The next thing landing in Israel may not be a flight from New York; it may be a new building designed by a famous architect. Calatrava designed the Chords bridge, the symbol of Jerusalem’s new light rail system; Richard Meier is designing a luxury residential tower in Tel Aviv, Preston Scott Cohen’s extension to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art recently opened, and Herzog & de Meuron has been selected to design Israel’s new National Library. SANAA, Pawson and Fuksas also have projects there. Indeed, the built environment in Israel is rapidly changing and starchitecture is everywhere. Some fear it may be Israel’s undoing by eroding local character whilst also being an indictment of local architects, who include among them many promising up-and-coming practices and third generation architects who are ‘local stars’ and ripe for the world stage.
The dispute is about globalization and turf wars and there appears to be no end in sight. One only needs to read the local newspapers like the Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post to see that this is an active and ongoing debate. Many of the new projects in Israel clearly show that those who procure architects for new buildings there - the city officials, the developers and the investors - are at odds with the local architecture community as to what is best for the country’s architectural future - whether going global or cultivating local talent is the answer. One thing is for sure: Nearly every new project in the state, built, underway, or recently awarded, is contested.
The recent expansion of The Israel Museum is an example of project that balances the aspirations of global and local architecture. In 2010, the Museum held a competition to expand its facilities, a 20 acre campus designed by Al Mansfeld in 1965 comprised of intimately scaled modular form-cast concrete structures set on a hilltop. The American architect James Freed of Pei Cobb and Freed & Partners was selected for the project and later dismissed for what was deemed a ‘monumental’ expansion on a ‘Herodian scale’. The Museum’s director, James Synder justified Freed’s selection on the grounds that the Museum is a ‘national treasure that belongs on the world stage’ thus making the case for tapping global architects for the job.
The local architects association protested Freed’s design and he was replaced with the team of the American firm James Carpenter Associates and local architect Efrat-Kowalsky. Carpenter was responsible for the new glass entry pavilions and for reworking the museum’s campus whilst Efrat-Kowalsky Architects reworked the museum interior spaces, clarifying the circulation and restoring the exquisite proportions of its room. Carpenter was the bigger name that the museum was seeking while Efrat-Kowalsky did what Snyder called, ‘a magical re-engineering of the museum building.’ The expansion is contemporary yet sensitive and overall a great success.
The same cannot be said of the expansion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Of recent work in Israel, it is one of the more controversial projects. Designed by the American and Harvard professor Preston Scott Cohen it is a work of the digital age that was not fully executed as envisioned and had its exuberance pulled back to satisfy the museum’s desire to have square and rectangular shaped galleries. The result is an exuberant form on the outside and one shining moment inside, the so called ‘lightfall’ a sculptural void or light well surrounded by a spiraling circulation ramp, which some have compared to the Guggenheim.
The addition is unapologetically self concerned and whilst indeed an architectural and engineering marvel of a ‘new machine age’ with its numerous poured-in-place concrete hyperbolic paraboloids, which are exquisitely executed, it is widely criticized by the locals for being a building that looks like it fell from space and has little to do with the museum’s function or its surroundings. The building was championed by its director who didn’t live to see it opened. Commenting on the museum in Architecture Record, reader Mark wrote: “A spectacular but awkward building, overly complex and self conscious. The art contained within is secondary to the intended architectural impact.