A plan to demolish the building of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, on Smolenskin Street in Jerusalem, and build a luxury housing complex, will soon be debated by a committee of experts.
The committee, including architects, historians and intellectuals, will convene in about two weeks in Jerusalem, and be asked to give its opinion on a cultural issue of the first degree: Is the building, designed in 1931 by the renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn, an architectural work worth preserving? Or can it be torn down to make way for a new construction?
The city's building preservation plan lists the academy, but plans, as we know, are merely a basis for changes. The Igda company, which owns the lot, and architect Ram Caspi, who planned the new compound, want change. The committee idea was the joint initiative of Jerusalem City Engineer Uri Shetreet and the Interior Ministry's Jerusalem District planner, Binat Schwartz, who want to consult independent experts before making the final decision.
This is undoubtedly an unusual initiative in Israel, where construction plans or requests for changes with significant implications are presented to the public only at the stage of objections. In most cases, this stage is too late, for it is impossible to discuss in it issues broader than local building deviations or disturbances to neighbors.
Often the plans are presented as a two-dimensional "spot" sketch of land uses, which does not demonstrate the spatial effect of the plans, and their significance is not fully clarified.
The plan to build the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance, designed by American architect Frank Gehry, was approved without being presented properly to the public and without details of the project being made known. Construction, estimated at the fabulous sum of a billion shekels, is due to begin this year.
The project the experts' committee is to debate seems marginal compared to the Museum of Tolerance but the questions it raises are no less important. The Music and Dance Academy, formerly the private villa of businessman Zalman Schocken, is one of the few buildings Mendelsohn designed during his brief sojourn in Israel in the `30s. Among them were President Chaim Weizmann's house and the laboratories building in the Weizman Institute in Rehovot, the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus and the Schocken Library in Jerusalem. All these are masterpieces of modern architecture in Israel.
Near the academy there is a unique concentration of exemplary modern buildings, most of them from the `30s. One of them, located on the lot near the academy, is the prime minister's residence, designed by Richard Kaufman.
The original facade of the prime minister's house has been disfigured over the years. It has been turned from a residential home into a fortress, but it is still standing and one may hope it will be returned to its former self.
The demolition of the Rubin Academy building, which was sold to entrepreneurs to finance transferring the academy to a new building, need not happen.
When discussing its destruction, the committee must carefully weigh the implications. The main consideration is the proposed alternative. The new structure, whose plan was made public by the entrepreneurs and architect, is a six-story residential compound - forceful and overbearing - whose graduated structure brings to mind mainly the new quarters of Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank.
This is an architecture of occupation and subjection. Pushing it into the heart of modern, secular Jerusalem, or whatever is left of it, strikes a damaging blow not only to the important architectural work of a great architect, but also to an entire worldview. Besides, if only for the building's suspended balcony - Mendelsohn's personal stamp in Israel - it is worth fighting for preserving the building.
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