The Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee made a dramatic decision in mid-August: It recommended moving forward on a plan to expand the size of the Knesset. This is a particularly grandiose scheme.
The area of the permanent home of Israel’s parliament, dedicated in 1966, was 20,000 square meters. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, it was expanded to 90,000 square meters. The new expansion, dubbed “Knesset 2040,” will add 102,000 square meters to the compound, about half of that for parking. The team responsible for the city’s transportation master plan is pushing a project involving a light rail line that will connect the various government buildings to two additional light rail lines.
The plan features new offices for lawmakers, Knesset committee rooms, Central Election Committee offices, a gym, a visitor’s center in the form of a glass cube, a dining floor and two security-related structures. A new vehicle entrance is slated for the southeast corner of the lot.
According to the simulations and blueprints submitted to the local zoning board, large parts of the park surrounding the building will be demolished during construction. The outer facade of some of the new structures will be opaque, and thus perpetuate the fortress-like appearance of the entire government buildings complex. At this early stage the cost is not being discussed but it is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of shekels.
Why enlarge the Knesset now, only about a decade since its previous expansion? “When it was built the Knesset represented 650,000 citizens,” according to the planners’ explanatory notes. “Now it represents 9 million citizens, 14 times the population at the time of the establishment of Israel, with the same number of Knesset members. Possibly in the future more Knesset members will be added; the number is expected to rise to 140. If in the past, two MKs shared one office, rooms are now being planned for every MK, with up to five parliamentary aides who are needed to deal with the work of legislating. A serious lack of space is already felt today in the working spaces of the MKs and their aides, and in the Knesset committee rooms.”
The new plan was initiated by the Knesset administration and by a steering committee that included a number of lawmakers, none of whom live in Jerusalem. Peleg Architects won the bid for the project in 2017. Headed by Eli Brostowsky, the firm has planned army bases, embassies, the control tower at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the government compound in Tel Aviv and the Phoenix Tower in Givatayim.
As opposed to the nearby Supreme Court and National Library of Israel, an architectural competition was not held for the new Knesset undertaking.
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“Just as in the previous two expansions of the Knesset, this time too there will be an expansion of a previously existing building, rather than a new project,” a Knesset spokesman explained, in a statement.
“Moreover, the plan includes special instructions for preserving the original building, inasmuch as it is architecturally unique and considering its national and historical importance. And thus the tender process was selected, as in the past, as an efficient model for this purpose.”
According to Brostowsky: “Our planning is respectful of the historic building planned by architects Dov Karmi and Joseph Klarwein. The Knesset has already undergone two expansions since then and in each one the concept was that there is a central icon [to be preserved]. The added construction that we are proposing takes the form of a sort of carpet, like the last expansion.”
Brostowsky adds that the models prepared for the Planning and Building Committee, which show that much of the historic structure is concealed by the additions, are not precise.
“Maybe only the security area and the visitors center will hide the main building,” he says, adding that during the discussions, when it became apparent how much area would be needed, one committee member proposed concentrating all construction in a high-rise building. “He proposed creating a new icon. I’m happy to say his suggestion was not accepted.”
Brostowsky described the dining floor, which will feature columns and an arch, as “a conservative design, but one that pays homage to the historic Knesset in its use of columns. The apron to the south provides a great deal of respect to the historic structure.”
This is not an urban area, there’s hardly any pedestrian traffic. It doesn’t seem that the plan will improve the situation.
“We were asked during the discussion why we didn’t add a commercial dimension. To my mind, adding such elements disrespects the Knesset. The closest thing to commerce will be the cafeteria in the visitors center, and perhaps, if the Knesset approves it, a souvenir shop in the visitors center. Pedestrian traffic in the street will increase because the library will go up there and we are adding entrances.”
In the National Mall in Washington, there’s no commercial area and there are pedestrians walking around.
“We not going to get to a situation like that in Washington, because there are more museums [there]. The Knesset at the moment is the attraction and when the visitors center opens, a route will lead from there into the Knesset. The library is on the other side. I hope there will be more [pedestrian] traffic.”
