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Nearly 10 years have passed since the ambitious government complex (Kiryat Hale'om) project got off to a start, and three of the five buildings planned for the Givat Ram site in Jerusalem are standing and ready for occupants. Seven government ministries are scheduled to change their addresses in the coming weeks, and leave their dilapidated buildings around town to move to the Israeli version of Capitol Hill.

Foremost among the new buildings is the Foreign Ministry, situated near the Supreme Court. Adjoining it is a "generic," multipurpose building that will provide office space for the Ministries of Industry and Trade, Transportation and Tourism, as well as the Israel Lands Administration and the Customs Authority. Behind it is a building that will house the offices of Ministry of Science, Culture and Sports. In this same building is an "energy center" that will serve all the buildings in the precinct. All told, some 70,000 square meters of office space are being added to the old-new government complex.

But anyone who thought that the move to the complex's new, state-of-the-art offices, among the most modernized in the world, would be welcomed by the workers, is in for a surprise. To the workers' committees, the move to buildings that are meant to serve the government over the next hundred years - an occasion one might even call "historic" - will harm the quality of life and the working conditions of thousands of employees. At the moment, it seems that the workers of these seven government ministries will stay put, and leave the new buildings standing empty - at least until the courts rule otherwise and force them to move.

As Danni Shek of the workers' committee at the Foreign Ministry put it: "At the last general meeting of the ministry's workers, we decided that in the present conditions, we will not under any circumstances move into the new building."

It turns out that this grandiose scheme - which has set the stage for the construction of new government offices all over the country, and in which nearly NIS 1 billion have already been invested - has been rambling along without a guiding hand for quite some time. In recent months, the management authority that runs the project has been called upon to play an unusual role: The authority, headed by deputy accountant-general Yoel Ophir, has been trying to convince the workers virtually single-handedly that it is worth their while to make the move.

To accomplish this, the authority has set up meetings with the workers' committees, opened model offices to demonstrate the excellent working conditions, and even published a newsletter to establish a dialogue with the employees. "When we started working on this project, [Yitzhak] Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, felt it was high-priority undertaking. The trouble is that today, we don't have a prime minister who is pushing for it, and the ministries haven't figured out how to deal with the opposition of the workers," says an official closely affiliated with the authority.

The authority is proud of the ultra-modern, "open space" interior design of these buildings, in which all the workers sit in a single hall divided into work stations by low partitions. This is the layout one finds today in most government offices in Europe and the United States. In addition, the buildings have fitness rooms, kitchenettes and cafeterias, which "stimulate informal communication between employees and make the work of government offices more efficient," to quote the official brochures.

But what the management authority may call "efficiency" and "preventing hidden unproductiveness," the workers define as loss of privacy, a feeling of asphyxiation and lack of fresh air. Some employees have expressed the fear that modernization and "Big Brother" go hand in hand.

"In an open-plan office, the boss can see me all the time. He knows where I am and what I'm doing every minute of the day. You can't even pick your nose in peace because people are always walking by your desk. If you add all the security and surveillance devices installed in these buildings, you can understand why we are worried about being monitored and snooped on," says a member of the workers' committee of a ministry that is supposed to move to the new premises.

Shek, of the Foreign Ministry, says that much thought was given to how presentable the new building would be and to the physical needs of the ministry's various divisions, "but the immediate work environment of the employees has been neglected, and this is more important than a fancy lobby or big cafeteria. The move to an open, expanded space spells what is a sort of worsening of work conditions. It does not in any way suit the nature of work at the ministry."

In response, the management authority says that the security devices are not meant for monitoring employees, but for insuring the safety of workers and visitors by warding off terrorist attacks. Closed-circuit cameras were installed because three ministers have offices in the building. The security department in the so-called generic building, says the authority, has proposed signing an agreement whereby it is obligated to send all information culled only to security-related officials in the building.

