Same Old Same Old - but Oh-so-very New

Thanks to the anti-iconic approach of the planners and designers involved in its renewal, the Israel Museum has undergone a face-lift that does not undermine its original identity.

Forty-five years after it first opened to the public, the Israel Museum opened again last week, in an expanded format, following three years of renovation. The renewal and development project was carried out in the spirit of the museum's original planners, Al Mansfeld and Dora Gad, and was led by architects Prof. Zvi Efrat and Meira Kowalsky in cooperation with American designer James Carpenter.

In the final analysis, everything begins and ends with the light in Israel, Carpenter said last week. The first thing that struck him when he began his work here was the glare, he added. Lighting was also a major design element when the museum was originally planned: In architect Mansfeld's sketches (now themselves iconic ), the outlines of the future structures are drawn as silhouettes resembling those of a hilltop Arab village.

With partner Gad, who was responsible for the interior design, Mansfeld managed to create a thrilling link between modern architecture and the site's historical context, and connect them to Jerusalem's climate and surroundings. When the museum first opened, in May 1965, it was hailed as a terrific success and a year later its planners won the prestigious Israel Prize (See box ).

The Israel Museum
Timothy Hursley, courtesy of the Israel Museum

The renewal project - the most ambitious undertaking carried out since the museum's creation - cost $100 million and is felt everywhere: in the upgraded exhibition halls, corridors and passageways; in the new entrance that faces the street; in three new pavilions; and in the expanded permanent exhibits. There has been some 8,000 square meters of new construction, and about 20,000 square meters of existing galleries were expanded, renovated and redesigned. The only section not yet renovated is the labyrinthine wing of offices, a memento of the modesty that characterized the museum's early days.

At the end of the 1990s the family of the late financier Joseph Gruss agreed to donate $42 million toward expanding the museum, and entrusted the project to American-Jewish architect James Ingo Freed. Freed planned a monumental structure for the museum's entrance in a biblical and grotesque style that was quickly dubbed "the altar." In response, the Israel Architects' Association said that "the structure's shape recalls a shopping mall, as do its commercial contents."

Freed's plans were presented to the public at a ceremony held in Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma in February 1998. There was much criticism, and one veteran architect said something to the effect that "this is not a museum, not Israel and not Jerusalem." Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's legendary former mayor, who founded the museum and sat in one of the last rows, said he hoped the plan would be buried by bureaucracy.

One of the most prominent adversaries of Freed's design was Zvi Efrat, who had then recently returned from studies in the United States with his wife Meira Kowalsky.

"The absurd pastiche we saw constitutes a miserable misunderstanding of the Israel Museum's spirit," he was quoted by reporter Esther Zandberg in Haaretz the next day as saying, "Let us agree that this is a sad misunderstanding and forget about this project."

Efrat had previously researched and written about the museum in his book "The Israeli Project: Building and Architecture, 1948-1973" (published by Tel Aviv Museum of Art, in Hebrew). His criticism joined a wave of articles and merciless public debate about the project.

Several weeks later, the museum's director, James Snyder, called Efrat and Kowalsky, and asked to hear their ideas. According to Efrat, "This was a quite rare instance in which an architectural project began with textually based research that succeeded in turning a critical stance into a productive approach, which was maintained throughout the planning and implementation and which was accepted by all the people involved in the project."

Last week, Snyder recalled that, at the time, he had in any case begun to look into alternatives to the original renovation proposal, "without any connection to the public criticism. Over four years we examined the project and its feasibility in the face of the museum's real needs. We finally realized we had to strengthen this known icon - not build something new."

Freed's plans were shelved for good in 2002.

'Unique character'

Al Mansfeld's "Arab village" was built along a 250-meter-long path called the Carter Promenade, which linked the original entrance pavilion to the gallery wings; indeed, until now, visitors had to climb a steep path under a strong summer sun or during chilly winter weather to get to the exhibition halls. Mansfeld wanted to expose museum goers to the entire campus, as the museum's site is referred to, and to the Jerusalem scenery, but the ascent was impossible for disabled and elderly visitors.

In the first stages of their comprehensive, new planning process, Efrat and Kowalsky met with all the curators and compiled detailed accounts of their needs and requests.

"The Israel Museum grew tenfold since its opening, from 5,000 square meters to 50,000 square meters today, and yet it has still preserved its unique architectural character," said Kowalsky in an interview at the couple's office. "This is unprecedented and awe-inspiring, but also a process that in the past greatly complicated the museum's flow of movement and its exhibitions, making it a maze in which it was difficult to find one's way.

"Our job," she added, "was to reorganize the museum's spaces, to bring all its systems up to present standards and to add exhibition, storage and administrative spaces. The biggest challenge of all was to rework the whole process of entering the museum so that it would be accessible to all visitors, and would easily and effectively link up [the entrance] with the heart of the museum. When we devised the overall plan, we found all sorts of strange phenomena such as spaces to which you had to climb in order to descend, corridors with no exit, or storerooms and offices that were relocated over the years and were far from their departments' directors."

