A Beautiful Waste of Space

Tel Aviv's new museum is a monument to modern architecture. But in melding shape and material, a building was formed that lacks spirit and is all form and no function.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

Wow. Now that the doors have opened and the pictures hung, and visitors streamed en masse to the grand opening events, pounded on the doors, and filled the corridors, staircases and elevators, what is there left to say about the new and dazzling wing of the Tel Aviv Museum which opened this week, except wow.

The mouth gapes, the eyes blink in astonishment facing "the waterfall of light," the eyebrows arch at the sight of the razor sharp cast concrete. This is not a new wing or a new building, but "a new breed of building," as someone at one of the opening events noted. In other words, this is a large-scale sculptured object, an architectural fetish that had to submit to the requirements and adapt itself to its role.

The new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, outside and in. In all the excitment to create a groundbreaking building, its purpose seems to have been forgotten.Credit: Nir Keidar

The efforts to adapt are evident in every corner. In the clashes between the outer cover and the internal spaces, in the clashes of the different geometries, the forced spaces, the broken levels and the fragmented ceilings, the staircases and escalators that crisscross the space, and the impossible meetings between materials and forms. The geographies and topographies create odd spaces without any effective use, in the absence of basic orientation, as if someone intentionally decided to complicate everything. The architecture forces itself from every side and can literally smack visitors on their heads.

Consider yourselves warned. The emperor, it seems, has too many clothes, and they don't match. But who will tell him?

The wing, designed by American architect Preston Scott Cohen, is Tel Aviv's contribution to the second wave of flashy and wow architecture, after Frank Gehry's 1990s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which sparked the Bilbao Effect and made history.

A tailwind from digital computerized architecture transformed the wave into a tsunami and all the dams burst. The new breed of architecture is busy with the structural effect and obsessively addicted to the spectacle. It is not architecture to provide shelter, but architecture intended to glorify the name and power of the local politicians, CEOs and wealthy donors and create a special status of a superstar architect to be at their service.

This new breed of architecture is also another pretext for theoretical academic architecture to delve inward, be even more introverted and disconnect further from the social, economic and political contexts where architecture operates.

Hence the road is open to sophisticated talk like that of the guest of the international architecture seminar held at the museum in honor of the opening of the new wing, Prof. Sylvia Lavin, of the University of California, who said in her 2011 book "Kissing Architecture: "The Tel Aviv Museum of Art makes its effect precisely by being made of different elements - in this case most notable inside and interior - that only make music in the friction of their imperfect coincidence. By developing a kind of multiple personality disorder, the building is able to receive a kiss from its own interior."

The Bilbao Effect, which awakened an entire city at the edge of Spain from its sleep, or so they say, is a wasted and unnecessary investment in Tel Aviv - a city that never stops and has no vital need for another dose of adrenalin.

One of the speeches by Mayor Ron Huldai, who is also the chairman of the museum's board, at an event marking the opening of the new wing, served to indicate that it is another springboard for Tel Aviv to achieve the sought after goal of a world city.

The less desirable and glamorous side of a world city is the deepening of the social polarization and the ensuing high cost of living that is part of the package, and that is why the tent protests erupted on Rothschild Boulevard and on Wall Street. The wing, which will place Tel Aviv on the covers of a few more glossy journals, is without a doubt another barricade to mount.

The Tel Aviv Museum needed to expand, but instead of a building to do the job, it chose a building that would create a buzz. And so now it finds itself with a new type of building, to quote Lavin again, unnecessarily complex, for which filling a role is not its foremost concern. What happened to the days when buildings worked in the service of mankind and not the reverse?

And what's the point of all this if it is impossible to understand where to go, up or down. To address the loss of orientation that was undoubtedly predicted in advance, we received "the waterfall of light" the center of the universe in the wing.

Nothing like it has been seen before. Wow. The hyperbolic totem has been designated the compass to navigate and enlighten the path among the maze of levels, but it didn't work. At least it photographs nicely.

Out with the new, in with the old

In these moments of soul searching and a sense of crisis, what remains is to draw consolation from the adjacent museum building designed by Dan Eytan and Yitzhak Yashar. The building, dedicated in 1971, did become "old" in an instant and even "historical," but it is far from being finished. The long-ago comments of the late architect and architectural historian Bruno Zvi about the museum, cited in an article by Alona Nitzan-Shiftan in the catalogue of the architecture exhibition of the new wing, "Five Moments," apply to this day even more so.

The comparison between the key motifs of the old museum, and of the new wing dedicated this week, says it all.

The main motif of the new wing, "the waterfall of light" is an eye-opening image and devoid of any content, that stirs almost religious awe and clear symptoms of acrophobia.

The main motif of the "old" building is not a motif but a space that has been instilled with spirit. It is festive, democratic, civilian and secular, invites gatherings of people and not worshipping of false gods, and points the way simply and elegantly and straightforwardly. It is also a model of complete coordination between space and material, form and content, time and place.

The new wing is the first Israeli ambassador of digital architecture. Several years ago, when it still had not taken shape, it was presented at the exhibition, "Performalism," at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, alongside similar works in this new genre of structures, which the exhibition curators defined as "transferring the emphasis in architectural discourse from function to performance." Or in other words, architecture based on its role which violates the public's trust in its moral responsibility. This is the architecture of crisis.

If the new wing has been charged with being the latest in architectural trends, or in the parade of architectural icons, and it seems that this is what is expected of it by those who came up with it, chose it, designed it and donated to its construction, then this is a lost cause from the start. The latest fashions today chase each other and silence each other in a flash, and in the eight and a half years of designing and building the wing, every trend went out of style even before faded away.

Even icons are no longer what they once were. The ceiling is rising at a pace that is out of control.

Even Zaha Hadid, the queen of the style, has a hard time getting over the latest that emerged from her drafting table. Even the latest trends in architecture, which is known to be an ethical profession, have only 15 minutes of fame.

The real 'new breed'

The preparations for the opening of the new wing happened to coincide symbolically with the tent protest, which excited Tel Aviv this past summer more than any conceivable Bilbao Effect. Following the death of the director and legendary chief curator of the museum, Mordechai Omer, for whom the new wing was his last monumental project, a group of artists came out against the search committee to find a new director, which is more representative of the world of the wealthy than it is of the world of art, and demanded a new agenda for the museum.

But the wing only further commemorates and symbolizes the old conservative agenda under the guise of radical architecture. The real "new breed" of building, after the summer of measured protest in a variety of places is the tent, and not digitally designed objects costing 50 million dollars in the heart of ritzy Tel Aviv.

The dedication of the new wing featured a slew of opening events, press conferences, donor galas, an international architecture seminar attended by architects and academics from all over the world and an opening night for invited guests from all strata of society.

In honor of the opening of the new wing, the Tel Aviv municipality declared a year of exhibitions, events, performances and more, and this for the public's information and for those who were at the tent protests, is what the budget priority is.

It can only be hoped that even more prosaic ventures than the new wing, such as public housing projects, will merit a 10th of the attention given to the museum by public officials, the architectural community and the public itself. This would be a sign that there is light at the end of the tunnel and not just in the waterfall.



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