Bezalel, architecture
Bezalel’s current campus, on Mt. Scopus. Completed only in 1991. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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A year from now Prof. Arnon Zuckerman will complete his tenure as president of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Along with a series of accomplishments related to development of the school's various departments and promoting its standing internationally, Zuckerman will be remembered for his vigorous work to bring the Bezalel campus back to Jerusalem's city center: first by means of a failed attempt at an open competition, and then by means of a closed tender for the design of the school's new campus at the Russian Compound, in which some of the biggest names in the international world of architecture participated.

But Bezalel's decision earlier this month to entrust this project, which involves relocating the school back to city center from Mount Scopus, to the Tokyo-based firm Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and Associates (known as SANAA ), in collaboration with Nir - Kutz Architects of Tel Aviv, was clearly one of the most controversial Zuckerman has overseen since assuming his post in 2003.

Few dispute the quality of the work done by SANAA, winners of last year's prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. However, Israel's architectural community still regards Bezalel's act as a serious violation of what it sees as the rules of the game: first, because of the institution's decision ultimately to hold a closed tender process, meaning that only firms invited to compete could make bids; and second, because of the decision to award to a foreign firm the job of designing a school that symbolizes the revival of arts and crafts in the Land of Israel. The chairman of the Israel Association of United Architects, Prof. Baruch Baruch, has even called upon Bezalel to revoke the decision, claiming that that the bidding process violated the principle of equal opportunity.

In a recent interview with Haaretz, however, Zuckerman rejects out of hand the criticism that has been leveled at him personally, and at Bezalel, which opened in downtown Jerusalem in 1906 and 21 years later moved to Mount Scopus.

"Are we to apologize for picking one of the best firms in the world for a unique project? This is a complex that gets built once in a century - and as president I must arrange for the best possible solution for Bezalel," he says.

Zuckerman explains that the academy only decided to pursue a closed competition after going through with an open process - which took place in September 2006, and was won by the German-Turkish firm STUDYO - that wound up being a failure. As was reported first in these pages, last April Bezalel's board of directors suddenly reneged on its agreement with Studyo: The school felt its proposed design was not right for the site and that the firm could not really handle a project of this scope.

"A competition doesn't necessarily promise the best and most appropriate solution," Zuckerman adds now, "and there are a lot of good architects who are not willing to enter competitions."

Who is to blame for the original competition's failure?

"Part of the failure is mine - for not insisting adamantly enough on not taking a firm with very little experience, which even today has still not accrued any experience in anything. At the time the judges thought we should give young architects a chance, and that's also why the local community of architects took it so quietly. Everyone said: 'Hey, they're young, it's great.' But in retrospect, the firm's whole manner of operating was unacceptable from our standpoint."

Bezalel then drew up a new tender and invited 16 firms to compete, eight from Israel and eight from abroad, including well-known architects such as Norman Foster of Britain, Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, and Kengo Kuma of Japan. In contrast to the earlier process, this time contestants were not required to draw up actual plans for designing the new Bezalel campus, but rather to present a portfolio of their work, "so we could be certain that whoever we took on would deliver," as Zuckerman puts it. The lion's share of Israeli firms did not stand a chance of competing in terms of the scope and quality of work the overseas firms could offer, and they were eliminated out in the first round.

Three teams made it to the finish line: SANAA, in collaboration with Nir - Kutz; Steven Holl of New York, together with Asaf Lerman; and the Tel Aviv firm of Mayslits Kassif, with Britain's RMJM firm. The panel of judges, headed by the chairman of Bezalel's board of trustees and real-estate developer Herzl Habas, met the finalists and entered negotiations with SANAA over its asking price. After persuading the firm to cut its fees by 25 percent, the panel voted unanimously in its favor.

SANAA is expected to get 7 percent of the total budget of NIS 218 million - i.e., NIS 15 million, which will be shared with Nir - Kutz. The latter firm, owned by a married couple, Roni Nir and Arie Kutz, has to its design credit the First International Bank of Israel tower on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, on which it collaborated with the New York firm Pei Cobb Freed, as well as the renovation of Gan Hahashmal in Tel Aviv.

Once-in-a-lifetime location

Zuckerman says that SANAA's experience in several educational projects - such as the Rolex Learning Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany - guarantees Bezalel a campus designed on an especially high level.

