Marcel Janco’s Genius Loci(1)

Raya Zommer-Tal

This article examines the changes that occurred in the architectural work of Marcel Janco following his immigration to Israel from Romania. In 1941, cognizant of the escalating anti-Semitism and pursuit of Jews, and after theBucharest pogrom, Janco decided to take his family and immigrate to Israel, despite his professional success. He arrived in Israel as a mature artist and a modernist architect deeply rooted in the European avant-garde.

Preservation and Modernism
In the late 1940s, Janco was employed in the Research and Survey Department of the Planning Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, responsible for locating and designing national parks. Armed with a notebook, Janco traveled in this capacity throughout the country, seeking the “genius loci”(1) – quintessence of the locale – a way for Janco to experience and connect with the new land. He recorded his travels in a never-ending series of drawings, drawn with quick pencil sketches in the notebook or on any chance piece of paper he came across: landscapes, Arab village rooftops, local architecture, archways, mosque minarets, the hills, the valleys and the vegetation. The locale returned to the work of Janco; as he had once recorded the landscapes of Europe, he now turned to memorialize the panoramic views of the new land.

Within the framework of his professional work, Janco devoted himself to the rehabilitation and preservation of Arab villages deserted during the 1948 War of Independence. At the time, the general approach was to destroy existing buildings, due to their dilapidated condition and for political reasons, and to build anew. Janco opposed this, and set out to “protect” the old cities of Acre, Ramle, Beit She’an, Safed and Tiberias.

His greatest battle was to salvage the old city of Jaffa after a decision had already been reached to demolish all the buildings in the Casbah area, which had remained empty of inhabitants and were in a very unstable physical condition. Janco was one of the few to acknowledge the great architectural and historical heritage of vernacular architecture, and was furious at those who promoted the demolition of the area. It is worth quoting Janco’s words at a meeting of the Council for the Preservation of Historic, Architectural andReligious Buildings in Old Jaffa, held on 28 December 1950, which he attended as a representative of the Association of Painters and Sculptors: “The modern city of Tel Aviv is not a pretty sight; indeed, it is ugly. And if there is one lovely spot – why ruin it? The antiquities of Jaffa can awaken within us the sentiments of the past.”(2) These words, although apparently spoken in an emotional outburst, reflect the great change that had occurred in Janco the modernist. He, who should certainly have been more attuned to modernist Tel Aviv, now preferred the historic gem of Orientalist Jaffa. Janco was not only active on various committees but also publicized his views and recruited artists and intellectuals to join him in the struggle. The solution he proposed was to convert the area into an artists’ quarter.

It was in this period that Janco arrived at Ein Hod, an Arab village situated on the slopes of the Carmel mountain, and was impressed by its beauty and historic significance. He swore to find a way to rehabilitate it. When unable to find investors to build a hotel or settle new immigrants, he returned to his dream of an artists’ village, similar to the model he had proposed for Jaffa. He advertised in the painters’ associations and invited artists to settle. In 1953, Janco brought together the first group of settlers and together they restored the ruins, preserving the characteristics of the local stone architecture, always being careful to defer to the original. In the 1960 protocol of the Ein Hod Development Committee, Janco declared “any planning or construction in the village and all development activities shall be done with maximum regard to the preservation of the physical character of the village itself and its surroundings.” Over time Ein Hod became a model of the holistic approach to preservation, which related to the whole of the surrounding space, and not merely to the historic monument on its own or its status as a singular representation of culture. In light of the present, when the term “multidisciplinary” is so common, Janco’s approach to preservation was way ahead of his times.(3)

Janco’s studio, as well, situated in an Arab house with arches, was restored with meticulous attention to preserving the quality of the original. Even so, precisely in his own home, Janco could not resist and set a huge window in the upper wall on the north with a modernist grid (fig.1). The combination of the well-preserved Arab home and the modernist window typifies more than anything else the contrast between the innovative artist and his conservative approach to historic sites.

The House in Herzliya
Janco designed and built two homes in Israel, but only one of them remains.(4)This is a private home in Herzliya, planned and developed in the early 1940s (fig. 2). Like in Romania, also in Israel, Janco worked with his brother Julius, who had immigrated to Israel seven years before him. Janco and his brother built the house privately and sold it to an English citizen. In 1946, it was resold to its present owners.(5) The house is located on 100 Hanassi St. in Herzliya Pituach and is a renovated two-storey villa, with many additions and a slanted slate roof. The front facade has been preserved, including the front door decorated with a stone facing (fig. 3) that continues for the length of the house in a single row close to ground level (fig. 4). The uncut stones jut out at the edges of the house, and there is an arch on the left facade. The house is decorated with three cornices of roofing tiles. Two windows face the street on the second storey, and there is a small triangular window as well. The roof facing front has an unusual element – a classical motif resembling an aedicule (fig. 5). From a description of the no longer existing rear of the building, there were two triangular windows – one on the right, on the upper storey, and another on the left, on the first floor. The compactly built house is only 60 square meters on a one-dunam plot.

