Sets and the City in Tel Aviv

Ram Karmi doesn't care what you think about his renovation of the Habima Theater. Its purpose isn't to connect with the street, he declares, but rather to act as a monument to the arts.

Architect Ram Karmi has designed no small number of important, or successful, buildings in Israel. But in his eyes the renovation of Habima Theater in Tel Aviv may be the most successful project he has designed in his long career, he says.

"I managed to build a special atmosphere and to create a transition from the everyday to the festive," says Karmi. "That is the role of this building and that is also the role of culture - to elevate you to another world. I look at Habima and it is beautiful in my eyes, and besides, I never got such compliments in my life."

Habima - Aviad Baranes - December 2012
Sets and the city

On opening night, he says, the actress Gila Almagor came up to him and said: "Listen, you made us a beautiful building, but I've got a problem with it: The building is so lovely and good for us that we don't know if the plays we do can live up to it."

Not everybody was so enamored with Karmi's work.

Ram Karmi - Koby Kalmanovich
Koby Kalmanovich

The building got a chilly response from the architectural community and the general public. Many see it as an impervious cube that symbolizes Habima's detachment from Tel Aviv's cultural scene, an enclosed fortress designed with an aggressive architectural sensibility.

"I have doubts about the renovation," says Dan Eytan, an architect who also bid for the project. "The building dramatically breaches the scale of its surroundings and does a disservice to its neighbors. It turns its back on the street and almost completely ignores the 'Culture Square' that is its public habitat. It is not clear to me why it was necessary to increase its mass so greatly for an uncomplicated renovation of the offices and rehearsal rooms."

Such harsh criticism is not new to Karmi, an Israel Prize laureate for architecture who turned 80 this year.

Over the years, his buildings have been subjected to the slings and arrows of criticism. The New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is roundly considered an urban disaster, the Holyland project has become a symbol of real estate corruption and government malfeasance (Karmi designed only the master plan, not the buildings ), and the design for a new Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, which looks from above like a naked woman with her legs spread wide, was buried shortly after it was exposed in the press.

"They only talk about the catastrophes; nobody talks about my good buildings," he gripes. "Of all the architects, see who elicits the most reviews."

Why do you think architects criticize you so strongly?

"One part is envy. A second part is that I am better than they are. It's easy to bandy slogans about and not stand behind them. Architectural space is like a book: It embodies development, and if you want to write a book review, you read it first and then write a critique ... To understand the outside of a building you must first understand its interior."

In a TV interview a year ago you said about Habima: "What I did is a great thing, and I don't care what everybody says, they can kiss my ass." Do you stand behind that statement?

"I say it now too. All the critiques about the building came even before the outside had been finished. You have to visit the building to understand it; you can't speak midway through."

Why, in your opinion, is the general public hostile toward the building?

"Anything new that you introduce with a presence will always generate a little storm. The audience's problem is that it sometimes looks at buildings as sculpture, but a building is not a sculpture, but rather atmosphere created in interior spaces."

A few weeks ago, Habima resumed activity in its new-old home after a long saga of delays, budget overruns and various engineering obstacles. It was an exciting moment for the actors and workers, who had wandered between improvised homes in other Tel Aviv auditoriums, and for the public that was forced to migrate with them and watch plays in less-than-ideal conditions.

The renovation, which cost NIS 105 million, had four goals: creating a new lobby that would serve as the building's main gathering point; streamlining movement and making everything accessible for the disabled; overhauling and modernizing the halls; and expanding the office wing. Beyond this, Karmi was asked to bestow a new image on a building that had undergone countless changes, and to allow the theater's national status to come to the fore.

"Habima is a temple of art, it is committed to its name [which means, literally, 'The Stage'], and wants people to make a pilgrimage to it. It differs, for example, from the Cameri Theater, which wanted to come down to the people," Karmi says. "My job was to translate Habima's dream into architecture and give it a visual expression. I think what came out in the end performs this function. The new building creates a festive atmosphere."

Is that also the reason for its grandiose nature?

"When a public building enters an urban fabric of residences it has to create for itself a presence. Habima, which is very important for Tel Aviv from a cultural standpoint, cannot simply disappear into the surrounding houses. Habima has no surplus parts. The volume of the construction matches precisely what it needs for it to work."

So as not to hold up the project or expose it to public scrutiny, approval of the renovation project was fast-tracked in city hall; the plans were not submitted to an "objections process" in the district planning and building committee.

The Habima building was never considered an architectural masterpiece, nor is it on the municipality's list of buildings slated for preservation.

