A group of soldiers huddled around a campfire. A bunch of sharpened stones placed on the sandy ground, with the desert sun beating down. These were the two guiding images for architects Etan Kimmel and Michal Kimmel-Eshkolot, partners inside and outside the office, as they designed Be'er Sheva's recently inaugurated Beit Halochem. Like the other such facilities scattered around the country, Beit Halochem is a community center for disabled IDF and security service veterans that provides various paramedical treatments and functions as a kind of country club for the vets and their families.
The new Beit Halochem is set on a 17-dunam plot at the southeastern edge of Be'er Sheva, completely cut off from the center of town. It follows the unfortunate trend of public institutions put up across the Negev city devoid of any physical or conceptual connections - a result of problematic urban planning that started with the architect Arieh Sharon's master plan back in the early 1950s. Even if the city "reaches" it one day, Beit Halochem is still likely to remain isolated. The open desert tracts surrounding it and the abandoned network of roads leading up to it only bolster this impression.
In the absence of a meaningful urban setting, Kimmel-Eshkolot Architects (in collaboration with the supervising architect, Shahaf Zayit ) chose to a search for a site based on other factors - scenery, sunlight, nature and desert. The result is a building seeking to create a protected inner space while framing views of the surroundings. One of the large windows facing north, for example, frames a view of the iconic Negev Monument, built by artist Dani Karavan in the late 1960s.
"You need to summon all of architecture's powers to create a building amid this kind of desolation," notes Kimmel. He says Karavan's sculpture, a structure that relates primarily to itself, served as an important source of inspiration during the design process.
Beit Halochem consists of a series of five "boulders," each housing various spaces - including a basketball court, auditorium, physiotherapy rooms, offices, cafeteria, classrooms, workshops, a therapeutic pool and even a billiard room. Together they form an L-shape that hugs the main entrance and the lower inner courtyard. The space between the boulders is filled by large screen walls and a light roof, lined with wood on the inside, creating generous spaces that function as passageways through the facility as well as meeting places.
Exposed concrete, the main construction material, echoes the modernist public housing architecture of Be'er Sheva and the campus buildings of nearby Ben-Gurion University. Kimmel explains the choice of concrete because of its smooth and uniform surface. The boulders are arranged at different angles, in order to use the desert sun to create a range of shadows along the facades. "Any other coating," Kimmel says, "would have weakened the effect."
But this refined architectural explanation was not warmly received by everyone who uses the facility. Beit Halochem's manager, Gili Molcho, said several members even asked when they were going to "finish painting the walls" (he responded by explaining that exposed concrete is a lot more expensive than whitewash ).
Accompanied by light
Despite the controversy over the concrete, the building's sizable budget - approximately NIS 80 million - is apparent in the planning and the details. The combination of exposed concrete and wooden ceilings, glass walls and black floors, gives it an elegant facade and generates a sense of respect and commitment to the site. It is more reminiscent of a facility allocated for serious academia than of one intended for recreational use. It will be interesting to see how it looks at the height of summer, when hundreds of visitors mill around in flip-flops and wet bathing suits, sucking on popsicles.
Walking through the center, one encounters numerous open and closed views, as well as intimate spaces and more public areas. The design of the concrete "boulders" creates rich and multi-shaded light that accompanies visitors everywhere. The large swimming pool along the southeastern edge is one of the more notable, quality spaces. It is framed by a glass cube and its southward facing doors completely disappear into a niche in the wall, creating a direct link between the inside and the outside. The arid desert scenery is visible from all sides, separated only by a delicate glass divider.
Another intriguing space is the exercise room situated in the western part of the facility. By etching into the "boulder," the architects were able to create a narrow low window that allows in pleasant and controlled amounts of daylight.
Disconnected from the desert
Kimmel-Eshkolot is one of the leading firms involved in such public projects in Israel. Among other accomplishments, they are responsible for the Davidson Center in Jerusalem's Old City and Ben-Gurion University's Diller Center. In recent years, they have won several prestigious competitions, such as designing Tel Aviv University's Museum of Natural History and the National Memorial Hall on Mount Herzl, both of which are now in advanced planning stages.
Beit Halochem represents another public project professionally tackled by the firm, but unfortunately it has not come up with an innovative or original statement about construction in the Negev. This building is disconnected from its desert surroundings and will be heavily air-conditioned year round. Most noticeably missing from the site are sheltered outdoor spaces. The desert is not just sand and a beating sun, but also hidden ravines among the massive rocks and broad tamarisk trees. It seems an eagerness to provide protection from the elements led to too much space being sealed off. Anyone who wants to get some fresh air or have a cigarette, for example, must exit the building. For disabled persons in wheelchairs, this might be an inconvenience.
In another project being designed by Kimmel-Eshkolot in Be'er Sheva - the campus of the IDF intelligence branches and the Rashi Foundation - great emphasis has been placed on sustainable architecture. The buildings there are linked by open, shaded passageways and inner courtyards. These are elements that could have easily been included in Beit Halochem, too, heightening the center's connection to its surroundings.
"We created a container that creates another climate inside it," Michal Kimmel-Eshkolot says of Beit Halochem. "But this building is closely connected to Be'er Sheva and its panoramas, and it was not possible to build it anywhere else. In addition to looking for the right setting, we also have another item on our agenda - for us it's another stab at architectural accomplishment."
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