The design of the house is totally different from houses designed by Janco in his homeland of Romania. His new homeland introduced new elements into his architectural designs: the arch – a typical Mediterranean motif – appears for the first time. It also appears in Janco’s paintings of the period. Then, there is the slanted slate roof, and finally the decorative elements. Decoration was uncharacteristic of Janco’s former modernist designs. In the center of the arch, Janco added a sculptural stone tablet of his own workmanship, which is still extant (see: fig. 4). From preparatory drawings of the house design found in Janco’s estate (figs. 6 and 7), it becomes clear how landscape and vegetation were taken into account in the overall design, and the importance which was given to local stone.

A comparison with Janco’s work in Romania reveals a groundbreaking artist who brought modernism to that country but who, upon reaching Israel, embraced the local stone vernacular architecture. The clean and straight lines so typical of his past work in Romania were exchanged for arches and slanted roofs; the tall buildings were replaced by short ones in alignment with the landscape, the vegetation and the inhabitants, in an attempt by the architect to attach himself to a vernacular building tradition. Indeed, the modernist artist has become a conservationalist of local tradition! Only the small triangular window provides a lone echo of the modernist tempo and spirit.

Nearby was another house that has been demolished. There was also a slate roof private home. Plans and sketches for additional houses may be found in Janco’s archive.(6) Looking at the architectural drawings (figs. 8 and 9), which were never executed, only strengthens the conclusion that Janco’s architecture in the Land of Israel was typified by a local flavor, completely foreign to the new modernist spirit that so characterized his houses in Romania. The houses of Janco’s design that were not brought to fruition infiltrated his artwork as a background or backdrops for his paintings. In this manner, he could refer to the locale and express the wholeness of the urban and human landscape.

In Summary
There is a clear paradox between modernism and regionalism. The obligation to the past that lies at the heart of regionalism contradicts the modernist approach to introducing new and different elements whose source is unrelated to locale.

Marcel Janco, the archetypal modernist, underwent an upheaval upon arriving to the Land of Israel. He became emotionally involved with the new homeland, traversing it and sketching its landscapes. His paintings, mainly those done within the first two decades of his arrival, include views of the land and its inhabitants. The sun and light that entered his work affected and changed his color palette. In his architectural work, Janco attached himself to the vernacular architecture and designed various buildings very different in kind than those built in Romania. Above all, the influence of the locale was expressed through his struggle to preserve buildings in Old Jaffa, Acre and Ein Hod, the latter where he made his home.

It appears that the move from Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean influenced his work greatly. There is no doubt that the artist was firmly attached to the locale and its “genius loci.” Still, it is necessary to emphasize that Janco remained a modernist all his life. Even when painting new landscapes and inhabitants, he did so using his own special pictorial vocabulary that engaged in a dialogue between the abstract and the figurative. In his buildings as well, there is always a modernist element, and his struggle for historic preservation contained more than just a hint of the new modernist spirit.

Summer 2008

  1. “Genius loci” – a term of Roman derivation signifying the quintessence of a place.2. Protocols of the Council for the Preservation of Historic, Architectural and Religious Buildings in Old Jaffa, 28 December 1950, State Archive, III, 2211/33. Thanks to architect Roi Fabian. See: Eliezer Bruzkus, “Marcel Janco,” Teva and Eretz 26, no. 5 (July-August 1984): 19.

    3. Raya Zommer and Shuli Linder Yarkony, “Marcel Janco Conservationalist and Modernist,” Atarim, Quarterly of the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Settlements, Issue no. 14, 1999, p. 2. See also: Tzvi Efrat, The Israel Project in Building and Architecture 1948-1973, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2004, pp. 438-439. The quote is from the protocols of the Ein Hod Development Council, 14 June 1960, Mokady Archive.

    4. His daughter, Dadi Janco, maintains that in the 1940s and 1950s, architects had to participate in the building costs along with the contractor. For this reason, only commissions for private homes were executed and the rest remained on paper.

    5. The original owner was an agent of the Hoover Company in Israelcalled Milford. The second owner was Alexander Schwarz. His son-in-law, Yisrael Lustigman, assisted me in the research on the house. The house was preserved in its original state until 1964 and then an addition was made.

    6. The material may be found in the artist’s estate.