Arts: On schedule and on budget

The Israel Museum is forging ahead with a 50 percent increase in exhibition space.

israel museum 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
israel museum 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two years after announcing its campus renewal project and a year after breaking ground, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, has proudly announced that construction is on schedule and that 90 percent of the $100 million needed for the project has already been provided. Walking in a hard hat down wooden staircases and through giant spaces stripped down to their bare concrete walls - the occasional sawing and drilling noises competing with the voice of museum director James Snyder as he explains which museum wing each concrete box is going to become - makes the renewal very real. Listening to the MoMA-trained director with the shock of white hair and round-rimmed glasses, one gets the sense that Snyder has the project under his thumb. He, however, gives due credit to deputy director Dor Lin and administrative deputy director Ephrat Pomerantz, who he says are on site every day making sure that the massive project involving five giant cranes is moving along at the necessary pace. There are two main aspects to the renewal project. The first is to create a completely new approach from the entrance of the museum to the center of the museum campus. To do this, the museum has hired New York architect James Carpenter, who has worked on a variety of high-profile projects, such as the new Hearst headquarters (which involved saving the original facade of an existing building), the podium light wall of the Seven World Trade Center building in New York, a proposed multi-use sports enclosure for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Madison Square Garden renovation. For the Israel Museum, Carpenter has created an architectural language that reflects the original modular approach created by Alfred Mansfeld for the museum - a Modernist take on an Arab village set into the Jerusalem hillside - but infuses a signature style that develops his own architectural statement. He has designed a series of glass-walled pavilions at the front of the museum that will include ticketing, retail and food services. To control the heat and sunlight, the pavilions will be surrounded by glazed terra cotta shutter-like frames, which will create shade while also letting in light during the day. At night, the spaces between the shutters will let incandescent light out of the pavilions, giving the museum entrance a moonlike sheen from afar. Carpenter has also created a two-pronged approach from his entrance pavilion to Mansfeld's gallery pavilion - one along the original outdoor pathway that includes a number of staircases, and a second subterranean climate-controlled concourse that remains nearly on the same level as the entrance (making it barrier-free and wheelchair accessible) and ends at a sunken courtyard with a staircase, an escalator and an elevator leading up to the heart of the redesigned museum. This second main aspect of the campus renewal - the reconstruction of the original museum complex from within - has been taken up by Tel Aviv-based Zvi Efrat of Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. Efrat, who is also the head of the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, has created a central circulation point from which all the museum's main exhibit wings - Archeology, Judaica and Jewish Ethnography, Fine Arts, and Temporary Exhibitions - are accessible on the same level. To achieve this internal redesign without, in Snyder's words, "increasing the breadth of the existing envelope," the museum is being gutted from the inside, its exhibit halls are reconfigured, and a number of connecting passages are being added. The key to the project, though, is turning an area previously dedicated to internal museum service activity into exhibition spaces, resulting in an additional 9,290 sq.m. of gallery space that does not involve expanding the museum campus. As Snyder puts it, there are museums that are big, and there are museums that are too big. "We're big," he says of the Israel Museum, and is careful about not pushing the museum over the edge. Another surgical but significant detail in the renewal project is the fulfillment of Alfred Mansfeld's vision of Modernist cubes with floating roofs. The image was connected to black-tinted windows set along the top edge of each building. During the day they would allow sunlight into the galleries, and at night they would allow artificial light out of the buildings, in both cases creating the illusion that the roofs were suspended above the walls. When the structures were first erected, however, the single-ply tinted glass was not thick enough to control the effect of the harsh Jerusalem sunlight, and at some point the windows were simply painted over. Now a five-ply specially coated, insulated, filtered glass has been designed for this project, and the effect is already noticeable. "See, when you're inside," says Snyder, pointing up and looking outward, "you can make out the tops of the trees outside." But he insists that the effect only works with this heavily filtered view because the world of the gallery has to be distinct from the rest of the world. One of the final touches to the renewal project was a revamping of the museum's central outdoor plaza, raising two-thirds of it by a meter to improve its position as a vista point, and to split its length to make it more human-sized. The east side will lead to the underground passage that connects with the museum entrance, and the west side will open up on a wide staircase that feeds into the Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden, making it more central to the campus. The museum director and his staff project excitement, security and pride about all these changes. Snyder has created a $75 million endowment in Teddy Kollek's name that will be used exclusively to maintain operational costs, a base sum he hopes to raise to $150 million. Thanks to efficient planning, Snyder does not believe the museum's staff will have to increase much, despite the 50% increase in square footage. The renewal project was funded by 20 donors, none of whom gave a gift above $10 million. But perhaps the most significant fact is that in 2008, with the entire main campus of the museum shut down and only small temporary exhibits on display in the Youth Wing, the museum has welcomed 553,000 visitors - the highest attendance the museum has seen since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. As Snyder puts it, "The community continues to be drawn here, despite the work in progress."