Habima Architect Tells Critics: 'Kiss My Ass'

Ram Karmi defends his costly renovation on the national theatre building.

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Mere months before the Habima National Theatre reopens, the criticism about its fundamental makeover refuses to die down. Architect Ram Karmi spoke with Channel 10 News at the end of last week to defend his baby from the snipes of his critics and colleagues.

"What I did is a great thing and I don't care what everybody is saying. They can kiss my ass," said Karmi, the man behind one of the costliest renovations in Tel Aviv history.

Habima before Karmi’s changes.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Karmi, 80, thinks it inappropriate to sling mud at his creation before the works have finished, and elaborated on the concept behind the project. "Beforehand there was a crappy facade that wasn't appropriate to be representative of the theater," he said.

Accompanied by the Channel 10 cameras, Karmi gave them a tour of the new facility, walking through the auditoriums. "I am telling the story of the building, but when I'm not around, the building has to tell the story by itself," he said.

More than NIS 100 million went into vast makeover of the theater, which came to Israel from Russia in 1926. The renovation added 500 square meters of floor space with three new rehearsal rooms. The four auditoriums have been rebuilt from scratch.

He denies charges that the project smacks of megalomania. The building received the dimensions it should have, to operate efficiently, Karmi claims. "It didn't grow because it wanted to be big," he said.

Karmi defends the glittered facade, which some find less than fetching, as designed to counter complaints from neighbors about the building's sheer hugeness.

But what really bothers them isn't its size, he says, it's that it's sealed. No windows. He alleviates that sullenness with glitter, Karmi explained.

Habima after Karmi’s touch.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The architect, who also has the new Tel Aviv central bus station to his name, among other landmarks, shrugs off complaints that he received the massive project without a due tender process. "I'm good enough to be chosen without competition," he said.

In mid-September, the Tel Aviv municipality approved another NIS 10 million budget for the renovation of Habima, which had been formally recognized as the national theater in 1958.

The renovation began only 2007, five years after the Tel Aviv city engineering department decided that the old theater building had become unsafe. Almost a year after that, in February 2003, the city reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry that Habima would be renovated at a cost of NIS 27 million.

The three-year project was to start that year. But after somebody recalculated costs, to NIS 31 million, commencement was deferred to 2006. Finally, by year-end 2006, the government approved an NIS 76 million budget for the project, to be shared by the state and the city of Tel Aviv.

In February 2007, Africa Israel subsidiary Danya Cebus won the tender to carry out the job, and hired a company called Offici to do the works, which began under the orchestration of architect Karmi.

Later that year, city inspectors said the quality of the construction was substandard.

In November 2008, when it turned out that the original plan neglected to renovate the basement, the city allocated another NIS 10 million. By November 2009, the estimated cost had risen to NIS 91 million, not including the cost of buying new equipment for Habima.

City inspectors continued to charge that the works are substandard and in December 2009, Offici commissioned an external engineer to inspect the building. In January this year, the city demanded that Danya Cebus fire Offici and manage the project itself. That didn't happen and in April, the hired engineer reported that the new building wouldn't survive a quake and might collapse even if merely over-occupied.

Tel Aviv city engineer Hezi Berkowitz said the building was safe, though. The works continued and in September, the city approved NIS 10 million more to put the project to bed. Total so far: NIS 105 million, five times the originally estimated sum. Estimated opening: January 2011.

With reporting by City Mouse