The genesis of the Tel Aviv velodrome might well lie back in 2010, when Warren Buffet and Bill Gates created The Giving Pledge. Its participants, all billionaires, make a public pledge to donate more than half their fortune to charitable causes, either in their lifetime or in their will. A debate soon erupted about philanthropy and its underlying goals. Not everyone flowed with the appeal by Gates et al. Wall Street legend Robert Wilson, who gave most of his money to charity before leaping to his death a few years later, replied sarcastically when he was approached to join The Giving Pledge. He maintained that distributing one’s fortune in a will is a betrayal of the cause, leading primarily to the creation of family funds that annually toss negligible sums to social causes so as to obtain public legitimacy.
In Israel, of course, this discussion feels wildly out of place. Can anyone here imagine a local tycoon making a commitment to donate most of his wealth to the public? The combination of the “I’m no sucker” culture, frequent reliance on the generosity of diaspora Jewry, and local tax regulations place that scenario in the realm of science fiction. Wealthy individuals who do donate to public causes, even if less dramatically – think of the Azrieli Foundation or the Ted Arison Family Foundation – were born overseas.
Then along came Sylvan Adams, a Canadian billionaire and participant in The Giving Pledge, who decided to use his fortune to promote, in Israel, an activity with many cultural and educational implications – and which happens to be his hobby: competitive cycling. Adams has been active in several areas in this sphere. He funded the creation of the Adams Institute for Sports Research at Tel Aviv University, invested time and money in the Giro d’Italia Big Start in Israel in 2018, and paid half the cost of building the Sylvan Adams Velodrome in Tel Aviv.
Designed by the firm of Adam Mazor – Eli First Architects and City Planners, the building, near Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, essentially evokes a pavilion intended to exhibit a private collection, rather than a public facility. With all its complex technical requirements, it reflects above all the aspirations and yearnings of the philanthropist behind it. And instead of a collection of wonders, it presents potential. It’s a building erected with a significant investment and driven by a utopian-style ambition to create a thriving sport where there was (and is) a wasteland. After all, the community of competitive cyclists at an international level in Israel currently numbers fewer than 10.
Circumstances like these tend to bring about the creation of interesting buildings, and this case is no exception. From the outside, the velodrome is first of all an impressive structure that doesn’t slide into excess. Around the track itself and covering it there is an elliptical envelope with open sides. The entrance to the track passes through a pavilion that separates the riders from the viewers. The latter ascend one story and enter a large space via a bridge; the former descend one story, pass through a corridor whose sides are metal cages intended for bicycles and rental equipment, and then enter the track.
This well-planned entrance assumes a gladiatorial dimension: underground with minimal lighting, a quick passage and then emergence into a vast space. It’s easy to imagine this intensive experience in the velodrome when coming from the lower level onto the cycling ramp, even if the building isn’t active yet. In its scope, the roof seems to follow the shifting levels of the track. From above, the steel mesh that supports the roof conceals advanced photographic, lighting and sound systems. The open space – which includes athletic tracks on blue floor surfaces, looks ready for use.
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The cycling track, which ostensibly meets all the guidelines for receiving certification to host international competitions, is the opposite of bureaucratic. It has been built in an utterly astonishing process, with wooden ribs that support the wood surfaces of the track itself – which according to regulations must be of different elevations and inclines. The nails were hammered in one by one, so as not to crack the wood. Coordination between the concrete casing and the wooden structure, where a small space is needed so that the fluctuations of the track won’t rupture it, is almost perfect.
A look at the space created below the track reveals the complexity of the work and the high level of precision. This view also conjures up a small part of the exhausting process that must have been needed to get a project like this approved by the firefighting authorities, who have plenty of experience with builders’ evasive tactics. One result is a gigantic sprinkler system, which fortunately remains hidden from the eye. At the same time, the covering of this peripheral space, also done in wood, is not a good point of the project, as it obscures the heft and the logic that impel its form.
Another weak element of the project, and even more dramatic, is the entry pavilion itself, which has a congenial design – white interior with a covering of aluminum slats – and is intended to house the offices of the cycling association and commercial spaces that will face the street. The problem is not the design, but the fact that the location makes it impossible to see the velodrome from its busiest side and divides its impressive bulk into two segments. The commercial functions that generate income for the project are clear, but perhaps the architectural design could have been more sophisticated, allowing for an entrance that doesn’t hide the bulk of the project behind it.
It’s too soon to say whether competitive cycling will become a leading sport in Israel and produce medals in international tournaments, as Adams hopes. In the meantime, his different approach to philanthropy has found partners and has succeeded in erecting a singular building in the local landscape. That alone should delight every lover of architecture and sports.