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5. The Palestine Prefabs: A Case Study

Published onApr 23, 2021
5. The Palestine Prefabs: A Case Study

Germany and Palestine

Our story now turns to deal with the importation into Palestine of a number of copper and other German prefabricated houses of various types, and their erection there, in the early years of the Nazi terror. It is a Janus story with two faces: the one an account of industrialized civilization at its height, of technological skill and ingenuity; the other a tale of cynicism and high drama, encompassing the eviction of an ancient people from Germany at a time when their fellow Jews were struggling to establish a homeland in Palestine, then under British mandate. Technics, economics, and politics are inextricably interwoven in this account of a bizarre episode in the history of prefabrication, an episode nevertheless indicative of the turbulent era of the thirties. Bizarre, yes; indicative of the special circumstances of the thirties, certainly—but also a chapter in the history of prefabrication that reiterates a recurrent theme, the theme of prefabrication as a response to crisis situations. The high points in the long story of prefabrication relate to the unusual, the unforseen, the remote, rather than to the norms of settled communities living stable lives. More often than not, prefabrication has flourished in emergency situations: a new colonial settlement, a military outpost, a mining town, a tornado, a war. More often than not in the past two hundred years prefabrication has also been linked to the concept of export, of the satisfaction by the industrial nations of urgent needs elsewhere. The story of the Palestine prefabs is therefore more than an account of a unique situation; it is a well-documented case study that illuminates a much more general situation and casts light on generic possibilities and problems that characterize the movement toward the factory-made house.

On 30 January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and assumed dictatorial powers five weeks later. The position of the Jews in Germany, already threatened by the growing power of National Socialism in 1932, now became more openly imperiled. The possibility of emigration, which some had considered even in 1932, now became increasingly imperative, and many German Jews turned their eyes toward the Jewish homeland. These headlines of the Palestine Post of Jerusalem of early 1933 tell the story in staccato form. On 12 February, the almost laconic statement: “Jews Begin Exodus from Germany,” is soon followed, on 15 March, by the more poignant “Jews Flee the Nazi Reign of Terror”; and on 16 April we are told that the small, vital, and well-equipped Jewish Yishuv in Palestine has begun active “preparations for German immigrants.”1 Jewish settlement in Palestine was strictly controlled by Great Britain, the mandatory power. Immigration was restricted to a fixed monthly quota; however, some additional “capitalist” visas were available for those potential immigrants who could muster the required capital sum of £1,000.2 It was to these “capitalist” visas that many of the Jews fleeing Germany aspired. But although the more affluent of the well-established German-Jewish community had no difficulty in raising this sum, German foreign currency controls (even prior to Hitler) prohibited the transfer of such funds overseas. To break this impasse, various agreements were initiated in Palestine; and these “transfer agreements” provide the complex legal and economic framework within which the export of German prefabricated houses to Palestine was to take place.

Negotiations for a transfer agreement commenced privately in 1932, before the Nazis came into power but after the imposition of German currency controls.3 These negotiations resulted in an agreement being signed, early in 1933, between Hanotea (a privately owned citrus-growing company in Palestine) and the German Ministry of Economics, “providing for the transfer to Palestine of one million marks belonging to German Jews . . .”4 On 18 July 1933, this agreement was extended to three million marks. At this scale it was obviously beyond the scope of a private arrangement, and in August 1933, after extensive negotiations between the Zionist executive, Hanotea, and the German Foreign and Economic Ministries, the Anglo-Palestine Bank (the principal financial institution of the Zionist organization) was recognized by the German Government as “the competent authority in all matters affecting the transfer of Jewish capital from Germany to Palestine.”5 Consequent to this agreement “the Trust and Transfer Office Haavara Ltd. was established in Tel Aviv . . . to facilitate the emigration of Jews to Palestine by allowing the transfer of their capital in the form of German export goods.”6 In part these transfer agreements solved the problem of the capitalist visa, for “those who deposited their money for transfer were permitted to purchase foreign currency at the Reichsbank to the value of £1,000, to serve as a deposit with the British immigration authorities.”7

