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What is the most important exhibit at the new design museum in Holon? In the view of its artistic director, Galit Gaon, the answer is clear: the museum building itself, designed by Ron Arad. The rusty-metal spirals in shades of brown, orange and red are not just the most fascinating sight in Holon, but also among the most surprising architectural structures built in Israel in recent years.

Even before the new museum has mounted its first show, it is clear that we are dealing with an icon that is garnering international attention. The architectural model for it has already been on view at the Pompidou Center in Paris and at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and it will be on display at the Ron Arad retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London from mid-month. The prestigious American magazine Conde Nast Traveler was quick to bestow on it its annual Innovation and Design Award for Culture. The grand opening of the Design Museum Holon took place last Sunday, although its first exhibition is scheduled to open only in March.

The Israeli-born Arad is an international designer and architect based in London, where he recently completed his tenure as head of the design department at the Royal College of Art. This is the first public building he has designed in his lengthy career. It reflects an intriguing juncture in contemporary architecture, in which the designer operates along the seam line between manual and computerized drafting. The attractive steel spirals are the product of pencil and freehand drawing, but their physical transformation and implementation are wholly computerized.

The museum Arad designed, together with the Israeli-born Asa Bruno, actually consists of two separate and distinct entities: the system of spirals, and a conventional concrete building that carries the former and contains the exhibition halls. The entrance is by way of an inner plaza trapped between these two parts, and constitutes an amazingly rich space. Stretched over the anterior section is a black ceiling, resembling the belly of a whale, which is actually the floor of the main exhibition space. In the interior part of the plaza, the view again opens up skyward and leads visitors to the main entrance.

In the interstice between open and closed are situated the ticket office, museum shop (operated by Tollman's), and a branch of the Tel Aviv cafe Idelson 10. The undulating steel bands dictate the space and frame a skyline that is almost completely free of adjacent buildings. The slightly rough touch of the steel hints at the museum's extensive preoccupation with material and technology.

The two exhibition halls are meant to allow curators flexibility - a lesson learned from the building that Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry designed for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The small and enclosed gallery on the ground floor of the Holon structure is intended for small exhibits or wall-mounted works. The main gallery on the second floor measures 500 square meters, and is intended for large three-dimensional installations. It is lit by pleasant natural light. The museum also has an educational wing; it faces an inner courtyard with a garden.

"This building is a small miracle," Arad said in a telephone interview from his London studio. "It is a modest building, two galleries and an interior courtyard, which ultimately came out looking a lot like the model and the simulations. What we designed is what we got."

In an interview with Haaretz in September 2003, Arad spoke about his reaction to the offer to design Israel's first design museum: "I tried to wriggle out of the offer because I was deterred by the project ... The idea of a design museum in Holon is surreal. All the municipality had was a headline, something along the lines of, 'Hey, a building has become available in Holon so let's build a museum [there].' I thought I would manage to get out of it when I recommended that they look into the subject of design museums in the world, but they approached the designer Daniel Charny, who researched the subject and submitted recommendations for designing the museum."

Eventually, of course, Arad accepted the commission. "To their credit, they ultimately did everything I thought they wouldn't do," he added.

Arad supervised the project from London, monitoring the progress through daily photographic updates. During his last visit to Israel, in mid-December, he saw an almost-finished building.

Three tons of steel

Regarding the distinctive bands of Corten weathering steel that envelop the museum, he says: "They were cut in segments of about 14 meters, a size dictated by the container that came from Italy. We used three tons of steel, 4,000 square meters of Corten, which if you connected up all the beams, would be a kilometer long." The bands, he explains, "do not serve as just the pretty face of the building; they also constitute its structure ... [In fact] there is not a single column in the building."

Like the Maxxi Rome, Italy's first museum of contemporary art, designed by the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, which opened last November, and the Pompidou branch in Metz, France, designed by the Japanese-born Shigeru Ban - Arad's museum in Holon is intended to draw Bilbao-style architectural tourism.

"Everyone is building on the Bilbao model," Arad confirms, "but you've got to remember Bilbao is 10 times the size of our museum, and the museum in Bilbao works together with the city in a remarkable manner. The museum in Holon is next to a highway, across from an old mall and low-end housing projects. That's why the project had to be independent. Will it be a draw? I hope so."

Indeed, Arad adds, the design he created is site-specific. "It can only be on the spot where it stands. It faces a plaza, but the plaza is not really a plaza. It's not an urban square with an urban character ... The square is not some Italian piazza. It is trapped between something that is actually the backside of the Holon Mediatheque and two main streets. The challenge was to design a building that is appealing to enter, and this was done by creating a hierarchy of external spaces. The envelope is one thing, the spaces are another, and the gap between them contains the restrooms, the infrastructure, air-conditioning ducts , etc.

