One on One: Designing a legacy

Architect and philanthropist David Azrieli works 'wonders.'

azrieli towers 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
azrieli towers 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'With the right mix, the quality of construction in Israel can be as high as it is in Canada," says David Azrieli. "It's a question of having good plans, good supervision and a crew who loves to do what they do." Listening to the 86-year-old architect wax poetic about his profession, one could easily be persuaded that passion is, in fact, the most important ingredient in any recipe - even when what rises is a building. Given his past, his present and his plans for the future, Azrieli knows what it feels like to overcome adversity through adherence to one's ardor. The son of a fashion designer father, Azrieli grew up in Makow, Poland. At the young age of 17 - after his parents and two siblings perished at the hands of the Nazis - he fled to Palestine. Here he studied architecture at the Technion in Haifa, then fought in the War of Independence. He emigrated to Montreal in 1954, where he made his first fortune, through Canpro Investments, the company he founded in 1958. Since then, he has built office and residential buildings in North America and Israel, as well as having established his Tel Aviv-based company, Canit Investment, Management and Finance. Today, Azrieli - who "used to go back and forth frequently when I was younger" - spends his winters in the home he designed for himself here, and his summers in Canada (he has children and grandchildren in both countries; his daughter, Danna, also an architect, is the Israel-based vice president of the Azrieli Group). Having inherited his father's artistic abilities and the tradition of charity in his home as a child, Azrieli says that making the transition from architecture and business to philanthropy was not difficult. And just as he was able to envision every structure he created - from sketchbook to skyscraper, as it were - he has been able to witness foresight come into fruition in other areas as well. Though his has become a household name in this country for his famous shopping centers - certainly the one in Tel Aviv, listed among Israel's seven wonders, but also the Jerusalem Mall in Malha, Hanegev Mall in Beersheba and the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan - what may be less known about him among the general public is his dedication to education. This he promotes through the Azrieli Foundation, established in 1989 to support different societal initiatives and programs. One such program is "Educational Empowerment." The five-year-old project, which Azrieli describes lovingly as one launched "to help keep children from dropping out of school," was recently given a "home" in Beersheba - though it is now operating in seven cities throughout the country. "Beersheba now has a 2 percent drop-out rate - the lowest in the nation, maybe even in the world," he says proudly. "It is a tremendous achievement that this program, which I initiated, has enabled the children to escape to a place where they can do their homework; it has helped more than 1,000 kids stay in school." Another of his babies is the Azrieli Fellows Program for "promoting academic excellence and leadership." Amid growing concern about the "brain drain" born of limited resources and job opportunities for academics, Azrieli decided to confront the phenomenon through grants to talented young people. This year, there are 21 recipients in this program geared "to create a cadre of leading professionals and academics who will increase the pool of technological and scholarly human resources in Israel." During an hour-long interview at his office at the top of the Azrieli Towers, the man behind the bustling edifice on Rehov Kaplan insists that he intends to "keep going" in all of his endeavors "as long as I'm able." If it's true that every famous architect has a recognizable "stamp" that makes his work distinct, what is yours? That is true. Each architect has - or, if he doesn't, would like to have - a "footprint" of his own. Some of the famous architects go out of their way to create very elaborate, sometimes not totally reasonable, designs in order to advance their vision and their footprint. Mine is the "icon" - that's not created overnight and lasts for years. The test of time and eventual continuous use, for service or enjoyment, is my motto. I designed all my projects here with this in mind, and some of them became icons immediately, like the Azrieli Center. In fact, it was voted one of the seven wonders of Israel. Isn't having such a structure become an icon problematic, due to its potential for becoming a target for terrorism? Well, in times of terror, we're all targets, not just the icons, but certainly, terror sometimes does seek out the more prominent places, for greater effect. What made you want to study architecture, after coming to Palestine following the Holocaust? From an early age, I wanted to become an architect. I drew well, and I've always been fascinated by buildings and their design. I am blessed to be able to sketch out a project, in three dimensions and in color, before it ever hits the drawing board. And I'm very happy that I became an architect, because nothing gives me more pleasure than watching my sketches turn into buildings. Truly, there is nothing I would like to be but what I am. How did philanthropy fit into this? I brought the act of giving with me from my childhood - whether the blue JNF box, or helping the poor in the little town in Poland where I grew up. So giving back to society was never a problem; I didn't have to make a special effort to do so. Do you consider giving a Jewish value? Yes, I think that we Jews are more prone to value philanthropy and mutual assistance, because traditionally, we didn't have governments helping us; we had to help ourselves. And so now, in the modern world, in the US, Canada and Europe, where Jews can do almost anything, there still is that responsibility to say, "I am for my brother," and to help the Jewish people. It has been said that the only place in the world where Jews are not so successful or philanthropic is in the Jewish state. Do you agree that Israelis don't seem to have the culture of giving as ingrained in them as Jews in the Diaspora? No, I don't. I see very important contributions to philanthropy