Campus and the city

The municipality, under Mayor Nir Barkat, has made an effort to upgrade cultural life here, and to support artistic endeavor.

An architectural drawing of the new Jerusalem Arts Campus (photo credit: EFRAT-KOWALSKY ARCHITECTS)
An architectural drawing of the new Jerusalem Arts Campus
It is no secret that Jerusalem has had its trials and tribulations through the years. We’re not talking sieges on the Old City waged by Titus two millennia ago. This is about the here and now, the tough times endured, for example, by downtown Jerusalem businesses through the second intifada and even through the very protracted process of construction of the light rail.
Artists, too, have had their fair share of challenges and continue to struggle to find affordable studio space in the capital.
Even so, the municipality, under Mayor Nir Barkat, has made an effort to upgrade cultural life here, and to support artistic endeavor.
The capital’s arts and cultural scene is now set to undergo an incremental step in the desired direction as plans for a new campus begin to materialize. Late last year an announcement was made that the UJA-Federation of New York, now in its centennial year, was to partner with the Jerusalem municipality, the Israeli government and the Jerusalem Foundation on a “transformational” project involving the construction of a $50 million arts campus in downtown Jerusalem.
A press release put out by the federation described the campus as “a key element of a bold vision by the Municipality of Jerusalem and Mayor Barkat to amplify Jerusalem’s appeal, and draw people of all backgrounds by providing outstanding educational, employment and cultural opportunities.” That would certainly be a shot in the arm here.
The project calls for the construction of a one-hectare state-of-the-art multidisciplinary educational facility near the Gerard Behar Center on Bezalel Street. When completed, the site will be home to four distinctly different A-lister institutions that will relocate from their current berths around the city: the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, the School of Visual Theater and the Center for Middle Eastern Music.
Nava Disenchik, adviser to the mayor for art and culture, says the new initiative comprises another phase in the cultural development continuum in the capital.
“The mayor’s vision is to provide all the cultural institutions in Jerusalem with a home so that they stay here.”
Meanwhile, noting the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, Barkat said he is “excited and honored to announce this partnership with the UJA-Federation of New York and the Kirsh family, shareholders in the city who are committed to our most strategic projects.” The latter have contributed $10 million to the project.
One of the recurring problems here has been the ironic state of affairs whereby, while many of the country’s top academic arts facilities are located in Jerusalem, after graduating former students often return – or relocate – to Tel Aviv, where there are more employment opportunities and generally lower rent, too. The mayor is hopeful that the new campus will generate positive energies and dynamics in that regard.
“My vision for the city includes an essential focus on growing the city’s creative class. The Jerusalem Arts Campus will have a significant impact on attracting young people to the city, strengthening downtown Jerusalem and bringing the vibrant creative class to the city to stay.” From Barkat’s mouth… United Jewish Appeal CEO Eric S. Goldstein is agreeable to that mind-set and objective.
“As part of our centennial, we wanted to do projects that were emblematic of our principal priorities,” he notes.
“In Israel, we see this as a centennial initiative to ensure a vibrant future for Jerusalem, and by motivating professional Israelis – hiloni (secular), kippa sruga (crocheted kippa wearers) etc. – to live in Jerusalem and to raise their children there.”
Realization of the vision is still some distance off, with the new campus scheduled to be completed in 2020.
“We are at the stage of looking for a building contract,” explains Tel Aviv based architect Meira Kowalsky whose design for the campus won the tender.
“This is a very exciting project for us.”
Kowalsky continues. “It’s in Jerusalem, in the center of the city. It will introduce a lot of life and intensity to the cultural life of Jerusalem.”
Local businesses, particular eateries in the area such as Noctorno, are looking forward to the influx of thousands of students to the vicinity – and the revenue they will no doubt generate.
“There will be lots of youngsters in the center,” says the architect.
Kowalsky returns to the idea of sparking some positive momentum through the day-to-day interfacing of the students who will attend the schools on the campus.
“I think that the volume of young people who will be on the campus will generate some intensity of a cultural venue that will draw people to it.”
There is, says Kowalsky, added value in pooling educational resources.
“Today all the relevant institutions are spread around the city, from the Mount of Olives to Talpiot and other places. All that dissipates in the [urban] mass. I am certain that the bringing together of the schools will have a positive effect on the urban nature of the city.”
That would be a much-needed boon for Jerusalem and if, as Goldstein suggests, the initiative can help to engender a feel-good factor, draw young people to the city and possibly get former Jerusalemites to return, that would be a wonderful development that, possibly, many don’t currently even dare to contemplate.
The plans Kowalsky showed me make for attractive viewing. The various schools will be housed in separate adjacent buildings. The accent in the design is very much on intermingling, both within the buildings and between them.
“I hope that students from different institutions will meet on the campus.
That might lead to all sorts of great interdisciplinary projects,” she says. “I feel there is no substitute for actually meeting people face-to-face, instead of virtual online encounters.”
Goldstein is also excited by the prospect of mutual influences, the exchange of ideas on the future campus and the added value that it may offer on a broader level.
“I think there is a deliberate bringing together of a cultural group of people, who are interested in the arts and who can engage with each other. The schools are very different, in terms of enrollment, of who comes to them, and you put them all together in a school setting – that has to be good.”
The campus design not only prompts human interaction between the various student bodies, it will be an open space that can be freely accessed by members of the public so that, rather than viewing the educational establishments as cloistered entities, Jerusalemites as a whole may see the place as an inviting downtown location that welcomes one and all.
“The whole piazza of the campus will be accessible – without stairs – and the idea is to have entertainment there in the evenings, to which anyone can come,” Kowalsky explains.
“The idea is also to incorporate the [adjacent] Gerard Behar Center in all of this. It has a 500-seat hall and activities, and all of this together becomes an open space for cultural activity.”
“Culture is an economic lever,” says Disenchik. “We have to see what kind of city center we want. The campus can benefit everyone.”
Not that the mayoral cultural adviser expects this to change overnight.
“These processes take time,” she says.