James Carpenter, the New York-based architect hired to design the Israel Museum
of Jerusalem’s renewal project, worked for years as a light artist and developer
of new glass materials. Although he studied architecture and design at the Rhode
Island School of Design, graduating in 1972, his first works were a series of
film installations at the John Gibson Gallery in SoHo.
It wasn’t until
the late 1970s that Carpenter realized he wanted “to figure out a way to apply
some of my conceptual thinking in film installation to more permanent building
works.” Carpenter was set on extending his interest in “the phenomenology of
light and dealing with it in a more permanent way.”
The earliest of such
projects was a luminous glass bridge built for a private client in Marin
Other early projects included such unique installations as
periscope windows, a dichroic light field, a luminous gateway,
stairs and sculptural light reflects.
He took on a variety of projects,
but in each one concerned himself with light. These included bridges,
sculptures, structures, landscapes, roofs, skylights, as well as walls
If for the late great architect Louis I. Kahn light reveals
architecture, then for Carpenter architecture is designed to reveal the
of light. With this approach, he has gone on to receive numerous awards,
including the National Environmental Design Award from the Smithsonian
Institution, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award and a
Since his early days, Carpenter has designed a
host of architectural installations. These include high-profile New York
projects such as the Time Warner Center’s glass wall overlooking
Square, the 7 World Trade Center light wall, and the Hearst Tower’s
lobby cast glass water cascade. But he has also taken on smaller
projects in a variety of other destinations, including a luminous pier
Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a luminous cube in the Ghetto Fighter’s
Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in the western Galilee.
Launched in 2007, the
current $100 million project upgrades and unifies facilities on the
landmark 20-acre campus. New public spaces and visitor amenities were
by James Carpenter Design Associates while Efrat-Kowalsky Architects
and Pentagram Partners (London) worked on reconstruction and
the museum’s existing collection galleries.
The museum’s three main wings
– Archeology, Fine Arts and Jewish Art in Life – are now accessible
central connecting Cardo. The collection galleries are now doubled at
square feet, with contemporary art now totalling 22,000 sq.f. And
climate-controlled underground “route of passage” connects a new
gallery entrance pavilion at the heart of the campus to the main
Carpenter synthesizes his background in visual arts, glass
development and architecture to create design solutions that are unique
project. For the Israel Museum’s campus renewal, his main project was to
centralize the museum’s public services at the front, create a simpler
passage from the the heart of the campus, and then create a space that
access to any one of the museum’s wings.
In anticipation of the Israel
Museum’s reopening next week, In Jerusalem spoke to Carpenter by
his experience working on the project.
How did you come by the project?
James Snyder [director of the Israel Museum] came to me while I was on a
Israel. He was probably already working on how to renew the campus
looking for a big name. He’d seen articles about my work in the New York
the project at the World Trade Center, as well as subway tunnels that
light below ground. Later he came to New York, and we spoke again.
over a year or two, we built up a rapport.
I think he saw in our work –
which is detail oriented, focused on development on design details and
that it was more about qualities of materials and scales and light. He
it might be the right fit, both for the new building and reorganization
What was the early planning process like? It developed
over at least a two- or three-year period. It took shape, mutated,
idea was to stay with the original layout. We wanted to stay inside the
orthogonal grid but also wanted the new buildings to be effectively the
of the old buildings. The old structures are large concrete boxes with
windows at the top and floating roofs. Volumes are geometrically
there’s no sense of openness or interconnection with each other. We
have the new buildings be extremely open, transparent, with visibility
landscape and other existing buildings.
Then we developed the idea of
having two different profiles of light-redirection fins that wrap around
all-glass buildings so that they never get the heat gain of direct
It’s an old method of working with daylight – to create indirect rather
The louvers on the east and west sides take the light and
redirect it onto the surface of the same louver. They use bounced
illuminate the building with indirect sunlight. They flip the light and
wash the inside walls of the buildings. The main issue was how to create
building that has protection and shading but also connects with the
Did you find the original site conducive for such a redesign?
We thought that one of most important things was to reinforce the
was there at the beginning.