Greek temple

The original Habima building was designed in the 1930s by architect Oskar Kaufmann, who had experience designing theater halls in Germany. The cornerstone was laid in 1935, but the building officially opened only a decade later.

Kaufmann's design was based on a modern interpretation of a Greek temple. At the main entrance facing Rothschild Boulevard was a broad staircase that led to a semi-circular vestibule with six tall stone columns; these subsequently became engraved in the collective memory as a symbol of the theater.

Behind the vestibule stretched a large rectangle that contained the auditoriums, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms and offices. The main hall (Rovina Hall today ) was circular, its stage-tower rising above the rest of the building. In 1962 another auditorium was opened (today, Meskin Hall ), intended for small-scale productions; subsequently, another two subterranean halls were added.

In the late 1950s Dov Karmi (Ram's father ) and Zvi Meltzer erected a balcony between the monumental columns and moved the entrance to a raised area ("it was unseemly to wait outside the theater around the cars," explains the son ).

In 1970, Habima underwent a comprehensive renovation, this time at the hands of the architects Yehuda Landau and David de Mayo. The duo decided to close off the colonnaded vestibule with a screen wall of brown glass, and covered the building's facades in stone.

The decision to carry out the present renovation came in the early 2000s, and was intended to deal with the theater's substantial functional difficulties. Karmi was chosen in what was termed a "closed competition" between himself and Dan Eytan and Eri Goshen (before they dissolved their partnership).

Ultimately, Karmi was tasked with transforming a patched-together structure that suited neither its functional nor aesthetic purposes.

"Habima came down with the disease of doing business, so they decided to turn the lobby into a coffee shop that stuck like a bone in your throat," Karmi says of a previous renovation in the '70s. "When you came there to see a play, you had to crawl through all sorts of paths to find the way to the hall. The coffee shop didn't help matters ... This was the first thing that had to be fixed - giving Habima a dignified entrance space."

He characterized the four auditoriums squeezed into one space as an anarchic "sardine can," which he tried to sort out. In his initial sketches, he proposed opening to the public the ground floor located under Rovina Hall, and creating there a covered plaza that would link Tarsat Boulevard and Culture Square, and act as a venue for street performances.

Karmi also came up with an original way to use the roof: He wanted to leave room for an open-air patio, above Rovina Hall, for actors and staff to use between rehearsals. There was also an intriguing design idea for the facade that faces the square: Karmi initially thought of creating a sort of stage inside it for putting on plays in the open.

Later on, he suggested adding two more floors made of glass above the new entrance, and aligning Habima with the adjacent Mann Auditorium. On the first floor he planned to create a museum of the history of theater; on the second he thought of placing a fancy restaurant. All these ideas were shelved because of budget constraints.

Since the building's lines were not subject to change, Karmi decided to grow the building upward. He "absorbed" the stage-tower of Rovina Hall into a new office wing, turning it into a massive rectangular box that holds the theater's necessary functions.

Spatial drama

On the facade that faces the square, a new and modest entrance was built that leads on one side to the revamped lobby, and on another side to the coffee shop (which is also not accessible from inside the theater).

The main design effort went into the lobby, which was turned into a sort of complex chandelier that externalizes the building in the direction of Rothschild Boulevard. According to Karmi, the inspiration for this space was the grandiose foyer of the historic Paris Opera building.

Artificial lighting in various colors and forms plays a substantial role in the revamped building. It appears like twinkling stars on the entrance ceiling and on the towering staircase, it is embedded in the sides of the staircase that leads to Meskin Hall, and is hidden above the urinals in the restrooms. The acoustical panels affixed to the ceiling are also outfitted with artificial lighting, and the ticket counters and cafeterias have been turned into light fixtures in their own right. They are covered in a type of fissured glass that creates a delicate yet peculiar shading effect on the floor.

Karmi admits that he tried to create significant drama in the interior spaces. Along with the extensive use of artificial lighting, he sculpted the walls and the ceiling in his signature rounded lines, and turned them into an architectural set for the action.

A few weeks ago he visited the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and found a connection between "the waterfall of light" - a three-dimensional sculpture that brings sunlight into the bowels of the building - and the spaces he designed at Habima.

"The public space of the museum creates spatial drama and I too want drama, no less than it does. I think that when you walk from one hall to the next at Habima, you pass through spaces that are no less dramatic than the museum. I give each part presence within the setup and when you go from one place to another there is change. It's true that when you are downstairs you do not see the whole building, but you always see orchestrated penetrations. It's like music."

