A worthy home for art

An inside look at the creative process that went into building the geometrically shaped addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Art 521 (photo credit: EILA EITAN/PR)
Art 521
(photo credit: EILA EITAN/PR)
Last week the Herta and Paul Amir Building, the latest addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was officially opened amid great pomp, stirring speeches and much clinking of champagne glasses. It was the culmination of a long process that began almost nine years ago, in January 2003 to be precise, when the first stage kicked off with an open and anonymous competition for Israeli architects.
This was clearly a choice contract to aim for and no less than 77 local architectural firms submitted proposals, in addition to bids from 20 architecture students.
The panel of judges included late museum director Prof. Mordechai (Motti) Omer, who sadly died earlier this year only months before the completion of the project he masterminded, museum architecture curator Meira Yagid- Haimovich and a host of top architects including municipality engineer and architect Danny Kaiser.
Four proposals made it through to the next phase, which took place in April of that year, joining two Israeli firms and three from abroad – from Switzerland, Japan and the United States. In January 2004 the latter was granted the project and Preston Scott Cohen and his team started work on the design of the $50 million extension.
If the Tel Aviv Museum executives were looking for a big name to head the project they certainly found it in 50-year-old Cohen. Cohen is a celebrated building designer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has an impressive slew of design projects in his burgeoning résumé, including the Taiyuan Museum and the Keystone Performance Center in China, and the Eyebeam Atelier Museum in New York.
The new edifice in Tel Aviv has all the hallmarks of Cohen’s geometric approach to architecture. Much of his creative ethos feeds off the descriptive geometry of the 17th century, but Cohen often augments this with a range of oblique projections. A brief glimpse at some of Cohen’s other creations clearly illustrates where he came from on the museum project. Even so, alongside the “routine” exhibition space-related factors, the designer was presented with some unique issues to cope with here.
“The museum presented an exceptionally productive challenge; to combine two paradigms of contemporary museums. On the one hand, the museum of neutral white box galleries that sponsor curatorial freedom, and on the other hand, the museum of extraordinary spaces and forms that inspire the public and create a whole new social experience,” he says.
“The project demanded both. It asked that the museum be generic and flexible enough to support international exhibitions and specific in its dedication to the production of Israeli artistic culture.”
There were also some interesting technical challenges that had to be dealt with.
“The shape and inconspicuousness of the site was the other source of challenge,” Cohen continues. “How to fit rectangular galleries in a nearly triangular site. What a wonderful architectural discipline problem to solve. The project was perfectly suited to my long-standing interests.”
Naturally, in this part of the world, lighting is also an issue. While in more northern climes such as Europe and the US, the problem is often how to maximize the use of natural light, which may generally be in poor supply, here the situation is quite the opposite. Mind you, considering that three of the new building’s five floors are below ground the plentiful supply of strong natural light still had to be channeled carefully to the lower levels.
For Cohen, light is not just a matter of simple illumination the way that most people view it. He addresses nuances within that area that relate to a spectrum of hues, and what he considers to be a healthy equilibrium between thermal levels and the emotional impact they have on a building’s users.
“I believe it is the color of light that most affects the feelings we have about spaces.
We struggled to achieve a very delicate and unexpected balance of warm and cool colored light, by means of different material surfaces, each with distinct behaviors in terms of their absorption, reflection and refraction of light,” he explains.
Cohen says he and Omer spent a lot of time examining all the minutiae of the light conundrum, including how to marry natural and non-natural sources of illumination.
“The galleries each have an indirect source of natural light. The dominance of artificial light in the galleries was required by the brilliant client, the director and chief curator Motti Omer, who knew more about galleries than anyone I have ever known.
We discussed and studied in detail the many types of exhibitions, from painting and sculpture to film, video and computer animation. Top light had to be relegated only to limited parts of the public sequences of spaces, while the light in galleries had to be carefully controlled.”
Cohen, who has undergraduate degrees in fine arts and architecture from Rhode Island School of Design, and a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, brought a wealth of experience to the Tel Aviv job, but says he always knew how he was going to earn his crust way before he first sat in a lecture room.
“I cannot remember any part of my life before I wanted to be an architect,” he declares, adding that his initial source of inspiration came from very close to home.