At the request of the workers' committees, employees will enter the building with a special pass rather than punching a clock. This new pass, approved by the security department, will allow workers to get to the office quickly, without having to go through the security checks required for visitors. Usages of the pass will not be registered in the computer, so that no one will have access to information on which workers are in the building and what time they arrived. An employee who does not want to pass the card through an optical scanner can show it to the guard and enter without a security check.

Behind sealed windows

The workers are also furious over the decision to install sealed windows that cannot be opened. The authority says there is no reason to open them: The building has two computerized air-conditioning systems, one for cooling and the other for circulation of fresh air. The cooling system insures optimal temperature and humidity, and the fresh air system brings in twice as much clean, filtered air than required, even according to strict U.S. standards. All the air in the building is replaced at the rate of 1.5-2 times an hour. In addition, the system sucks up "used" air from the bathrooms, kitchenettes and smoking corners to keep unpleasant odors from wafting through the building. Thanks to this filtration system, the air in the building will be cleaner than the air outside. The system is connected to a generator, and will operate even in the event of a power shortage.

Tested and approved by Dr. Alma Avni, head of Workers' Health Service at the Ministry of Health, the system poses no health risks to employees at the new government complex. Officials assert that opening windows will only interfere with the air-conditioning and fresh-air circulation. It is also hazardous in the event of a terrorist attack: All the windows in the building are reinforced. Opening them at such a time could increase the force of the blast and cause widespread damage.

According to Shmuel Mandel, who supervised the interior design of these buildings, technological developments have led to a need for greater flexibility in planning office interiors. "Office buildings used to look like sausages, with long corridors and rooms on either side," he explains. "Each worker would get a room with a window, but there was a hierarchy. The worker's rank was measured by how close his room was to the boss. In the modern office, the corridor is dispensed with and the whole interior is one open space, adaptable to the needs of each office. The wiring for telephones and computers is also much more flexible."

Says Mandel: "The work place today is schematic: You need a desk, a computer and a telephone. You don't have to provide every worker with a 300-file archive. Our surveys have found that it is possible to get along with one-third of the paperwork. The freed-up space is used for cafeterias, fitness rooms, equipment storerooms, document-shredding rooms and public areas where people mingle."

Parking morass

Aside from the three office buildings that are already standing, work is proceeding on the government plaza (Kikar Hale'om) - a complex of shops, cafes and business services for employees and visitors, including a five-story, 50,000 sq.m. underground car park with space for 1,800 cars. One of the country's largest parking garages, this facility is meant to serve the government complex, the Knesset and the Supreme Court. A computerized system will enable workers arriving in the morning to ascertain whether there are any vacant spots in the building where they work. If not, they will leave their cars at the plaza's garage and travel to their offices via free shuttle service.

The workers' committees are furious over the new parking arrangements. The generic building, for example, will have 1,300 workers but only 370 parking spaces. The distance to the plaza is approximately 400 meters. The workers feel this is too far, and are angry at time they feel is bound to be wasted at their own expense. The management authority's solution is free parking at all garages on a "first come, first served" basis; the shuttle will leave the plaza every seven minutes. Another bonus: Workers will be able to punch the clock at the entrance to the car park, so that the time lost between parking their cars and reaching the office will be calculated as work time. The plaza garage is scheduled for completion by the end of 2002. Shafir Engineering, which won the tender to build and operate the garage, will also run the shuttle service.

Plans for the services complex at the government plaza have recently been finalized with the Jerusalem Development Authority. The new 2,000 sq.m. center will include a branch of Bank Yahav, a day-care center for the children of employees, a post office, a travel agency and several cafes.

The first ministry scheduled to move was the Ministry of Culture, Science and Sports. The building has been ready for four months, and every month the contractor is paid a rental fee of NIS 300,000. But the workers are balking because their offices are located over the center that will supply energy to all 70,000 sq.m. of the new government complex. All the generators, boilers, water heating and cooling systems, and air-conditioning infrastructure are in this center. The workers are worried about radiation being above the permitted level.

