“Then the feeling of guilt came through”

an interview with Zvi Hecker

Guilt (Issue II/2019)

Mr. Hecker, the list of your accomplishments in architecture is long. You built a synagogue in the Negev desert, an art museum in California and an elementary school in Berlin. And still an apartment complex that you built in East Jerusalem triggered a heated debate about you and your work. How did that happen?

In the early 1970s the Israeli ministry of housing contracted me to build an apartment building in the Ramot Polin neighborhood in East Jerusalem. That seemed like a great architectural challenge to me. The site was on a hill and I did not want to build on top of it, but into it, so as if the apartments became an extension of the natural slopes. I wanted to do something special and experimented with a lot of geometrical shapes. In the end, the complex almost looked prefabricated and very unusual for the time. The reactions to it were very ambivalent. But I believe you do not want to talk about design …

The real controversy centered around the fact that the building site was located on a strip of land that had been conquered by Israel during the Six Day War shortly before. Your building thus became part of the Israeli expansion into the West Bank. Were you aware of the political dimension of your project back then?

One can always look for excuses, but in the end, I knew that I wasn’t building on Israeli land, but on land that was stolen from the Palestinians. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t already critical of Israeli politics back then. On the contrary: During my military service I had already felt that I was unwillingly taking part in the occupation of Palestine. But I always managed to convince myself that I was just doing my job. So, for some time my conscience was clean, because I tried to silence it. But then the feeling of guilt came through, of course – and the disgust to be part of something that I detested.

How did you cope with this inner conflict?

Like most human beings, I was very good at explaining to myself what I was doing and why I was doing it. One of the excuses I told myself was that I could somehow redeem myself by just doing the most diligent job I possibly could. Maybe I wouldn’t go to hell, if I built something that could be appreciated by people. I did not want to build a fortress, a symbol of the occupation. I wanted to build something that worked against the brutality of the situation. Maybe that would lessen my guilt.

Since then, a lot of the architecture that you have done has also centered around the question of guilt. You have built monuments, memorials and museums. Why was that important to you?

I always felt that much of the architecture that centers on memory is designed as a form of punishment. Take the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. They took a fantastic square in the center of the city and practically eliminated it. It’s supposed to weigh heavily on the German conscience. The proposal that I handed in back in the day was very different. I wanted to use the space to create a park. There would have been trees and bushes – and a number of walls made out of self-made bricks that each German could have designed him- or herself. That would have been a more active approach of dealing with the German past. I believe, even memorials should be happy places. After all, they are being visited mostly by generations who aren’t guilty. It was the same in Ramot Polin: I always wanted to create gentle architecture, buildings that invite reflection but don’t point a finger.

an interview by Lisa Engemann and Kai Schnier

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