Building on his success

With over 200 projects under his belt, architect Arthur Spector is ready to take on even grander designs

Arthur Spector 521 (photo credit: 2013 The Robert Slater interview ARTHUR SPECTOR NA)
Arthur Spector 521
(photo credit: 2013 The Robert Slater interview ARTHUR SPECTOR NA)
Arthur Spector has been the “go-to” architect for the planning and designing of some of Israel’s landmark buildings, an impressive achievement for someone who, when he visited Israel for the first time in 1962, had not planned to spend more than a year in the Jewish state.
Since starting to work as an architect in Jerusalem in the early 1960s, Bostonborn Spector, 74, has planned and designed 200 projects, most of them in Israel. These include the new $360 million hospital tower at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood; Beit Gabriel, the cultural and social center on Lake Kinneret (in partnership with the Plesner Weinman firm) and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center (“though,” quips Spector, “we didn’t share his politics”).
He has also built hospitals in West Africa and India. Spector has a special interest in designing hospitals. “I like the nitty gritty of it, the small stuff,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “It is really a combination of science and art.” At present, he is involved in the construction of an 11,000-seat sports complex in Jerusalem.
In 1974, Spector designed the Sharett oncology building at the Hadassah facility in Ein Kerem. “We tried to treat people going for oncology with the most sensitivity that we could, warmer materials for the entrances so the doors say hello to you, and art that involves the patients. You try to get as close as you can to hospitality, similar to what hotels offer.” In 2001, in conjunction with the New York-based architectural firm Perkins Eastman, he began designing a new oncology department – the Davidoff Cancer Center – at the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva.
The new center opened in 2005.
I met with Spector in his new office in a building he designed for the Rothschild Foundation, adjacent to Jerusalem’s YMCA, which is visible from his window. He has long wavy gray hair. His Boston accent is entirely gone. He is as busy as ever, with projects abroad and around Israel, especially in Jerusalem. Today, he presides over an office that has 21 associate architects in one of the country’s most prestigious architectural firms.
Spector always knew he wanted to be an architect – but can’t pin down the reason why he was drawn to the profession. “When I was 10 years old, I told my parents I want to be an architect, God knows why,” he says.
“There was no architect in the family. No one influenced me. I must have enjoyed drawing.”
Six decades later he beams. “It’s a terrific profession.”
While studying architecture as an undergraduate at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he became aware of the complexity of his chosen field. “I was struggling with the subject,” he recalls. His RPI professor, Louis Kahn, one of America’s most illustrious architects, mentored Spector, urging him to make sure to avoid mistakes early in the design phase. It was advice Spector tried to follow his entire career. In 1962, Kahn arranged for Spector to join a team of international architects in Tel Aviv commissioned to design an entire city at the historic northern Negev site of Ein Besor, a city that was never built. A year later, with the project in limbo, the 24- year-old Arthur Spector chose to spend a second year in Israel, this time in Jerusalem, where he apprenticed with acclaimed architect David Resnick.
In 1964, Spector met and married South- African born Faith, in Jerusalem. They have two children, Yael, an architect, and David, a surgeon; and five grandchildren. In 1971, after seven years with Resnick, Spector and architect Michael Amisar opened their own architecture office in Jerusalem.
Spector’s breakthrough project came in 1980, when he designed the Sieff and Marks High School (or Ziv, as it more commonly called) in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood. The city’s mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, was so anxious to promote new building in Jerusalem and in pleasing the Sieffs, who ran Marks & Spencer in England, that he summoned Spector to go over the building plans.
Acknowledging that he is “old school,” Spector displays ambivalence toward the computer. He still renders his designs in free hand on paper and then turns them over to an office associate to put on the computer. “I still can’t draw a line on the computer,” he confesses.
He has his own way of interacting between free hand and the computer. “I sometimes take a drawing from the computer and then take a piece of paper and I put the paper over the computer drawing,” he says. “I then take a pencil, and I work my way through the two designs to see the spaces that are going on inside the drawings. Then I point out to my staff the five or six corners of the design that need special detailing.”
Design ideas come to Spector sometimes in the middle of the night. “I’m not a great sleeper, so at 3 in the morning my mind is freer,” he notes. “At that hour, I don’t have to be in meetings. I lie in bed and work things out in my mind. That’s how I see space.
That’s how I project ideas. And I think in the middle of the night, God, what a stupid thing I did earlier today. Maybe I can improve it.”
As if suggesting that he yearns for the computer-free days of the past, he still hangs on to an archaic relic, a long black ruler for drawing parallel lines that covers the length of the desk. “When we started making architectural designs, everything was drawn by hand,” he notes. “If somebody comes into this room and sees the black ruler, they will laugh at me because it’s so outdated.”
