A Jewish Architect’s China Story

2020-04-02 05:18:00 Source:China Today Author:ZHOU LIN
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 HAIM Dotan, a renowned Israeli architect, can speak a little Chinese. He has a Chinese name, Hai Dutang, which literally means after a long journey across the ocean and finally reaching the land of China, one suddenly sees the light and feels relieved. Dotan loves his Chinese name quite a lot as it is full of vitality and wisdom. In Judaism, “Haim” refers to life; therefore, his name has another meaning: a new lease on life.

Israeli architect Haim Dotan poses for a photo with the Chinese classic – Tao Te Ching in front of a display of his design works. Zhou Lin

China Roots

Back in Shanghai in August 1919, Haim Dotan’s mother was born to a Jewish family who had been doing business with China since the early 20th century and settled there around 1915 in a time of uncertainty and turbulence. During the Second World War Jews were persecuted and slaughtered in Europe and beyond, and over 30,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai where they found a safe haven.

“Numerous Jews were massacred in Germany during the Second World War, but my grandparents survived by living afar in China where they gave birth to my mother. For this reason, China is my home and Chinese people are the siblings of Jews,” said Dotan.

Ninety years later, in 2009, Haim Dotan became the chief designer of the Israel Pavilion at the World Expo 2010, for which he flew from Jerusalem to Shanghai. “It is my destiny!” He said. I am eventually back in this great land where my mother was born and reconnected with China and its people, as well as the city of Shanghai.”

While devoting himself to design work, Dotan also started a search for his roots – finding the residence where his mother lived for years. “It was my strong wish to have a look at my mother’s birthplace,” he said.

In his memory, the old house was No.18 on Xiapu Road, next to the Suzhou River. Warm-hearted Shanghai locals joined in the search and narrowed the target to Zhapu or Qingpu Road. Wu Zhiwei, an expert on folklore studies, pointed out that Zhapu was known as Chapoo in old days, the closest pronunciation with Xiapu. The Shanghai Library has in its collection an old-time map of Shanghai in the 1940s, in which No.18 of Chapoo Road was located at exactly the intersection of North Suzhou Road, adjacent to the north bank of the Suzhou River.

It took Dotan 40 minutes to finish the one-kilometer-long path from Haining Road to Zhapu Road. Though the old house was no longer there, he examined everything along the way carefully as if he had been living there with his mother and had kept the most intimate links with it.

Inspirations from Ancient Chinese Philosophy

A trip sets off from Zhapu Road, going eastward along the Suzhou River to the Huangpu River, and then turning southward leads to the World Expo Park situated on both sides of the Huangpu River. Inside the park, the seashell architecture holds the Israel Pavilion designed by Haim Dotan, who said he got the inspirations from the Father of Taoism Lao Tzu (around 571 – 471 BC) and his philosophy of yin and yang – two opposite aspects of interrelated things in nature.

In Dotan’s heart, the unique design of the architecture shows reverence to the two ancient civilizations. “Both Israel and China have a long history of 4,000 to 5,000 years, which would add up to 10,000 years. Therefore, my design of the Seashell shows the gems of two cultures and their understanding on time, wisdom, and tradition,” Dotan explained. “Its structure follows the shape of the Eight Diagrams, and the construction materials combine stone with glass. Stone represents the past, tradition, and wisdom, just like the roots of big trees that absorb nourishment from the soil; while glass symbolizes the future, innovation, and technology, like the luxuriant foliage on the towering trees.”

Dotan now has a studio both in Tel Aviv and Shanghai, where sculptures, drafts, and architecture photos are scattered everywhere, as well as the bilingual readings of the Chinese classics - Tao Te Ching and The Analects of Confucius. His deep affection for the traditional Chinese culture has become the source of his creative inspiration.

Since the World Expo 2010, Dotan has shifted his focus of work to Shanghai. He is a cutting-edge green architecture master professor at DETAO Master Academy and a professor at Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts in Fudan University.

In the eyes of a junior student Tu Yisheng, Haim Dotan is not just a leading architect, but also a poet of humanity. “He suggests we put aside conventional norms, incorporate the elements of arts, and make designs following our inner heart. The harmonious co-existence of human and nature is what he respects. To this end, we often paint outdoors and do field research in rural China to get inspiration from nature,” said Tu.

“I prefer to take my students outdoors, for example, at Huangshan Mountain where they can hear the whispering breeze, the drizzling rain, and the trickling stream. They paint in the rainy days. That experience helps them to understand real painting, which is totally different from drawings in the studio. It is perfect for everyone to create in a relaxed and open-minded way, in their own style,” said Dotan, adding that ecological designs should connect with Chinese culture and philosophy.

To Dotan, the long history of Chinese culture is the DNA that flows in every student’s veins.

“A prospect needs to connect with the past, to dive into the traditional wisdom of Confucius and Lao Tzu, and be expressed in a modern language. Only when the Chinese people stop admiring the West blindly, can they discover their own way forward,” Haim Dotan noted.

A Bridge between Humans and Nature

“I was inspired by the ancient Chinese Tao Master Lao Tzu, who said 2,500 years ago, ‘Great sound is unheard; great form is invisible’,” Dotan said when introducing another piece of his creation in China, the 380-meter-long and 300-meter-high Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, which is reputed as the world’s longest and highest glass-bottomed bridge.

It is a jaw-dropping bridge that draws people to experience its marvelous views of the surrounding serene nature. The designer believes in the harmony between the bridge and nature. Therefore, it was designed to be invisible – a transparent but solid crystal bridge disappearing into the clouds, a real challenge for the designer.

Dotan said, “Architecture is not just an artwork showing one’s good taste, it has to be safe and stable. This is my responsibility. In addition, it needs to arouse curiosity and sometimes is the result of serendipity.”

A thin horizontal bridge incorporating a transparent glass floor and side suspension cables, it creates an experience of being in pure nature while suspended in mid-air, between heaven and earth. The design gives full play to Lao Tzu’s pursuit of the harmony between nature and human, while equipping with new technologies. The designing process is incredible. “It is a bridge of friendship, a bridge of openness, and a bridge of courage. It is not only built above a thrilling canyon, but also between the hearts of Israeli and Chinese peoples,” said Dotan.

Imagine that you are standing on the crystal bridge with the azure blue sky on top and a tranquil river valley beneath, surrounded by luxuriant landscapes. It is a moment for the visitors to understand the harmony between humans and nature. Dotan said, “As a designer, I am trying to establish communication between architecture and its surroundings, as they are inter-connected in the world. In a modern city, for example, every street, every building, and every landscape – all are connected and organized in an orderly way, like musical notes that can form a beautiful symphony.”

The bridge has received acclaim from the public. Weibo users commented that ancient China was secured but enclosed to resist foreign aggression; however, the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge is a new symbol of China which is transparent, open, and steady.

Just as what his Chinese name Hai Dutang implies, on the east side of the vast ocean, in Shanghai, there is a light that can penetrate the heavy haze with its glow.  

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