Love Triangle

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art's new wing has finally opened. Haaretz accompanied architect Preston Scott Cohen as he took his first tour around the completed $50-million building. Critics contend, however, that the facility is in danger of upstaging the art rather than showcasing it.

When American architect Preston Scott Cohen landed in Israel at the end of October, there was no desire to check in at his hotel and rest after the long flight. Instead, he raced from the airport to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. This was the first time Cohen had visited the museum's new wing after its construction was completed. His excitement level was comparable to a father who discovers his "lost son," as he put it.

During Cohen's last visit to Israel in December 2010, the Herta and Paul Amir Building's facade was virtually complete, but the facility's interior spaces were far from finished. This time, with the building's polished floor sparkling, and objects of art already on display, he entered the building like a warrior returning to his kingdom from the battlefield. He wandered through the rooms and witnessed how his vision had materialized in form and content, and turned into life. As he sees it, this is a miracle in every respect.

Inside the Herta and Paul Amir building at Tel Aviv Museum of Art - Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik

The newly opened Herta and Paul Amir Building doubles the size of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, expanding the facility to 33,500 square meters. The facility is considered one of this era's most innovative structures, a wonder of digital planning resources and complex building technologies; and it has already been featured on the cover of several magazines and books. In view of the phalanx of journalists who arrived to cover the building's gala opening on November 2, it can be assumed that the building will turn into an international architectural icon.

The building's cost reached $50 million, a prodigal sum by the standards of Israeli architecture, and work on it lasted for eight years. The reason for this protracted process was a change of patrons: originally, the late Sammy Ofer was supposed to cover a large portion of the facility's building cost, but the public outcry surrounding the alleged provisions he demanded in exchange for his donation caused the museum and Ofer to part ways.

As the museum searched for a new funder, architectural planning work in Cohen's Cambridge, Massachusetts, office did not cease for a second. Throughout the period, he worked in concert with the museum's head, Mordechai Omer; and the realization of the facility's architectural vision has to be attributed to the productive relationship that evolved between these two men. Despite the long period that elapsed after the submission of the original architectural blueprint, it does not appear as though the building has become dated. If anything, it improved with the passing of time.

A mall in China

A tour of a building on the eve of its opening, especially when the facility in question has such deep public significance, is an unusual, emotionally compelling, event. While moving in the long corridor that connects the museum's existing building - which was designed in 1971 by Dan Eytan and Yitzhak Yashar - to the new wing, Cohen meets museum deputy director Shuli Kislev, who has served as the museum's acting head since Omer's death in June. They embrace warmly, and speak in whispers about the legacy left by the late director. For both, it is bittersweet to open the new building without Omer's presence.

Amit Nemlich, who serves as the project's on-site architectural director (Cohen himself lacks American licensing authorization to work as an architect ), joins the tour. The small group enters the new wing, and Cohen begins immediately to point out details and objects. He is very impressed by the precision in the meeting between walls ("we had great contractors" ), but he is a bit put off by the hue of the fluorescent lighting that brightens the central lobby (it reminds him of a mall in China ).

The main architectural challenge posed by the new wing was the triangular, 4,500-meter lot, whose configuration was at variance with the museum's need to house rectangular or square galleries. Vying in the international planning competition, which was staged in 2003, Cohen submitted a proposal to "square the triangle" - that is, to create an independent world within the museum's internal space, separated from the lot's problematic shape. Six galleries in the building are located around the 27-meter high central atrium, a fabulous, multidimensional installation that floods the museum's interior with sunlight; this spiraling atrium is known as the Lightfall. Walkways on the atrium's sides provide museum visitors with an intriguing, exciting experience, although it should be noted that the building lacks simple spaces for sitting or resting.

From the outside, the building appears as a "sunken submarine," as the architect describes it. The new wing features three underground floors. The entrancing effect of the building's complex exterior geometric design is achieved via 465 flat, interlocking cement panels produced at the site.

