From Berlin to Beijing via Dubai and on to Jerusalem, star-architects have left
their mark for better and, far too often, for worse. The emerging global
culture, at first driven by a period of prosperity and the digital revolution in
computer- assisted design and communication technologies, has in the last
several years led to an unprecedented number of internationally famous
architectural firms contracted to design highprofile projects in Israel, most of
them on the large scale. By now, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Meier and Preston
Scott Cohen, to name but a few, have all visited our shores.
than four key projects by star-architects are currently being planned for
Jerusalem, three of them in the very heart of the city. Pei, Cobb, Freed – New
York’s design for a complex comprising residential towers, building
preservation, and public and private open space, adjacent to the Mahane Yehuda
Market, is under construction. Studio Libeskind, also of New York, is
responsible for the design of a 24-story tower on the site of the former Eden
Cinema situated at the intersection of Agrippas and Eliash streets.
Tokyo-based firm SANAA is developing the design for the new Bezalel campus in
the Russian Compound. Foster and Partners – London, one of the largest
architectural firms in the world with a staff of 1,300, has been hired to design
the Center for Brain Science at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew
And as for the future, the 2012 architectural competition
having terminated without a winner, three international architectural firms will
compete in the final selection stage with three Israeli ones for the contract to
design the new national library at Givat Ram.
SUPPORTING THIS trend, of
course, are the clients – brand-conscious mayors, university presidents, private
developers and the like, who are, in the main, profit motivated.
doubtful whether former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski understood what Frank
Gehry’s $250 million, clearly superfluous proposal for The Museum of Tolerance
(later shelved), meant in urban design terms. Aware of the fact that instant,
worldwide media coverage of Gehry’s every move was guaranteed, he set his sights
on the tourist dollars the project was meant to attract.
provincial mindset, these projects are always fast-tracked to approval with the
aid of local architectural firms, taken on only to help steer them through our
formidable bureaucracy and thus relegated to a minor, technical role. But
playing second fiddle is hardly the way to advance the struggling architectural
profession here. In a tiny country such as ours, the negative impacts of this
trend have been strongly registered.
While hiring star-architects is not
necessarily harmful, serious problems arise when foreign architects are ignorant
of, or oblivious to, the history, the physical environmental context, the
contingencies of climate and the special qualities of local light, imposing
their personal style – advertisements to themselves – on surroundings of which
they have little understanding.
National, regional and local identity is
then called into question. Libeskind’s Wohl Convention Center at the Bar-Ilan
University campus in Ramat Gan, for example, appears to have arrived from a
distant planet. Precious few of these projects, most of them free-standing, bear
any relation whatever to their urban context.
“For whom are you
building?” asked Japanese architect Toyo Ito at last year’s Venice Biennale,
inescapably sensing the loss of ethical norms. Never has architecture been given
to such extreme extravagance, to such little true human purpose.
we to withstand this onslaught without undue damage being done to our physical
environment and to the architectural profession here? While local firms have the
obvious advantage of being on their home ground – their knowledge going beyond
simple imagery – competing with these huge international offices is no simple
matter; competing for contracts with Israeli architects is more than
If there is to be any real hope for Israeli architecture to help
shape the future, two key elements are essential: well- informed clients who
understand that their decision as to which project is undertaken and by whom is,
finally, a moral one with important, long-range implications; and young, native
talent, vital, inventive and deeply aware of its own cultural heritage, that
needs to be given the opportunity to express its creative potential.
writer is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.