Mann's middle ground

There's no need to tear down yesteryear's characteristic architecture because of shifts in taste.

mann auditorium 88 (photo credit: )
mann auditorium 88
(photo credit: )
At long last the Tel Aviv Municipality has published its plans to renovate the Mann Auditorium. Most noteworthy is what these blueprints don't contain. There will be no tinkering with the building's exterior. This sounds the definitive death knell for earlier, seemingly irrepressible zeal to fiddle with this landmark's distinctive outer shell. Only three years ago, City Hall produced proposals to overhaul the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's home that would have left almost nothing of the 1957 original - part of a beloved complex that includes the Habima Theater and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, all constructed around three ancient sycamores estimated to be 2,000 years old. Habima hasn't been spared the comprehensive revamp. For the past two years it was gutted and it is now being put together anew. However, that structure had undergone numerous remodelings since its official 1946 inauguration. The current project aims to re-expose its original hallmark six columns and again make them the central feature. What was in store for the Mann Auditorium, though, aroused tempestuous controversy. The Society for Preservation of Israel's Heritage Sites dubbed it as no less than "hostile renovation." The reconstruction project even drew fire overseas. UNESCO announced that tampering with the Mann Auditorium would contravene the terms whereby the organization declared central Tel Aviv, renowned for its Bauhaus architecture, an "international heritage site." UNESCO experts made it clear that the Mann Auditorium was included within UNESCO's conservation parameters. Obviously not every conservation project must be to museum specifications. Compromises are warranted where feasible, but it's a long way from flexibility of approach to utter contempt for anything old. The city's latest plans appear to adhere to the appropriate middle ground. Their amended raison d'etre is to improve acoustics, at the IPO's request. The auditorium's unique fan shape will nonetheless be kept. The price tag is steep - $28 million, assuming everything goes to plan during the construction, which is expected to last a full year beginning in August 2010. The bill is to be evenly split between the municipality and the Philharmonic. The cost to the taxpayer is already raising an outcry on the grounds that there are more deserving causes to which such sums should be earmarked. And that's not all. Many architects, former interior minister Avraham Poraz and, significantly, sculptor Danny Karavan, who oversees the Habima renovation, charge that the new plans - due to be ratified by the local planning commission this week - include gratuitous destruction of existing auditorium features and will actually worsen acoustics. That, of course, is a matter for experts to judge. For our part, we are satisfied that at least the familiar façade won't fall victim to Tel Aviv's notorious disrespect for its past. Progress and change are imperative, but they needn't come at the expense of national and cultural treasures. There is no reason Israel can't tolerate its repositories of collective memories, even those that possess no intrinsic architectural value - as the Mann Auditorium amply does. What is possible in far older and larger cities abroad can surely be managed in just century-old Tel Aviv. Mercifully, now, the Mann Auditorium won't suffer the fate of Tel Aviv's first public edifice, the Gymnasiya Herzliya (which was razed in the 1960s to make way for the ungainly Shalom Tower), or Dizengoff Circle (replaced by a veritable eyesore) or the Mugrabi Cinema, anchor of Mugrabi Square, which served as the backdrop to pre-independence demonstrations and spontaneous celebrations upon the declaration of independence (it's a parking lot nowadays). The Mann Auditorium was pronounced "outmoded." Its acoustics admittedly conform to musical preferences of several decades back. Yet contemporary fashions can be satisfied elsewhere. There's no need to tear down yesteryear's characteristic architecture because of shifts in taste. Indeed what's needed is affectionate upkeep. The entire Mann-Habima-Rubinstein compound grew dilapidated and in sore need of improved maintenance rather than radical rebuilding. As has been the case this time, Israel must find the golden mean between schizophrenic extremes of fixating on biblical antiquity and the desire for a spanking new present. We would do well to remember Yigal Allon's admonition: "When a People ignores its past, its present has little substance and its future is clouded in doubt."