A team from the nuclear reactor in Nahal Soreq has carried out special tests and found no reason for concern. Like similar facilities around the world, the energy center is fueled by cooking gas rather than diesel oil, thereby reducing air pollution. Even in the event of power shortages or voltage fluctuations, the offices connected to this center will continue to operate normally. Two million shekels have been invested in this facility to safeguard it against potential attack.

To assuage the workers' fears, Aryeh Shumer, former director-general of the Ministry of Culture, Science and Sports, and Nir Gilad, accountant-general of the Ministry of Finance, have signed an agreement stipulating that each of the buildings will be tested again when the occupants move in and the systems are fully operative. They promise that if unacceptable levels of radiation are detected, the workers will be moved to another building. To date, not a single test result has been problematic. Even so, the workers are worried: How can current measurements reflect what things will be like when all the offices are hooked up and output increases?

Closing a circle

The new government complex actually closes a circle and realizes a dream that goes back to David Ben-Gurion. Immediately after the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion asked engineer Shlomo Arazi, one of whose positions was chief of official ceremonies, to take charge of designing a government compound. In the early 1950s, it was decided to set aside the land between Jaffa Road and the current site of the Israel Museum and the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University for such a project. The idea was to establish a combined center of governance and culture, with office buildings and a cultural hall, Binyanei Ha'ooma, in close proximity. The latter was envisaged as a permanent meeting place for the World Zionist Congress.

Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus was built as an alternative when the Arabs blocked the road to Mount Scopus during the War of Independence, cutting off access to the main university campus. The Israel Museum was built to the east of it.

Architect Yosef Kellerwein's conception was a government district surrounded by greenery. He designed the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Interior and the Prime Minister's Office as narrow buildings with offices running along both sides of a long corridor. Due to financial constraints, not all the ministries moved to the new premises; many offices continued to operate in buildings around town.

In the early 1960s, the Rothschild family donated a large sum of money toward the construction of the Knesset. A design competition was organized, but there were not many entries because the donation had been kept secret. The winner was Kellerwein, whose design resembled a Greek temple. Dov Carmi, winner of the Israel Prize, was asked to collaborate with him.

Around that time, two roads were built: Kaplan Street, which connected the three ministries, and James Rothschild Street, which led from the ministries to the Knesset. The National Insurance Institute was built in the late 1950s, followed by the Bank of Israel, designed by architects Arieh Walder and Eldar Sharon, in the 1970s. After Ben-Gurion's death, the area was renamed Kiryat Ben-Gurion. In the 1970s, then mayor Teddy Kollek raised funding for what is known as the Wohl Rose Park of Jerusalem nearby.

In 1985, Edmund Rothschild's widow donated a generous sum toward the construction of a Supreme Court building. The family decided to take charge of the project. A committee of three judges was established, headed by Meir Shamgar, who was then president of the Supreme Court, and an international competition was launched. Out of 10 designs submitted by leading architects from Israel and around the world, the winning design was that of Ram and Ada Carmi, a brother-and-sister team. The building was inaugurated in 1993.

The Rothschilds donated another $300,000 for the drafting of a new master plan for the area, to insure that the Supreme Court building retains its prominence, and the Jerusalem Development Authority threw in $100,000 of its own. According to this plan, the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister's Office will remain the outstanding architectural features. All other buildings in the complex, also those in the planning stage, will be of a conventional type, so as not to outshine these three. For the same reason, no buildings will be taller than the Knesset and Supreme Court.

The designs for the new Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Ministry were chosen by competition in the early 1990s. For financial reasons, the Prime Minister's Office, also designed by Ada and Ram Carmi, was put on hold. In the interim, the Foreign Ministry building has become the major focus of attention. The construction of this building was made possible in a roundabout way: The site of the old Foreign Ministry, at the edge of the new government compound, is to be handed over to a contractor who has undertaken to build a residential neighborhood for local and foreign diplomats. On the grounds will be a hall for official receptions, along the lines of the Blair House in Washington. The new Foreign Ministry has been built with the money from this property.