Architect Ram Karmi, Known for His Large-scale, Brutalist Style, Dies at 82

Hailed for successes such as Israel's Supreme Court building and criticized for failures such as Tel Aviv's new Central Bus Station, Ram Karmi nevertheless left a strong and recognizable mark on Israeli architecture.

Ram Karmi, one of Israel’s most prominent architects who received the Israel prize in 2002, passed away Thursday at the age of 82. Karmi was the quintessential representative of what was labeled the "brutalist" style, also called "gray architecture," which came as a response to the clean, white style that characterized the preceding generation of architects. Over the years, Karmi designed dozens of projects, many on a large scale and several of which aroused much controversy.

Karmi, who was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Tel Aviv, was the son of architect Dov Karmi and brother of architect Ada Karmi-Melamed, both of whom were also recipients of the Israel Prize. He began his studies at the Technion in Haifa, whose "rationalistic" campus he later defined as narrow and constricting.  He completed his architecture studies at London’s Architecture Association’s (AA) school of architecture.

He subsequently returned to Israel, where he worked alongside his father as part of the Karmi-Melzer-Karmi partnership, and soon developed his own style. He defined brutalism as a “style that tries to express the material connection to a location: landscape, air, light and a society in the making." The origin of the name is in an expression coined by the renowned French architect Le Corbusier to describe raw concrete. Accordingly, the Israeli expression of this style came from using unpolished available materials such as concrete, glass, metal and wood to create sculpture-like structures. 

This style was already evident in Karmi’s first projects, such as the Negev Center, a commercial and residential complex he designed in 1960 in Be'er Sheva, for which he received the Rechter Prize seven years later, and the El Al office tower in Tel Aviv, designed with his father in 1962, for which he was awarded the Rokach Prize. These projects drew attention and much public criticism due to their strikingly novel and varied shapes and large scale.

From 1975 to 1979 Karmi served as the chief architect in the Ministry of Housing and lectured at the Technion’s faculty of architecture. In later years he designed, among many other works, the student dormitories at Ben Gurion University, the Yad Layeled children’s memorial museum at the Ghetto Fighters’ house in Kibbutz Lohamei Ha-Getaot and the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, the latter with his sister Ada Karmi-Melamed. This project, along with Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion airport, for which the two siblings collaborated with the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) architecture firm in New York, received much praise in Israel and abroad.

The most controversial project Karmi was involved with was the new central bus station in Tel Aviv, a complex that includes a bus terminal and shopping center. Work on the project began in 1967 but it was only opened in 1993. The architect wanted to design a mega-structure, similar to Dizengoff Center (which he was also involved with), that would serve as an entire thriving and active community. But the grandiose and confusing structure, with its multiple levels and meandering wings, remains largely deserted, now a magnet for homeless people and violence.

In recent years Karmi drew more fire for his involvement in other controversial projects such as the proposal for a new building for the Prime Minister’s office and the Holyland Park project in Jerusalem.

The recent facelift given to Habima, the national theater, in Tel Aviv, completed in 2011, drew much criticism, focusing mainly on the questionable need for such massive renovations and on his choice as architect with no public competition. Karmi himself viewed the Habima renovation as one of his most successful projects.

In an interview with Haaretz, Karmi said the book that inspired him to go into architecture was Ayn Rand’s "The Fountainhead."

"Every good design I plan is watered down, with its spirit eviscerated," he said. "However, I don’t destroy or blow up the final product. Like every good father, if your offspring does not come out exactly as you planned, you don’t harm him or love him less. They were all my buildings."

Karmi is survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time.

Ofer Vaknin
Koby Kalmanovich