Your Curtain Ruined My Building

When does an architect's copyright expire and yield to the demands of the daily life of a building's occupants?

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

The Felicja Blumental Music Center and Library thrusts into Bialik Square in Tel Aviv with a glowing orange hue that matches that of the fruit on the nearby trees. The proudly erect, eye-catching structure rises above its modest neighbors the old city hall and Bialik House and looks out of place. The shock of the orange is moderated and calmed by the building’s interior, which is graced by modern lines that carry on a dialogue with the past and create a delicate harmony of serenity.

The building stands on the ruins of the Tel Aviv Music Center, which was demolished in 1994. A year later, the Tel Aviv municipality commissioned architect Nili Portugali to design a new music center both exterior and interior on the empty lot.

Portugali had just returned from Berkeley, where she obtained master’s degrees in architecture and Buddhist philosophy. Her primary influences were two gurus: Prof. Christopher Alexander, a noted architect and theoretician, and the Buddha.

The fusion of the two defines her approach: holistic architecture. In her vision, the exterior and interior of a building work together as a single whole to forge a comfortable environment for people. This is the conceptual underpinning of her design for the music center, which has been operational on the site since 1996.

Ben Horin.
The interior of the Blumental Center.
The Afula Cultural Center
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Ben Horin.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
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The interior of the Blumental Center.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
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The Afula Cultural CenterCredit: Yanai Yechiel
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“Just as harmony exists in theater and cinema, so it also exists in architecture,” Portugali says. “Underlying the places in which we feel comfortable is a large reservoir of laws. And the laws, to my mind, stipulate that there is no separation between the constituent elements of a work of architecture. Just as it is impossible to separate the organs in the human body, so too I cannot separate the building from the street, the landscape and interior design. All these elements are engaged in a mutual dialogue.”

Portugali and many other architects treat their buildings as distinctive, unique works. In the real world, though, not everyone is an architect like Howard Roark, the uncompromising protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead.”

According to Ziva Sternhell, a scholar of theories of modern architecture, “Ninety-five percent of what is done [in building design] is of no importance. Only five percent is high architecture and classifiable as works of art, and we travel all over the world to see them.”

Is the music center designed by Portugali a work of art and therefore protected under the laws of copyright? This question was pondered at some length by Judge Mordehai Ben-Haim of the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. Two months ago, he issued an unequivocal judgment: The Felicja Blumental Music Center is protected under the laws of copyright and Portugali has a moral right over the building, both inside and outside.

“The moral right reflects the creator’s intimate relationship vis-à-vis his work,” Judge Ben-Haim wrote. “This encompasses also the absolute identity between the creator and the work, such that any harm done to the work also constitutes harm to him.”

The music center belongs to the Tel Aviv municipality. The funds to build it came from a donation by singer Annette Celine, the daughter of the late Felicja Blumental, who was a concert pianist.

Portugali’s contract with the municipality states that she is “the building’s architect for all intents and purposes, including the interior, furnishings and accessories.” In practical terms, this means that the copyright to the building belongs to the architect and that any modifications must be done in consultation with her and with her consent.

Over the years, the parties to the agreement maintained it strictly. “They didn’t move a garbage can without asking me,” Portugali says, “and I would go there and advise them – all on a voluntary basis, because the building is truly important to me. We always reached an agreement and things were done the way they should be.”

The contract was breached when the Felicja Blumental Music Center Association moved its offices into the building in 2001, as per an agreement with the municipality. In addition to renting out the site for private affairs [see box], the association made various changes in the center without asking anyone. One of the biggest was to hang huge photographs organized by Shimon Mizrahi, who is Annette Celine’s personal assistant, along the interior staircase.

Portugali: “This is a building whose every centimeter is meant to be dedicated to the public, and suddenly there is room to accommodate offices of a private association. Let them rent an office on [nearby] King George Street and organize the events from there.”

Portugali says she has subsequently lost control over the vision of the building she designed: “Ms. Blumental [Celine] went to the flea market and brought back all kinds of things which she put in the building. They did it all by stealth, when no one was around. There was the story of a small roof, which they erected one day over the entrance. Then there was some coffee wagon in the lobby and finally they hung pictures of Shimon Mizrahi. Is this his house? Everyone can bring photos taken by his child and hang them in the corridors of city hall?”

With all respect for the roof and the coffee wagon, nothing compares in emotional intensity to the freewheeling hanging of a beige-green curtain to separate the foyer and the auditorium in the center, says Portugali: “I designed the building to create continuity from the square through the main entrance and from there to the auditorium, from which the back garden – in which I planted lemon and orange trees – is visible.

