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If you didn't know better, you'd think the Martians had landed.
In Schuna Aleph, one of Beersheba's oldest neighborhoods, what appears to be a space ship trailed by a series of Bingo drums perches in the midst of what used to be a neighborhood park. Even locals are puzzled: "What on earth is that thing?" is a common question.
The audacious series of buildings houses the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering. Established in 1995 with only 95 students, Shamoon College is Israel's fastest growing academic college. Today some 3,000 students attend two campuses - one in Beersheba and another in Ashdod.
If the buildings grab your attention, that's precisely what they were designed to do.
"Up until 1995, every building constructed in Beersheba was plain and ordinary," says Esther Sharon, the college's director of resource development. "All the buildings looked alike: sand-colored rectangles made of solid concrete. Beersheba was boring. The legend is that back in the early days, they'd bring new immigrants in at night so they couldn't see where they were right away and wouldn't be so disappointed. All the country's resources were being poured into the center of the country, with very little trickling down to the South."
For Beersheba, "plain and ordinary" was considered good enough, Sharon says. "Beersheba was the periphery. It didn't have any value in its own right but sat on the edge of what was important. That theory applied to the people, too - the people in the South were also plain and ordinary. Plain buildings were good enough for unimportant people," she says.
Then we started looking for an architect who could build a campus for us that would reflect our high abilities and aspirations."
They found Haim Dotan, a pioneering young architect whose commitment to innovation in architectural design equaled their own. Dotan, who literally learned the business from the ground up by working in construction in the US, graduated from the University of Southern California in 1984, worked in Tokyo, Sydney and Manhattan, and then established his own firm in Tel Aviv in 1990.
By the time he came to the attention of the NACE founders in 1995, several of his projects were famous. An entire issue of Architecture in Israel had been devoted to his work.
Dotan's signature style is the use of steel and lightweight materials to create fantastical designs - a radical departure from the sand-colored concrete buildings that characterized the old Beersheba.
"We wanted a campus that would be different and remarkable, something that would express who we are in the South. We're not plain and ordinary at all - we're really extraordinary," says Sharon.
The "space ship" building - officially called the Andre Minkoff Auditorium Building - represents the college's reach for the heavens.
"What it says is that we've departed from past mediocrity," Sharon proclaims. "The entire design speaks of unlimited horizons, of high ambitions. Inside, the statement is made with massive open spaces and glass. Young people in the South used to look up and see others succeeding, but they themselves were pinned down, limited. Here, even standing in the basement parking lot, they can look up and see the sky. There are no limits on how high they can climb."
Inside the space ship, the configuration of glass floors and walls creates a feeling of motion, of open and flowing space.
According to Dotan, "The round building represents perfection, harmony and togetherness. It hovers above the ground, expressing energy, lightness, dynamics and movement."
Even the campus's location within the city is significant.
"The mass of building rising up out of the old neighborhood represents the characteristics of Shamoon College," Dotan says. "All the buildings are elevated above the ground - they serve as a bridge, leaving public space for people in the park below."
The two-story building includes a 330-seat auditorium, lobby, offices, exhibit areas and technical facility rooms. The sequential connecting classroom buildings that trail behind are unique in themselves. From the inside, the cylindrical combination of glass and open space gives the impression of unlimited movement. Connected by floating bridges with nothing to interrupt floor-to-ceiling views, they bring the outside in and seem to flow in every direction.
Dramatic night lights are nothing short of spectacular. Powerful lights from underground beam up through the glass floors of the buildings, straight into the sky.
"On Yom Kippur, the lights are always on," Sharon says. "It's a neighborhood tradition to walk to the college and look at the lights. When the day is nearly over and you're tired and worn, the sight of those lights shooting up into the heavens, making the building glow, is inspiring."
Several more classroom buildings are on the drawing board.
"We'll dedicate the third building in mid-August," Sharon says. "Three or four more will follow. But if you think the Beersheba campus is unique, look at the Ashdod drawings!"
Dotan also won the competition to build the Ashdod campus, scheduled for completion in 2014. The inspiration for that campus springs from rocks dropped in a Zen garden.
"A rock garden is simplicity," says Dotan. "The Ashdod campus is about pursuing the humane and dealing with the problems of the city, using shapes that adapt to and learn from nature. It's not about living in rigid boxes. The campus is located near a sand dune, so the rock garden has a dune-like green park in the middle, bringing nature in."
In 2004, NACE became the Sami Shamoon College when the Iraqi-born London-based philanthropist made a significant commitment to the college. One of the first things Shamoon did was to import a 700-year old olive tree and plant it in the college's parklike grounds. This year, the ancient transplanted tree is laden with olives.
"It's the perfect symbol for Shamoon College in the South," says Sharon. "The ancient tree began life somewhere else, was uprooted and replanted here - and here in Beersheba, it's growing, thriving and bearing fruit."
A little history lesson
Education suffered in the early years in the South. "Vocational schools characterized higher education there," says Esther Sharon, director of resource development at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering.
"When Golda Meir was prime minister, she established several technical colleges; but instead of placing them under the Ministry of Education with the universities, she put them under the Ministry of Labor. Technical colleges offered vocational training - a year or two program leading to certification in some field, after which the students would be hustled off to work in factories. For Beersheba, vocational training was thought to be all we'd need."
But then, higher education boomed all across the country. In 1948, when the state was founded, only 1,600 students were enrolled in higher education. Ten years later, 9,000 students were enrolled. During the 1960s, the numbers grew by 14% a year. By 1970, there were 35,000 students in higher education; by 1980, there were 56,000; and by 1990, there were 76,000.
Beersheba - the first home for many new immigrants - found itself overloaded with highly talented and ambitious people. Many immigrants came from cultures that highly valued education, especially in the sciences. But in the South, they had nowhere to go.
"In the 1980s it became apparent that the country's seven universities couldn't handle all the people who wanted an academic education. The South suffered a serious brain drain. If students wanted to study engineering, they'd apply to the Technion in Haifa. If they couldn't get in there, they went abroad. The South was losing all its brightest young minds. Talented, ambitious, people who wouldn't settle for vocational training and a factory job were leaving," recounts Sharon.
For years, Shamoon College's first president, Oscar Levy (who passed away last year), lobbied educational authorities to establish a four-year academic bachelor's program for Beersheba.
"By 1995, Dr. Levy and our current president, Yehuda Haddad, were finally successful. The Council of Higher Education approved a four-year academic program for what was then called the Negev Academic College of Engineering (NAVE). We started out in seriously overcrowded rented quarters in the old Beersheba College of Technology, almost right next door to our new campus."
And then along came innovative architect Haim Dotan...