For the Nazi government8 the agreement was important for a variety of reasons, some ideological—such as the desire to facilitate emigration of the Jews and thus make Germany Judenrein; some economic—the necessity to encourage exports and thus revive Germany’s industry struggling for rehabilitation in the wake of the defeat of 1918, the political and economic chaos of the twenties, and the depression of the early thirties; and some political—the desire to deflect the planned economic boycott, by which liberal forces in the west hoped to moderate Germany’s vicious antisemitism. For the Zionists9 the agreement posed a tragic dilemma—economic cooperation with the hated Nazis in order to save Jewish souls. Despite the crises of conscience and ideological conflicts which these agreements engendered in both the Nazi and Zionist camps, the transfer agreement grew in scope and importance over the years. In the period 1933 to 1939 some 60,000 German Jews emigrated to Palestine, and a total sum of over £8,000,000 (over $40 million) was transferred,10 the German share of the Palestine market growing from less than 10 percent in 1932 to 16.53 percent in 1937.11 At first the whole range of German industrial output was included in the agreement, and thus, it is significant to note, building components and building materials. The implications of this for the prospective emigrant to Palestine were great, as was realized by both Germans and Jews. As early as 7 September 1933, the Palestine Post pointed out a special provision of the transfer agreement whereby “those who wish to build a home in Palestine may pay sums of up to 50,000 marks per person into another ‘special account’ which shall also be used to pay for deliveries of German goods to Palestine.”12 Until 1936 (when as a result of its rearmament program Germany limited the exportation of strategic materials, including all metallic goods),13 this fund enabled a large number of German migrants to Palestine to purchase building materials and components in Germany for use in their new homeland. It also enabled a number to purchase complete prefabricated houses, in component form, for shipment to Haifa, prefabricated houses that were manufactured in Germany and ultimately assembled in Palestine.

It is perhaps appropriate to recall how, two years earlier, the Russians had sought, in their contacts with Gropius, to come to a somewhat similar arrangement. The transfer of prefabricated copper houses to Russia, which they had then proposed, was also intended to solve two simultaneous problems: the housing shortage, and the difficulties with foreign currency exchange. Although the instances are by no means identical, there are intriguing parallels.

The history of prefabrication has been described14 as a record of successful response to the challenge of recurring crises, when local demand exceeds the local capacity to supply. These enabling conditions certainly applied to the situation in Palestine in 1933. The housing position had already been critical for some years, especially in urban areas, where an occupancy of 2.3 persons per room was further aggravated by the poor, often improvised, condition of the housing stock. “In Palestine even today,” an informed commentator wrote in 1933, “a considerable proportion of the urban population is still housed below the minimum standard conditions in temporary wooden barracks, tents, etc.”15 With a rapidly growing urban population, due both to natural increase and a much accelerated immigration flow, expected to reach 35,000 in 1933, it was estimated that at least 17,000 to 18,000 further rooms were urgently required. To meet this demand, a considerable increase in building activity took place—in Tel Aviv and Haifa, building output increased fivefold. The consequences of this building boom16 were immediate and predictable: building costs shot up; land values soared; a chronic labor shortage was especially felt in the building industry, and skilled tradesmen were at a premium; and, despite a growing emphasis on the local production of building materials, critical shortages generated an enormous increase in the importation of building materials—especially cement, timber, and structural steel—from overseas.17 Much of this material, as we have noted, was imported from Germany, by means of the transfer agreement. Both in Palestine and in Germany18 the realization grew that the crisis conditions in Palestine housing produced at least a potential market for prefabricated housing, for which the technical infrastructure already existed, as we have shown, in Germany, and for which the transfer agreement could provide the necessary financial framework. So despite—or because of—the tragic situation that had begun to envelop German Jewry, the strange chapter in the story of the bringing of prefabs from Nazi Germany to the land of Israel began to unfold.