The major disagreement between the Knesset and the planning board at the moment is over the addition of 1,500 parking places. Why is the Knesset, the building where laws were passed limiting the number of parking spaces in government buildings and other offices, demanding such a large parking area?
“There’s a debate in principle between the Knesset and the local and district planning committees. The Knesset is a place where people often work late at night and there are many events held there. If there is an event with foreign embassies, where will the cars park?”
Brostowsky doesn’t mention it, but additional parking areas might also increase vehicular traffic in the area.
Against the vision
The original Knesset building was born in chaos. Many architects didn’t like the design proposed by Joseph Klarwein, who had won the competition for the project in 1957. After the competition, journalist Uri Avnery published an article in his magazine Ha’olam Hazeh entitled “Scandal in the Knesset Building.”
Avnery quoted remarks made at a meeting of the heads of the national architects’ association, saying: “The planning isn’t modern, it’s not an Israeli building, it’s uniform shape is boring, it’s neoclassical and doesn’t fit into its surroundings.”
After various attempts to change Klarwein’s plan, Israel Prize laureate Dov Karmi and his son Ram, who would later also win the Israel Prize, joined the team and devised a new one, which produced the building we know today. The pillars that surround it are a remnant of Klarwein’s original plan; out of respect for him, his name was left as the building’s planner.
In 1981, it was decided to build a new wing south of the original one, with a 330-seat auditorium and 48 offices for senior Knesset members, who had begun using secretaries and other staffers. The large wing was hidden on the lower level, but its carpeted corridors earned the offices there the nickname “Hiltons.” It was inaugurated in 1993.
During the 14th Knesset (1996-99), there was a decision to expand the premises once again, and 60 new offices were added, to meet the needs of the 108 MKs nesset members who were not cabinet members. When the 15th Knesset convened, a request for proposals was issued for the new wing, east of the historic structure. The architectural firm of Meltzer Igra & Cohen was selected from a short list of architects that passed an initial screening process.
The current expansion effort recalls the previous one in terms of the way it is being conducted. It seems that now as then – as can be seen in a November 3, 2000 article in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth – the Knesset is ignoring the dictates of the Jerusalem Municipality as well as the historical architectural design of the building.
Former cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit, among the leading proponents of the plan, told Yedioth journalist Ofer Petersburg at the time regarding the planning: “The Knesset shouldn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. The fact that ordinary citizens are suffering doesn’t mean the Knesset should suffer.” It should be noted in that context that the municipality forewent the process of confirming the building as slated for preservation. The former chairman of the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee, who would become the mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, was quoted in the article as opposing the plan. “The proposed plan disrespects the building, there are opposing opinions and thoughts about the very form of the architectural construction,” he said.
Then-Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, didn’t really care about the bureaucracy or the architecture. “We want to cut the ribbon in the upcoming term. The building in its current condition did not function.”
Any planning expert who has seen the current plan has criticized it. Architects today are not as brave as in the past, and most declined to be interviewed.
One source who is familiar with the issue of planning in Jerusalem and spoke on condition of anonymity said he was shocked by the plans.
Bombastic and immodest
“The plans are bombastic and immodest and raise the question ‘what happened to us?’ This is not the U.S. Capitol. This is a country of 9 million people, not 300 million. The new building goes against the vision of the original architects. In some places they’re building a three-story building, it’s horrible. The Knesset building will be swallowed up. Instead of the original landscaping, we are getting concrete barriers. As opposed to the addition to the Reichstag,” referring to the renovation of the German parliament in Berlin in the 1990s, “to which a visitor center was added on the roof, here’s they’re building a concave addition that says ‘don’t come near me.’”
The source suggested that if so much construction was required, perhaps the solution should have been to build underground, noting that there is no groundwater problem here to take into consideration.
“The expansion ‘disappears’ the iconic building,” says urban planner Tami Gavrieli, who owns a strategic urban planning firm and was one of the authors of a document on planning of the “Gov.City” project at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. “The previous expansions were built east of the Knesset building and gave it respect. I don’t like to give an architectural opinion, but I can’t hold back: the additions hurt the original architecture. In governing buildings abroad they closely maintain historic spaces – and if more space is needed they do it elsewhere,” she added.
