A mixed modernist message
The Amir Center was known as Jerusalem's ugliest building, but the publicity won its architect a raft of projects. It now might be torn down.
In 1958, shortly after going out on his own, Architect David Resnick was asked to design a new residential building at the intersection of King George and Agron streets in the heart of Jerusalem. The plot chosen was surrounded by several buildings of historical and architectural value such as the Terra Sancta building and the American consulate.
But in the spirit of the times, Resnick decided to build a daring modernist response across from those structures: a square high-rise sitting on a commercial space and flashing its innovation in every detail.
The residential building known as the Amir Center (sometimes referred to as Beit Agron or the Supersol Building ) recently marked its 50th anniversary. Over the years, it has become one of Jerusalem's best-known residential buildings thanks to its location, unusual facade and design innovations.
Veteran Jerusalemites still remember the steel crane brought over from Sweden specifically for this project; it hoisted up the prefab parts. Yet the Amir Center is now threatened by an evacuation-construction plan promoted by a group of residents and welcomed by the municipality. Given the renewal marathon underway in downtown Jerusalem, there's a chance the building will be razed to make way for a luxury high-rise.
"For me, it was very important to have modern construction in Jerusalem, but most of the people opposed my building and said it wasn't in the Jerusalem tradition," Resnick said this week.
The Amir Center indeed sparked an intense dispute, and in a series of street interviews earned the dubious honor of "Jerusalem's ugliest building." In hindsight, this too is a form of public relations. In the week of the dispute, Resnick was commissioned for a variety of projects all over the city. "When you do something that's disputed, it sometimes yields good results," he adds.
Resnick, a recipient of the Israel Prize and the Rechter Prize, was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1924 and is one of the country's most celebrated modernist architects. He was raised in a secular Zionist home and studied architecture at Rio's school of fine arts.
While still studying, he was hired by the firm of Oscar Niemeyer, the greatest Brazilian architect of the 20th century. From Niemeyer Resnick learned the modernist principles. For four years he worked alongside Niemeyer, whom he has described as a revolutionary and a genius.
While working as an architect, he joined a Hashomer Hatzair Hachsharah training program, where he met his wife Rachel. They immigrated to Israel in 1949 and settled on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
But experiencing a feeling of living in a professional wasteland, they moved to Tel Aviv and Resnick got a job at Zev Rechter's firm. After three years there, which Resnick describes as "an oasis," he moved to Jerusalem and went into partnership with architect Heinz Rau.
Together they designed the dome-shaped synagogue on Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, as well as the mathematics building. Later on, as an independent architect, he designed the Van Leer Institute and Yad Labanim in Jerusalem, as well as Hebrew University's controversial Mount Scopus campus and the Mormon university.
The Amir Center, which was commissioned by contractor Gavriel Peretz and Moshe Ben-Giat (in conjunction with the Shikun Ovdim company ), can be seen as a direct continuation of the first chapter of Resnick's work in Israel. It is a building that reflects creative use of technologies and materials and presents an optimistic and modern form. The opening of the first Supersol branch in Jerusalem on its ground floor only sharpened its image as an innovative building.
The original plan for the center, which sprawls over 10 dunams, actually included three buildings connected by an upper public plaza with a commercial space and an auditorium on the floor below. Resnick designed the center using fixed 90-centimeter modules in order to be able to use prefab components in the construction. The building did indeed go up at a very speedy pace, of one floor per day, with the open balconies functioning as scaffolding for pouring the floors above them.
Resnick separated the commercial center, which was covered in rough Jerusalem stone and seems to be buried in the ground, from the seven-floor residential building, which was positioned on top of pairs of V-shaped pillars and covered with vertical plates of hewn stone. The horizontal emphasis of each floor and the airy fencing gave the building a pleasant feeling of lightness.
In order to preserve the continuity of the building's facade, Resnick decided to use four small inner courtyards that provided space for the heating and ventilation units of each apartment's bathroom. The building's technological innovations earned the contractors the Kaplan Prize in 1963.
The Amir Center is one of several notable modernist icons built throughout the world in the 1950s and 1960s. In the catalog of the exhibition, "David Resnick, Retrospective" (University Gallery, Tel Aviv University, 2005 ), curator Sophia Dekel-Caspi noted that the invasive pillar floor echoed the "residential unit" designed by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in Marseilles, while the building's construction is a tribute to the minimalist framework Mies van der Rohe used in the Seagram Building in New York.
Construction of the entire Amir Center was scheduled to last three or four years, but the project was delayed for various reasons. The top two floors were canceled due to pressure from the Chief Rabbinate, which was concerned that they would darken its offices in the Heichal Shlomo building across the street. The two other buildings in the Amir Center were never built because in the mid-1960s, the contractors decided to sell the rest of the plot to the Jerusalem municipality.
A quick start, then decline
The 28 apartments in the building sold quickly, but due to ongoing inadequate maintenance, the building has experienced a slow but steady decline. At the same time, the residents began revising the form of the balconies and making other uses of them.
"The residents started adding air conditioners and storage space on the balconies or just closed them in," notes Resnick. "It hurts me a lot because this building became famous worldwide because of its innovations. When I walk past the building today, I look the other way. I can't bear to see what they did to it." He says that over the years he approached the Jerusalem municipality several times and warned them about the changes in the building's facade. "I wrote to them that the residents are doing an injustice and any such change requires a permit," he says.
The building is not in good condition today. It needs extensive renovations to upgrade the water and electrical systems, and perhaps some process to oversee and approve the additions built on the balconies. In such cases, the practice is to approach the developer and get him to take care of the renovations in return for obtaining the rights to additional floors, but the building's shell is not strong enough to bear additional weight. Many residents would like to continue living there provided there is some extensive renovation. Others would like to raze it as part of an urban renewal project. The Jerusalem municipality has already approved construction of high-rise buildings adjacent to the Amir Center and presumably in this case too, it will act similarly.
Resnick talked in the past with residents about the possibility of renovating the building, but he acknowledges that its shape makes it hard to add security rooms or upgrade it to meet current building standards. In the vicinity of the Amir Center, several luxury hotels were built in recent years, including the Mamilla Hotel; the Waldorf Astoria hotel is also scheduled to open nearby soon. Given this backdrop, the gap between the building's humble appearance and functionality versus the luxury atmosphere enveloping the area seems more apparent than ever before. Since the building is not a designated landmark it is hard to make changes in the rights to it and it is possible that the Jerusalem municipality also would rather see a new project go up there. Still, Resnick is convinced that the Amir Center should be preserved because of its technological innovations and importance to modernist architecture in Jerusalem. "The question of nice or not nice is irrelevant. I think that the Israeli establishment does not understand what architecture is and its importance to the state. Look how important architectural history in Europe is from a cultural perspective."
The Jerusalem municipality's engineering administration said in response: "Several architects contacted the municipality with a request to consider the option of an evacuation-construction project for the building and were told that in principle, it is possible to review this matter in accordance with the accepted policy. To date, no plan has been formulated or submitted. In the event a plan is submitted, it will be implemented by the owner of the plot of land [where the building sits]."