A Hospital's Journey From Architectural Paean to Beacon of Bad Taste

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

I went looking for Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, or rather for the hospital’s historic structure designed by Arieh Sharon and Benjamin Idelson in 1954 and considered an architectural icon of its time. Before paying a visit, I spent time looking at the original plans for the hospital and old photographs showing the elegant shades, interior courtyards and garden than once wrapped around the buildings. But today’s reality is something else.

Decades of changes, additions and renovations have buried the original structure under an ornate cover of stone, plaster, marble and other materials that were, at one time or another, considered the ne plus ultra of Israeli architecture. Only after an hour or so of wandering around was I able to detect a few remnants of the original architecture a well-proportioned stairwell with wooden banisters, rectangular coffee-colored terrazzo porches, and a small section of the facade bearing the ancient logo of the Clalit health maintenance organization. In one of the interior courtyards, which has become a warren of technical systems and emergency exits, a security guard approached me and asked, “What are you looking for?”

“I seem to be lost,” I said.

The first building on the hospital campus was designed by Sharon in 1936 in the International Style, and was meant to serve the nearby agricultural settlements. In 1942, Hasharon Hospital was built in the center of Petah Tikva, serving at first as an extension of sorts for Beilinson and later on becoming a fully developed hospital in its own right. In the 1950s, Beilinson was again expanded by means of a more modern building, designed by Sharon and Idelson. In January 1996, Beilinson and Hasharon were merged into one entity under the name of Rabin Medical Center. Today the center is comprised of several medical institutions, including Schneider Children’s Medical Center and a genetics research center, with a capacity of 1,000 beds.

On a whole new scale

Sharon (1900-1984) and Idelson (1911-1972) were among the most prominent members of the Israeli Modernism movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Their partnership lasted 15 years, in the course of which they designed many well-known public buildings. Some of these were on a scale hitherto unknown in Israel, such as the Egged House in Haifa’s Bat Galim neighborhood, the Jewish Agency building on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, and the original building of the Beit Lessin Theater, also in Tel Aviv, for which they won the Rechter Prize in 1957.

Their approach in designing Beilinson combined the staff’s medical requirements with optimal conditions for patients and their families. They placed special emphasis on the relationship between the hospital tower and the entrance level and on the question of how to integrate the two in the hospital’s landscape design. The building consists of an eight-story, L-shaped hospital tower, its south side made up of patients’ rooms and its north side made up of medical facilities. Elevators were placed where the two sides meet. The ground floor, which enclosed two interior courtyards, contained the hospital’s public areas the dining hall, cafeteria, synagogue, lecture halls and more.

Around the building, the architects placed several single-story pavilions to house the hospital’s support services, such as administrative support, blood bank, first aid services, workshops and the electrical center. A decorative wall, designed to conceal ambulances stopping to drop off patients, was placed between the hospital entrance and the emergency room.

Sharon and Idelson took special pains to make sure the building suited the Israeli climate. Each one of the building’s facades was designed differently to account for sun and wind conditions: the south side got balconies that gave patients’ rooms a pleasant outdoor space and prevented direct sunlight from reaching the rooms; the eastern and western sides were equipped with shades above all the windows; and the northern side, free of direct sunlight, was left bare. In the days before air conditioning, a building’s interior airflow was of utmost importance, and the architects added very precise sketches to their plans demonstrating the climatic principles they were using.

“Our basic assumption was that every public building, be it a hospital or a university, must be designed with a rational flow depending on the project’s components the entrance, lobby and halls leading to different functions in the building,” Sharon wrote in his memoirs. “If possible, the flow of design should be broken up by open spaces, such as patios or internal courtyards, and the exterior space should be increased by using terracing and porticos so as to join the interior and exterior spaces.”

Beyond the building itself, the hospital garden was an unusual creation, designed by landscape architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Tsur. The two made a tremendous contribution to institutional landscape design in Israel on university campuses, commemorative sites, and many public buildings. The garden at Beilinson today buried under hospital towers and paved areas was reviewed in a detailed essay by landscape architect Matanya Zach in a book called “Landscape Models: The Gardens of Lipa Yahalom and Dan Tsur,” published last week in Hebrew by Babel. According to Zach, Yahalom and Tsur created the ideal landscape, verging on the classical, around the hospital. Tsur told her that the goal had been to create “a sense of being in the midst of nature.”

