By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
Published: January 16, 2006
JERUSALEM - Few things are more deadly to the career of a budding architect than the lure of the celebrity spotlight. So it shouldn't be surprising that some of today's most promising young talents are flowering in places like Beirut, Helsinki, Porto and San Diego - cities at a slight remove from the architectural mainstream where architects can find the space and quiet to hone their craft.
Senan Abdelkader, an Arab Israeli, is one of those talents. He grew up in Taibeh, an Arab village in northern Israel, and has spent much of his career in academia, studying in Germany before returning to Jerusalem to teach at the innovative Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
Now 43, Mr. Abdelkader works with a small staff in East Jerusalem and has only a handful of projects to his credit. Yet he is already demonstrating the kind of patience a young architect needs to master his art.
The fruits of his reflection are evident in his two most recent projects: a brooding house north of Tel Aviv and an apartment block in an Arab neighborhood near Bethlehem. Graceful concrete-and-glass structures, both projects have a compositional complexity that suggests that Mr. Abdelkader (pronounced Ab-del-KA-der) is already beginning to shape a distinct aesthetic language.
But what elevates his work above the ordinary is the way it balances contradictory moods: an atavistic love of the land versus the desire to escape it. The forms of his buildings dig into the ground with a force that suggests spiritual longing, a theme that resonates deeply in the context of the Middle East; at other times, his structures soar.
The house, the more complex of the two projects, was built in a generic subdivision of stucco boxes with terra-cotta roofs that are meant to suggest an Italian hill town but would look more at home in Orange County. Mr. Abdelkader's design taps into a different history: 1930's- and 1940's-era Tel Aviv, whose Bauhaus buildings, now slightly dilapidated, evoke the aspirations of a generation of European émigrés who were intent on forging a new vision of a modern Jewish city.
In Mr. Abdelkader's hands, that resolve has a guarded quality, like a utopian fantasy that is stubbornly digging in its heels. Seen from certain angles, for example, the house appears as a series of interlocking concrete forms, their hard surfaces braced against the outside world.
As you circle the dwelling, the forms begin to break apart. The south facade is slightly detached: a blank wall that seems to float just above the ground. The concrete shell housing the kitchen, which cantilevers out toward the street, is separated from the main body of the house by a vertical sliver of glass, its weight setting the composition off balance and imbuing it with a strange unease.
The shifting planes recall the work of El Lissitzky, whose 1920's paintings of interlocking abstract forms were meant to evoke a revolutionary architectural landscape unbound by gravity. But Mr. Abdelkader's design is more firmly rooted in the soil. To enter the house, you descend a series of shallow steps to an entrance below ground. A visitor then turns into a formal glass-enclosed living area supported by cables above a reflecting pool. You feel as if you are floating, weightless, within a submerged container or womb, protected from the outside world.
That need for protective shelter is balanced by an unexpected sense of vulnerability as you proceed through the house. Behind it, a split-level garden surrounded by a tall concrete wall is set several feet below ground level, as if dug out of the earth; but on the upper floors, the house begins to open up, offering distant views of the Mediterranean.
Mr. Abdelkader is still learning, and some elements in his design were not fully worked out. The idea of escaping up into the light - and the freedom that implies - could have been pushed even further. And some of the detailing, like glass handrails with clumsy stainless steel supports, is overly fussy. But the space powerfully conveys that sense of kinship with the land and a more distant fantasy of escape.
It's impossible, of course, to disentangle these ideas from the contentious history of the Middle East. But Mr. Abdelkader does not overload this theme with obvious references; his emphasis on the land feels intuitive, a central obsession of his work.
In his Bet Safafa apartments, the theme emerges in a radically different context: an Arab neighborhood on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Built on a steep site overlooking the Jerusalem skyline, the concrete structure is clad in a modern interpretation of a mashrabiya, a traditional latticed window screen. Here, the wooden screen is reimagined in rough concrete bricks spaced slightly apart to let light and air flow through the building while absorbing heat. On the apartment building's upper levels, large openings are cut out of the screens to take advantage of the view.
The screens evoke the works of older Arab Modernists like Rifat Chadirji, an Iraqi architect who sought to update traditional Arab forms with a modern abstract simplicity.
A narrow gap separates the building's screenlike facade from the structural frame on which it is mounted, creating a remove that underlines the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary values. The screen acts as an expression of cultural cohesion; inside, the chaos of individual life reigns.
Once again, it is the building's relationship to the ground that draws you in. A concrete retaining wall carves through the hillside along one side of the property before turning in front of the building to envelop a small entry court. A stone deck sweeps directly underneath the building to the back of the site, where it folds up to become an enormous retaining wall, protecting the building from the hill behind it.
Behind the apartment building, several steps lead down into Mr. Abdelkader's basement-level office, whose uppermost level is slightly above ground level. A long horizontal band of glass cut into it frames a view of the Jerusalem skyline.
This is his private lair: a creative sanctuary rooted deep in the earth. It could also be a metaphor for Mr. Abdelkader's place in his profession.
Having retreated to a place where he can breathe and evolve, he has the opportunity to take the next step in a promising career.
FORMAL/INFORMAL Research Unit
- Arch. Senan Abdelqader
Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem || Department of Architecture
The research unit Formal/Informal Architecture is a space in which 4th year and 5th year students of architecture study the contexts in which formality and informalites are entangled. The unit requires a critical approach on spatial cultural and social identities as well as a creative implementation of the critical analysis upon such contexts.
In 2008/2009, the unit along with Bilgi University in Istanbul, will attend a Jerusalem/Istanbul workshop where common projects and studies will take place.
2008/2009 Academic year will be the second year since the foundation of this unit in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
Senan Abdelqader Architects TEAM
Senan Abdelqader, Head Architect;
Rose Abdelqader, Administrative Director;
Inas Moussa Waary, Architect, managing principal;
Moutaz Lafi, Architect;