Repository of Rivalry

The National Library's part-open, part-invited design competition for its new Jerusalem premises has angered local architects who feel the contest is discriminatory. Library board chaiman David Blumberg begs to differ.

Hundreds of architects have harshly attacked the decision of the National Library in Jerusalem to hold an open competition for design of its future premises, while allowing eight invited local and foreign firms to proceed directly to the semi-final stage. The chairman of the board of the library, David Blumberg, says he can "understand the anger" of those protesting the decision, which was made at the end of January.

This vocal, local group - of both young and veteran architects - has decried what they call "the humiliating conditions" of the competition, and is calling for its cancellation, in favor of one that is egalitarian and fair. To that end, the group has collected more than 750 signatures on an Internet petition and is attempting to lobby support among Knesset members and other elected officials. Furthermore, the group has tried to persuade the Israel Association of United Architects to dissociate itself from the contest.

David Blumberg outside the National Library in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

"This competition is based on backroom deals, a lack of integrity and especially on discrimination and an absence of collegiality," according to the letter the group sent to a large number of decision-makers.

Haaretz's interview with Blumberg took place in his modest office in the National Library building on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. One gets the feeling here that there is a huge distance between the internationally renowned personalities invited to participate in the competition - including London-based David Chipperfield and Japan's Shigeru Ban - and the typically Jerusalemite, academic landscape in which the library has operated for the past 50 years.

"I understand why the architects are angry," says Blumberg, "but at the same time I want you to understand me on this ... They are seeing [the competition] as though it were the be-all and end-all. For us the new National Library building is not the aim, but rather the means. That is, the competition is a means of 'approaching' the building, and the building is a means for offering a worthy home for the contents with which we want to fill it. When we meet with architects we tell them, 'Don't create some kind of architectural monument here that people will make pilgrimages to.' The contents are the main thing."

Why did you decide to give precedence to eight leading firms?

Blumberg: "Because otherwise they would not have participated at all. When you hold an open competition, you don't get the premier national league of Israeli architects, and you don't get them from abroad at all. In the name of equality, you can say you are holding an open competition, but you won't see the first rank there."

Isn't this a blow to the concept of equality? You are making dozens of firms in the country that choose to participate invest huge resources in the competition and in the end you are pitting them against a group of well-connected superstars.

"We looked at the last 20 competitions [for various civic projects] held in Israel and a competition of invited firms is an accepted method. One of the criticisms that has been directed at us lately concerns the 'final decision' policy: that is, we are reserving for ourselves the liberty of approving the plan. Do you think we are going to invest $150 million in a project and give carte blanche to some architect from Israel or abroad, without the board having the ability to come and say whether or not they accept the proposal?"

'The public good'

Blumberg, 67, has served as chairman of the National Library board for the past five years. Before that he was a prominent figure in the banking industry; among other posts, he served as chairman of the Bank of Jerusalem. In his current role he is responsible for the library's extensive renewal program. A number of public reports, including that of the state comptroller, have noted that the library, in its current home, which opened in 1960, has difficulty storing and cataloging books properly, and have pointed out that a large portion of the facility's valuable holdings are stored in unsuitable conditions.

The National Library, which this year marks 120 years since its founding on Mount Scopus, is one of the most important repositories in the world for books and manuscripts in the field of Judaism and Islam. Nonetheless, until the National Library Law was passed in 2007, it operated under the aegis of the Hebrew University and suffered from a persistent lack of both funds and personnel. The new legislation transformed it into "a company for the public good," jointly owned by the government and the university. Shortly after the law was passed, the Rothschild family's Yad Hanadiv foundation agreed to invest $150 million in a new building and in technologies that would enable librarians to deal with materials in the most appropriate way.

The National Library in Jerusalem
Daniel Bar-on

The library's current building is an icon of Modern architecture in Israel. It was designed by a team of architects from three firms: Ziva Armoni and Hanan Hebron of the Kibbutz Hameuchad planning department; Amnon Alexandroni and Avraham Yaski, and the couple Michael and Shulamit Nadler and Shimon Povzner. In general, the library is typical of academic institutions from the early days of the state: It is devoid of gimmicks or a well-oiled public relations mechanism, and it serves mainly a public of several hundred scholars who devote all their time to the research they do among its treasures. The unique scholarly atmosphere that prevails there recently was manifested in cinematic form in Joseph Cedar's film "Footnote."