"If you look at their work, you will understand what is special about them," he says. "They simply do things differently, with a great deal of precision, modesty and originality. We are not seeking to build a new architectural icon in Jerusalem; we don't want [Pritzker Prize-winning architect] Frank Gehry here. We want something quiet, meticulous and designed in a responsible way, which will give us a feeling of being 'tailor made.'"

Unlike the other two firms that were shortlisted, SANAA's Kazuyo Sejima brought a model to her meeting with the jury. Was that fair to the others?

"It really was very impressive - not so much the models as the sheer fact that they took the trouble: They brought a one-square-meter model of the property, and did a presentation in which they offered three possibilities: one of low construction, one of higher construction, and one consisting of several buildings. The effort in itself was most impressive. The others could have brought a model, too. Was anyone stopping them? Sejima brought it on her own initiative. In addition to that she naturally presented other works by the firm."

To what extent did the jury take into consideration the campus' special location in the center of Jerusalem? This will, after all, be an enormous building in the most sensitive spot in the city.

"I think that Jerusalem, and particularly this location, is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There are no other places like it. If there is one thing I lose sleep over, it's this. In hindsight, I'm glad we wound up with a bidding process. Over time I came to feel that the [initial] solution we accepted was not right."

SANAA have a recognizable language: light, bright, but very rigid. Do you think the building they design will be suitable to Jerusalem and blend in well with the local architecture?

"Can you define what contemporary Israeli architecture is? Is there such a thing? The impression I got was that Sejima is very aware of the historic aspect of the place, and of Jerusalem in general. This was part of what attracted them to take part in the process in the first place. I am convinced they will deal with it in an exemplary manner. What persuaded me is that they said: 'We build things for people'. They don't want to build the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. They understand the complexity, both of the location and of the whole environment."

'Betrayal of values'

The harshest criticism of Bezalel's selection process has been reserved for what critics call its administration's agenda: specifically, the preference of an internationally renowned architect to an Israeli one. Even if Zuckerman insists that the members of the jury did not prefer a foreign architect to a local one and treated all of the contestants equally, the fact is that each of the shortlisted local firms teamed up with a foreign one.

Architects Udi Kassif and Ganit Mayslits Kassif, who designed the renovated Tel Aviv Port and were among the finalists, believe Bezalel ought to have chosen a local firm.

"The very act of deliberating between an Israeli firm and a 'starchitect' for an institution like Bezalel is almost absurd, considering the school's vision of establishing a creative and significant cadre of [local] leaders," says Mayslits Kassif. The couple had signed a cooperative agreement with the British firm RMJM, but made sure "the reins" would be in their own hands, she says.

"The issue of an open competition is complicated in the case of Bezalel," Mayslits Kassif adds, "because the scope of the new campus is actually not known yet. However, in our opinion the competition should have included only leading Israeli architects. An institution like Bezalel really ought to show its faith in Israeli artists ... We need to create our own international reputations, not worship foreign firms."

She agrees that SANAA is an excellent firm, but questions how it will contend with the complexity of construction in the heart of Jerusalem: "We don't see how a firm from Tokyo will manage to deal with such a complicated plan at a location that has yet to be finally determined and that has such sensitive historical baggage."

Likewise, Bracha and Michael Chyutin, winners of many local architecture competitions including the Haifa courthouse and the Senate building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who were invited to take part in the bid, thought that the job should have gone to an Israeli firm on principle.

"Bezalel's decision to pick an architect who is not Israeli is a betrayal of the values that have accompanied the academy since its very establishment," declares Bracha Chyutin. "No one is disputing the talent and ability of SANAA, but this decision constitutes a declaration of no-confidence by Bezalel in the architectural community and in architectural education in Israel, for which it is also responsible in no small measure."

For his part, Zuckerman rejects the local firms' criticism. "Everyone who didn't land a job is angry. What would've happened if we had picked one local firm and not another? They'd be angry then, too. How can Chyutin apply for the tender, appear before the panel, and later say that they're in favor of an open competition? If you're against the tender process, why did you even participate?"

Don't you think there are firms in Israel that are good enough to design a project for Bezalel?

"I would be delighted if there were. The problem is that we were accused of provincialism because we went with someone from outside. But I think that it's provincial to think that we have all of the wisdom. Not everything is in our hands."

Still, can you understand this complaint?

"[When it comes to] the matter of provincialism, certainly not. I can understand the desire for it to be an Israeli architect."

You could have approached several Israeli figures of international renown, such as Moshe Safdie, Ron Arad or even Michael Arad, who designed the impressive Ground Zero memorial in New York.

"Everyone you just cited is Israeli, but they don't work or live here."