Cohen draws a distinction between two contemporary models that are applied in the construction of museums: One model envisions a museum as a white, neutral box that provides maximum internal space for collections of art; the other model aspires to set an exemplary, breathtaking architectural standard, and to serve as a visual landmark on the urban skyline. By use of the Lightfall, Cohen focused the design effort on the building's interior, and was content with a relatively solid facade (if it is fair to describe such meandering cement strips as "solid" ).

Explicating his architectural philosophy, Cohen refers to the work of Kazuyo Sejima (co-winner of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize ), saying that she has fetishism for minimalism. Sejima, he explains, is a perfectionist who wants the public to admire the value of seemingly simple objects used in her work - the objects are hard to maintain, and end up being extremely expensive.

On the other hand, Cohen continues, extravagant architectural styles are nurtured by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid - their works are extremely impressive, Cohen believes, but they do not produce successful galleries, and also require intensive maintenance. "We believed that Israel lacked a suitable maintenance culture for these sort of buildings, and so we opted to build the museum via the use of existing technologies, and to create good, simple galleries," he explains.

Cohen believes the new museum building serves as a distinctive Israeli contribution to the art world. It will be the focal point of massive international attention, he believes, and will prove to be a wise investment on behalf of the future of contemporary Israeli art. The building has a "global context," he says, due to its high architectural quality. Cohen thinks the building's flexible quality will allow all types of art to be exhibited within it. While its architectural design is dramatic, he concludes, it does not compete with the works of art it houses.

Moti's dream

On the building's lowest floor (if the term "floor" can be used in reference to this building ), we meet artist Michal Rovner, who is busily engaged with a new video project that is broadcast onto the Lightfall's exterior. She is delighted to meet Cohen. Just seconds after making the architect's acquaintance, she blurts out that she usually has reservations about "architecture of this sort." She explains that she lives in a 48-meter dwelling, "and loves things that are kept simple." Cohen responds with a polite, mildly embarrassed smile.

Rovner is at work on a project called "Cypresses," which is part tribute to Omer, and part a result of his hands-on direction of the museum for the past 16 years. On an eye-catching, seven-meter high wall, she projects shadows of cypress trees that blow in the wind. Behind them are small human likenesses that move from one place to another, going nowhere. "I did something architectural," she explains to Cohen. She says that she spliced the projections in a manner consonant with the wall's angles and curves. "I created a dialogue" with the wall, she declares, "and transformed [the wall] into a poetic landscape."

Rovner and Cohen stand in front of a computer, and she explains how she managed to post the figures so that they blend with the wall's contours. The projection breathes life into the wall; and the pastoral scene, featuring the cypress trees blowing in the wind, roots Cohen's vision deeply within characteristic motifs of Israeli architecture and art.

"Did Moti know you were going to do this work?" Cohen asks. Rovner replies that one of the late director's final requests was that she carry out a large video project for the new building. However, she explains, over the last year she has been occupied by an exhibition of her work at the Louvre ("Histories" ), and it was impossible for the pair to visit the new facility together. "When Shuli [Kislev] saw what I had prepared, she said, 'My God, this is Moti's dream, to do an exhibition with cypress trees,'" the artist recalls. "I am amazed by how you created such a building," she tells Cohen. "You've made a place out of nowhere. There was a lot, a piece of earth, and you simply pulled it up and aside, and created a place," she exclaims. As Rovner sees it, the new building is the most inviting facility for the exhibition of art in Israel.

Omer's name keeps coming up during the tour. Cohen refers often to the late museum director, as do people he meets in various parts of the new building. The architect notes that he had an extraordinary relationship with Omer, one that blended elements of collegial partnership and friendship with the hierarchy of teacher and student. Cohen refers to Omer's courageous vision - erecting such a museum facility was a remarkable, and extremely ambitious, endeavor, he says. The late director displayed rare trust in Cohen's work and architectural vision: "He could have chosen to build something much more simple and functional. After all, our building is comprised of so many things," Cohen reflects.