“I became fascinated and obsessed with buildings when I was five years old. In part, it’s a predictable story. It began with a mimetic act: copying the drawings of my mother, who was then designing a house she hoped we would someday build since ours had been outgrown. A year later, it was decided that we should add on to our house. The demolition of walls and construction of new ones was the first exciting architectural experience I had.
“At that point I began drawings and erasures of buildings being demolished and rebuilt, something I also saw happening extensively in the center of our home city, Asheville. Since childhood, I have always loved the process of urban transformation.”
It isn’t just buildings per se that get Cohen’s creative juices going. Besides their proven technical abilities architects and designers get their individual muses from all kinds of places. Some, for example, draw on the works of painters, others are moved by music.
“I love many artists for many reasons,” says Cohen, “artists as different as [56-year-old American artist known for his depictions of banal objects] Jeff Koons and [79- year-old German visual artist] Gerhard Richter, or songwriters as different as [Radiohead vocalist] Thom Yorke and [Sixties singer-songwriter] Laura Nyro. Koons materially transforms the crude into the exquisite while Richter discovers landscapes in a process of excavation and poetic ruination [paint that looks scraped and peeling].
“Both deal with ideas and temporal conditions that I am deeply interested in.
Yorke’s melodies are so haunting as to be immortal. Nyro’s voice expresses passion so singularly it pierces our hearts. The effects of their songs are indescribable. Architecture too can be made to endure by hitting our deepest chords.”
The sonic analogy goes even further, and Cohen believes that buildings talk to us and that musicality is inherent in architecture.
“No doubt about it, they do. We identify with buildings. They possess our bodies, imply how we should move about, where we should go and where we should pause.
We recognize in buildings the forces that motivate and shape spaces – both in terms of how spaces try to choreograph our daily lives but also in terms of how they partake in certain forms, struggling to balance the circumstances that caused this or that disposition of elements and structures by adhering to a formal idea, whether it be based in an ordering pattern or a figurative overall shape.
“The structures of architecture are embodied in fixed forms that refer, nonetheless, to dynamic forces, weights and counterweights, tension and compression. We, the inhabitants, can read or intuit these tectonic characteristics of buildings.”
If that is the case then, surely, it follows that the building-human bond takes on varying colors and cultural baggage in different parts of the world. Cohen says he indeed endeavors to take the local culture and way of life into account when he approaches projects in different countries.
That certainly came into the equation with the museum venture.
“I tried to engage and identify with the way people live in civic and cultural buildings in Tel Aviv and to understand how people circulate in the city’s outdoor vs indoor spaces.”That mind-set soon led Cohen onto the next stage.
“Early on, it became very evident to me that this building would need to be much more than a museum.
It would house many uses and constituents. It would be multi-generational. Therefore, the spaces inside are designed to be diverse in size and proportion, in character using materials and light, both warm and cool.”
As the planning work progressed Cohen became more conversant with architectural goings-on in this neck of the woods.
“I also became deeply interested in the material and construction practices in Israel. Amit Nemlich, the project architect who came from Israel to work with me in Cambridge [Massachusetts], was extremely knowledgeable of Israeli means and methods and made it possible to integrate these with the new forms we were designing.”
Nemlich’s local insight, says Cohen, was crucial to the outcome of the work.
“It is owing to his absolutely remarkable talent and capacity as a building synthesis architect that this project was so successfully realized. His knowledge of structures, systems, details is so high. The lesson to take from this experience is the importance of integrating the process of design development and local customs of integrated design, engineering and construction.”
Of course, designers can come up with a variety of plans and concepts for a project but there is generally a practical, functional and financial bottom line to be accommodated, too. Cohen sees such practicalities as a springboard for inventiveness rather than a bane.
“More than anything, the project thrives on the way in which constraints – whatever they be, spatial and site limitations or budget limitations – spur innovation,” he says. “We knew early on that the building would have to be on budget since the donors would need to be persuaded that their investments would succeed, that we would fulfill our promise. From the beginning, I brought Amit Nemlich to the US to work with me and we insisted that the client and project manager, CPM, engage all the consultants early so that we could assess our options on all matters of engineering and planning, from systems to sanitation, lighting to kitchen and acoustics.”