Why in fact is the National Library insisting upon leaving the current structure - which is not perfect, but does serve it reasonably well - and investing half-a-billion shekels in new premises only some 600 meters away? Blumberg explains that since the university's humanities faculties began leaving Givat Ram for the campus on Mount Scopus in the 1970s, the library has lost a large public of researchers and students. Its location in the heart of Givat Ram - with all its security-related and accessibility problems - became "a millstone around the library's neck, and not an advantage," he says.

Moreover, moving to the new site, situated between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, is supposed to afford the institution an independent identity, both symbolically and physically, along with state-of-the-art cataloging and collecting capabilities. The move is expected to bump up the number of users significantly, from 10,000 to more than 200,000 a year. Blumberg dreams that alongside the research activity that usually takes place there, the new library will become a venue for cultural events and activities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

"Some university people said: 'What - are you building a National Library 'community center'? This was the most contemptible thing that could have crossed their lips," Blumberg says. "Up until three years ago, an average of about 100 visitors came here each year. Since then we set up a visitors center with a schedule of tours and the demand has far outpaced the supply. Everyone who comes here is impressed. The question is how such treasures had been virtually invisible over so many years.

"We see the openness of the library and accessibility to its holding as key elements in our activities," he continues. "The more people in Israeli society are exposed to the works and the treasures that are here - the more we will be able to do."

Professional questions

The library board is conducting the competition for the design of the new premises in cooperation with Yad Hanadiv, which in the past, among other contributions, made huge donations toward construction of two major government buildings in the country, not far from the planned library site: the Knesset (planned by Joseph Klarwein, Dov Karmi and Ram Karmi, 1966 ), and the Supreme Court (Ada Karmi-Melamede and Ram Karmi, 1992 ), for which in its day a similar, open/closed competition was held.

In the case of the library, four firms from the initial round will move to the next stage, at which point the eight invited firms will also join the fray. A short list of three will be selected from those 12, and finally from among them a winner will be selected.

Heading the jury is Prof. Luis Fernandez-Galiano (from Spain ). The panelists are Pritzker Prize winner Prof. Rafael Moneo (Spain ), Prof. Massimiliano Fuksas (Italy ), Prof. Elinoar Barzacchi (Israel ) and architect Gaby Schwartz (Israel ).

The architects leading the protests against the competition have two main arguments: The lack of egalitarianism, and the makeup of the eight firms that have been invited. The firms, invited by Yad Hanadiv (which is heading the competition ), are: from Israel, Ada Karmi-Melamede; Bracha and Michael Hayutin; Carlos Prus; and Udi and Ganit Mayslits-Kassif; and from abroad, David Chipperfield (Britain ); Shigeru Ban (Japan ); Moshe Safdie; and Peter Bohlin (both from the United States ).

The list has raised questions about the professionalism of the selection process. Karmi-Melamede, for example, has worked with Yad Hanadiv on a number of projects in Israel and therefore it seems her name on the list was ensured in advance. Prus was formerly a senior architect at the Jerusalem branch of Moshe Safdie's firm and is continuing to work with him on a number of projects. The Hayutins have won a number of such competitions, among them those for the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance (from which they have since resigned ) and the future courts campus in Jerusalem. Each of these three firms, and certainly that of Mayslits-Kassif, the youngest in the running, could have competed in the "regular" way without being given special privileges allowing them to skip to the semi-finals phase.

The list of foreign firms also should be examined closely. Chipperfield, Ban and Safdie are renowned architects, but it not clear why Bohlin, who is perhaps best known for designing Apple's flagship stores, is more suited than other architects to plan a national library in Israel.

Blumberg refuses to discuss the invited architects. Meanwhile Haaretz has learned that a number of local firms are working with leading international ones and will jointly submit plans for the library, within a month.

"I think the quality of the work we will get from the architects participating in the first phase will be better if they know that in the second phase they will be meeting up with serious invited participants from Israel and abroad," says Blumberg. "It could be that we made a mistake in the choice of one of the architects. So, okay, he will definitely not move on to the finals if he isn't worthy. Our intention is to conduct the 'cleanest' possible process."

Are you not aware of the discrimination you are creating among the participating architects?

"Our assessment is that we need this framework in order to get the best results. I am not discriminating against anyone and I am not violating the principle of equality. We are giving Israelis a full opportunity to participate. Hebrew University is about to build a humanities school, and the donor brought the architect along. Is that preferable?"

In the opinion of the board, is a foreign architect the best choice for planning the National Library?

"Not at all. I hope the winner will be a young Israeli architect. I want to tell you I would be very, very happy if someone who comes out of nowhere rises to the top and wins the competition."