"Since the site itself was relatively small, one of the first decisions we made was to have one space 'leaning' on the edge of another. If this were a sculpture, we'd talk about negative spaces, but since it is a building, we talk about external spaces. You can read the building from outside, more or less like an object. Once you are inside, you are in another world altogether; the entire outside world disappears, and the only view you have outside the museum is skyward. You practically can't see the neighbors. From the moment you enter, it's a pretty autistic building; you are in its world."

While the entrance plaza inspires excitement, the the interior spaces are fairly mundane, if not disappointing. All contact with the reddish Corten steel is lost the moment one enters: It makes a brief appearance only once, at the edge of the staircase linking the two galleries. Perhaps the fact that the interior spaces do not manage to compete with the rich experience outside is Arad's way of focusing visitors' attention on the exhibitions.

Holon is not the only city in the country that desired a design icon from one of the world's best-known designers: Arad divulges that he is currently working on a concert hall for Eilat. The Holon Municipality prides itself in its publications on having the first completed public building designed by Arad, but the designer himself downplays its significance: "We don't look at this work as a high point on our resume. Now we are doing this, beginning to work on that, in a little while we will be doing something else."

Select group

The Design Museum Holon joins a small and select group of museums of this type throughout the world, from the TCDC - Thailand Creative and Design Center in Bangkok, to the Vitra Design Museum (in Weil am Rhein, Germany, just across the river from Basel), and the distinguished Cooper-Hewitt collection in New York. The main thing that characterizes design museums around the world is an attractive display of collections of highly aesthetic works that would normally be accessible only to a limited segment of the population. Exhibitions usually take the form of retrospectives, themed shows dealing with furniture or particular materials, and showcases of young designers. In many cases the museums are housed in buildings that are themselves beautifully designed, such as that designed by Gehry for the German furniture company Vitra. The permanent exhibition there consists of the hundreds of chairs Vitra produced in its 100 years of operation, alongside temporary exhibitions.

The world's first and most important design museum was founded in London 25 years ago, as a wing in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The current director of Design Museum London, Deyan Sudjic, followed the Holon project closely, and even attended the gala opening events there. In his opinion, the growing number of design museums reflects a growing interest in the field, but "does not yet amount to a trend"; he does not foresee institutions of this kind going up in every major city.

"There is no doubt that industrial design has matured and has been around long enough to begin receiving museum treatment," Sudjic observes. "This is a much younger creative area than architecture, for example, and it characterizes the production and industrialization that modernism brought with it. I think we are at a stage where there is enough of a variety for public display."

Sudjic says his museum started out in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the objective of focusing critical discourse on the subject of industrial design, as there had been in the Bauhaus school, for example. "It was clear to us from the start that we could not appeal only to the 'clergy' of designers and members of the profession, but rather needed to attract the general public through various programs and events," he says.

Today the London museum occupies a building on the Thames River that once served as a banana warehouse. The original structure was completely revamped in the International style, and it welcomes a quarter of a million visitors each year.

Sudjic says that a design museum does not necessarily have to focus on local art, and this applies to Holon as well: "You need to incorporate Israeli designers, based on the quality of their work, in various exhibitions."

For example, Design Museum London is currently showing a retrospective of the influential German designer Dieter Rams, alongside an exhibition of the latest works by the British architect David Chipperfield. The key, in Sudjic's view, is the quality of design - not national affiliation.

As important as quality is, it turns out that an original agenda can also work wonders for a museum's status in global professional discourse. Cooper-Hewitt in New York, for instance, adopted a green agenda a few years ago. Its latest exhibitions have examined products not only according to aesthetic and consumer-related criteria, but also probed their function and sustainability. A recent exhibition at the Manhattan institution, titled "Design for a Living World," focused on how communities throughout the world could use the resources closest to them, and perhaps even transform them into products.

Israel certainly has no lack of underprivileged populations or burning environmental issues. Even if the clientele of the Habitat and Tollman's home-design chains is growing steadily, most Israelis are still far from consuming designer products that were not bought at IKEA. It will be interesting to see whether Design Museum Holon will have the wisdom to acknowledge these audiences as well, by, say, commissioning community-design projects involving the Bedouin population, Israelis of Ethiopian origin, or the ultra-Orthodox. These are unique aspects of local life right under its nose, which should be easy for the museum to tap.