Former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor MK Rachel Azaria says the planning should have been more meticulous.
“The role of the local zoning board is to check whether the building fits the Jerusalem surroundings and here it seems that there the space was not taken into consideration. If they had conducted an architectural competition and brought the committee eight proposals, it could have truly been discussed. As opposed to the past, this is a dramatic expansion that changed the look,” she said.
The final seal of approval on the plan will be given by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, where a preliminary discussion will be held in the coming weeks. Jerusalem District Planner Shira Talmai Babay said: “The planning bureau will ask for changes in the extent of construction and explanations for the program required. We will ask that the needed addition not conceal the Knesset building or compete with it.”
See and be seen
A number of conflicting processes have been at work in the Jerusalem government center in recent years. On the one hand, a plan was promoted by Kimmel Eshkolot Architects to encourage foot traffic and the presence of people in the area, adding commercial and public functions to it. On the other, some of the new buildings in the area are still fortified and controlled by security guards. Moreover, there has been no coordination with the Israel Museum, at whose façade, according to the plan for the light rail’s Yellow Line. a new square is to be built, nor with the adjacent National Library, which is in the advanced stages of construction.
According to Azaria, a plan of such proportions must reinforce the connection to the city.
“The Knesset is very cut off from Jerusalem. When I was deputy major, I was close to the city, but to come to me at a meeting in the Knesset requires at least half an hour to go through security. This shows the difference between the local authorities, which are connected to the public, and the Knesset, which is inaccessible.”
Azaria proposes building a coffee shop outside the Knesset so MKs won’t have to visit a cafe in Tel Aviv in order to be seen in public.
An individual familiar with the planning raises another central problem: “The planning misses the opportunity between Kaplan and Ruppin streets,” he said, referring to the main street that passes the Knesset and its intersection with another main street closer to the library and the museum. He notes that the library and the Israel Museum are planned to open onto a new square and that Kaplan Street is closed off to the nearby projects.
The decision of the local Planning and Building Committee states that the municipality and the committee welcome the plan that will strengthen the presence of national institutions in Jerusalem and create future employment opportunities.
Despite the sweeping approval of the committee, implementation of some decisions are difficult to imagine. It was decided, for example, that regulations will be passed to preserve the original Knesset building. But how will compliance with the regulations be monitored to make sure the historic building is not harmed? It was noted that Kaplan Street would be the boundary of the expansion, but it’s also unclear whether the new building will be connected to the street or sealed off with a wall. The committee also recommended that the Knesset be required to put up a marking next to the Teddy Stadium Arena Hall, in another part of the city, as a bonus to Jerusalemites in light of the burden the expansion will create in the city.
City Councilman Ofer Berkovitch of the Hitorerut in Jerusalem movement, like Azaria a former deputy mayor, agrees that the plan leaves much to be desired.
“We are approving it because of the need to expand services in the compound, but the renderings we were shown are not good enough. Such a strategic project should have been planned in a broader way as part of an architectural competition. At the moment it’s not an excellent plan and not all its details are completely clear. I took into account that there will be another discussion in the district committee in which I also plan on participating. I believe the plan will improve,” he said.
His fellow faction member on the city council, Yovav Tzur, who notes that the addition will conceal part of the original building, adds: “It’s hard to approve a thing like this, but I know the Knesset from the inside and I know there’s a lack of space. We also don’t know all the needs in detail. We had a long discussion about parking and we said that we want to encourage public transportation over private vehicles,” he said.
And what do the professionals in the municipality think of the plan? The municipal spokesman’s office refused a request by Haaretz to interview the municipal architect, Ofer Manor, or Jerusalem’s planning chief, Amnon Arbel, who was at the local planning board’s meeting, and directed questions to the Knesset spokesman’s office.
The municipality, it should be noted, is a lesser player in the matter of government buildings in Jerusalem, under the shadow of the government, donors and other interested parties.