[Original architect Alfred] Mansfeld’s
buildings don’t dominate the landscape; there’s an intimacy with them
trees. We also made an effort to weave the [Isamu] Noguchi art garden
with the buildings.
Some of the changes over the last 40 years took away
from the original clarity that Mansfeld had for the scheme. There was a
through the center of the campus that led to a courtyard with trash
One major thing was to replace the function of the service road and put
services at the back of the museum.
To keep handicap accessibility and
easier means of arriving at the central entrance pavilion, we created
of passage below ground. It has small green courtyards and water
the sun comes down a glass wall from ground level and brings in light
from above. You have the sense of water, a connection to the
What other buildings had to be changed or moved? The primary
thing in terms of reorganization was the location in the middle [of the
where there was a cafe. It was located in such a way that we could
cafe, excavate the location and put up a new building that fit in with
Mansfeld’s grid pattern but also connected the route of passage with the
campus. This is the vertical connector between the different
Before this, there was never a possibility to connect directly
between different floors. Now you can immediately connect to all the
Then we took the existing cluster of the cafe, bookstores and
gift shop – which was up in the main core of the museum – and put those
There’s now a retail pavilion that also has dining and
entertainment. The public opportunities are now at the entrance of the
This allows the bookstore and restaurant to remain open when the museum
It also allowed for expanding the galleries at the core of the
museum. These were all strategic planning decisions.
So the idea was to
add something new without taking anything away? What has been added is
specifically to reinforce the presence of the existing work. There are
instances today where museum additions are being done where the original
building is completely lost. It no longer has its presence, site context
overrun. So much has happened [at the Israel Museum] over the last 20
wanted to create something clearly new, that clearly has an
concept but that is just as clearly in keeping with the architectural
the existing buildings.
You don’t always have something as good as
Mansfeld [’s original design], the Noguchi [Art] Garden and [Frederick]
Kiesler’s Shrine of the Book – and so we thought about how to
weave in a new element that has a presence but doesn’t take over the
parts. How to make the interfaces among those three distinct elements
They are clearly each doing their thing and are all totally different.
new work has to have the capability of linking them all together.
the project develop over time? As we tried to understand the history of
over the last 45 years and the history that linked Noguchi, Kiesler and
Mansfeld, and as we studied the quality of light, a lot of these things
coming together simultaneously.
We started solving a few basic problems –
the design solutions arose out of those problems. After taking shape,
a lot of development in the details.
One thing I think people don’t
appreciate about the original Mansfeld buildings is that he linked these
buildings together. Externally they look like cubes stuck together at
corners. But internally they’re very sophisticated in terms of movement
elevations. You think from its orthogonal organization that it’s static,
from its negative volumes it’s quite remarkable. It almost sends you on
without you even knowing it. We tried to capture and highlight that in
gallery pavilion and were able to explore and reveal the interconnection
volumes in a more transparent way than you can recognize in the Mansfeld
People don’t see the dynamic quality of the negative spaces
created by Mansfeld. You’re contained within his volumes, and you’re
and out of these boxes.
We wanted to have you in the same volume but let
you see out of it. [The new entrance pavilion] has the same qualities
proportions as the Mansfeld buildings, but it feels much bigger because
see out of it rather than be in a concrete box.
How is this project
different from others you’ve undertaken? Our projects are always
We’re not promoting a particular style. Obviously it’s
modern, clean, well detailed, but it’s always about the light and a deep
understanding of working with materials.
One of the big challenges was
coming up with a very simple vocabulary of materials. It’s basically
concrete, ceramic, terrazzo and glass. It’s different than the original
vocabulary but very sympathetic to it. It’s constructed fairly
has a reading of having more precision to it and more of a level of
We allow each project to generate its own unique presence in
terms of how light is used. In this case, it was a question of
light-blades. They were designed specifically for these buildings, this
We studied the angles of the sunlight throughout the year in quite great
Especially for bringing light below ground to the passageway. This
to become more significant to the building itself.
Our work is more
performance driven – clearly dealing with the issues, the program, with
public’s experience, materials. It’s a sequence of problems that need to
addressed. I think this is what James [Snyder] was after. Materials used
clear way. It’s more about the effect created by the materials than the
materials themselves. The design of the architecture reveals the
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