“One day,” she continues, “the association told me the light was bothering them, that they sometimes hold events in the morning and want to hang a curtain on the glass doors of the auditorium. I am never oblivious to changing needs a building too has its own dynamics and I was definitely ready to meet them halfway. I designed a curtain that suits the spirit of the place. The municipality signed off on the plan. Two years went by and the association did nothing. Then, one day they threw my design out and did what they pleased. They showed up one day when the municipality-appointed director, who has an office in the building, was in the hospital and hung a curtain.

“I passed out when I saw it. It’s something Baroque that drags along the floor, is very loud and does not suit the building. It was also a safety hazard, because people could trip over it and break something. An unmitigated disaster. I called the municipality to ask what to do. Moshe Katz, the administrative director of the libraries department, asked me to find out how much it would cost to alter it and promised that the municipality would underwrite the expense up to a certain amount. I brought in professionals and it turned out that it would be far more expensive and that the municipality did not have a budget for repairs. I decided to act. I bought seamstress’ serrated scissors, and I cut the fringes and sewed the curtain nicely from the bottom, so at least no one would fall and break his head. They then claimed I had vandalized their property and sued me. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and countersued for breach of copyright.”

Portugali emerged victorious from the recent trial: Judge Ben-Haim awarded her NIS 25,000 and ordered the status quo ante to be restored. The association chose not to appeal.

“The issue of changes in the building is spelled out in the agreement between Portugali and the municipality,” says Miriam Posner, director of the libraries department. “It is accepted that everything done in the building by a long-term, authorized renter, including office equipment, furniture, pictures and accessories, must have the municipality’s written consent.”

“Most architects see themselves as providers of services, [design the building and then] take the money and go home,” Portugali says.

The Technion affair

That is what the architect Zvi Hecker did after he designed the Bat Yam city hall (1963) together with architects Eldar Sharon and Alfred Neumann until he was sued by a woman who was injured because of one of the building’s steel chairs. Hecker was sued as the holder of the copyright on the building, which won worldwide acclaim for its striking exterior.

“I usually don’t go to visit the buildings I design,” Hecker says today from his office in Berlin, where he has lived and worked for the past 20 years. “It is too painful to see what is done to these buildings. In the case of the woman who was injured, I had to prove that it was not my work but something added by the municipality. But that wasn’t the end of it. Later, they allowed themselves to demolish part of the roof and some of the outer walls and part of the interior. And this is a building that has a place of honor in world architecture. An Israeli stamp was issued with a picture of the building.”

Did you sue them?

“No. I don’t feel that I have to preserve the building. It does not belong to me but to the public. The public should have an interest in protecting what belongs to it and what it wants to hand down to the coming generations.”

But Hecker was not always so calm and collected about his buildings. In 1966, he found himself embroiled in an incident which was later dubbed “the Technion affair.” With his partners Sharon and Neumann, he designed the premises of the faculty of automotive engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. But the latter did not abide by the agreement signed between its president, Yaakov Dori (the Israel Defense Forces’ first chief of staff), and the architects.

“The Technion decided not to paint the building according to my color scheme,” Hecker recalls. “So, at the dedication ceremony I came and painted it. The Technion officials were in shock, because the reporters were already there, along with all the VIPs, and I was still standing there, painting. They asked me to stop so they could start the ceremony, and I said I would not stop until I received a letter stating that anything done in the building would require my consent. Al Mansfeld, the dean of the faculty of architecture there, brought me the letter and only then did I stop painting.”

But there was more to come. A few days later, Hecker learned that the roof windows had not been built according to his specifications.

“I designed special windows, but the contractor was instructed by the Technion to install simple ones,” Hecker says. “So I went there at 2 A.M. with my assistant and we climbed up to the roof and bent 28 frames in a way that made it impossible to fit the windows on them. There was a trial. I sued the Technion for not executing my plans and they sued me for damages. The result was that we got a restraining order against the Technion, prohibiting them to install the simple windows. It was a moral victory. It can be said that I was the first person in Israel to challenge the legal system in regard to copyright infringement in architecture. It was a big story that got a lot of play in the press. [MK] Uri Avnery submitted a parliamentary question in the Knesset and Golda Meir said it was an unsocial act.”

School colors

Architects Ada Karmi-Melamede and Ram Karmi (her brother) designed the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem. Again, no changes are made there without the architects’ consent. In some cases, the change can be as simple as the addition of another potted plant.

