In a new light

On the eve of the Israel Museum’s grand reopening, architect James Carpenter reveals how he reinforced the existing site while creating access to the landscape.

Israel Museum 311 (photo credit: Tim Hursley, courtesy of the Israel Museum)
Israel Museum 311
(photo credit: Tim Hursley, courtesy of the Israel Museum)
James Carpenter, the New York-based architect hired to design the Israel Museum of Jerusalem’s renewal project, worked for years as a light artist and developer of new glass materials. Although he studied architecture and design at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1972, his first works were a series of film installations at the John Gibson Gallery in SoHo.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Carpenter realized he wanted “to figure out a way to apply some of my conceptual thinking in film installation to more permanent building works.” Carpenter was set on extending his interest in “the phenomenology of light and dealing with it in a more permanent way.”
The earliest of such projects was a luminous glass bridge built for a private client in Marin County, California.
Other early projects included such unique installations as periscope windows, a dichroic light field, a luminous gateway, tension-net stairs and sculptural light reflects.
He took on a variety of projects, but in each one concerned himself with light. These included bridges, passages, sculptures, structures, landscapes, roofs, skylights, as well as walls and enclosures.
If for the late great architect Louis I. Kahn light reveals architecture, then for Carpenter architecture is designed to reveal the property of light. With this approach, he has gone on to receive numerous awards, including the National Environmental Design Award from the Smithsonian Institution, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
Since his early days, Carpenter has designed a host of architectural installations. These include high-profile New York City projects such as the Time Warner Center’s glass wall overlooking Columbus Square, the 7 World Trade Center light wall, and the Hearst Tower’s interior lobby cast glass water cascade. But he has also taken on smaller innovative projects in a variety of other destinations, including a luminous pier in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a luminous cube in the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum on Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in the western Galilee.
Launched in 2007, the current $100 million project upgrades and unifies facilities on the museum’s landmark 20-acre campus. New public spaces and visitor amenities were designed by James Carpenter Design Associates while Efrat-Kowalsky Architects (Tel Aviv) and Pentagram Partners (London) worked on reconstruction and reinstallation of the museum’s existing collection galleries.
The museum’s three main wings – Archeology, Fine Arts and Jewish Art in Life – are now accessible through a central connecting Cardo. The collection galleries are now doubled at 200,000 square feet, with contemporary art now totalling 22,000 sq.f. And enclosed climate-controlled underground “route of passage” connects a new three-story gallery entrance pavilion at the heart of the campus to the main entrance.
Carpenter synthesizes his background in visual arts, glass development and architecture to create design solutions that are unique to every project. For the Israel Museum’s campus renewal, his main project was to centralize the museum’s public services at the front, create a simpler route of passage from the the heart of the campus, and then create a space that allowed access to any one of the museum’s wings.
In anticipation of the Israel Museum’s reopening next week, In Jerusalem spoke to Carpenter by telephone about his experience working on the project.
How did you come by the project? James Snyder [director of the Israel Museum] came to me while I was on a trip to Israel. He was probably already working on how to renew the campus without looking for a big name. He’d seen articles about my work in the New York Times, the project at the World Trade Center, as well as subway tunnels that brought light below ground. Later he came to New York, and we spoke again. Gradually over a year or two, we built up a rapport.
I think he saw in our work – which is detail oriented, focused on development on design details and systems – that it was more about qualities of materials and scales and light. He realized it might be the right fit, both for the new building and reorganization of the preexisting ones.
What was the early planning process like? It developed over at least a two- or three-year period. It took shape, mutated, though the idea was to stay with the original layout. We wanted to stay inside the orthogonal grid but also wanted the new buildings to be effectively the opposite of the old buildings. The old structures are large concrete boxes with slim windows at the top and floating roofs. Volumes are geometrically powerful, but there’s no sense of openness or interconnection with each other. We wanted to have the new buildings be extremely open, transparent, with visibility of the landscape and other existing buildings.
Then we developed the idea of having two different profiles of light-redirection fins that wrap around the new all-glass buildings so that they never get the heat gain of direct sunlight. It’s an old method of working with daylight – to create indirect rather than direct light.
The louvers on the east and west sides take the light and redirect it onto the surface of the same louver. They use bounced sunlight to illuminate the building with indirect sunlight. They flip the light and have it wash the inside walls of the buildings. The main issue was how to create a building that has protection and shading but also connects with the landscape.
Did you find the original site conducive for such a redesign? We thought that one of most important things was to reinforce the clarity that was there at the beginning.
