On his visit to the Holy Land in December 1970 as one of the members of the famed Jerusalem Committee, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner had come to think of the significance of ‘tolerance’ in the course of pursuing an ideal twenty-century architectural environment for ordinary people to live in. While being a fervent Modernist and a firm apologist for functionalism in architecture, Pevsner was never stubborn in his stylistic preference and architectural view. He always believed in the importance of leaving room for compromise, for he was convinced that the life of architecture depended on its functional capacity to serve the changing needs of people, and help to make their lives fuller, happier and more intense. Drawing attention to Pevsner’s ‘unforgettable days’ in Jerusalem, when he had to put himself in the middle of an escalated, and sometimes even inflammatory debate on architecture and urban planning, this paper examines how Pevsner came to attach such great importance to the concept of tolerance as an indispensable tool of architectural wisdom, able to synthesise diversified, often conflicted, views and values in architecture.
The Jerusalem Committee was set up by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek as his advisory body in order to discuss future urban development of the city, based on a Master Plan prepared by Israel’s urban planning professionals which aimed to solve problems in housing, transport, commercial redevelopment, and even political unification, all of which the city urgently needed to solve. The committee consisted of ‘around 100’ renowned international experts selected by Mayer Kollek himself from different fields: urban planners, architects, artists, economists, journalists, lawyers, clergymen, etc. The committee itself was, in terms of its openness to views and opinions from outside Israel, an ambitious, challenging multinational exercise; yet many people in Jerusalem feared the outcome of the exercise would be disastrous.
The debates which took place within the committee over three days were quite stressful ones, not only for those who lived in the city but also for Pevsner, as the exclusive and self-righteous speeches by distinguished, yet often eccentric, experts in architecture and urban planning such as Louis Kahn, Philp Johnson and Bruno Zevi, etc., were all alike in overly stressing concepts, mythologies, philosophies and zeal for heritage conservation at the expense of realistic consideration of the actual lives and daily necessities of people who lived in Jerusalem. Their ideas would subject the people of Jerusalem to falling behind, sacrificing the people’s quality of life for the sake of the spiritual, historical, and archaeological significance of Jerusalem, even as they themselves enjoyed the wealth and convenience of first-world countries. In short, in Pevsner’s view, many of the assembled experts discounted the simple fact that, whether a design is for a single building or for extended urban planning, that design should be planned, designed, constructed, and even discussed as a means to serve people who will be subject to that design in their daily lives. Mayor Kollek expressed Jerusalem’s dissatisfaction and frustration with the self-complacent opinions of many of the experts by saying ‘you would like to drive up in big cars but you want us in Jerusalem riding on donkeys.’
Pevsner, a German-born, Russian Jew whose mother had committed suicide rather than submit to being sent to a Nazi concentration camp, was thus naturally opposed to intolerance in any shape or form, and abhorred intransigence in opposing views. Nearly a quarter of a century after World War II, gazing from Jerusalem, Pevsner felt that the world, still falling into the violent conflict of opposing parties, remained as dark as it had been in the days of the Holocaust; and what he saw in the meetings of the Jerusalem Committee confirmed his view that the worlds of architecture and urban planning were no exceptions.
Pevsner felt that the behaviour shown by many of his distinguished fellow Jerusalem Committee members was unconscionable. His distress at having to listen to their self-righteous, intolerant speeches led Pevsner to believe even more strongly in the necessity of tolerance for and consideration of the needs of the anonymous people to whom Jerusalem, an ancient centre of spirituality, belonged, and for whom it was being developed.