Global architecture in Israel

How are we to withstand this onslaught without undue damage being done to our physical environment and to the architectural profession here?

bridge of strings 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bridge of strings 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From Berlin to Beijing via Dubai and on to Jerusalem, star-architects have left their mark for better and, far too often, for worse. The emerging global culture, at first driven by a period of prosperity and the digital revolution in computer- assisted design and communication technologies, has in the last several years led to an unprecedented number of internationally famous architectural firms contracted to design highprofile projects in Israel, most of them on the large scale. By now, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Meier and Preston Scott Cohen, to name but a few, have all visited our shores.
No fewer than four key projects by star-architects are currently being planned for Jerusalem, three of them in the very heart of the city. Pei, Cobb, Freed – New York’s design for a complex comprising residential towers, building preservation, and public and private open space, adjacent to the Mahane Yehuda Market, is under construction. Studio Libeskind, also of New York, is responsible for the design of a 24-story tower on the site of the former Eden Cinema situated at the intersection of Agrippas and Eliash streets.
The Tokyo-based firm SANAA is developing the design for the new Bezalel campus in the Russian Compound. Foster and Partners – London, one of the largest architectural firms in the world with a staff of 1,300, has been hired to design the Center for Brain Science at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University.
And as for the future, the 2012 architectural competition having terminated without a winner, three international architectural firms will compete in the final selection stage with three Israeli ones for the contract to design the new national library at Givat Ram.
SUPPORTING THIS trend, of course, are the clients – brand-conscious mayors, university presidents, private developers and the like, who are, in the main, profit motivated.
It is doubtful whether former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski understood what Frank Gehry’s $250 million, clearly superfluous proposal for The Museum of Tolerance (later shelved), meant in urban design terms. Aware of the fact that instant, worldwide media coverage of Gehry’s every move was guaranteed, he set his sights on the tourist dollars the project was meant to attract.
Given our provincial mindset, these projects are always fast-tracked to approval with the aid of local architectural firms, taken on only to help steer them through our formidable bureaucracy and thus relegated to a minor, technical role. But playing second fiddle is hardly the way to advance the struggling architectural profession here. In a tiny country such as ours, the negative impacts of this trend have been strongly registered.
While hiring star-architects is not necessarily harmful, serious problems arise when foreign architects are ignorant of, or oblivious to, the history, the physical environmental context, the contingencies of climate and the special qualities of local light, imposing their personal style – advertisements to themselves – on surroundings of which they have little understanding.
National, regional and local identity is then called into question. Libeskind’s Wohl Convention Center at the Bar-Ilan University campus in Ramat Gan, for example, appears to have arrived from a distant planet. Precious few of these projects, most of them free-standing, bear any relation whatever to their urban context.
“For whom are you building?” asked Japanese architect Toyo Ito at last year’s Venice Biennale, inescapably sensing the loss of ethical norms. Never has architecture been given to such extreme extravagance, to such little true human purpose.
How are we to withstand this onslaught without undue damage being done to our physical environment and to the architectural profession here? While local firms have the obvious advantage of being on their home ground – their knowledge going beyond simple imagery – competing with these huge international offices is no simple matter; competing for contracts with Israeli architects is more than enough.
If there is to be any real hope for Israeli architecture to help shape the future, two key elements are essential: well- informed clients who understand that their decision as to which project is undertaken and by whom is, finally, a moral one with important, long-range implications; and young, native talent, vital, inventive and deeply aware of its own cultural heritage, that needs to be given the opportunity to express its creative potential.
The writer is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.