An inside job

The $50m.-plus plan to rebuild the Israel Museum, without touching its famous skyline.

areal museum 298 (photo credit: Courtesy of James Carpenter Design Associates)
areal museum 298
(photo credit: Courtesy of James Carpenter Design Associates)
Without any fanfare, the Israel Museum has embarked on a plan to reorganize all its pavilions and rationalize the access and movement of visitors. The basic aims are to add more exhibition space and shorten the approach to the exhibits by building a new entrance pavilion, served by a walkway protected from the elements. Three teams of architects are involved, all selected without a tender or via a competition. Though planning began nearly a year ago, the museum issued a press release only last month after this writer protested a leak of the story to Ha'aretz. The $50m. plan will be paid for by private American and Israeli donors - including two separate gifts of $10m. apiece and five more of $5m. each - and another $7m. will come from the Israeli Treasury to cover the salaries of a project manager and the construction teams. Work is to begin next year. Planning is also underway to revamp the Bronfman Archaeological Wing. Director James Snyder says the museum will remain open during construction, but when pressed admits that all its main pavilions will be closed for at least two years. Snyder points out that because the museum is not financed by public funds, it was not required to issue a tender. Pressed to reveal how the choice of architects was made, he cites the museum's unidentified building committee and several unidentified "consultants." The need to launch the plan and find the funding as soon as possible may have something to do with the fact that Snyder's seven-year contract as director was due to end. The successful denouement of a successful plan to revitalize the museum would be an enormous feather in his cap and ensure his continued leadership. The plan, devised by the Tel Aviv firm of architectural theorists Zvi Efrat and Meira Kowalsky, is a fairly ingenious one that also provides answers to many of the museum's operational problems, without changing the handsome skyline profile of the museum. The concept is derived from their mapping of the museum and its topography, a task undertaken for the very first time. Working with mathematician Ido Zalman, the team has also devised a software program that will rationalize any future additions to the campus. Efrat is the head of the Bezalel Academy's department of architectural design, while Kowalsky has practical experience as a consultant and more recently as a planner of a new wing at the Tel Aviv Museum. The actual architecture and visitor movement are being designed by the prestigious American firm of James Carpenter Design Associates, while the construction will be supervised by the Tel Aviv architectural firm of Asaf Lerman. THE ISRAEL MUSEUM was designed nearly half a century ago by Haifa architect and Technion professor Alfred Mansfeld and interior architect Dora Gad, who won the competition for the campus back in 1959. After the museum opened, they were awarded the Israel Prize. While the museum looks wonderful when seen from the heights of Rehavia across the Valley of the Cross, it presents no face at all when seen from its parking lot or even from most points inside the campus. The museum is many times bigger than it originally was. The additions have been made piecemeal, with the result that visitors get lost in a labyrinth and often miss key displays altogether. Mansfeld's basic mistakes were many. He sited the main buildings up on the crown of the hill, a kilometer from the parking lot, with the uphill climb offering no protection from Jerusalem's harsh extremes of climate. The design of his modular pavilions did not work because of their square format and mushroom design, which relied on an obtrusive central supporting pillar carrying both drainage and the power supply. The roofing was connected to the walls by glass that let sunlight fall on the exhibits and, for a while, also let in rain. The windows were eventually sealed and painted black. The museum's previous director, Dr. Martin Weyl, battled Mansfeld's resistance to change over a period of years. Mansfeld opposed the design of the Impressionist pavilion, the first major addition to successfully ignore the mushroom approach. Mansfeld's last gasp was supervision of the construction of the Weisbord entrance pavilion designed by Danish architect Jorgen Bo. Even before it was completed, it became clear that this large building was the silliest and most impractical museum structure ever built. Hostile to the end, an ailing Mansfeld was eventually ejected. He and Gad are no longer alive. Another conceptual disaster was the sculpture garden designed by American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, which consisted of three huge ramps covered with heavy gravel impassable to all but the very fit. As long as Noguchi was alive he refused to allow paths, shade or benches to be added. The garden is still the least visited section of the museum. Also unworkable, even primitive, are the small cafe and a coffee bar located inside the museum; while the restaurant proper, located beneath the main plaza, has been closed for years. Nearly seven years ago, not long after Snyder became director, the Beracha Foundation offered to put up $50m. to improve matters, hiring James Freed, the architect of Washington's Holocaust Museum, to produce a plan. Freed's idea was to provide a covered alternative walkway up to the museum while erecting a new multi-purpose orientation-events-restaurant building on the edge of the sculpture garden near the Shrine of the Book. It was also intended to help shorten the hike up to the Crown Plaza. Freed also designed underground parking. Freed's plan was condemned at a public meeting at the museum of disgruntled