The Copper House in Palestine

The Judische Rundschau was a weekly newspaper in the German language directed toward the Jewish community in Berlin. It dealt with matters of local Jewish communal interest and with Jewish affairs on a world scale, with an emphasis on Zionism and events in Palestine. At the end of June 1933, in a column of miscellaneous information, it drew the attention of its readers to the phenomenon of the copper house in Germany, in which, it claimed, there had recently been shown a strong interest. These copper houses had been exhibited at the Berlin Building Exhibition and had also won a Grand Prix at the Paris Colonial Exhibition, thus demonstrating their suitability for subtropical climes. After giving a detailed technical description, the Judische Rundschau concluded by stressing that the copper house “is very light to transport, and can be erected in a few days.”19

We may regard this editorial note as preparing the ground for an advertisement in the same issue—the first of a series extending to the end of the year—inserted by the Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft.20 This first advertisement is directed in general terms to the intending emigrant: the copper house will give him a very good capital investment in the fastest and best of building systems, well insulated against heat and cold. In July the advertisements become more specific: take your own copper house to Palestine—they advise the emigrant—and you will dwell in cool spaces despite the great heat. From mid-July therefore the “Kupferhaus” is linked explicitly to the settler in Palestine. We must remember that July 1933 was a critical date in the history of the transfer agreement: the Hanotea agreement endorsed by Germany in March was expanded to the sum of 3 million marks on 18 July, and negotiations were underway for the formal “Haavara” agreement, which was officially endorsed the following month. It is reasonable to assume that the Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft entered into discussions for the right to export to Palestine prior to the appearance of the advertisements: formal approval, under the currency controls, was granted by the Minister of Commerce on 24 July for the houses to be taken out by emigrants to Palestine, without affecting their right to transfer £1,000.21 On 10 August, following this permission, a special “Palestine Edition” of the Deutsche Kupferhaus catalog was published, entitled: “Warum Kupferhäuser für Palästina?”22

The Palestine catalog contained details of six building types: the Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Scharon, and Libanon models. They do not repeat any of the specific designs in the original catalog but clearly relate to the character of the earlier work. They obviously derive from the same set of components, and possibly from the same, anonymous, designer’s hand. The range of styles is narrow, and more consistent, than in the pretentious and eclectic general catalog. The Palestine designs are simple and “contemporary” in expression, eschewing the traditional romanticism and complex forms of some of the original models. The roofs as illustrated—although not necessarily as built—are all flat, with wide overhanging eaves: and only in this respect do we see any echo of the “reworking” of the designs which Gropius undertook for Hirsch, at the Growing House exhibition of the previous year. It is significant that only two of the six models are for one-family houses (the standard house type in the original catalog), and the remainder are multiple dwelling units, ranging from two to four dwellings per building. This probably reflects a policy change resulting from a knowledge of the housing situation in Palestine, with its emphasis on small dwellings for letting purposes attracting high rentals. The ownership of one of these multiple dwellings would then assure the emigrant not only instant shelter but a steady source of income. The needs of the local market, and local conditions, have clearly been taken into consideration and—as the catalog points out—the details and construction were specifically modified to suit Palestine, with respect to solar insulation, flyscreening, and other protective devices. The Kupferhaus company was prepared to make arrangements for shipping and charged a surcharge of 4 percent for packing for sea transportation. Their comprehensive arrangements did not end there, however: the catalog promised that a local agent would be appointed to see that proper specialists were available to erect the houses.

The Kupferhaus company took two important steps to fulfill this undertaking: they appointed an agent in Haifa to take overall responsibility;23 and they sent out an engineer, Herbert Markowicz, after a special four-month training course at the factory, to be technical supervisor of the erection of the houses.24 Markowicz arrived in Haifa at the beginning of November 1933, at the same time as the first shipment of houses. By the end of the year several of these prefabricated houses had arrived.