[Original architect Alfred] Mansfeld’s buildings don’t dominate the landscape; there’s an intimacy with them and the trees. We also made an effort to weave the [Isamu] Noguchi art garden together with the buildings.
Some of the changes over the last 40 years took away from the original clarity that Mansfeld had for the scheme. There was a road through the center of the campus that led to a courtyard with trash dumpsters. One major thing was to replace the function of the service road and put the services at the back of the museum.
To keep handicap accessibility and easier means of arriving at the central entrance pavilion, we created the route of passage below ground. It has small green courtyards and water elements where the sun comes down a glass wall from ground level and brings in light refracting from above. You have the sense of water, a connection to the landscape.
What other buildings had to be changed or moved? The primary thing in terms of reorganization was the location in the middle [of the campus] where there was a cafe. It was located in such a way that we could remove the cafe, excavate the location and put up a new building that fit in with Mansfeld’s grid pattern but also connected the route of passage with the main campus. This is the vertical connector between the different levels.
Before this, there was never a possibility to connect directly between different floors. Now you can immediately connect to all the different galleries.
Then we took the existing cluster of the cafe, bookstores and gift shop – which was up in the main core of the museum – and put those down at the entrance.
There’s now a retail pavilion that also has dining and entertainment. The public opportunities are now at the entrance of the museum. This allows the bookstore and restaurant to remain open when the museum is closed.
It also allowed for expanding the galleries at the core of the museum. These were all strategic planning decisions.
So the idea was to add something new without taking anything away? What has been added is there specifically to reinforce the presence of the existing work. There are so many instances today where museum additions are being done where the original building is completely lost. It no longer has its presence, site context – it’s overrun. So much has happened [at the Israel Museum] over the last 20 years. We wanted to create something clearly new, that clearly has an architectural concept but that is just as clearly in keeping with the architectural idea of the existing buildings.
You don’t always have something as good as Mansfeld [’s original design], the Noguchi [Art] Garden and [Frederick] Kiesler’s Shrine of the Book – and so we thought about how to sympathetically weave in a new element that has a presence but doesn’t take over the other parts. How to make the interfaces among those three distinct elements stronger. They are clearly each doing their thing and are all totally different. But the new work has to have the capability of linking them all together.
How did the project develop over time? As we tried to understand the history of the site over the last 45 years and the history that linked Noguchi, Kiesler and Mansfeld, and as we studied the quality of light, a lot of these things started coming together simultaneously.
We started solving a few basic problems – the design solutions arose out of those problems. After taking shape, there was a lot of development in the details.
One thing I think people don’t appreciate about the original Mansfeld buildings is that he linked these buildings together. Externally they look like cubes stuck together at the corners. But internally they’re very sophisticated in terms of movement in elevations. You think from its orthogonal organization that it’s static, but from its negative volumes it’s quite remarkable. It almost sends you on spirals without you even knowing it. We tried to capture and highlight that in the new gallery pavilion and were able to explore and reveal the interconnection of volumes in a more transparent way than you can recognize in the Mansfeld buildings.
People don’t see the dynamic quality of the negative spaces created by Mansfeld. You’re contained within his volumes, and you’re moving in and out of these boxes.
We wanted to have you in the same volume but let you see out of it. [The new entrance pavilion] has the same qualities and proportions as the Mansfeld buildings, but it feels much bigger because you can see out of it rather than be in a concrete box.
How is this project different from others you’ve undertaken? Our projects are always different from each other.
We’re not promoting a particular style. Obviously it’s modern, clean, well detailed, but it’s always about the light and a deep understanding of working with materials.
One of the big challenges was coming up with a very simple vocabulary of materials. It’s basically just concrete, ceramic, terrazzo and glass. It’s different than the original vocabulary but very sympathetic to it. It’s constructed fairly economically but has a reading of having more precision to it and more of a level of detail.
We allow each project to generate its own unique presence in terms of how light is used. In this case, it was a question of developing these light-blades. They were designed specifically for these buildings, this light. We studied the angles of the sunlight throughout the year in quite great detail. Especially for bringing light below ground to the passageway. This allows nature to become more significant to the building itself.
Our work is more performance driven – clearly dealing with the issues, the program, with the public’s experience, materials. It’s a sequence of problems that need to be addressed. I think this is what James [Snyder] was after. Materials used in a clear way. It’s more about the effect created by the materials than the materials themselves. The design of the architecture reveals the property of light.