Clock Is Ticking on Architectural Symbol of '50s Israel

It is yet unclear what the future holds for the headquarters of Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, home to Israel's largest clock.

These days Mifal Hapayis, Israel's national lottery, is holding a closed architectural contest to plan the organization's new headquarters on the outskirts of Ramle, some 20 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv. Some of the most prominent architectural firms in the country were invited to participate in the contest and provided with a very exacting list of Mifal Hapayis' specifications: from the building's number of rooms, though the size of the hall where the drawings take place, to the image the structure should project on the outside. Even though this is not an elegant public structure, such as a museum or theater, the participants are taking a keen interest in the contest: Mifal Hapayis controls budgets in the billions directed to local governments, including of course hefty design budgets.

The contest is progressing rapidly, but in the meantime it's unclear what will happen to the current Mifal Hapayis building on Heftman Street in Tel Aviv, near Kaplan Street and the Defense Ministry headquarters (the Kirya ). An office building of the Modernist school, it has managed to maintain an elegant look and excellent functioning for its 50 years of existence. The huge clock on its roof has been a signpost for the hundreds of thousands of people making their way into the city every day, and many Tel Aviv residents remember the time when the building housed the Cinematheque.

The plans to build new headquarters calls the current building's future into question, as do the city zoning plans being promoted by the Tel Aviv Municipality for the rectangle of prime real estate bounded by Kaplan, Laskov, Heftman and Leonardo da Vinci streets. The plans call for some of the buildings to be demolished, including the iconic Bnai Brith House and Beit Harofeh, while other buildings - including the Mifal Hapayis structure - are likely to have large expansions added on. To date, however, there has not been any sort of in-depth examination of the architectural values of this site, which could conceivably justify preservation or documentation.

An elegant building

Mifal Hapayis was established in the early 1950s by Tel Aviv Mayor Israel Rokach, who wanted to raise money for health institutions using a municipal lottery. By the time the first drawing was held in October 1951 (in Tel Aviv's Ohel Shem Theater, broadcast live over the radio by Kol Israel ), other municipalities had already joined the enterprise, demanding that profits also be used for educational and cultural needs. Cooperation among municipalities expanded, and in the mid-1950s the decision was made to erect an office building in the heart of Tel Aviv to house the enterprise and its activities, and also to serve as a home for local governments. The project was given to the Rapoport-Gleiberman-Frankel firm of architects, and the building was completed in 1960.

The Mifal Hapayis and Local Government Center Building, to use its full name, stands six stories and extends almost the entire length of Heftman Street, minus a small lot on the west side of the street where Beit Harofeh is currently located. It was erected in the downtown of establishment Tel Aviv, near other official buildings such as Sokolov Journalist's House, the Agriculture House, the Jewish Agency Building, the Bnai Brith Building, and later on also the Kibbutz Artzi Building and Yakhin House.

The building shows some patterns typical of establishment structures of the Israeli Modernist school: a large mass communicating power, a front composed of serial windows reflecting equality of the interior spaces, sun breakers in an attempt to deal with the local climate, and a double-height ground level expressing the public nature of the building. Similar to Tel Aviv's Va'ad Hapoel Building (designed by Dov Carmi and Associates in 1953 ), the offices in the Mifal Hapayis Building are arranged down long corridors, reflecting efficiency and practicality. The influence of the Histadrut labor federation on the building may also be attributed to Solel Boneh, the company that carried out the construction, which was the Histadrut's construction branch.

The crowing glory of the Mifal Hapayis Building was the enormous clock placed on a ten-story-tall tower on the building's east side. With its five-meter diameter, it remains the largest clock in Israel, and is only two meters short of the diameter of London's Big Ben. "It turns on its axis; at night it will be possible to see the time and also Mifal Hapayis ads - a sophisticated innovation," wrote Haaretz reporter Natan Dunevich when the building opened. "The clock will be visible from many parts of the city, but there will also be 'dead' streets where tall buildings on other streets will hide the clock from viewers." The height of the numerals on the clock, an impressed Dunevich reported, is half a meter and the arms are two and a half meters long.

Not only the clock but also the public spaces received much attention. The firm of Rapoport-Gleiberman-Frankel designed an elegant lobby with a mosaic floor, incorporating the symbols of municipalities and local governments throughout Israel, and rice-paper light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. "It was one of the most elegant buildings in Israel," says Oved Hazan, the director of the Winnings and Drawings Division and a Mifal Hapayis old timer.

In the more modest and sensitive period back then, the large investment in the building - 800,000 liras - became a topic for public debate. "I do like new buildings, but I am equally aghast at the extent to which this could affect residents of outlying rural areas and development towns," said Haim Moshe Shapira, then the Interior Minister, at the inauguration ceremony.

Magnet for culture

An auditorium constructed at the entrance level hosted the weekly drawings, which attracted many spectators. Other activities were held there the rest of the week. It was home to the Shmuel Atzmon Theater and the site of chamber concerts by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. These types of events continued into the 1970s and 1980s, when the Tel Aviv Cinematheque moved in. Cinematheque director Alon Garbuz remembers that at the beginning, it was agreed that the Cinematheque would stay for a year, but it ended up remaining for 15.

The Cinematheque turned the balcony into a screening room. At times, the screening would be interrupted by Mifal Hapayis lottery drawings. "There was an amusing juxtaposition between the moviegoers, who'd clap for every number drawn, and the gamblers who came to the drawings very tense," Garbuz recalls. Does he think the building should be preserved? "Maybe a sign ought to be posted there saying 'The Cinematheque operated here.' But what's obvious is that if it does get torn down, it'll be replaced by something uglier."

Even though Mifal Hapayis takes great care to preserve the building's facade, the interior spaces have been radically changed. As part of an extensive renovation of the lobby, the mosaic floor was destroyed and the central lottery drawing room demolished. It was the crowding in the building that made the Mifal Hapayis administrators look around for a new home. Although the architectural firms are in the final stage of the contest, Mifal Hapayis says, "All possibilities are still open, including an expansion of our current home." Oved Hazan adds: "The building needs to stay where it is, in Tel Aviv. All winners come here and it's important that there's good transportation access."

The question is: Do Mifal Hapayis' plans line up with the city's new zoning plans for the location, which entail razing the Bnai Brith Building and constructing a 40-story skyscraper instead, and doing major expansions on the rest of the buildings? The municipality claims that the plans "have not yet been discussed in the local committee, and land use at this location has not yet been decided with finality. In any case, there is no plan to raze the Mifal Hapayis Building. At this time, no date has been set for discussing the plans."

Nevertheless, it is necessary to make sure that all future planning will consider the unique qualities of the buildings in this quadrangle, buildings that marked an important chapter in Israeli architecture of the 1950s and 1960s.