It looked as if the copper house project had got off to a good start, but difficulties were immediately encountered: an unanticipated import duty of 12½ percent was imposed on the houses, causing much concern to the importers, as well as to the Jewish Agency.25 The Jewish Agency, in both its Berlin and Jerusalem offices, was much involved with the experiment of bringing prefabricated houses to Palestine, although it refused to sponsor any of the ventures.26 It concerned itself with investigations and analyses of the quality and cost of the copper houses27 and requested a full on-the-spot assessment by the Organization of German Immigrants in Haifa.28 These studies brought to light, in addition to the import tax, excessive on-site construction costs due to the steep slopes of building sites on Mt. Carmel; a narrow interpretation by the authorities of the building regulations, largely based on conventional British building bylaws, which led, among other problems, to the copper houses being designated temporary buildings;29 and conflict over the use of unorganized labor with the Histadrut (the Jewish Labor Federation). Gropius, incidentally, would have appreciated the irony of this situation. In his very first memorandum to Hirsch, he had in his wisdom warned of just such problems, when introducing prefabricated houses into a conservative environment. Two considerations had to be fulfilled, he advised, if the program were not to be obstructed locally: representation on the spot with good connections with the local authorities and involvement of local, organized labor to the greatest degree possible.

The conclusions drawn from their investigations by the Jewish Agency were, on the whole, negative, and their attitude therefore tended to be discouraging. The agency was not prepared, at least at that stage, to recommend the copper houses. This in fact was the policy adopted by the Jewish Agency to the general question of prefabricated housing from Germany. They did not object to this trade, as they saw no danger in it to the established building industry: on the other hand, with proper official caution, they were not willing to encourage the experiment or endorse any particular system.30 Perhaps in the light of a total absence of experience of prefabricated houses of this degree of technical sophistication in Palestine—which knew only crude, temporary huts—and the very limited knowledge then available of the performance capabilities of the copper houses, a conservative approach was reasonable. And yet when we consider the long subsequent history of these dwellings in Palestine, their durability and comfort—indeed, the affection in which they were held (and continue to be held) by many of their occupants—then we must hold the caution to have been excessive, the doubts misplaced, and the judgment in error. But this of course is the wisdom of hindsight, nearly half a century after the event.

5.1 Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft, type VI Dwelling, “Libanon,” 1933

5.2 Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft, Tuchler house, Haifa, construction photo, 1934

Estimates of the number of copper houses actually landed at the newly built Haifa Port vary, some accounts putting the total as high as fourteen.31 Many of these houses were of course multiple dwelling buildings, containing up to four apartments each. The history of nine buildings has so far been traced. Two of these were erected near Tel Aviv, at Ramat Gan (each a large double-storied house) and stood for over thirty years, before being demolished to make way for larger projects, thus bowing to the inexorable pressures of land economics.32 Special permission, as a concession, was granted for six copper houses in Haifa, of which four still stand; another house exists in Safed. All existing houses are occupied, some by the descendants of the original purchasers.33 One house—ironically, that of Fritz Neumann himself, the agent of Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft—was burned down in Haifa in 1947, and another dismantled in recent years in order to free a valuable building site for more intensive development.34 Correspondence with the City Engineer’s Department of Haifa about the copper houses was entered into as early as December 1933; the first plans were submitted for approval in January; and the first permit to erect a copper house was granted in February 1934. In all, it was a short, concentrated campaign.

The houses are generally similar to, but not identical with, the models illustrated in the Palestine catalog, indicating the degree of flexibility inherent in the system. They have undergone alterations, in various degrees, throughout the many years of their use: additions have been made, internal partitions altered, space under the supporting concrete platforms filled in, in one case a roof replaced. They have now stood for nearly fifty years, continuously occupied, often with a minimum of care and maintenance. Within these limits, and where the original specifications were adhered to,35 all the existing houses are in remarkably good condition for their age, and they still provide comfort conditions in extremes of heat and cold that make them desirable residences. In the light of this experience, one could today write a much more favorable report than the Jewish Agency was able to do in the atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt of early 1934.

A Diversity of Systems

The copper houses were the first in the field, and they suffered from all the disabilities of being pioneers. They were sufficiently successful, however, to stir other manufacturers of prefabs in Germany to emulate them. With the slowdown of demand at home, many companies were eager to try and exploit the potentialities of the export market, particularly in view of the extraordinary features of the Palestine situation: its urgency and the special financial arrangements that had been made through the transfer agreement.

