How Israel learned to love precast concrete
While public interest has focused on the political significance of the Dimona nuclear reactor, architect Dan Eytan, one of its designers, wants to draw attention to its social and architectural importance.
Dan Eytan finds it hard to understand the eruption of public interest in the old photographs he put on his website, images of facilities in the civilian section of the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona that the architect and his then-partner, Yitzhak Yashar, had designed decades ago. Within 24 hours after a report appeared on the pictures, he received inquiries from a number of print and electronic media outlets, including the British Broadcasting Corp. and a Turkish news channel. His website had thousands of visitors in the space of a few hours.
This flurry of interest is actually unjustified. At any rate, this is really old news. The photographs were approved for publication years ago; some have been presented on various occasions without arousing any particular interest. The “public resonance” generated by the images being made available online points to growing public interest rather than to any particular censorship policy.
The burst of excitement that follows the publication of any information that either supports or refutes ideas about the purpose of the secret nuclear facility in the heart of the desert overshadows the center’s social, architectural and technological significance and its reflection of the exuberance of the still-young state.
The center in Dimona was established in the late 1950s; the construction of its various facilities continued for 10 years, in parallel with the establishment of the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, in central Israel. The Dimona facility was the result of a partnership between the Israeli and the French governments, orchestrated by Shimon Peres, Israel’s president today.
Eytan, 82, believes that Peres, who once confessed to him privately that he had always dreamed of being an architect, was the driving force behind the focus on the architecture of the Dimona campus.
The American architect Philip Johnson, similarly, was brought in to design the Soreq facility. The idea, Eytan says, was that “a nuclear reactor deserves the best and most modern look possible.”
Six architecture firms competed for the Dimona project, in a process that sought out young talent. “The research facility was considered an innovative national project,” Eytan recalls.
“We were creating a new country and we also wanted a young breed of architecture. No one questioned the need for a competition over the design of the reactor’s civilian center. When I look back to that period, it is interesting to realize that such a large group was approached to work on what ostensibly involved something that was highly secret. I think a double message was being delivered: First of all, a desire to work together on a project and, second, a desire to seek out the best, to work with the younger generation, which was going to do innovative things.”
The project had two, very separate parts: the civilian compound, with offices, dining halls, the research center, dormitories, a clinic and, later, a library and a school; and the “hot” area of the reactor and the research laboratories. Eytan and Yashar were assigned to design the former, while a number of architects, including some from France, worked on the “hot” area.
“It was in many respects like any factory, with one major difference: Here there was a double limitation – the element of secrecy and the element of the technical danger resulting from the fact that people at the center work with dangerous materials. Thus, there is the need for creating a clearly defined boundary beyond which people work, act and dress differently,” Eytan says.
The master plan for the civilian compound, which was drawn up a French architect, placed the various facilities along a central axis, with the reactor at one end. “It was an elegant concept reminiscent of the Gardens of Versailles,” quips Eytan.
“The idea was that this was not just another factory. It was a statement about the place where you are and how you connect the culture of the place with the culture you aspire to, together with the new technological culture.”
Eytan notes that the architects had immense freedom, leading in some cases to changes to the master plan, which ostensibly was beyond their purview. The director of the reactor was Col. Emmanuel (Mannes) Prat. He hired Amnon Niv, who was the same age as Eytan, to be the reactor’s architect of record. “We and the client had the same vision, and those above us said this is what you must do.” The buildings in the first stage were completed within two years. All of them were concrete, a blend of Brutalism and sculptural styles.
The main office building, a long, three-story structure on pillars, was completed in just eight months: Prat wanted employees to begin working even before the research facility was completed. The architects used precast concrete components and other prefabricated elements. “It was fantastic to work in the desert then,” Eytan recalls. “It was like building with Lego blocks.”
While the precast concrete floors dried, the blocks for the brise soleil, which would shade the southern side of the building, were prepared. In the meantime, the windows and doors were being made in various factories.
All the components were assembled on-site with great speed, including the internal partitions, that were anchored to the floor with screws.
All of the facilities in Dimona were designed and built with the same spirit of innovation and efficiency, together with an aesthetic approach that was not strictly necessary for such a project.
Even the water tower was given a monumental appearance. Its purpose was to hold 500 tons of water, for drinking, watering plants, cleaning purposes and in case of emergency. Eytan recalls: “I told them: ‘Look, for a structure 48 meters high, you cannot simply build a door and walk in. You must give it the dignity it deserves.’ We proposed a staircase leading to a bridge, so the entrance to the water tower would be one floor above ground level. And they agreed.”
A spiral staircase affixed to the exterior of the water tower led to a number of balconies above the water tank. “Once you got to the top,” he explains, “you could see the entire world.”
Management’s willingness to put extra thought into creating a comfortable, pleasurable work environment seems unusual even today. “But this was obvious,” Eytan insists. “No one came to you and said, ‘Hey, are you crazy? Do you know how much it will cost to rotate this plan?’ You can see in the end result that a lot of effort was put into the conditions here.”
It was in many respects like any factory, with one major difference: Here there was a double limitation – the element of secrecy and the element of the technical danger resulting from the fact that people at the center work with dangerous materials.