“I try to stay on top of what’s happening there,” Ada says. “Happily, there are people at the Supreme Court who are civilized enough to preserve the building’s character, so they heed the architects.”

But not everyone is happy to come to work in the tangible realization of one of the Karmi family’s architectural visions. Moshe Linden is a former deputy director general of the Amal network of vocational schools, whose offices are adjacent to the network’s Lady Davis School in Tel Aviv. He thought a modification of the architectural design of the school would be beneficial for the students.

“The school was designed by Ada Karmi,” he recalls. “When I arrived, she was very renowned and had a very respectable architectural firm. The structure, which from the first was intended as a school, was built of reinforced concrete and had low ceilings. It was like some sort of fortification absolutely terrible.

“The building has a kind of square shape with a tiled courtyard inside and a small patch of land,” he continues.

“The parents’ committee pressured us to make changes, not only pedagogically but visually as well. They wanted a different look for the school, one that would encourage the students and not threaten them. We obtained a budget and when I raised the idea of renovations with the executive committee, they referred me to the municipality. In the Tel Aviv municipality I was told the architect’s approval was needed and that we couldn’t just paint the school whatever color we wanted.

“Karmi’s firm declined to give its consent. They said this was the building’s design. After giving the matter some thought I simply told them, ‘There are two options: Either we paint it in whatever color we choose and you sue us and we see how the suit develops, or we reach agreement on a color that will improve the school’s appearance.’ Two weeks later, they replied that they agreed to paint it white.”

What about the plants?

“We didn’t ask them we just planted them.”

‘Cultural disgrace’

In the early 1980s, architect Zvi Mosessco won a competition to design a cultural center and adjacent public library in Afula. The result is impressive: a striking building that evokes a piano. In 2002, the Afula municipality carried out renovations in the building which compromised its distinctive design. Mosessco sued the city for breach of copyright and won.

“For thousands of years, works of art have been considered intellectual property throughout the world,” Mosessco observes, “but in Israel you have to work hard to prove your case. You have to bring expert witnesses to prove that it is a work of art that requires protection. You have to demonstrate the uniqueness of the work, and not many have met that challenge in the courts. In Afula, the municipality made changes to the building without coordinating with us.”

Such as what?

“They painted the building weirdly and wrecked the whole concept. The southern wall, which consisted of black and white [piano] keys, was painted over completely in white. They didn’t see what the problem was. The glass façade, which faces east, was covered with marble. The building looked like a Kabuki actress. Totally pale and lacking any distinctiveness.

“In the wake of the suit they stopped working with me,” he continues. “I took that into account, but I had to choose a side. I couldn’t let it pass.”

The trial took place in 2005 in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court before Judge Dahlia Mark-Horenczyk, who wrote in her judgment: “Suffice it that an architect invested independent effort and talent of his own for the work to be protected. The cultural center and library are an architectural work of art.

“In examining the question of whether a building’s renovation is an architectural work of art and constitutes an infringement of copyright,” she wrote, “we need to balance the right of the structure’s owner to whose needs and taste the building will be adapted against the interest of the architect, which is also to a large extent the interest of society to preserve the work’s artistic character.”

Mosessco was awarded NIS 100,000 in compensation and the Afula municipality was instructed to restore the status quo ante within three years. There was no appeal.

Architect Arie Shilo was an expert witness in the trial: “Protection of music and pictures goes without saying in Israel,” Shilo says. “In regard to all the rest the law is very cumbersome. It is extremely difficult to prove this argument when it comes to architectural works. The first thing you are asked in court is whether the building is a creative work; a great many judges do not take that as a given. And I am not talking about standard buildings. Not every housing project or residential building standing on pillars and replete with plastic shutters is a glorious creation, but public buildings are generally works of art. I can tell you happily that of late the issue has become a hot subject. I recently submitted three professional opinions to courts in cases dealing with architectural copyright.”

Another architect, Mordechai Ben Horin, has designed numerous well-known public buildings, such as Jabotinsky House, Asia House, the residential tower of the Dizengoff Center, the labor federation’s tax offices all in Tel Aviv and Herzliya Studios. Copyright infringements in his many buildings are routine, but he has never sued. “I let it go, because I am not a quarrelsome person,” he says.

One of Ben Horin’s most challenging projects was Beit Sapir in Kfar Sava, a cultural and arts center for which the architect received the President’s Prize.

“One day,” Ben Horin says, “a journalist called to tell me a scandal was taking place at my building: another floor was being added. The Kfar Sava municipality had previously investigated, with me, the possibility of building another floor. I submitted a plan but they did something completely different. The journalist who called urged me not to go to the site because I might suffer a heart attack.