5.3 Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft. Top: Schoenfeldt house, Haifa, 1933–34; above: Grundmann house, Haifa, 1933–34.

In the months immediately following the formalization of the Haavara transfer agreement and the publication of the pioneering Palestine catalog of the Deutsche Kuperhaus Gesellschaft, several advertisements appeared in the Judische Rundschau for other systems of prefabrication considered suitable for Palestine. From these and other sources we learn of several examples in metal, some in wood, and at least one proposal, by the engineer Fritz Schlesinger of Charlottenburg, that offered a transportable house for Palestine of reinforced concrete.36 Timber houses—“transportable37 Holzhäuser”—were advertised by Oscar Lembek (of Leipzig) and Sigmund Korber. Their “Komfortabler Palästinatyp,” as illustrated in a sketch, was a substantial-looking double-storied house.38 We know from other sources that several German timber prefabs came at this time to Palestine.39 In Haifa there still stands at least one two-storied building erected of timber components (modular panels, faced with horizontal boarding) imported from Germany. This is the Naumburg house,40 erected in 1938 but dating from an order given in 1935 to the firm of Christoph and Unmack, of Niesky, by Mr. Max Naumburg, a resident of Breslau.41 By mid-January 1936 Naumburg had received a detailed quotation for the house and its transportation f.o.b. Hamburg. Specifications and drawings for the “Wohnhaus für Palästina: zerieg-und versetzbar System ‘Doecker’” were prepared by Christoph and Unmack, based on the design proposals of Naumburg’s own architect, in March 1937. The following year, his preparations completed, Naumburg put his emigration in process. In Haifa, the architects Komet and Rath made application to the City Engineer for “permission for the erection of this construction on Mt. Carmel. . . . The house which is due to arrive within 3 weeks time, is a solid construction of wood as they are now popular in Germany and United States, the Northern countries and are exported in great quantities all over the world especially to the tropics. . . . We further enclose a book about modern dwelling houses and public buildings in Germany. . . .”42 This book, submitted as testimony of the respectability and wide acceptability of advanced timber construction for housebuilding, was Holzhausbau, written by Konrad Wachsmann, who had for some time, as we have already recounted, been chief designer to Christoph and Unmack. The wooden building, containing four apartments, was erected according to the instructions and erection diagrams provided by Christoph and Unmack43 and is still in use today, in part occupied by the original owner himself. The claims of durability made by the applicants, supported by the evidence of Wachsmann’s book, have been substantiated by the satisfactory experience of nearly half a century.

In addition to these wooden houses there was significant trade in imported steel-framed buildings. The Germans’ interest in steel house fabrication goes back to the 1920s, with the emphasis then, naturally, on the local market. In the 1930s the interest shifted to the export market. In August 1933 the engineer Adolf Locker, in an article entitled “Metallhäuser für Palästina,” draws the attention of the Judische Rundschau to this long-standing interest in metal houses.44 He quickly moves from the general to the specific: because metal houses (or at least, as it soon appears, the one particular make he has in mind) are well insulated, they are particularly suited for erection in Palestine. He discusses two types: a “mixed” system, and an all-metal house with factory-made panels. Such a system is versatile, and schools and factories could be constructed, using its components as well as the “transportable Haus” for the emigrant to Palestine.

Locker himself would undertake the actual erection of these houses; but for general information, the reader was directed to the architect, Walter Kretschmer, of Berlin. The following month, the Transformbau-Kletzin Co. of Berlin advertised45 a transportable steel house for Palestine which, it was claimed, was suitable for all situations, and could be quickly assembled with low erection costs. The house was described as being of “modern appearance,” an appellation borne out by the accompanying illustration. The Kletzin Steel House was the center of attraction at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1934, which attracted many visitors. An article in the Berliner Lokalanzeiger of 25 March 1934, entitled “German Steel Houses for Tropical Lands,” pointed out how necessary it was to revive German exports in order to expand German industry. Houses such as that designed by architect Reichel, and built by Kletzin G.m.b.H. of Berlin, played an important role in this effort.46 According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ludwig Kletzin was greatly interested in exporting his system, based on a 1,22-m modular steel sandwich panel, to the United States.47 It was of course in the framework of this export drive that the exportation of prefabricated houses to Palestine was pressed by German manufacturers.

