Back to the Future / Pulling in Anchors

The Zim building in Haifa's lower city helped herald a renewal effort in the 70s. With the firm since decamped, the city is hoping a new look will help breath life into the area.

The administrative headquarters of the Zim shipping company in Haifa's lower city, built in 1970, can be seen easily from just about every place on Mount Carmel. Its long broad sides, 10 stories high, bore the company's logo in giant blue and white letters: on one side in English and on the other in Hebrew.

The building essentially served as an enormous advertisement marking the power of one of the largest shipping companies in the world. Ships arriving in the port, train passengers and passers by simply couldn't miss it.

Zim building - GPO - 22122011

Company management decided five years ago to move their offices to the science and industry center at the southern entrance to the city and sold the building to private developers. It is expected to undergo a complete makeover in the near future: the extensive renovation plans by Mansfeld-Kehat call for its transformation from a modest, modernist office building to a brazen high tech one.

The Zim building was erected during one of the few moments of urban renewal in the lower city, an area that served as a business center from the days of the British Mandate until the middle of the 1970s. It was planned by father and son architectural team Shmuel and Ari Rosov. Thier office was also responsible for the Dan Hotel on the Carmel, the central bus station in Bat Galim (in cooperation with Aryeh Sharon, Benjamin Edelson and Aryeh Freiberger ) and Beit Ha'ikerim on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv.

Like many of their colleagues, they stuck to an absolute modernist line based on clean shapes and the use of exposed concrete as an expression of material and structural honesty.

The building is composed of nine-stories of offices sitting on top of an entrance floor on glass columns, and bears no small resemblance to the Tel Aviv municipal building designed at the same time by the architect Menachem Cohen.

The building's front and backside are treated simply and cleanly, with long lines of windows emphasizing the horizontal nature of the building and hinting at an absence of hierarchy in the internal spaces. Rectangular concrete castings are used on the sides of the building. A narrow segment of windows is hidden between them and light up the hallways inside.

The architectural importance of the building resides in the fact that it represents a model of exposed concrete office buildings of the 1960s and 70s. The Rosovs decided to grant the Zim offices an institutional image, like the Hapoel and Jewish Agency buildings in Tel Aviv. They connected it to the street with the story on columns which extends an invitation to passersby to enter and broadcasts a businesslike atmosphere.

The city slumberous

The Zim company had a large role in reawakening the lower city. Its location next to the port and the train tracks, adjacent to public institutions like the central post office and the administrative offices of Solel Boneh, created an expanse of government institutions that concentrated civil and commercial services. Zim was optimistic about the future of Haifa. Although the original building permit allowed a height of 10 stories, it received permission to double its height in the future.

But Zim's activity did not lead to a significant developmental effort on the part of the city. A long article in the Ma'ariv newspaper in December 1965 under the headline "Haifa's lower city sleeps. Who will awaken it?" reported that construction in the area was frozen, partly because of municipal red tape.

"More and more people complain that the lower city is almost not any different from the way it was in the days of the Mandate. Not much has been contributed since," the article read. "Those doing the complaining point to two phenomena: one, the almost complete dying down of this big center after working hours. The second one is more obvious to economists and builders: almost no new building that can be compared to office and financial construction in Tel Aviv. They claim there is a close connection between these two phenomena."

Zim was one of the buildings that was supposed to reverse the trend. It was intended to strengthen daily commercial activity and aid the area's import and export business.

At the same time, the Bank of Israel building and the tall Rasco offices went up, and several developers refitted old warehouses in the port into stores and businesses.

But in the middle of the 1970s Haifa began to lose out more and more to Tel Aviv, which had shored up its place as the center of commercial and cultural life for the country. Many companies decamped Haifa for the Dan region and the lower city emptied out. Zim, too, eventually decided to move out, in their case to an industrial park almost completely outside of the city.

In recent years the Haifa municipality has attempted to encourage renewed development of the lower city by renovating infrastructure and trying to attract new anchors. Next to the Mifrash tower of government buildings, the courts and the port campus, in which Mandatory buildings are used by colleges, the city is also developing new infrastructure for public transportation, and investing resources in the renovation and design of streets in the area.

Is a new face a good face?

The planned renovation of the Zim building, its second since the 1980s, is supposed to fit into the renewal effort. But the building, along with others in the area undergoing similar processes, is likely to lose its architectural identity for good.

"The building needs an internal renovation and we thought this was also a good opportunity to connect it better to the street, with a new front, entrance portico and a small square we'll erect instead of the parking lot," says architect Miki Mansfeld, who is in charge of the renovations. "As soon as Zim moved ... its frontage with the logo became anachronistic."

The renovations by the Mansfeld-Kehat office include dismantling the existing facades and replacing them with technologically-advanced screens to reduce heating and cooling expenses. The exposed concrete fronts will be covered with aluminum panels, and a gable with absolutely no connection to the original building is planned for the roof. The owners of the building prefer not to provide a simulation of how the building will look after the renovations to the media, although one is hung on the building itself.

The fashion of covering up and "correcting" modernism is not limited to the Zim building. In recent years the retirement home Mishan in Ramat Aviv has also been covered with aluminum panels (in silver and lavender ), as have the concrete facades and impressive silicate bricks of the Industry Ministry at the corner of Carlebach and Hashmonaim Streets in Tel Aviv. Are we talking about an attempt to erase the legacy of an entire period? Does the renovation of a building, as necessary as it may be, require changing its facades?

"The facade of Zim was, and I'm cautious about saying this, old-fashioned, [made] with the technology of old aluminum and old profiles," Mansfeld answers. "There was a possibility of renewing the facade in the same proportions exactly but the developer did not want to repeat the original. The design, as good as it was in the past, no longer suits us today. We tried to plan something quiet and modest, not something showy or rambunctious."

Mansfeld should be the first to defend the modernist legacy. His father, Al Mansfeld, an Israel Prize laureate, was one of the top architects in the country and designed a series of iconic buildings, among them the Israel Museum. But according to Mansfeld the son, "not every building planned by a great architect is worth preserving forever. There have to be priorities about what to preserve and why."

"There is a certain moment when you have to admit that a building, as good as it was, is not longer worth preserving," he says. "As an architect you must always remember the alternative. It's great to be a bleeding heart, and to raise the banner of values is fine, but in many cases you come to the conclusion that renewal is preferable to destruction, even if it's not exactly in the spirit of the original."