Beersheba Brutalism (Mid-century Modern Architecture)

Beersheva brutalism

What Bauhaus is to Tel Aviv and the Garden City to the Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, it turns out that Beersheba is a world capital of Brutalist Architecture. From the French béton brut (raw concrete), Brutalism refers to a rough unadorned building style popular in the 1950s, particularly by state and public institutions.

It was precisely at that time that modern Beersheba was built up rather quickly around what was left of the Ottomon-Bedouin parts of the old city that were cleared out during the War of Independence, a chapter in the Palestinian Nakba. Beersheba was turned into something like a state funded design lab for principles of new construction and modern urban design. You can read more here.

The Beersheba structures might not be the finest paragons of the art of Brutalist architecture, but what Beersheba Brutalism may lack in sheer quality is the more public, i.e. extensive spread of the style throughout the city’s early urban fabric. In other words, Brutalism makes up part of the architectural vernacular in ways that might make this long neglected city actually unique as a site in the history of mid-century modern style.

Examples include the Quarter-Kilometer (0.16 mile) block, Neighborhood Heh and the Carpet Housing Project there, the “Babylonian” Synagogue, Public Center Neighborhood, City Hall, the Negev Center and at Ben-Gurion University there are the student dormitories, the Humanities and Social Sciences building, the central square and auditorium, the Natural Sciences faculty, and the main library. You can see photographs here and here  and here

Many of the tonier neighborhood were eventually populated by nuclear scientists working at Dimona and professors at the University. Out in the harsh environment of the open desert, there is a sci-fi feel to the style, one of whose principle functions was to block and to filter strong direct sunlight. While Brutalism is often looked at from the outside, in the desert what matters most about this form of architecture is the refracted light and shade.

For this blogpost I picked a soft photograph to show the way a bit of not very stunning and vernacular Brutalism can look like as a lived and livable space. At the so-called periphery of the country, like the city itself, much of this architectural legacy has been badly neglected, sorely in need of the recognition, renewal, and integration that might provide it a new stamp on life.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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