Europe and America were sympathetic, they were unable to be of much practical assistance since virtually all responsibility for the University had by then been transferred to Jerusalem.
All hope that the University buildings would be completed in the foreseeable future was abandoned in late 1931 when Mrs. Rosenbloom announced that the economic depression compelled her to postpone the building of the Institute of Hebrew Studies for the time being. Less than five months later, in April 1932, Geddes died suddenly at his Collège des Ecossais in Montpellier. Only the Library and the Balfour Institute of Mathematics were ever built to Mears’ designs.
The University Library
Although Geddes was retained by the Zionist Commission, much of his work in Jerusalem was directed towards the development of the civic and cultural institutions which he believed to be essential to the full and vigorous expression of an ethnically-plural Palestinian polity. Unfortunately, the cultural inheritance of the territory was more complex and fraught with conflict than he was prepared to allow and, ultimately, his vision for the University was to prove incompatible with the aspirations of Jewish cultural nationalism. Today, the issues of identity and cultural philosophy which the University project raised remain as potent and problematic as ever.
Charles Ashbee, the pro-Arab architect who worked with Geddes on town planning schemes for Jerusalem, wrote in 1923 that: “Geddes’ chief work out here has been the plans, en ebauche, for the Zionist University, a magnificent scheme and a wonderful report. But it has cleft Jewry in twain. The orthodox and the ritualists have no use for a Universitas in the real sense of the word, such as he desires, nor have the political propagandists for the scholar and the man of science. Will it be a university or only a Zionist university? Geddes has thrown down the glove to Jewry. It is another challenge to the theocratic state and the old devil of sectarianism who stands between us and our search for truth. Will the challenge be taken up? …But when all’s said and done, Pat is right. His prophecy is likely to sound the farthest. You can have no sectarian university”.
After the event, and from a very different standpoint, the staunch Zionist, Dr. David Eder, came to a very similar judgement. He wrote: “That this magnificent conception has not yet been realised is due, not to Geddes, nor to the architects who worked with him and under his directions – Frank Mears of Edinburgh and Chaikin of Jerusalem. It was not wholly due to want of money, for Geddes was an economical builder and planner… I do not want to be drawn into any harsh judgements. Suffice it to say that there are few who could rise to the lofty heights of Geddes’ imagination or of his practical knowledge. Petty minds have endeavoured to bespoil what Geddes and his two assistants had conceived on noble and enduring lines”.
Dr. Weizmann, the great Zionist Leader whose vision transcended all sectarianism, later wrote in his memoirs that: “The ideal of the Hebrew University was for many of us the noblest expression of our Zionist humanism. On it were concentrated the dreams of our youth and the endeavours of our manhood. A Hebrew University in Palestine would mean release from the pariah status which was the lot of Jewish youth in so many of the Universities of Eastern and even Central Europe. It would provide a focus for the free development of the Jewish spirit. It would give scientific guidance and moral inspiration to the builders of the new Zion. It would pave the way for a synthesis between the spiritual heritage of our people and the intellectual movements and aspirations of our age… I still hope before I die to see the great assembly hall which Geddes designed rising on the slopes of Scopus”.
This article is based primarily on manuscript material held in the National Library of Scotland and the Zionist Archive in Jerusalem. It was first published in The Scottish Review in Spring 2000.