The 'Starchitect' on Tel Aviv's Skyline

Richard Meier is the last of the New York Five architects to keep working in minimalist white. Now that theme will be towering over Tel Aviv - the American's luxury high-rise is almost finished.

A few months remain until the completion of the high-rise residential tower designed by star American-Jewish architect Richard Meier at the corner of Allenby and Rothschild streets in Tel Aviv. The developers expect it to be finished early next year and sales are in full force.

The skeleton is now complete after four years of work, and a model apartment has been opened on the ninth floor – one of 42 floors. If you're moneyed enough to buy, just take a ride up the creaky workers' elevator. The Meier-on-Rothschild project made headlines two years ago when the developer, Berggruen Residential, priced the most expensive apartment (1,500 square meters) at about NIS 170 million, a record at the time.

"It's a lifelong dream," Meier said in an email interview. "The Meier-on-Rothschild tower is my first architectural design in the Middle East. I am also happy that it is in Tel Aviv, a city I know very well, and one that combines classic Levantine, European, Ottoman and Bauhaus architecture. Israel has always been close to my heart …. The idea for designing this tower came immediately; it took some time for it to evolve into what it looks like now."

When he was approached by American-Jewish billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, the main investor in the company, and CEO Yigal Zemah, Meier saw a rare opportunity, says Zemah. As is common in collaborations like this, a local architectural firm is managing the project.

"They brought a mega-architect here because of his name; all I'm doing is providing him with services," says architect Moti Kasif of Bareli, Levitsky, Kasif. "Normally I would have been pretty insulted, but when they told me it was Richard Meier, someone I grew up on, I said I'd do my utmost to work with him."

Pure modernism

Meier, who was born in 1934, started his firm 50 years ago when he designed villas influenced by the pure modernism of the 1920s and '30s. In the early '70s he joined the New York Five group of architects and other high-profile colleagues who reveled in minimalist white. A good example is Meier's Douglas House in Harbor Springs, Michigan – white lines, spaces and glass walls that hover above the forest near the lake. In the same spirit, he designed Smith House in Connecticut. 

Of the New York Five he's the only one who stuck with white over the decades. The design that guided his early works has developed into an abstract philosophy about the nature of white, light and space. White remains the theme at other buildings he's completing, like the City Green Court office building in Prague and W Hotel buildings in Mexico.

"We've put in everything possible here – a spa, a kiddie pool, a half-Olympic-size pool," says Miki Zerahia, the project engineer. "There's a hamam [a Turkish bath], saunas, a fitness room, a jacuzzi, a wine cellar, a huge lounge and concierge services 24 hours a day."

Zerahia adds that the lobby will feature art exhibitions to be changed every three months – a growing trend at luxury residences. The penthouse will feature a swimming pool with a glass floor that ascends so you can walk and keep your head above water. And there are suites with an interior elevator and a room for the help.

"And anyone who isn't afraid of the biometric database that Israel is planning will be happy to learn that the elevators will open using biometric IDs," Zerahia says. All this will serve 141 apartments, with most of the buyers wealthy Jews from the United States, Britain, France, South Africa and Canada.

"The principles that guide the work in our office are rooted in timeless, classical design issues such as context, site, order and the use of natural light," Meier says. "We are always interested and fascinated by the natural light of every place and how it then translates into light and open buildings. However, we are also interested in integrating other, more regional materials into our projects to reflect the context and local construction traditions."

Ongoing optimism

When asked which local materials will be used, Meier focuses on the weather. "Tel Aviv has a desert climate, even though it is close to the ocean, and can be very hot …. The louvers shade the balconies and shield against the intense sunlight." Meier also describes the glazing that optimizes natural light and blocks out noise.

And what will the tower give back to Tel Aviv? "For me, it symbolizes the forward, positive attitude of the Israelis," Meier says. "With all of their past turmoil, they look ahead. Tel Aviv is a thriving city; it is also a city where many important architectural landmarks abide. I think Meier-on-Rothschild symbolizes an ongoing optimism, as regards Tel Aviv’s future in particular and Israel’s in general."

This Diaspora optimism is nice for foreign buyers, if not for other people who live in the area who despise luxury high-rises. There's a reason the project is called Meier -on-Rothschild rather than Meier-on-Allenby, a gray, gritty avenue that links high-end Rothschild Boulevard with the poor south of the city. When Meier is asked about the project's encounter with the Allenby-Rothschild corner, his only answer is "no comment."

On the south side of the tenants' lounge floor stands the façade of an ugly office building, a shabby antithesis of Old Tel Aviv opposite the blinding American glitter. "You won't see this building," Kasif notes. "Three meters from it there will be a wall of the same height that will hide it." For Meier, it's all part of being an artist.

"I am deeply concerned with the making of a building and prefer to think of myself more as a master builder than as an artist, for the art of architecture ultimately demands this …. Mine is an attempt … to extract from our culture both the timeless and the topical," says Meier, adding another architectural cliché that seems to be true of each of his projects in a foreign country. As for Tel Aviv, the architectural contribution is still in doubt.
 

Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart
Bloomberg