On a professional level, Cohen adds, Omer had a deep understanding of everything connected to museums. "His understanding attached to exhibits, lighting, collections, but also to how a museum should look and behave. He was an outstanding teacher. Cohen admits that at the start of the project, he had "faulty ideas" about museum design. He spoke frequently with Omer about his ideas, and the two men toured a number of facilities in the United States so as to "gain a better understanding of what had to be done."

As a client, Cohen says, Omer was quite unconventional. Had the client on this project been someone deeply stubborn about his own vision, or obsessively worried about his own status and survival, "we never could have established this building," Cohen reflects. "Moti ... allowed us to start working on plans for a building before it was certain that such a structure could be built." Omer, Cohen adds, took a chance by choosing to work with architects he had never met. "He supported us even when he did not understand all of the ideas concerning the spaces."

Cohen says he knew Omer was ill but believed he would recover. "He was a very strong person. I remember that I was lying in bed and received a message from a colleague, saying 'Moti has died, the funeral is today,'" Cohen recalls, adding that the memory still gives him chills. With tears in his eyes, he says it's "hard for me to think about coming to Israel and not meeting him, particularly when I enter the museum's old building."

Genuine architecture

Cohen, 50, is relatively new to the trade of architecture, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's new wing served as the first major public project of his career. Prior to winning the museum's planning competition in 2003, his career focused primarily on academic work. Today he serves as a professor at Harvard, where he has served as head of the university's architecture department since 2008.

In recent years, Cohen has designed a performing arts center in Nanjing, China. This building bears a striking resemblance to the shape and materials of the new Tel Aviv Museum facility. He has also taken first place in several international design competitions. He is currently engaged in the design of another museum in China. In Israel, he is involved in the planning of a heritage center for the country's police force, in Beit Shemesh. He was one of the participants in a competition for the design of Holon's municipal building, but he did not advance to the final stage.

The fact that Cohen was selected as the winner of the Tel Aviv Museum design competition, and took on the project despite his lack of practical experience in architecture, has stirred criticism. Some architects who have visited the building in past months have commented critically on what they view as the strange proportions of the facility's interior spaces, and the lack of uniform quality displayed by the museum's details and objects. There remains, of course, the fundamental question of whether Cohen managed to show sufficient self-restraint, and allowed works of art the spotlight they deserve, without being overshadowed by the building's daring design.

Some curators, not affiliated with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, contend that the galleries are not perfectly suited for sculpture and paintings, and that the building's architectural design untowardly "flexes its muscles," without leaving enough flexibility for the curator to accomplish his or her goals. Some of the galleries are small and crowded. They are the painful products of a designing process whose goal is to attract more donors. Also, in the grounds around the building, there are strange, non-useful corners produced by its complex shape. The connection between the old and new buildings seems somewhat arbitrary, and it appears that the old building suffers from an older sibling's syndrome - it's as though a new brother has been born, and attracts all of the attention to himself. Cohen rebuffs criticism relating to his alleged inexperience. "Moti understood that I have knowledge concerning penetrating ideas in architecture, and that I had a real vision for the building," he says. Many architects, he adds, have experience, but remain uncommitted to any particular intellectual pathway. Omer, he concludes, was interested in his intellectual insight about architecture, not his experience.

Another critic of the new museum is Japanese architect Sejima, who was a finalist in the design competition and subsequently won international acclaim, including receipt of the aforementioned Pritzker Prize. Last year she visited Israel, together with her professional partner Ryue Nishizawa, and dropped by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The two praised the shape and details of the new facility, but when they entered the main hall of the original museum building, they declared "this is real architecture."

As a result of that comment, which was published in an Haaretz interview, a rivalry of sorts developed between Cohen and Sejima. "There's a good reason why she didn't win the design competition," Cohen claims. "She wanted to cover the museum in glass, which would have turned it into a nonfunctional greenhouse."

This rivalry, however, is just one part of a long story embedded within the walls of the new museum, and the bottom line is that Cohen can be proud, for all the right reasons. He has managed to create an innovative, meaningful building in a country whose architectural taste is relatively conservative, and whose budgets for the construction of public facilities are skimpy. He has accomplished a project whose undertaking would have seemed a fantasy just a decade ago.