Recognizing that the computer has value, Spector suggests that it allowed for what he calls “freer building, designing a building with freer forms, not quite so rectangular.
You can do curves, you can do a lot more stuff that is interesting that may not be highly geometrical.”
So much of the Arthur Spector success story rests with his professional skills that it seems worth asking him what distinguishes his architectural firm from others. Suggesting that architecture is a service industry for both the client and the community, he replies, “We try to give better service. We put in an enormous effort. We never use anything we used in the past. Every building, every detail is built from scratch.”
That was not the case with the building of the Jerusalem landmark, the YMCA, which opened in 1933 (Spector designed the soon-to-open expansion, an underground sports complex). When New York architect Arthur Loomis Harman, who designed the Empire State Building, planned the Y in Jerusalem, he used the designs for the same staircases he had used in the New York skyscraper.
Overwritten on the original Empire State Building drawings, which Spector still has, was the order: “Transfer [the staircases] from the Empire State to the YMCA in Jerusalem.”
Lately, Spector is best known for designing the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson 500-bed hospital tower that opened in March 2012 at Hadassah, Ein Kerem. For the early stages of that project, he partnered with HKS Architects in Dallas, Texas. Begun in 2004, the tower represents Spector’s largest (100,000 square feet) and most complicated project. Spector’s design sought to give the patient the feeling of being in a hotel. One-third of the rooms are single, the rest double. There are four “healing gardens” inside the tower that give patients a feeling of being outdoors.
Every room comes with a recliner for relatives to spend the night, a safe, a Shabbat light, TV and Internet.
For Spector, the Hadassah project is his most important, but it is not his biggest in size. That honor belongs to his Hemda science high school project (200,000 square feet in all), twice the size of the Hadassah tower. Hemda is actually 62 buildings in all, each built in a different community, all replicas of the original built in Tel Aviv.
Critics claimed the buildings were neither environmentally responsive nor designed in good taste, but Spector did not agree.
Spector was asked to advise on what architect should be chosen for several of the country’s most important buildings – the Supreme Court building, which opened in 1992, and the about-to-be-built National Library. Though he collaborated, he notes candidly, “I’m not good at the other side of the table like that. I’m usually a planner.
When you have a competition, you can’t sit and talk with the client because it’s anonymous. Nobody knows who you are.
I don’t believe in that. I think architecture should be a process in which you develop your ideas together with the person who is going to use the building.”
When he designed the Hadassah tower, the cost of rectifying earlier poor decisions was high. There were 5,000 drawings rendered for the project. So in the middle of the project, if one wanted to make a change, some 250 to 300 drawings had to be redesigned. “It’s a really complicated process, with many man hours and something always gets lost in the middle,” he says.
One important architectural principle that Spector follows, especially with buildings in Jerusalem, is to create designs that were contextual, buildings that fit into their surroundings. When Spector was asked in the early 1990s to design the YMCA expansion, he came up against YMCA officials who wanted large tennis courts and large soccer arenas, but Spector argued that such a large building would overwhelm the adjacent existing YMCA building – it would not be contextual.
“The complex in the eyes of these officials,” he explains, “became more important than the Y. It was so big. There was no open space.
When I suggested putting the sports complex underground, I thought they would fire me on the spot because they wanted to show that they were building a big building, and that they were powerful.” Coming up with the creative compromise of building the entire project below ground, Spector designed a sports complex with its roof a 7,000 square foot public park that is surrounded by a luxury apartment complex of 200 units.
Unable to avoid one of Jerusalem’s decades-long controversies over how high its skyscrapers should be built, Spector has been caught pincer-like between developers unfazed by city zoning restrictions on skyscrapers’ heights and residents who balk at efforts to defy those restrictions. He has watched with frustration his own efforts to work with developers when those projects become mired in official bureaucracy. Having designed a high-rise hotel in Jerusalem for the Four Seasons hotel chain, he says he has no idea if it will be built after urban planners insisted it be redesigned on a smaller scale.
“Jerusalem is a city that is mostly 3-4 story buildings with red roofs, and all of a sudden you are in the 21st century and somebody is asking you to design a very compact building of 100,000 square meters,” he says. “You can’t do that with three stories and red roofs.”
He has also designed a hotel in Jerusalem next to the 20-story Leonardo Plaza Hotel, after being told by officials that he can build no higher than the Plaza. The hotel remains on paper only, after a 20-year effort to launch the project has yet to bear fruit.
Scoffing at the idea of retiring, Arthur Spector, while happily talking about his past projects, appears ready and willing to take on even grander architecture for Jerusalem, and the world.