“I met with the mayor and told him, ‘There is a metal plaque on the building that has my name on it. Why didn’t you call me?’ He said he was told that I had died. I asked him, ‘If you thought the architect had died, why didn’t you send his wife a condolence message?’ I went to the building and saw what they did. I thought it was actually wonderful that is, it is so terrible that maybe it will make people appreciate my work.”

There were also copyright infringements at Asia House. Ben Horin designed the luxury office building in the 1970s, using ideas that were revolutionary for the period: hanging gardens, water, a suspended bridge.

“That was why I won the competition,” he says. “I received building permits from the municipality but the work was not done accordingly and the municipality did not intervene. The bottom and top floors were supposed to be set apart for public use. There were supposed to be exhibitions from Asia to promote cultural relations with Israel.

“And what do I see today? Offices instead of exhibitions, restaurants and booths that sell bread. It’s all business. Copyright infringement goes on all the time, especially in public buildings, in the crudest manner. It is a cultural disgrace, not a matter for the courts. It’s the public that loses. If we ruin our public assets, it’s up to the public to do the work, not the architect. You can rewrite the Bible, but you can’t then claim that it’s the real Bible.”

When to go to war

Zvi Hecker has designed many notable public buildings in Israel, such as the officers’ training school at the Bahad 1 army base, the [now-defunct] Club Med at Achziv and the Ramot Polin housing project in Jerusalem. He compares the situation in Israel to Europe, saying it all begins and ends with culture.

“Israeli society is not yet cohesive,” he notes. “It is a collection of tribes with different leaders. Each tribe wants the best and the most that it can get. You see it in architecture, too. In other countries it is unthinkable for someone to buy an apartment and change its façade, because the façade belongs to the public. But in Israel everyone things he can do whatever he wants with the façade of his home. And it’s of no interest to the public, because what’s outside his home might belong to a different tribe.

“In Germany I did not see a shuttered window or balcony. It’s not a question of laws; it’s a question of basic concepts in an orderly society which ensures that everyone has equal rights.”

What’s the situation with public buildings?

“I remember that [artist] Menashe Kadishman was going to have an exhibition in the foyer of the symphony hall in Berlin. They needed the architect’s approval to hang the paintings, and until they found him and got his approval in writing, Kadishman did not hang the works.”

Another architect who does not waste his time in the courts, even though he is a great believer in preserving architectural copyright, is Michael Chyutin, who resigned last year as designer of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. His works include the Givatayim Theater, the University Art Gallery at Tel Aviv University, the Haifa courthouse and the Mane-Katz Museum in Haifa.

Chyutin: “Do medicines have copyright? Does the design of a table have a copyright? Well, so does architecture. It’s stipulated unequivocally in the law. It’s a bit hard to believe that the public does not understand that, when even shoes are today a work of art with a copyright. It’s true that the little apple-like booths of Mifal Hapayis (the national lottery) are not distinctive works, but the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is, and so is the Sydney Opera House.”

Have changes been made in your buildings?

“Our firm designed a square in Be’er Sheva. Three months ago, I received an email from someone in Herzegovina saying that a competition to design a square had been held in his city and that the student who won copied my square. So am I going to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina and sue her? At the same time, corrections and changes do not always constitute copyright infringement. Changes were made in some of my buildings in Israel against my will. The question is whether I should have fought this. I didn’t. It is not always necessary to fight. Changes were made in buildings designed by the greatest architects, but you don’t go to war over everything. It’s very easy to be Howard Roark. Or Zvi Hecker, who broke the windows at the Technion. Life is more complicated than that, and not everything merits a battle. Certainly not some dumb curtain. If I had been the judge in that case [Portugali vs. the Blumental Center], I might have ruled differently.”

Is there a delicate balance between changing needs dictated by life within a building and the need to protect it as a work of art?

“It’s a question of ego and of mental state. Avraham Yaski designed a model housing project in Be’er Sheva and in one place used elements of Le Corbusier. When someone accused him of copying, Yaski replied, ‘It’s an honor to copy from Le Corbusier.’ There are influences in architecture. In some cases you are influenced by architects and do something that evokes them, or similar elements. How is that a copyright infringement? Some people take this too far. I am not pleased by the case of Nili Portugali, because I don’t think it went in the right direction. Not everything is worthy of a war. Certainly not in a case where someone added or removed a curtain.”

