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Zvi Hecker, The Master of Polyhedric Spacepacking

“One should look for richness in architecture; the cube is not the only option. We should search for unclear forms and do things we don’t know how to do. In architecture today, we draw plans and elevations which we then duplicate vertically one, two, or fifteen floors high. A space could be much richer if we think about it differently.” The architect Zvi Hecker could spend months on a single drawing, yet it was never finished. In his buildings, he was able to make the ordinary magical. “I’m an artist whose profession is architecture,” he used to say.

Zvi Hecker died at the age of 92. Although only a dozen of the buildings he designed were realized, each should be considered a masterpiece.  “I drew because I had to think.”  His projects involved extensive, ongoing research that kept evolving even long after the drawing phase was finished and the building phase began. “His architecture was less innovative and more gradually uncovered,” says his friend and student Eyal Weitzman. “Archaeologists begin their excavations with spades and use wooden tools as they approach buried remains, or toothbrushes when they spot an artifact, carefully removing the earth until the form emerges.”

An early project that discloses Hecker’s fascination with geometry was the beach cabins for Club Med in Achziv, on the northern tip of Israel’s seashore. The units were constructed as truncated tetrahedrons consisting of three hexagonal panels with modest convex curvatures. Each pyramid-shaped cabin accommodates three beds. The individual triangle panels open for ventilation. This inexpensive construction system could be efficiently erected, dismantled and stored. The shapes were inspired by 2D geometrical patterns erected as 3D forms that he saw when studying architecture in Samarkand, southern Uzbekistan, to where he fled from Poland during WWII.

Speaking about the Spiral House – a residential building in Ramat Gan constructed in 1984-1989, Hecker noted: “It is a work of incomplete precision. Because it is so precise, it can’t really be finished. There is no limit to the precision one can achieve.” The inspiration for this design was the mathematical geometry of sunflowers and their spiral movement, based on the Fibonacci Sequence or the Golden Ratio. The spiral house rises centrifugally, forming a 3D adaptation of the sunflower’s geometric principle. The building has eight floors, each with one apartment. It is shaped like a spiral staircase surrounding an inner courtyard, with each apartment forming one step. “You can’t be funny if you’re not smart,” he used to say. Hecker worked on the building site daily, adjusting and adapting every element until he was satisfied. The finished building was markedly different from the original blueprints. Moreover, the building itself was clad with a wide range of local, cheap, shiny materials so voluptuous and rough that one friend told him it looked as if a storm had rushed through and arranged all the scrap lying around into the shape of a building. Hecker, who considered architecture an image of society, conceived this building to reflect consumerism in postmodern Israel.    

Every morning, his daughter Ella recalls, he’d set out to the building site with two hammers, 5 and 10 kg, ready to dismantle anything from the previous day that didn’t meet his standards. “It was a wonder,” she says, “that the contractor tolerated him.” In an interview with Vladimir Belogolovsky in 2015, Hecker said: “Good architecture cannot be legal; it’s illegal!” 

Hecker moved to Germany after winning a competition for the Heinz Galinski school in Berlin. The school was the first Jewish primary school built in Germany after WWII. Its construction was a functional necessity and an act of great symbolic significance. Located in Charlottenburg at the northern edge of the Grunewald Forest, the school program called for a combination of large and small spaces. The biomimicry of the sunflower’s spiral became the leading design strategy, enabling sunlight to illuminate all of the classrooms. While under construction, the site gradually transformed into an intricate city. Streets and courtyards followed the paths of the orbits and the tiny traces of sun rays. The school was almost finished when controversy arose over its design. Hecker described it as “A landscape of childhood dreams.” He treated the children as his main clients, playfully encouraging them to linger in the hideaway corners designed as if purposely making it hard for teachers to find them.

Hecker’s reputation as the “black sheep” of Israeli architecture stemmed from his passion for perfection and his loyalty to his masterpieces. An example of this was a story he often told about the labs at the Technion’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, which he built in Haifa together with the architect Alfred Neumann. He designed an indirect lighting system to create a specific light quality reflected on the building’s slanted walls. Due to cost, the project manager changed the window frames, which hindered Hecker’s desired effect. “We had no other choice,” he said, “in the dead of night, we climbed up t

he roof and removed all the window frames which were put without our consent on the eve of the grand opening, attended by Prime Minister Golda Meir. We felt relieved and hung the steel crowbar we’d used for the act on a treetop and ran off, but just as our car reached the first turn, the police stopped us. I thought, “Wow, Israeli police are so efficient! But it turned out that one of the front headlights wasn’t working.” Zvi reflected with his typical naughty yet charming smile. 

“I aspired to build the foundations for the State of Israel, but my projects were neglected and will soon become a layer of archaeology,” he said. I never considered him a black sheep but the embodiment of what it meant to be a true architect. His ability to transform abstract ideas into shapes was like casting spiritual manifestations in the form of buildings. 

In 2003, I was studying for my Master’s in architecture; this is when Zvi took me on as an apprentice in his office. Two decades later, I’m writing these words in Zvi Hecker's flat in Berlin. I’m sitting on his chair, writing these words with his pen. Among the dry paint brushes on the floor lie his last large expressive watercolor paintings; I notice many sketches on the shelf as I look around. On the desk before me is a letter addressed to me and his daughter Ella, in which he wishes to exhibit his last work, Casa di Ella. The sketches of his final building, designed for his daughter’s house in Abruzzo, Italy, will be displayed in May 2024 at Liebling Haus, Tel Aviv.

Sharon Golan

LAB Director, Liebling Haus, Tel Aviv


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