After the important principles of the renewal plan were established, it was decided to add a new 1,500-square-meter exhibition area facing the outdoor sculpture garden, as well as a small structure housing offices in the southern part of the campus.

Snyder brought in designer James Carpenter, who specializes in working with glass, to join the team of architects. Carpenter was charged with designing the three new pavilions outlined in the Efrat-Kowalsky plans, and the new underground passage leading from the entrance. By "importing" a foreign architect, Snyder explained, he sought to create "an encyclopedic structure in architecture that would react to the museum's encyclopedic collection."

Carpenter was asked to provide a visually striking element that would help the museum attract contributors. After all, much of his part of the project is underground, and has to do with movement and not with monuments. It was important for him to find a new image to which benefactors could relate.

Carpenter said he and the rest of the design and architectural staff tried to tie together various aspects of the campus - Mansfeld's original structures, Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden, and Frederic Kiesler and Armand Bartos' Shrine of the Book - "and make more sense of it all, and create a clearer experience. Then you appreciate each of the different pieces in a richer way.

"There was always, historically, a question as to what had happened when they first built the museum. Obviously, [the garden designed by] Noguchi was there, but the Shrine of the Book was never meant to be there, it was supposed to be on the campus of the Hebrew University across the valley ... I am not really sure how much contact these people had with each other ... I think these were all independent projects. The residual problem of that lack of communication between the three parties [Noguchi, Kiesler and Bartos] is the primary thing we were trying to address here ... hopefully [by producing] exceptional work in its own right."

Carpenter applied himself to the lines of the new pavilions, based on the Efrat-Kowalsky designs, but endowed them with his own "handwriting." This kind of work is characteristic of the American designer, who usually does not plan a project from its inception but joins teams of architects for a particular task.

Overseeing construction during the museum renewal was the architectural firm of Asaf Lerman and Tammy Yaniv, which specializes in intervention in existing buildings. Exhibition spaces were planned by designer Hanan de Lange, Pentagram International and members of the museum's staff.

Today, visitors reach the galleries first by passing through a new entrance complex that contains three halls in which there are ticket and information booths, a restaurant, a shop and spaces for special events. From there they can either stroll up the Carter Promenade or enter the new underground passage - a 200-meter-long tunnel - in order to reach the heart of the campus and the three wings containing the museum collections as well as the auditorium.

Kowalsky defines the entire undertaking as "a project of renewing and developing an existing campus that gives the museum another reincarnation. From the very beginning we thought of a minor intervention in the existing structure, and in hindsight I think we managed to create an architecture that is extremely moderate. The Israel Museum that is now opening again is a completely new building, updated and equipped like the most advanced museums around the world today, and yet it remains the same Jerusalem museum that it was, so the visitor will feel he is in a totally familiar structure."

Prof. Efrat believes the weak spots of the project will be discovered in due course: "You have to let the building function for a while in order to discover all the mistakes and planning problems. You must also give the architects some space in order to examine their work critically. There will surely be gaps between the intentions and the way it actually functions.

"All along we tried to have a dialogue with Mansfeld," he added. "We tried to get as much information as possible about the structure, see what went out of control and then intervene surgically in specific places. For me, the beauty in this project is in the contextual complexity and the opportunity it presented to move from conceptual thinking to working on minute details, such as the preservation and reconstruction of concrete.

"This is a huge and encyclopedic museum with respect to the variety of its contents," concluded Efrat. "Nevertheless, it is accessible, easy to find one's way around and clear in terms of the way its spaces are organized. I think we succeeded in reconstructing and perhaps even strengthening the original exterior-interior ratio that Mansfeld planned, and [exploited] the opportunity of having several views of the city, as well as letting natural light enter the museum's spaces."

International comparisons

The renovated Israel Museum can be assessed not only in relation to Mansfeld's original plan, but also by comparing it to other national museums that have been renovated and changed in recent decades. The most outstanding example is the Louvre in Paris, adorned with a glass pyramid created by architect I.M. Pei in 1988. The pyramid, which serves as a gateway to the underground entrance, provides the museum with a new and attractive icon and does not impinge on the qualities of the historic palace beside which it exists. Despite Parisians' staunch opposition to the plan, the pyramid is today considered one of the better examples of modern architecture in an urban setting.

London's British Museum also went through a face-lift. Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Norman Foster built a huge glass cupola over the central court in order to ease movement there.

A more eccentric example of how a national museum was renovated is the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. At the beginning of the year, the so-called Crystal was inaugurated there - an ostentatious entrance and exhibition space planned by Daniel Libeskind that cost $270 million. Libeskind's proposal was selected from 50 works presented by architects from all over the world; his main idea was to create a new icon for the museum. In fact the Crystal is totally alien to its surroundings, but is a favorite among people who like fashionable architecture.

In its spirit and form, Freed's initial proposal for the Israel Museum recalls Libeskind's structure in Toronto, whereas the renewal work that was actually done is more in line with the ideas behind the Louvre and the British Museum renovations. Thanks to the anti-iconic approach of its designers, the museum has undergone a face-lift that does not harm its original identity.