The strongest components in Karmi's renovation project are the theater halls. The two main auditoriums - Rovina and Meskin - barely changed in their dimensions, but they were completely dismantled and reassembled in a way that creates great intimacy between the actors and audience.

In Rovina Hall, Karmi built a balcony section that comes very close to the stage. He painted the hall a dark blue (a "deep space" color, as he put it ) that gives the hall a festive colorfulness. He installed a giant lamp in the ceiling that is meant to function like a sun. For inspiration, he drew on the famous work by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in the central space at the Tate Modern in London.

"I wanted the feeling that you're entering outer space ... so I put a sun in it. The idea is that when you are inside the hall, the sun slowly sets and then the play begins," he adds.

In Meskin Hall, Karmi wanted the walls painted a dramatic purple; the contractor managed to produce a shade of maroon. Either way, the hall provides a very pleasant sensation.

All that glitters

The main problem with the new building has to do with its exterior appearance: the grandiose massiveness, the near-opaque facades, and a glittering white plaster, which paint stores have already dubbed "Habima plaster."

"Both I and my sister [architect Ada Karmi-Melamede] use four local materials in the buildings we build: stone, wood, plaster and light - which is a very important material," Karmi says. "In 'White Tel Aviv,' you obviously have to build with plaster. It is part of the white imagining of Tel Aviv and the white modernism of Le Corbusier."

If Le Corbusier were to see this building, he would ask you why you use glittering plaster.

Karmi: "The glittering plaster is a result of my listening to criticism that the building is too heavy and grandiose."

We usually find this plaster at wedding halls in the boondocks.

"I don't think this glitter makes Habima kitschy. At night it gives the wall a little life and during the day it makes it even lighter."

Habima actually has only one active facade - that is, a facade that interacts with and "relates" to the street. It faces the new Orchestra Square designed by the sculptor and artist Dani Karavan.

"I did everything to make the square connect with the theater's eastern facade. I even tried to have the floor tiles line up with the position of the columns," Karavan says. "Karmi gave me a blueprint, but unfortunately the columns that he put there did not come out exactly as in the plan and so in the end it doesn't connect. Personally I think that this facade is too impervious to the square. It's too bad there isn't a bigger window there so that you could look out on it."

This opacity is very present toward the interior as well. For example, in the entrance space to Meskin Hall, which is bounded by walls on both sides and creates a compressed sensation.

Karmi thinks that the problem with the square is that it is not a real urban square. "In Israeli architecture we don't know how to do a square - only plazas," he explains. A square is usually a vacant space, in the urban context, whereas a plaza is a more active, vibrant and open space.

Do you think that Karavan succeeded in his task?

"Dani made a pretty picture, but a square is not a picture. This square doesn't work. It doesn't give you an opportunity to sit down, but only to pass through. A square is not passing through but rather arriving somewhere. There's a problem of how this square is going to create that intimacy you want so that you and I can sit for several hours over a cup of coffee like in Paris. The front of Habima today, with the tables and row of trees, created intimate places along the facade where at least people will sit down. It would be good if all the white pergolas he made on the other side of the square were turned into coffee shops and bookstores. That could bring in more people."

The theater's most problematic side faces Tarsat Boulevard,which connects Dizengoff and Sderot Ben Zion Boulevard and runs alongside Habima, Gan Yaakov, and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion. Karmi directed toward this street a white wall 20 meters high, the upper part of which has a few openings that look like slits in a fortress.

The dimensions of the wall dwarf the human scale, even though Karmi believes that when it is draped with theater posters it will have a completely different feel. Moreover, he thinks that the resentment on the part of the neighbors in the residential buildings across the road is nonsense. "All the buildings that say that the theater bothers them closed off all of their facades by means of blinds and air-conditioners," he charges.

Don't you think that the building conveys imperviousness toward the city?

"How can you say the building is impervious after you've looked at the front of the lobby? Whenever there is an event, the building extends into the street. It is done more beautifully than all of the buildings that were built in the country."

Former city engineer Danny Kaiser also thinks that Karmi succeeded in giving Habima a main facade that creates a significant urban presence.

"This is an amazingly impressive facade, and at night with all the lighting, it looks like there is nothing that separates the outside and the inside," he notes. "For this type of project, you have to give an expanse of time so as to judge whether they enrich city life or not. After all, Habima was judged even before it was finished. Now that they've opened it, we need to reexamine it and see how it functions over time."