The files of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem expand our knowledge of the German manufacturers of prefabricated houses who aimed at the Palestine market.48 Georg Breslauer of Berlin, for instance, had approached the Agency’s Berlin office in March 1934 with a proposal for a house of steel and aluminium, produced by Grundlisslose Metallhäuser, Leo Szalet, Berlin. The proposal, fully documented, was sent to Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency’s consideration.49 Correspondence continued until August 1934, culminating in a proposal to build four houses in the spring of 1935, which the Agency should endorse if the experiment proved successful. But, as we have seen earlier, the Agency did not feel justified in recommending any specific system.

5.4 Advertisements for prefabricated houses for Palestine, 1933

5.5 Christoph and Unmack, Naumburg house, Haifa, 1937–38

5.6 Christoph and Unmack, Naumburg house, Haifa, plans, 1937

We do not have any firm evidence that out of all this activity, any steel houses produced by Kretschmer and Locker, the Transformbau-Kletzin Co., or Grundlisslose Metallhäuser, were actually exported to Palestine.50 The steel prefabs we know to have been erected in Haifa and Jerusalem all come from another and more substantial source: Böhler-Stahlbau, of Berlin. The initiative to export the Böhler system to Palestine was taken either late in 1933, or in 1934, when the Böhler company received authorization from the Economic Ministry to export, under the transfer agreement, to Palestine. A company, the Export Bau-und Handelsgesellschaft M.b.H., was set up in Berlin, which was licensed to handle the exportation of “Böhler Massivbauten” to Palestine. In Tel Aviv, an associated company, the Palestine Building Syndicate Ltd., was formed, to deal with the receiving end of the transaction and to handle the erection of the buildings in Palestine. In December 1934 the Export company published a catalog51 that gave a technical description of their steelframed, solid-construction buildings, spelled out the financial complexities of the transfer (60 percent to be paid in marks in Germany, the remainder in Palestine pounds to the Tel Aviv company that could arrange a mortgage), and estimated a conservative eight-month period for design, fabrication, shipping, erection, and completion. It illustrated five standard building types for the Palestine market, ranging from the four-family “Tel Aviv” apartment block (capable of extension to six flats in a three-story construction), to the resplendent two-story “Carmel I” villa. These houses, it was claimed, were designed after months of study of Palestine requirements and conditions; they were flat-roofed structures with projecting hoods over windows and balconies, giving a restrained Mendelsohnian effect.

In Haifa, the German-Jewish architect Bruno Kalitzky—formerly of Chemnitz, but now in partnership with Dov Entin (Eitan)—was familiar with the Böhler system and brought its advantages to the attention of potential customers among his clients. When agreement was reached to use the system, Kalitzky and Entin first designed the project according to the client’s needs, then sent the plans to Böhler in Germany, where they were modified slightly to adapt them to the system. Böhler then produced the appropriate set of components, which were shipped to Haifa. Together with the construction kits, they sent out a foreman of works, a Mr. Heimann, to train a local team of artisans in erection procedures and to supervise the construction. Between 1934 and 1937 about six of these buildings were built in Haifa.52 One, for Heimann himself, was an apartment building with four flats axially but not symmetrically disposed about a central staircase, two to a floor, with an additional small basement apartment designed and built in 1935–37. The other existing Böhler structure of which we have confirmed records is a large block of flats on Hillel Street, in Haifa’s Hadar district, probably 1936–38, containing eight flats in all, in a three-story structure. From the outside, seen from the street, these steel-framed imported buildings are indistinguishable from their neighbors (which makes their identification so difficult). Their prismatic forms, simple plastered facades, flat roofs, steel fenestration, projecting balconies with metal railings, the occasional use of porthole windows and vertically glazed staircases are all characteristics typical of the many buildings of the Bauhaus vernacular that were springing up in Haifa and Tel Aviv in the 1930s.