“In front of the facade of the historic building’s entrance, Yahalom and Tsur created a lower level with a pool surrounded by lawns and a descending topography of pools so that the water flowed from one to another, with stone terraces planted with a wide variety of flowering shrubs,” Zach writes. “The pool is located directly opposite the front entrance, but access to it is possible only by meandering paths on both of its sides. Those leaving the building are thereby freed at once from the hospital experience, and enter a different environment that allows some temporary release from the oppressive context.”

Zach visited the hospital before writing the essay. She, too, found it hard to orient herself in relation to the maze created over the years, and used the water tower, left in place since the 1930s, as her reference point. “When we talk about the preservation of hospitals and today there is awareness of its importance the landscape never comes up,” writes Zach. “In the past, a hospital’s garden served to separate hospital departments or was a buffer between the hospital and the city. For the patients and their relatives, the garden had great importance as a place one could go to get away from the fact that one was in the hospital.”

Architectural vandalism

It is hard to exaggerate when describing the architectural vandalism that has happened to Beilinson’s two historic buildings the one from 1936 as well as the one from 1954. The first was covered with Jerusalem stone and the second surrounded by new hospital towers and lost altogether. The same is true of the garden designed by Yahalom and Tsur: The beautiful pool was destroyed only two years ago in favor of a new tower.

Anyone coming to Beilinson today is forced to look at a whole complex of bad taste. The entrance space which in the past was “a model of space and light,” to use the definition of architect Arad Sharon, Arieh Sharon’s grandson has become an art gallery with architecture typical of subterranean catacombs. Copies of masterworks by Picasso, Cezanne and Caravaggio crowd together, interspersed with donor plaques.

The hospital’s synagogue was renovated by architect Ram Carmi and decorated with massive pillars, a la “pharaonic architecture,” again to quote Sharon. The internal courtyards have been closed off and are now food courts with branches of Aroma and McDonalds.

According to Arad Sharon, Beilinson was one of his grandfather’s and Idelson’s most successful projects, and it is not surprising that afterward the two became Clalit’s house architects. Together they designed Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva another icon of Israeli Modernist architecture. After the partnership ended, Sharon went on independently to design Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Geha Psychiatric Hospital in Petah Tikva, and many other buildings.

Arad Sharon declares that he is no fan of preservation, but he feels that the changes at Beilinson have been extreme. “Beyond the additions and changes, all the buildings at Beilinson have had stone cladding put on their exteriors, as if the hospital were some sort of extension of Jerusalem,” he says. “My grandfather would be spinning in his grave if he knew that his plaster had been turned into stone. I don’t know if the building should have been preserved, but I have no doubt that it was possible to develop the medical center in the spirit of the vision of the International Style. To go from here to postmodernism is a huge leap. I mean, this style died in the 1980s everywhere else in the world, and good riddance to it, but here in Israel it seems to be alive and kicking.”

The preservation problem

The question of hospital preservation is problematic, because hospitals must grow and expand given their function. The functions served by medical facilities have changed many times, as has the standard of patients’ rooms, which are now comparable to hotel rooms. On the other hand, hospitals in Europe and the United States are now included on preservation surveys, and even Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, originally designed by the Jewish-German architect Erich Mendelsohn, is now in the process of being preserved.

Beilinson Hospital offered the following response: “The hospital, together with some of the leading hospital architects in Israel and the world, such as MorrisSwitzer, engages in deeply thought-out planning processes in order to provide the very best for its patients. The hospital management has adopted the currently accepted view that places the patients and their needs at the center and the creation of a healing environment as its guiding principles in the planning process. These, in conjunction with the modern functional and technological demands of medical centers, steer us in our development of this hospital.

“The buildings on this campus, as well as their environment, project a welcoming, supportive atmosphere, evident in the soft, warm architecture, the wide, decorated hallways, the water fountains and the soothing background music,” the hospital added. “All of these provide patients with a sense of harmony, and extend to them an inclusive, comfortable, friendly and safe space.

“Hospital buildings have not been slated for preservation and their function is first and foremost to provide appropriate medical care and to meet the medical needs of patients, as well as to provide modern medical technologies and deliver professional standards,” it said. “Nonetheless, the hospital on its own initiative undertook work to preserve and rebuild the water tower erected at the beginning of the last century. Its unique structure is a historical reminder of the beginnings of Jewish settlement on this land in the 20th century. The preservation project, carried out at the cost of about $150,000, was done by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, and incorporates a work of art.”

Sharon and Idelson’s Beilinson Hospital building in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Sharon Architects, Matanya Zach.
Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.