Architectural scholar Ziva Sternhell disagrees. She believes that every centimeter is crucial. “People are not aware of what it means to move something 10 centimeters. Architecture is composition, and changes – even small ones – upset the whole scale of the work and the reciprocal relations within the composition. In fact, the execution itself often ruins the work; architects have to be very aware of whom they give the job to. Le Corbusier took the workers who would be doing the work into account, and adjusted his designs to the quality of the labor and the technology that existed in France in the times and the places in which he worked.

“There are some architects who plan every last detail,” Sternhell adds. “Erich Mendelsohn, who designed the Weizmann family villa in Rehovot, had serious differences with Vera Weizmann, the First Lady. Other architects say it is wrong to force people to live in an architectural temple; they have to be able to live with the building. Most architects would prefer that no people live in their buildings, because people have demands and personal whims, and that ruins the architecture.”

Sternhell offers examples: “The new additions made to the Israel Museum [two years ago] ruined the original language of Al Mansfeld. The wall that was built around the Prime Minister’s Residence destroyed the distinctive character of the marvelous building designed by Richard Kaufmann. The same happened to the Hadassah University Hospital building on Mount Scopus, a masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn, after [the Israeli architect] Yaakov Rechter introduced changes and renovations. If Mendelsohn were alive today, he would scream and sue the hospital. There are not enough good architects in Israel, there is not enough knowledge and there is no respect and appreciation for basic culture. There is ignorance here which does not respect creativity. We are still living in a futuristic world which prefers to demolish the old in favor of the new.”

Work of art for rent

Architectural modifications to the structure designed by Nili Portugali are not the only problematic aspect of the actions taken by the directors of the Felicja Blumental Music Center. About a decade ago, the Tel Aviv municipality reached an agreement with Annette Celine under which the association undertook to hold musical events in the building.

“The association was formed at the initiative of the libraries unit in the culture and art division of the municipality,” says Miriam Posner, the director of the libraries unit. “The city’s budget was not enough to cover cultural activity, and we decided to fill the beautiful new building with content.”

In return for this, the Felicja Blumental Music Center Association, which the municipality recognizes as a cultural enterprise, received free office space in the building, exempt from property tax. In time, the organization started to feel that this was its natural home. Even though it is supported to the tune of NIS 190,000 a year by the municipality and receives NIS 750,000 from the Culture and Sports Ministry, the association rents out the center’s auditorium under the municipality’s nose for private events, such as birthdays, bar mitzvah celebrations and retirement parties. Not long ago, the building hosted the 70th birthday celebration of former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch.

The municipality, which is supposed to supervise the events in sites under its jurisdiction, sees nothing and, above all, hears nothing.

“I don’t want to comment on the private activity, because I have no information,” Posner says. “I only know what they are allowed to do in the building: only artistic musical activity.”

Who will supervise things if not you?

“What I don’t know I don’t know ... As long as no one has come to me and said there is unauthorized activity there, I am not about to spy on them. And no one has ever complained.”

One phone call to the association verifies what the municipality doesn’t want to know. For NIS 2,000 you can reserve a date to hold a private event for up to 115 invitees for four hours. In the conversation, the association’s representative asked nothing about what sort of event it might be. His only reservation was that it not take place on a Thursday, because every Thursday until May 2013 is already booked.

‘Faulty judgment’

Avigail Arnheim, director of the Felicja Blumental Music Center Association, finds the ruling by Judge Ben-Haim illogical. “We went into this suit because of damage done to our property. This was after the municipality neglected the handling of the curtain issue. They dragged it out for two years at a low level, and did not provide an answer. The curtain solution submitted by the architect was complicated. It involved a cumbersome device, and in the meantime people were colliding head-first with the glass wall. We put stickers on it. The architect removed them and put on stickers of her own.

“We did not have a good relationship with the architect,” Arnheim continues. “Finally we took the initiative and decided to put up our own curtain. The municipality did not object. The architect reacted very sharply. She wrote letters and finally came and cut the curtain, claiming it was not safe. We actually sued her to make her stop harassing us and come up with suggestions that can be lived with and not only those that glorify her name. In my opinion, the judge was wrong. He ignored the damage she did and the violence that was perpetrated. As a citizen of Israel, I regret that.”

Why didn’t you appeal?

“We can still appeal, but our Maecenas [Annette Celine] chose to drop it.”

Do you also rent out the auditorium for private affairs?

“The money from that goes for promoting and improving the place.”

Does some of the money go to the municipality?

“In the meantime, no. We are not transferring cash to them but investing it in the center, in renovating the place.”

Nili Portugali outside the Felicja Blumental Music Center. Credit: Yanai Yechiel



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