Israel's New Stock Exchange Building Restores Confidence in Old-style Capitalism

With its appropriate design and location, it is one of the best buildings constructed in Israel in recent years

Yael Engelhart

Finance Minister Yair Lapid and the heads of the Israeli capital market attended the opening of the new Stock Exchange building at 2 Ahuza Street in Tel Aviv. What they were actually celebrating was the dedication of the enormous computer housed inside it. As is fitting for an affair that revolves around an intangible entity, a kind of HAL 9000 for traders, the traditional pushing of the button lit up what looked like a black monolith, but turned out to be an LED screen lit to the top with lines of red and green text with trade data floating upward from the ground.

Unlike other events related to the stock exchange such as first-time bond issuances, which say very little to the general public (in other words, those who are not employees of the relevant companies, brokers who make their living from the stock exchange, employees of the Israel Securities Authority or made – or lost – their fortunes in investments), this one, which has little effect on the movement of stocks and bonds, could prove to have real value. With or without any connection to what happens inside it, the new stock exchange building – one of the best buildings constructed in Israel in recent years – has awakened a renewed and almost naïve confidence in old-style capitalism.

The new building, in the heart of Tel Aviv’s business district and near its nightlife spots, attains to a feeling of permanence that comes from the restraint in its form, which is not drawn into design manifestos but rather maintains the careful use of construction materials and details. Unlike the residential and office high-rises beside it, this building does what the adjacent Shalom Meir Tower has done since it was built: It is accessible to the public and respects all who enter it – even if their only purpose in doing so was to enjoy the air conditioning – and succeeds in devoting a significant portion of its ground floor to that end (relying on models put into practice in the United States decades ago, such as the Ford Foundation building or the lobby of the IBM tower, both in Manhattan, which have an accessible and available lobby on the ground floor of a private building).

Photo by Yael Engelhart

Except for a basic security inspection at the entrance, the public has access to the lobby, the cafeteria on the gallery floor, the conference center and the stock exchange museum (which will be opening in roughly six months) with no need for an ID tag.

Although the building sits at an intersection (Montefiore and Ahuzat Bayit streets) and the outside wall of the ground floor is long and transparent, it has only a single entrance. “We said that everyone who comes to the stock exchange, whether a child coming for a tour or a millionaire coming for a meeting with the director general, would enter in the same way,” says Eri Goshen, the architect who was in charge of the project together with Laura Huino, a fellow architect of his company.

Photo by Yael Engelhart

Concrete and symbolic motives

Goshen, who has been working with the stock exchange as an architect since it was located on Ahad Ha’am Street, says that the three decades that have elapsed since were a time of dramatic changes in the way the stock exchange functioned, which led to changes in its structural needs as well. “My client actually disappeared. He became virtual,” Goshen says.

Until fairly recently, the stock exchange was a physical location with traders wearing colorful vests shouting, speaking and arguing in the echoing trading halls. At one time, four such halls operated in the building on Ahad Ha’am Street.

Photo by Yael Engelhart

But since computers entered the picture, the loudspeakers, traders and noisy halls have become a thing of the past. The trading halls were closed gradually starting in 1999, and the main trading hall became a conference hall. At the same time, Goshen recalls, the control systems were overloaded, the floor full of cables, and braids of cables ran through the stairwells. The building was not prepared for disasters, such as the one in which a technician caused a short circuit that crashed the stock exchange’s system when he plugged his laptop into a socket in the computer room.

Eight years ago, the stock exchange’s management began searching for lots where a new building could be constructed. Their choice of the current site, which once housed a two-story building, stemmed from motives that were concrete and symbolic alike: It is located opposite a historically-significant branch of Bank Leumi (once the Anglo-Palestine Bank) and next to the headquarters of the Union Bank of Israel and Israel Discount Bank. In addition, the building benefited from construction rights that had been obtained previously for the Shalom Meir Tower which dictated the cubic shape of the 11-story building (to which another four floors can be added in the future).

Photo by Yael Engelhart

A black totem

Since the computers became more dominant than the traders, the offices grew smaller too, causing a problem for the building, which could have been swallowed in the shadow of the Shalom Meir Tower. A large space that is as high as the building itself in front of the entrance actually overlooks the building’s southeastern corner, significantly increasing the building’s volume. Transparent elevators, bridges and corridors up to the top floor allow anyone standing in the lobby to see all the floors in the building, which also helps the office workers to orient themselves.

All four facades of the building are covered with a transparent screen, behind which are horizontal slats made of clouded glass. This lets a great deal of light into the lobby, though the light is diffuse and hazy.

Photo by Yael Engelhart

“The toughest planning decision I made regarding the building was the distance between the slats,” Goshen says. He felt it was important that visitors would be able to notice the thousands of slats in the building (9,600 of them, to be exact), whose width – 1.40 meters – dictated the division of the office space. “If they were closer together they would connect, and it would be impossible to see the work. It’s like rich fabric: Its richness imparts a feeling of seriousness because it shows that somebody sat and wove it.”

Goshen says that a dedicated pavilion was set up on the roof of the Shalom Meir Tower to determine the angle, amount and pattern of the slats. There are high spaces between the slats to give the office workers an outside view from the offices, most of which face the sea. The problem of the westering sun during the afternoon hours is solved, Goshen says, by the shadow cast by the Shalom Meir Tower, while the slats completely cover the southeastern facade that serves as the lobby.

The lobby itself is not air-conditioned; there are doors that help provide temperature and acoustic isolation only on the lower floor, and between that floor and the office corridors.

Originally, Goshen says, he had wanted the entire facade to serve as a kind of screen for projecting stock data in real time, but that idea was shelved for financial reasons. The cost of the entire building is 300 million shekels – and seven years ago, the cost of such a lighting system was 50 million shekels.

The employees entered the building in late June, and the computers were connected starting a month ago.

The interior spaces and conference halls, designed by Orit Willenberg Giladi and Keren Jedwab of OKA Architects, combine traditional materials such as wood with technology in the form of lit signs at the entrance to rooms and floating tiles that provide access to the communications systems. The future museum, which is intended mainly for children and teenagers, will have a “futuristic” appearance in the form of work stations and walls with curved surfaces.

More than half the workers in the stock exchange building will not be working in the offices, but rather in the four underground floors (of the total of seven floors that were built), which are adjacent to the Shalom Meir Tower parking area and are also used for logistics, transformers and heavy machinery, and computerization.

The stock exchange’s computerization is under the supervision of the Shin Bet security service’s Information Technology Department, and besides the system that is already operating in the new building, the computers are located in a bunker (which contains an additional bunker with backup computers), alongside workrooms to be used in emergencies.

“We can’t allow a system crash that would last even a fraction of a second, because savings amounting to billions could be wiped out,” Goshen says.

The construction of a building that would solve the technical problems is a secondary challenge as compared with the need to project a strong image. “The stock exchange needs to show stability, the idea that it has always been here, that you are putting your money in a safe. It’s an experienced, transparent and fair institution, and it’s in control. It’s not a casino,” Goshen says.

But despite the stated desire to create an icon, the building does not have the “wow effect.” “It’s not a matter of good-looking or ugly or big or small,” says Goshen. “It has to be appropriate above all.”