being made here. I'll give you an example: I served as president of the Canadian Technion Society for some time. And for many years, Canada was No. 2 in raising contributions for the Technion, after the United States. Today, Israel is in second place, after the US. I think this applies to other philanthropies as well. It's true there might be a feeling here that the state should worry more about the poor, and I do not disagree. But is Israel doing less in this respect than the French, or the Italians, or the Greeks, or the Americans? I don't think so. Percentage-wise in relation to the population, there are as many people under the poverty line in Canada and the US as in Israel. We have a greater responsibility, though, because as Jews we should be doing better - our percentage should be much lower. There seems to be a distinction made between philanthropy during times of crisis - such as war - and the routine giving for ongoing projects, such as youth at risk. Do philanthropists here tend to belong to one category or the other? Do some only wake up when there's an emergency? I wouldn't argue that when needs are greater, more people wake up, but I wouldn't necessarily consider this a trend. I think that giving is steady and solid, and it's there at all times. But, yes, crises do move more people to help. What about now, during the global financial crisis? Suddenly, many wealthy people have lost millions or even billions of dollars. Is this causing panic that leads wealthy people to be less anxious to fund projects than before? This could very well be. But I hope people will still contribute the percentage proportionate to what they can afford. Still, my foundation, which is under Canadian law, is legally obliged to distribute a certain percentage of its value annually, notwithstanding the surrounding economic conditions. Many people in the hi-tech sector are being laid off. Is your company going to have to fire employees as well? I don't think so. We are a very conservative company. We did not expand and borrow unnecessarily. In fact, now we have the resources to expand and buy. In 1983, I came to Israel and was shown a garbage dump, which I then turned into the Ayalon Mall. And that was in 1983! - during the bank crisis and when inflation was 500 percent. So, in terms of my own experience, this crisis is not affecting us at all. The point is that many jobs are created through enterprises like this, not only the construction workers and such, but all the merchants and other auxiliary employment. And while on this subject, I would like to point out that we created many part-time jobs for students and housewives, who had not been employed before, but who are now employed - in shops and so forth - in positions that enable them to work and to attend to their households and their children. I consider this an addition to many other economic aspects of the achievements of my activities in Israel. You don't seem pessimistic about this financial crisis. Why? This one may be deeper than some of its predecessors, but I feel that by around the middle of 2009, we will already see an improvement. I believe that the financial institutions will start lending again and providing financing, and people will start producing merchandise and building again. This doesn't mean it will have totally corrected itself. That may take more time, perhaps another year or so. But the world is not going to fall apart [he smiles]. Have you seen a change in Israeli attitudes toward your kind of endeavors - malls, in particular - since you began here? There is an enormous difference, culturally and otherwise. Indeed, one of the contributions we made was to create a culture of consumers - of the relationship to the consumer with better service, better displays, not having to shop in a dark, dusty room. We created an environment where consumers can come into a clean, air-conditioned environment with beautiful stores and good service. I do remember that, when I opened the Ayalon Mall, no Israeli thought - many wrote about it - that we would succeed in keeping the mall clean. But we did. And I proved it to my own people that when a place is clean, people respect it and will not make it dirty. And this is exactly what happened. I caught people picking up after other people - collecting candy wrappers and cigarette butts in front of those who discarded them, and they never dropped their garbage on the floor again. When the Jerusalem Mall in Malha was first built, the downtown shop owners were furious. Many city residents said that it would kill the center, once the stores and movie theaters moved. There was a perception that Israel was turning into America. How did you respond to those complaints? This has happened all over the world throughout history. Horse-and-buggy owners initially resisted cars. Any advance that creates more opportunities affects people who do not take advantage of those opportunities. But the fact is that most of the shop owners came to the mall and became part of it. And Jerusalem has been doing its best to bring life back to the center, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. It can't be done artificially. It happens when there's demand, and when the downtown merchants learn to do what the merchants in the mall are doing - which is to have clean, attractive, well-lit stores with beautiful displays. Indeed, this is starting to happen in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where Rehov Dizengoff, for example, is coming back to life. Is this because the merchants have to compete with one another? Yes, and so they should have to. One thing that hasn't quite taken in this country is rental housing. Do you see that changing?\ First of all, I think there should be more rental housing available in this country. But for this to happen, you have to deal with certain expected attitudes, maybe even with a psychological phenomenon here, where owning an apartment is the ultimate - even parental - achievement, while renting is considered somehow less respectable. When you say about someone that "he lives in a rented apartment," it somehow diminishes him. But it shouldn't be that way. Mobility for the purpose of being closer to one's job is important, which is why the government is doing something to promote more rental units. What are your future plans? To keep designing and building. As long as I am able do it, I will do nothing else.