Brasilia on Mount Carmel

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer frequently compared his enthusiasm for the Haifa campus design and the opportunity to plan an artificial-urban space to the enthusiasm he had felt in creating the new Brazilian capital (1956-1960 ) on a hitherto desolate plain.

Zvi Elhayani
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Zvi Elhayani

A building that is not an object, devoid of any obvious form and without any facades, sits dug in, hidden, visible only from up close. As such, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Library, designed by architect Asaf Lerman, is an architectural statement that is diametrically opposed to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's monumental 1964 plan for the University of Haifa campus. Paradoxically, however, it is also a critical and intelligent architectural tribute that successfully takes on Niemeyer's radical modernism, unlike the dozens of post-modernist structures that were heaped upon the campus through the years, irreversibly undermining its original qualities.

The density at the heart of most of Niemeyer's major proposals in Israel also characterized his design for the University of Haifa campus (commissioned by Mayor Abba Hushi ) - the only plan he made for a public facility in Israel. Niemeyer's "one-building campus" was perceived as a new interpretation of the traditional campus, whose buildings are usually scattered among green lawns, and as a direct critique of the campuses being built in Israel back then - like the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv University's campus in Ramat Aviv, or the neighboring Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Credit: Ofer Aderet

Niemeyer's opposition to the classic campus and its modern incarnation, comprised of separate pavilions spread around a park-like area, was in line with the rest of his work in Israel which defied the notion of a garden city and dispersed, "country-style" construction. The University of Haifa campus, and particularly the profile of the Eshkol Tower that rises to a height of 103 meters over the Mount Carmel ridge, is the architectural work in Israel most closely identified with Niemeyer, even though it ended up being built by others. Unlike his plans for a "city within a city" in the commercial urban projects he did for the Federmann architecture firm (the Panorama Center in Haifa and the Nordia neighborhood in Tel Aviv ) or for the Tel Aviv municipality (Kikar Hamedina ), Niemeyer saw a great social purpose in the design of the Haifa campus and of the city he envisioned in the Negev.

His cooperative-social outlook can be seen in the design of the Negev city, while the design for the University of Haifa campus embodied his vision of pluralistic, multidisciplinary academia. When discussing these two plans, he employed his typical idealistic rhetoric, which he adapted to Israel's particular circumstances. Perhaps this is why he chose for the cover of his book, "Quase Memorias: Viagens, Tempos de Entusiasmo e Revolta, 1961-1966" (1968 ), which includes an account of his travails in Israel, a dramatic photograph of a silhouette of the model for the Haifa campus.

Heated discussions

In some of the many interviews Niemeyer gave during his visits to Israel, he frequently compared his enthusiasm for the Haifa campus design and the opportunity to plan an artificial-urban space to the enthusiasm he had felt in creating the new Brazilian capital (1956-1960 ) on a hitherto desolate plain.

If the plan for the Negev city served for Niemeyer as a corrective for Brasilia's alienated image, the design for the Haifa campus seemed a miniaturized version of the complex of sculptural public buildings in the center of the completely man-made capital city. However, even this smaller scale was alien to the planning atmosphere in Israel back then. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the concept of a densely constructed campus, and the unusual height of the main building, ignited one of the most heated public debates ever seen here regarding architecture and the surrounding environs.

As with Niemeyer's other projects in Israel, the approval of this plan was delayed for many years. The strong opposition to his proposal came to the fore in stormy public and professional discussions. At issue was the need for a new university campus that would operate alongside the Technion; the campus' location (far from Haifa's urban centers in the Hadar and Merkaz Hacarmel areas ); the size and ambitiousness of the plan; and the project's implications for the landscape. In the recession years of 1965-67, the plan was called too ostentatious and its projected costs were a repeated subject of debate in city council meetings.

Following a prolonged approval process, Niemeyer's original proposal dissolved and the detailed planning of the campus was carried out by Israeli architects. From the outset, the first buildings on the campus, designed by the late Shlomo Gilad, violated Niemeyer's fundamental vision and substituted the original monolithic design with a series of hasty emergency solutions or terraced construction that was in stark opposition to the original plan's anti-topographical concept. The Eshkol Tower, whose height was the key topic of debate concerning the plan's approval, was finally built in the 1970s at a height that was only about a third of what Niemeyer had envisioned.

The subsequent master plan for the campus and the large construction and development projects executed there ignored every trace of Niemeyer's original idea. And just as he withdrew his name from his other works in Israel, Niemeyer eventually disassociated himself from the University of Haifa campus, which was built in his spirit, but to his great dissatisfaction.

The new Nazarian Library, whose design has from the outset been engaged in a dialogue with the Niemeyer design and the manifestos that went along with it, proves - though perhaps a bit too late - that it is possible to soften the Brazilian architect's harsh modernism without deviating from the structure's outline, and that Niemeyer's modernist and Lerman's post-modernist artificiality are doing more to build the spirit of the campus than all the "home-grown" post-modernist gestures have accomplished over the past several decades.

Architect Zvi Elhayani is an expert on Oscar Niemeyer's work in Israel.

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