5.7 Böhler Massivbauten, “Tel Aviv” type building, 1934

5.8 Kalitzky and Entin, Levin building, using Böhler system, Haifa, 1937

The modern German influence on the architecture of the Jewish settlement in Palestine at this time was considerable, in both functional planning and austere appearance. But in the examples we are considering, this influence extends into the very structure itself. The system used in Haifa was the Stahlskelettbauweise, a lightweight steel frame utilizing for beams and columns U and I profiles, 10 cm in depth. Internally, lightweight porous blocks were laid between the close-spaced columns, with a coverplate concealing the column; externally, the columns were concealed by an outer skin of 5-cm pumice slabs rendered with a plaster finish. Internal partitions were also of these slabs, plastered. The roof construction was of I beams, with a concrete roof over, cast directly onto corrugated iron sheets—a typical Böhler detail; below an expanded metal ceiling, carried on clips, provided the surface for a plastered ceiling. The planned aluminium foil insulation was for some reason omitted. Sanitary installations, normally prefabricated by Böhler, were in Haifa not integral with the system because local building regulations demanded total accessibility. In all, the system as used by Kalitzky and Entin is similar, not to the three Böhler examples of the Growing House task force but rather to the later, more substantial systems illustrated in November 1932 in Bauwelt.53 In addition to these buildings of Kalitzky and Entin, the Böhler option was explored by the Haifa architect Max Loeb, in association with the engineers Weltsch and Heinemann, and a series of sketch plans of a modular nature were prepared of apartment buildings of various types, some variants of the basic types in the Palestine catalog. Loeb possessed a copy of this catalog, and there were contacts with the Palestine Building Syndicate Ltd., with the client, Frau Levy-Stern, and with her family in Germany.54 This project, as far as can be established, failed to materialize.

In Jerusalem we know of at least three buildings (designed by the architect Dov Kuzinsky) that utilized the Böhler system.55 Indicative of the sophistication and complexity of these Böhler-based houses is the large building of Dr. Walter Katz, erected in Rehavia in 1937.56 Above a solid basement (later converted to a flat) there are two typical floors, each comprising three apartments, the building being capped with a roof apartment; that is, the building, originally containing seven apartments, was in part four stories in height. Kuzinsky was apparently familiar with the Böhler system; he was moreover in touch with the Palestine Building Syndicate and its Berlin associate, Export Bau. With the client’s agreement, it was decided to handle the importation of the building components directly through these firms, and not through the general arrangements of the transfer agreement, which (because of the falling value of the mark) was by now subject to a considerable surcharge.57

The Jerusalem architect prepared his plans, with some rudimentary indication of the steel framing; further drawings were then made in Germany, and all the components were prepared to suit the specific needs of the plan. These building elements, which included the patented Böhler steel skeleton system, the steel-framed stairs, the pumice blocks and slabs for external (double) and internal (single) walls, the steel door frames and roller shutters, the electrical, plumbing, and sanitary installations, even the oil-fired boiler and the central heating system (still functioning effectively today), were shipped out in large packing cases to Haifa and then transported overland, 160 km or more to Jerusalem. There the construction took place simply and speedily—“like a Meccano set,” according to Dr. Katz. A German engineer sent out by the Berlin company supervised the erection of the house for six months, then handed over to Mr. Karl Rosenthal (local manager of the Palestine Building Syndicate) who was responsible subsequently for the supervision of all three buildings in Jerusalem. Finally, in addition to these examples in Jerusalem and Haifa, we know of two three-story blocks of flats in Holon, built according to the Böhler system in 1935.58