Allowances did have to be made, and some even enhanced the end product.
“We made some key, early cuts and reduction of areas in order to save considerable excavation costs. We reached a new design for the roof, after the competition, which was actually more interesting for the form of the building but which also concentrated the drainage and allowed a less expensive solution overall.”
Cohen says he maintains an unrepentantly positive attitude in the face of seemingly restrictive prerequisites, and adds that proof of the pudding is here for all to see.
“If limitations are treated as an interesting part of the project itself from the beginning, the budget is not a negative force. Rather, it becomes productive. The project was on budget and on schedule. We never thought it would be any other way.”
For Cohen, incorporating environmental friendliness in the new museum wing was also a given.
“From the beginning, the building program required that almost half the spaces be underground. We exploited the energy savings that this entails. We used state of the art systems and were careful to avoid the invasion of high levels of heat from overexposed glass areas.”
Although Cohen had a more than a fair idea of what his building would look like, he says the ultimate design for the project unfolded through the screening process, and that this is a constant element in all his work.
“The evolution of the design is one of the most interesting aspects of any project,” he notes. “I enjoy watching a project transform and improve over time.
It must reach a sense of inevitability, a quality one must fight hard to achieve.”
The selection process lent itself to that mind-set and helped Cohen firm up on his final design proposal.
“The competition was excellently handled in my opinion because we were asked, in the second stage of the competition, to respond to the jury’s concerns, to meet with each member of the jury and to review all the issues. The design was simply not completely resolved in the first stage. It was only after the launch of the second stage that I was able to conceive of the concept for the final facade and numerous programmatic relationships within.”
Fine tuning was the order of the day, and increasing numbers of elements were taken into consideration as Cohen became more familiar with the museum director and executives, and what Omer was looking for.
“Several major spaces moved around. I learned what the client wished for in terms of public spaces and the balance between the museum galleries and other private and public functions in the building. This was made possible by the extremely constructive meetings with each member of the jury. Most important were the meetings with Motti Omer, the director, with whom a relationship of genuine mutual understanding and trust began to develop. The conversations allowed me to learn about his vision for the new museum of Israeli art.”
Cohen says it also helps to be pushed by the person paying the bill.
“A building is only as good as its client and Motti was an excellent client. It was very rewarding to see the design of the facades and plans evolve toward meeting his goals.”
Once the museum heads’ ideas had been taken on board and Cohen got into the nitty gritty, the work evolved and morphed even further.
“The next most important stage of development occurred in response to collaborations with consultants and the contractor. As the solution to the concrete construction became clearer, the geometry was adapted and refined. The design continually improved as the tectonics of its construction made it increasingly more purposeful.”
This, explains Cohen, is very much a two-way street.
“The initial geometry of the design had the power to motivate the issues of construction which led to innovative yet pragmatic solutions. This is the main achievement of the project.”
Politics also often insinuates itself into the way a building design eventually pans out, and the Tel Aviv Museum project was no different.
“The political dimensions of architecture are many.
Perhaps the first to consider are the processes involved in the deployment of significant resources, and in the negotiations among all the constituents involved.
Architecture must be cognizant of political complexity.
Sensitivity on so many levels is required.”
That also had a bearing on the actual physical realization of the job in hand, and Cohen also found himself looking at politics of a narrow local nature.
“Speaking now more concretely: symbolically, the fact that the Amir Building for the Tel Aviv Museum was designed to be shaped so unusually and thus was not well suited to be made of stone, meant that it resisted participating in the ‘Jerusalemization’ of Tel Aviv. It was intentionally destined to be concrete.
Though it is a new version – white precast, super smooth, impervious and in 460 different-shaped façade panels that define a curtain wall hung on a steel frame [this is not mere cladding, but is rather the building’s true envelope] – the concrete evokes the bygone eras of Tel Aviv innovation – the Bauhaus and the postwar period of Modern Brutalism. In this way, it is innovative while extending the legacies of Israeli architectural culture that belong, specifically, to Tel Aviv.”
The bottom line of all those myriad aesthetic, technical and other considerations is a highly attractive and inviting building which will provide a worthy home to some great works of art from across the globe.