A Building Under Wraps

Once an outstanding icon of Modernist design, Beit Egged in Tel Aviv is now partly covered by a giant billboard - and could eventually be swallowed up in a plan for Israel's tallest skyscraper.

The Egged bus company building is unlike any other office building erected in Tel Aviv during the course of the 20th century. It hunkers on a large corner lot located on Menachem Begin Road, overlooking the Ayalon Highway and the city's eastern neighborhoods, and looks like a cross between a Histadrut labor federation building and a lab on a remote academic campus. The brown Granolite slabs that cover Beit Egged give the building an element of heaviness and roughness, but close up it's possible to see the way the stories seem to float above one another and the delicate strips of windows adorning its facade. In the opinion of architect Shulamit Nadler, who planned the building, Beit Egged doesn't look outdated half a century after it was built, even though, as she says, "It is neither made of metal nor of glass."

The Egged building ceased to function as the headquarters of the bus cooperative's management about a decade ago, when the executive offices moved to new premises in Airport City. Today the old Beit Egged is in the hands of Nitsba Holdings (the owner of most of the central bus stations in Israel ), which has rented it out to the Defense Ministry.

Beit Egged - Aviad Bar Ness - 15032012
Aviad Bar Ness

In its current incarnation the building, which is in need of renovation and maintenance, has ceased to function as a company headquarters and has become in effect a gigantic billboard. Two of its four sides are covered in advertisements - at the moment for a European fashion company.

Function and beauty

Beit Egged was planned by Nadler in 1964 together with her late husband Michael Nadler and their partner at the time, Shmuel Bixson, after they won first place in the planning competition. Before that, Egged's offices were scattered between a number of buildings in Tel Aviv, on Fein Street near the old central bus station and on Herzl and Mazeh streets, and the aim of the new building was to centralize the cooperative's administrative activity.

The chosen plot was located in what was, at the time, the southeastern edge of the city near the Tnuva dairies and the Kirya military base. However, there was already talk of a new highway that would run along the channel of the Ayalon Stream and Egged recognized the opportunity to erect a building along a main transportation artery.

The bus company made a major contribution to Israeli architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. The best architects in the country - among them Arieh Sharon, Benjamin Idelson and Theodore Kisselov - designed central bus stations and office buildings for Egged. These were outstanding in their quality, originality and execution. Such, for example, were the central bus station in Haifa's Bat Galim neighborhood and the stations in Netanya, Tiberias and Hadera. The choice of Nadler, Nadler and Bixson's firm was part of this trend.

In the 1960s the Nadlers were already relatively renowned architects in Israel. They had planned the Agriculture Bank's headquarters and the Journalists House in Tel Aviv and the Sourasky Central Library at Tel Aviv University. They were also partners in the planning of the National Library in Jerusalem and they completed the construction of the Keren Theater in Be'er Sheva. Their defining architectural language, based on Modernist principles, focused on dealing with indoor spaces and traffic systems in a functional way and sensitive visual expression on facades.

At Beit Egged, too, they tried to find a balance between function and the creation of a beautiful building. They planned two foundation stories of exposed concrete for public use of the building, plus a dining hall and a members' club, and above that they placed the office building. The ground floor covered a huge area in order to hold Egged's gigantic computer system, but by the time construction was completed computers had already been miniaturized and some of the space was left unused.

Outwardly the building might resemble a Histadrut labor federation building, but by playing with mass the architects differentiated between simple offices and more luxurious corner offices, which had large windows on three sides. To bring light into the depths of the building and to create a pleasant working environment, a large patio with skylights shaped like a pyramid was planned.

Beit Egged was one of the first office buildings in Israel that tried to break the familiar format of rooms arranged tightly along either side of a long corridor. The facing of the building with Granolite slabs was, and remains, unusual in Israeli architecture - maybe because of the heavy and perhaps even depressing character they afford the building. An impressive metal sculpture, four stories high, by artist Moshe Sternschuss, who was a friend of the Nadlers, adorns the main facade. It is a striking example of the attempt by Israeli architects in the 1950s and 1960s to combine art and architecture into a single unified work. According to Shulamit Nadler, the building does not try to represent Egged's role as a transportation company ("We didn't put a bus on the roof," she laughs ), but rather to make a clear statement as a functional office building.

Existential threat

The Egged building's location on Gush Dan's main transportation arteries eventually became a real threat to its existence. For the past 15 years Nitsba has been promoting a plan to build the tallest skyscraper in Israel (designed by Ari Goshen Architects ) on the southeastern part of the plot. The current plan would leave Beit Egged where it stands, but would entail huge changes to the building. Its lower portion would be swallowed up by the skyscraper's foundation level and presumably its Granolite facade would be updated with new building materials.

In recent years Nitsba's properties have been undergoing renovations without any relation to their architectural qualities. The Egged station in Netanya has recently undergone a renovation involving glittering ceramic tiles being placed over the concrete, the Egged stations in Eilat and Tiberias are slated for demolition, and a large question mark hangs over the central bus station in Haifa's Bat Galim neighborhood and the splendid concrete tower that rises above it.

The question is: Who should be responsible for the future of Beit Egged - an outstanding example of 1960s Modernist architecture that became an icon in Tel Aviv's main business center? The bus company, which has abandoned it? Nitsba Holdings, which focuses on profitable real estate? Or perhaps the Tel Aviv municipality, which can ensure that its facade is preserved in any future plan? In the meantime it seems that none of them are in any hurry to acknowledge the building's quality.

Egged said in response: "Beit Egged is Egged's control center and, as an organization characterized by extensive transportation activity and a broad nationwide spread, we looked for a place at a major intersection, combining access to an advanced highway network and a pleasant business environment - characteristics that no longer typify the historical Beit Egged."