This week the bulldozers and steamrollers finally kicked up their first cloud of sand as work began on the new international airport, in Timna, in the Arava Desert.
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The cornerstone of the facility, whose official name is the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport, was laid two weeks ago in a ceremony attended by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Israel Airports Authority officials, Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy and members of the Ramon family including Rona Ramon.
She is the widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who died in the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and the mother of Asaf Ramon, an Israel Air Force pilot who died when his plane crashed during a routine training flight in September 2009.
But the cornerstone was actually the latest of six. Five predecessors, hastily lain in the past few years, now serve as reminders of the many attempts (and the delays that followed) to set this ambitious project in motion.
With a cost of around NIS 1.7 billion and covering an unimaginable area of 5,000 square meters, the project has been an easy target for detractors, who have called for it to be cancelled for a number of financial, environmental and political reasons as well as security concerns.
The various objections delayed the project considerably – the design tender was held a decade ago – and in 2006 planning was halted due to political disagreements regarding the partnership with Jordan. It was restarted in 2010 and only now, three years later, is it finally starting to show signs of coming to fruition.
Architect Amir Mann and his architect son Asaf Mann feel that the commencement of construction has brought "closure." Having won the first tender, Amir Mann-Ami Shinar Architects and Planners went on to work alongside architect Moshe Tzur and the IAA's Deputy Director General for planning and engineering, Rafi Elbaz, on the detailed plans for the project.
Amir Mann heads up the planning team – a role that requires extensive coordination between a large team and a whole host of different companies, authorities and organizations.
"Usually there's a project manager, but this time the architects are heading it themselves," he says with pride. "We're returning to the traditional role we once had. When an architect is a team leader you can find creativity in construction, in planning the electricals and even in budget management."
The airport, which is 18 kilometers north of Eilat, will serve domestic and international flights. It's projected to open in 2016, and to be capable of handling between 1.8 million and 2.25 million passengers a year. Unlike Eilat's current airport, Timna will be able to handle jumbo jets.
The project is made more complicated by the fact that the airport will cater to high levels of air traffic (in part thanks to the Open Skies aviation pact between Israel and the European Union that is expected to come into effect by the time the project has been completed.)
The airport in the center of Eilat serves around 1.5 million domestic passengers annually; international flights land in Ovda airport, around an hour's drive from the city. The plans to extend passenger rail service from the center of the country to Eilat will make it easier for tourists to reach the southern city.
This is very important to the government, especially in light of the luxury vacation destinations that have popped up over the last few years and compete with Eilat, such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and eastern China.
The new airport, the first civilian airport to be built in Israel since its establishment is located in the middle of nowhere. Its predecessors were all built during the British Mandate and expanded and modernized over the years.
The environmental impact of the new facility will be enormous: Levels of noise, pollution and road traffic are all expected to rise significantly in the area.
Route 90 already presents a physical obstacle to local wildlife, including gazelles that cross from east to west. Traffic will increase once the new airport is in operation, of course; a solution to this problem must be found. The mountainous border to the east makes things even more complicated as it creates a series of streams.
Construction in the area must take these into account in order to protect the nearby community of Be'er Ora from flooding. In addition, the area's desert characteristics must be preserved: The airport won't be surrounded by grass, but rather by desert topsoil removed during the building process and replaced.
A dramatic space
The aim is to create a simple, inviting airport that is meant more for tourists than business travelers. "If someone lands carrying a briefcase they'll ask him what he's doing there," says Mann.
"The French, Danes, Swedes and Brits who come– as well as the Israelis – land with suncream in their bag and their swimsuits already on under their clothes. They're ready to rent a car and do some diving from the moment they touch down. As a result, the concept is simpler and the approach is more down-to-earth."
So the airport won’t have a symbolic design using Jerusalem stone or a waterfall descending from the sky. The clichés have been transcended to make way for a desert view of open horizons that stretches all the way to the Jordanian mountains in the east. This dictates the fundamental concept of the project, with the terminal building acting as an air-conditioned box that encapsulates one chapter in the desert and opens up to the rest of the landscape.
The project's design language is still a work in progress, and the final version will not be identical to the architectural renderings that accompany this article (the only ones IAA officials agreed to have published).
The design is inspired by the shape of the desert rocks, with an abstract interpretation that is reminiscent of origami paper folds and which blurs the distinction between the ceiling and the walls.
The passenger terminal will only occupy one floor, in an open-plan design recalling the Ikea store in Netanyha, which was also designed by the Amir Mann-Ami Shinar firm.
Mann explains that the traditional separation of arrival and departure areas doesn’t have to be enforced using tall walls but can also be delineated by furniture and lightweight, low construction.
"The drama is created by this large space – where the red mountains and endless desert is seen from every direction," he says.