The identity of the designer, his nationality or religion, makes no difference in your eyes?

"Absolutely none."

Would you agree to appoint an artist from overseas to run one of Bezalel's departments?

"I wouldn't mind."

Architect Asaf Lerman, who was also among the finalists, believes the choice of SANAA is "good and exciting. We are talking about one of the most interesting and important architectural firms in the world today, and I have no doubt that the project they will lead is going to be on the highest level and contribute greatly to the image of Bezalel and of the city center, which is undergoing revitalization," he says.

In Lerman's opinion, the involvement of foreign architects in Israel can only contribute to boosting the local professional level. "However," he adds, "there is certainly room to incorporate local talents in the overall process of the move to the city center, to turn it into a formative cultural event that has the power to mark the outstanding architects of the coming generation."

Global competition

From the time of the failed design competition, which drew some 180 proposals from around the world, until the recent tender, a lot of time was lost and quite a bit of public money was squandered. "When you make a mistake you have to cut your losses quickly," Zuckerman says.

The decision to open the competition to a select group of firms violates the principle of equal opportunity for all architects in Israel, and begs questions regarding Bezalel's role as a public institution.

Zuckerman: "As president I have a responsibility to provide the best solutions for Bezalel. I don't have to submit to whims. The fact that I'm a public institution and an art school does not mean that I have to commit suicide."

Do you understand the tremendous anger that you've aroused in the local architectural community, or do you think it's just a matter of envy and pettiness?

"This is a very small and close-knit community, and I understand its distress. There aren't that many projects like this, and it really is unique. But the flip side is that precisely because it is such a special project, we need to find the best solution."

Might the decision to hold a tender as you did damage Bezalel's reputation?

"What damage? Demand for enrollment at Bezalel hasn't gone down. Maybe it will even increase with the new campus. Bezalel is an even stronger 'brand' than the Association of United Architects, with all due respect."

Another problem under discussion in the architectural community was the absence of an internationally renowned architect on the panel of judges. The presence of such a figure, it is argued, would have safeguarded the tender from ending up as a "beauty contest" between design portfolios. The panel that judged the original competition in 2006 included Prof. Toshiko Mori of Harvard University and the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. On the second committee, the only architects were Yuval Yasky, head of the architecture school at Bezalel, and Orna Angel, vice president for planning at the construction company Shikun & Binui. They were joined by non-architects Herzl Habas; Zuckerman; and Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, director of the Einstein Center on Mount Scopus, an interdisciplinary research facility.

"We approached a number of prominent figures who declined to participate," Zuckerman says, but refuses to name them.

In any event, the media and public storm surrounding the recent design competition has left its mark on Bezalel: Among other things, members of the jury decided to recommend halving the size of the new campus, from 60,000 to 30,000 square meters. The academy therefore entered into talks with the owners of adjacent buildings to buy or rent them. Negotiations are underway primarily with the Museum of Underground Prisoners, situated on a 3,000-square-meter plot in the Russian Compound, which is slated for construction. Zuckerman is also interested in working with the museum on developing the public space that lies between it and the new campus.

In addition, Bezalel is considering renting and renovating other buildings in the area: Beit Avichail, the former Bank Leumi building on Jaffa Road, the central post office (part of which is already being used by Bezalel ), and the headquarters of the Zion District Police, which a government decision has already promised to Bezalel for future development.

The preliminary sketches for the new campus are expected to arrive in about two months; Zuckerman estimates that the entire planning authorization and design process will last around 18 months. "It will be an excellent project for Jerusalem," he says. "Take for example the nice little pedestrian mall that developed next to the building of the [existing] architecture faculty downtown. They put in a few sidewalks and suddenly there are coffee shops and boutiques, and new life, thanks to Bezalel.

"I hope the new campus will be a sort of village where there's a happening going on all the time. It's a location that is between the Arab, ultra-Orthodox and secular areas, and I hope that it will give rise to a new place of encounter, leading to another kind of discourse, another kind of activity, another kind of thinking. If we succeed in doing this in Jerusalem, it will also become an international center of the first degree."

Comments Baruch Baruch, of the Association of United Architects: "I think it is wrong for Israeli public institutions to approach international luminaries to realize their fantasies. The right thing to do is to turn to the public of Israeli architects, with the quality we have here, and to make a choice by means of a competition. It is a mistake on the part of Bezalel, which has made Hebrew creative arts its cause, to choose a foreign architect. It is a serious blow to the future of architecture in Israel."