local architects, who resented the employment of an American. Snyder also opposed the plan, in part because the Beracha Foundation was headed by his predecessor, the charismatic and immensely popular Dr. Martin Weyl. Having Weyl control the Freed construction was the last thing any new director would have wanted. Weyl was a multi-lingual Israeli with curatorial experience and total staff support; Snyder is still a very un-Israeli American who can't express himself freely in Hebrew. Freed, who was suffering from Parkinson's Disease, soon died and the Beracha withdrew its offer. Weyl discreetly withdrew from any further contact with the museum. Most of the Freed budget would have been eaten up by his new building and the underground parking, without doing anything to improve the exhibition pavilions. THE BEAUTY of the new plan is that it aims to expand the museum from the inside, rationalizing all its dead areas of unexploited space. Armed with computers (which were not available when the museum was first conceived), the Efrat/Kowalsky mapping survey not only conceived an approach to exploiting existing space, it made a remarkable discovery: The beginning of the walkway was on the same level, give or take a few feet, as all the main pavilions which form the lower level of the museum (Judaica, archaeology, ethnology, impressionist to modern art, early Israeli art, the Bezalel period, photography and the arts of the Far East and Oceania, Africa and pre-Columbian peoples). This meant that a single axis could lead visitors to the halfway house of a new entrance pavilion that would begin where the now defunct restaurant is located. The pavilion would then extend, via a huge excavation, to beneath what is now the main entrance plaza. It would burst into the main lower level next to the recently refurbished auditorium, emerging through the wall of what is now the washrooms. Behind this entrance pavilion, underground, will be a large gallery for changing exhibitions of the type previously located in the Weisbord. The entrance pavilion will also offer access to the expanding archaeological wing, as well as providing elevators and escalators to the old upper floors. The Efrat/Kowalsky research was turned over to the widely applauded American firm of James Carpenter Design Associates. Carpenter specializes in both crowd flow and the use of new types of glass immune to direct sunlight and temperature changes. "Jamie," as James Snyder calls him, perhaps to avoid confusion, has proposed a tall but partially sunken entrance pavilion, a box made of protective glass, one far more unobtrusive than the Freed conception. The box conforms to the parameters of all the other flat-roofed boxes. Carpenter is also reorganizing the main pavilions in a way that will give visitors a clear idea of where they are and a choice of the culture they wish to explore. The black painted windows will be replaced by panes that provide luminescence, but not direct light. The bookshop and the shop selling museum replicas will move to a new retail pavilion at the entrance/exit to the museum. This will enable the Judaica section to obtain a lot more space and will widen the entrance to the archeology wing. Two of the three restored synagogues will be left where they are but will be augmented by the synagogue from Surinam, which has remained crated for years. The small but lovely Polish barrel-vault synagogue painted by a skilled Jewish folk artist several centuries ago (once used as a cow barn and rescued by the town of Bamberg) will be moved to join the linear parade of synagogues. The banishment of the self-service atrium cafe will also make way for the development of the lower floor of the Sachs pavilion, which will be further expanded by the relocation of the adjoining electronic art resource center. All these elements had been temporary insertions in a complex that, like the immortal Topsy, "just growed." Many pavilions of the museum are of different heights that correspond to the original rocky topography and are currently connected by steps that take the visitor up and down and complicate life for the maintenance crews. Getting them all onto one level is an admirable aim, though the technical difficulties are daunting. One hopes that Carpenter will also be able to improve the museum's ineffective and barely variable lighting, using the latest non-color filaments. Not only the pictures, but their labels require lighting. Curiously, many of the museum's exhibition designers regard vital printed information an intrusion. Sadly lacking at present are dozens of benches for the footsore and elderly and these should be part of the movement flow program. They would certainly enhance enjoyment of all the paintings, both classical and later. The museum has already embarked on its $11.5m. renewal of the Bronfman Archeology Wing, undertaken with the aid of Pentagram Design of London, with funds supplied by Charles Bronfman and his children. This brings the overall renewal budget up to around $70m. The weakest link in the plan is the transfer of what Snyder calls food services to the Weisbord Pavilion, which Snyder hopes will hold small exhibitions while the main pavilions are closed. Getting food and drink out of the pavilions is a good idea, but visitors will thus get some sort of sustenance only on their way in or out. In less than two months from now, the Israel Museum will open the newly installed model of Second Temple Jerusalem, formerly located behind the Holyland Hotel. The fascinating model, which now adjoins the Shrine of the Book, will be surrounded by a circular promenade and the model will have a second entrance at the parking lot for visitors who wish to view it without entering the museum. Its promenade will also give visitors their first view of the not very exciting stonework supporting the semi-circular ramps of Noguchi's sculpture garden.