WAN Mobile
Israel's architectural predicament: A search for identity, the case for localism, and a call for a 'tempered globalism'
Sharon McHugh


Sometimes ‘the spectacular’ is exactly what is called for. Taking a page out of the Bilbao book, the Holon Design Museum makes no apologies about its architectural intentions. The Director and Head Curator for the Museum said it would not be a mistake to say that the Bilbao effect is precisely what the institution was going for when it hired the Israel-born and London-based Ron Arad to design its new museum. Holon was a rundown place, and whilst it is showing signs of renewal it still has a long way to go. The museum initially sparked re-generation of the area, leading to a second civic project there, the adjacent Holon Mediatheque, with a third project, a new civic center, is currently on hold.

One of the consequences of building big budget projects in Israel is that they compete for funding with security projects, with the latter taking precedence. As a result, some of the new buildings in Israel never see the light of day, some are poorly built or executed in an ‘ad-hoc’ way, whilst others, like the Holon Civic Center, are placed on hold.

The Holon Design Museum looks nothing like anything in Holon - or in Israel for that matter - but it does look like a Richard Serra sculpture, with its coiled bands of red and multi-hued corten steel defining its courtyard and wrapping itself around the otherwise regular-shaped building. The museum claims that since it is one of the few purpose-built design museums in the world, its aspirations to be on the world stage trumps local concerns and is therefore justified.

There are no images yet of Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem but there is plenty of controversy to go around. The Israeli architect, Rafi Segal, a relatively young and unknown architect, won the competition to design the new National Library on the grounds of the existing one. But that award was quickly tarnished with controversy - a claim from a collaborator who said she was not properly credited


as co-designer on the competition documents resulting in the cancellation of the commission.

The project was recently re-awarded to Herzog & de Meuron, who as of this week has been named in the lawsuit brought by Segal. Writing about the National Library in Israel’s local newspaper, The Haaretz, Esther Zanberg criticized the project for being unnecessary, calling for a ‘less wasteful retooling of the existing’ library. She also implicated starchitecture in Segal’s demise in saying: “From the standpoint of the Israel National Library Construction Company” which represents Yad Hanadiv, a company that pledged $150m for the new facility, “Segal was simply an ‘unknown quantity’ and by having a second competition that is by invitation instead of open like the first, guarantees that the sort of surprise that surrounded Segal’s selection will not happen again.” The Israel Association of United Architects are protesting the cancellation of the first competition results with the goal of restoring Segal to the project.

On 13 June the public got its first look at the design for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Like the National Library, Bezalel held an open international competition to create a new academic campus in the city’s center and cancelled it only to follow it with a second competition that was by invitation only. In the first competition, the German-Turkish firm, STUDYO was selected and then dismissed on the grounds that it ‘lacked the experience required for the task’.

In the second competition, SANAA got the nod. In an article in The Haaretz, titled ‘Starchitecture vs. homegrown design’, writer Noam Dvir says: “Israel’s architectural community regards Bezalel’s act as a serious violation of what it sees as the rules of the game; first, because of the institution’s decision to hold a closed tender process, that in essence eliminates the locals, and second because of the decision to award to a foreign firm the job of designing a school that symbolizes the revival of arts and crafts in the Land of Israel.”

Local architects Udi Kassif and Ganit Mayslits Kassif, who were finalists in the competition, are among those who believe a local architect should have been chosen. “The very act of deliberating between an Israeli firm and a ‘starchitect’ for an institution like Bezalel is absurd considering the schools vision of establishing a creative and significant cadre of local leaders. Two of Israel’s more high profile architects, Bracha and Michael Chyutin, of Chyutin Architects, which won the competition to design the Haifa courthouse and the Senate building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negav, agree. “Bezalel’s decision to pick an architect who is not an Israeli


is a betrayal of the values that have accompanied this academy since its inception.”

In response to the criticism over SANAA’s selection, Bezalel’s president, Prof Arnon Zuckerman said, “Are we to apologize for picking one of the best firms in the world for a unique project? This is a complex that gets built once in a lifetime and as president I must arrange for the best possible future for Bezalel.” For its part, SANAA’s challenge will be translating its mostly glass and transparent architecture into stone, since Jerusalem stone is mandated for all buildings in the precinct.

These projects illustrate some of the challenges of building in Israel today. On the one hand, the charge is being leveled that the enormous appetites of donors, developers, and government officials, to have projects in the country designed by famous architects along with their enormous budgets are taxing the country’s economy, fueling the erosion local character, and hurting local architects, with the prospect of eventually leading to a Disneyfication of the built environment where places like Tel Aviv, which is rich in Bauhaus and International style architecture and has a distinctive character, are beginning to show signs of being more of an outdoor museum than a cohesive urban fabric with a strong sense of place.

On the other hand are those who champion global architecture to elevate their own brands and to fuel the local economy by creating jobs and activity whilst also putting Israel on the world stage.

There are no clear answers to the situation. But if both sides could agree to work toward establishing a set of architectural controls that have real teeth rather than such superficial measures as mandating a particular stone in a city’s center, this might allow for more adventuresome architecture to be built in Israel without eroding the local character.

Granted it won’t solve the turf wars among architects but it’s at least a start and it may help architecture in the country move forward rather than backward. The success of the Israel Museum is that it cultivates a ‘tempered modernism” rather than a bombastic one. Others might be wise to follow its example.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent



No. of comments - 0

 Add comments | Read comments