5.9 Kalitzky and Entin, Levin building, using Böhler system, Haifa, construction photo, 1937


5.11 Dov Kuzinsky, Katz building, using Böhler system, Jerusalem, elevation, 1937

As far as can be established, the importation of copper houses ceased in 1934, steel-framed buildings in 1937, wooden houses early in 1938. There can be no doubt that this trade was impeded by real (or perceived) difficulties, in both Palestine and Germany. In addition to doubts about the durability and climatic performance of the copper houses, for instance—doubts which, as we have seen, history has shown to be unfounded—there were many obstacles to be overcome by the pioneer importers. Among these were the unexpected import tax, the problems caused by local building regulations, the misunderstandings with the labor unions (a perennial problem where industrialized buildings are implanted in the framework of a traditional, and conservative, industry), and the disappointment and inconvenience of being granted only a temporary building license. Perhaps most serious of all, the unexpectedly high cost of erection, particularly on the difficult steeply sloping hillside sites of Mt. Carmel, undoubtedly acted as a serious deterrent.59 Whether these negative factors caused a substantial drop-off in orders we do not know, but we do know that the Deutsche Kupferhaus Gesellschaft was experiencing difficulties in 1934.60 Some time after 1936 the export of all metallic goods from Germany under the transfer agreement was prohibited,61 and a selective restriction was probably in force long before then. It seems highly likely, for instance, that the German government, perhaps as early as 1934, would have acted to seal off the outflow of copper, a material of high strategic importance to the munitions and communications industry; thus the government would act to impede the exportation of copper houses. At this time severe restrictions had been placed by the Nazi government on the internal deployment of strategic building materials, with an immediate effect on the prefabrication industry. For whichever of these reasons, or combination of reasons, it seems that the trade in copper prefabs ceased early in 1934, and about three years thereafter the exportation of steel buildings also came to a halt. In any event, as the shadows of 1938 darkened, the time was approaching for the complete cessation of commercial intercourse between Nazi Germany, and the democracies, including Britain and its mandated territory, Palestine.

From a purely quantitative point of view, that is, considered drily as a commercial transaction, the exportation of German prefabricated buildings to Palestine in the 1930s must be considered a minor affair. All in all perhaps only 20 or 25 buildings containing about 100 dwellings found their way from the Berlin factories to their sites on the hillsides of the Holy Land. This could by no means be considered an important factor in the rehabilitation of German industry, nor did it contribute in any meaningful sense to the solution of the acute housing problem in Palestine. Yet, as a chapter in history, it is not without significance. It is inherently interesting because it represents one of the few documented case histories of prefabrication from the user’s point of view. Here we see not only the motivations of the designers and producers but also something of the initial hopes, the trials and tribulations, and eventually the experience and fulfillment of actual use for those who seek to solve their own emergency problems through the purchase of a factory-made house. Most of our information about prefabricated houses comes from the architects’ magazines or from the producers’ advertising brochures. Here the picture is rounded off with a rare view from the other side, with what is almost a consumer’s report. Gropius would have learned much about the copper houses, had this information been available to him at the time. He was sufficiently open-minded to learn from criticism; and he would certainly have savored the intricate meshing of events. What a rich tapestry of human interest is revealed in this episode, what diverse threads are paradoxically brought together in its weaving: the dark strands of vile oppression and the shining gold of great technical achievement, black despair and bright white hope, all on a gray field of political compromise and economic opportunism. It serves to illustrate with great clarity the multifaceted and multivalent nature of any event in architectural history.

Prefabrication here becomes more than a philosophy, more than a mere technical episode in the evolution of architecture. Swept up by world events, it becomes—for a small number of people—an instrument for human wellbeing, perhaps even an instrument of salvation. The chief actors in our drama of prefabrication, Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann, were unaware that the industrialized houses with which they had been associated—the Hirsch copper house and the Christoph and Unmack wooden prefab—had played a role in the poignant struggle of the German refugees to make a foothold in a new land. Despite the long and turbulent history of prefabrication as a crisis response, they had cast for the factory-built house a more fundamental housing function in a more orderly and stable world. Now that world was collapsing, and their own destinies were swept up in the whirlpool of events.


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