The palace on King Saul Blvd

New annex at Tel Aviv Museum of Art soundly within $55 million budget, ample delight included.

Tel Aviv art museum 521 (photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Tel Aviv art museum 521
(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is just the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Herta and Paul Amir Building, designed by American architect Preston Scott Cohen.
In photographs, the building manifests itself as boldly angled, knife-sharp concrete forms silhouetted against an azure sky. In reality, the physical object is rather a shy annex, demurely hiding in back of the old Tel Aviv Museum building on King Saul Boulevard and the Beit Ariela Library. Furthermore, it is nearly two-thirds below ground.
In Bilbao, Spain, a drab industrial city has redefined itself as a tourist attraction and a design center through a single marvelous building designed by star architect Frank Gehry, sending tremors of jealousy through many a museum director’s spine, and initiating a decade or two of grand museum projects worldwide.
But here in Tel Aviv, with such a minimal impact on cityscape, we can hardly expect a Bilbao-like effect. Yet the Amir Building is a finely crafted museological machine, assembled of broad, high, white, neutral galleries, with no natural light to “interfere” with curatorial considerations or threaten sensitive pigments and materials. All galleries and ancillary spaces are arrayed around an impressively designed vertical circulation core, which offers the public a profound sensual experience of light and space – hence named “The Lightfall.”
Architecture, as the Roman architect Vitruvius would have it, should be not just a firm structure, accommodating known purposes, but also a delight. Fifty-five million dollars may not sound cheap, but the Tel Aviv Museum is hardly over the top for a building of its type. It came in soundly within the budget with ample delight thrown into the bargain. The architectural spectacle is judiciously concentrated in some relatively small areas – the vertical core and the upper outside wrapper.
In the Lightfall, the architect makes extensive use of curvy forms known as hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces (hypar surfaces).
A hypar is a curvy surface, much flatter in appearance than a dome, possessing various architectural and engineering advantages.
It can be a saddle shape or a piece of one, and although seemingly “free form,” it has a precise mathematical definition. Despite their intriguing shape, hypars are relatively easy to articulate constructively – they can be made to utilize straight elements of formwork and reinforcing bars, and have been used often in Israel in the 1960s.
Originally, the outside wrapper, the bag or box holding together the innards of the building, was also intended to be composed of hypar surfaces, but that was changed for budgetary and constructional reasons. The existing skin is less continuous, reminiscent of a squashed diamond or a squashed soccer ball, thus giving off the air of an architectural irony. That effect is augmented by the fact that the building can be viewed only at close range, where the articulation of parts dominates perception of the whole.
In many aspects, the new Tel Aviv Museum building has an august lineage.
The vertical circulation core as pièce de résistance pays proper homage to the old museum building by Dan Eytan and Yitzhak Yashar, but also to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. But here in Tel Aviv, the vertical core does not devour and dominate the whole of the building – much to the relief of curators and exhibition designers.
In the new museum, the floor plans are rotated 22.5 degrees with respect to one another, with the aim of detaching the visitor from the mundane of the city towards the sublime of the museum. This can be compared to a person leaving the street to enter a place of worship; no longer oriented on the urban grid, he or she may be redirected to face Mecca or Jerusalem, the whole building “turning around” to serve that focus. It is not something the visitor can plainly see; some would say it adds a feeling of “specialness” whereas others would say it adds confusion. Either way, it enlivens the building and creates surprises.
This building is one in a series of largescale anamorphic experiments in Cohen’s recent work. Anamorphosis is a conceptual process by which initial forms are treated as if by a curved mirror – made to evolve through distortion, rotation, twisting and other operations, so as to yield sensually exciting spaces. Other such experiments by Cohen are in Nanjing, Taiyuan and Datong in China, in what are for the most part vast, flat, nearly contextless sites.
Although by no means repetitive, they share certain overall features – a basic horizontality clad in an angular wrapper going through unexpected zigzags, sharp corners, soaring peaks, a continuous skin, circulation as an organizer. For better or worse, the Tel Aviv Museum is crammed into the backyard of a cultural campus, and the explosive forces shaping the design seem bridled by comparison.
As befits late-capitalist Israel, Cohen injects into the design a healthy amount of willful artistic bravado, so different from the Bauhaus ethos of the 1930s, which has won Tel Aviv UNESCO world heritage site status. Regrettably, the building suffers a bit from the orthodoxy of its professional museological staff.
Why does a museum cafeteria have to be three floors below ground level? That floor may be fine for those gloomy, eschatological Anselm Kiefer paintings on exhibit now, but who wants to have a cup of coffee there? The clash between rectangular galleries and triangular lot lines yields a number of interesting spaces in the upper levels – why not have a coffee shop up there?
In the same vein, one may regret the fact that more effort was not made to enliven some of the exhibition spaces with natural light, as other museums have recently and successfully done, managing to balance curatorial considerations with a measured response to sun and sky.
This building says to the Israeli public – I am 21st century, I use computers, I am a contemporary of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, I am squarely on the side of Form.
This is not a “people building” nor a “green building” – it is a Palace or a Temple celebrating pride, the self, technology, professionalism and money. The public is invited to partake of the experience, not participate in the process.
Yet, all in all, it is not a building hostile to either human scale or the environment.
If this building should bring up again the question of foreign architects participating in prestigious Israeli projects – one may say that, in this case, it can only enliven the local architectural discourse. It is an innovative feature in an architectural landscape where most high-profile public projects go to a handful of the usual suspects.