Why Ron Arad's Design Museum Failed to Help the Israeli City of Holon

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Holon Design Museum.
Holon Design Museum.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

When the Design Museum in Holon opened in 2010, many hoped for a new “Bilbao effect,” the idea that attracting a world-class cultural institution – like the branch of the Guggenheim Museum designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry did for Bilbao, Spain – could turn a dusty, failing industrial city into a tourist Mecca and an architectural and economic Cinderella.

The museum, which was designed by world renowned Israeli-British designer, architect and artist Ron Arad was meant to amaze people with its design – it’s a building that invites nicknames from other realms – but it never became a pilgrimage site. In fact, it has fewer visitors than other urban museums in Israel. The international publicity it got when it opened seven years ago proved to be short-lived and almost vanished after the initial buzz.

Part of Holon's Design Museum.Credit: Hedva Sanderovitz

The city of Holon, for its part, hasn’t changed because of the opening of the museum; the city is what it always was. Even after the rusty red, highly publicized toy was positioned there, it retained its image as a bedroom suburb of Tel Aviv, a default option for comfortable living without too much sex appeal. That’s been largely a good thing for the city and its residents, who weren’t swept up against their will into the pressure that comes with being labeled an international city.

The city's municipal leadership hoped that the museum would be, as they put it, “the cultural and artistic heart” of the city and would turn it into “an international example” have been dashed. It would have been better had they never harbored those hopes in the first place.

The Bilbao effect

The Bilbao museum was indeed an attraction and enormous success, and the rest is history. Many cities around the world were impressed by the magic, and summoned renowned architects to design their own “Guggenheims,” allocating substantial funds or raising money for construction and waiting for the miracle to happen.

Holon Design Museum architect Ron Arad.Credit: ALBERTO PELLASCHIAR / ASSOCIATED

Whether or not this was its intention, the Holon municipality got on this bandwagon too, only to discover, as did many other cities, that Bilbaos don’t happen every day. Too often, too late, it emerges that it isn’t enough for one building to scream “Look at me!” to turn an ordinary city into an international attraction.

The truth is that the Basque capital was a proper city even without its Guggenheim. Its historical and architectural legacy was grand even without the creations of contemporary star architects, of whom Gehry is only one – not to mention its political burden that’s almost Jerusalem-like in its volatility.

Holon, on the other hand, is a new city with a relatively short history, with almost no baggage and clear suburban tendencies. There is some urban action in Holon’s downtown area; it’s a legitimate city center, albeit faded and crumbling due to chronic neglect. Even so, it has multi-use streets, squares, not isolated enclaves, and commercial centers that aren’t malls – and with some effort and good will the downtown area could have absorbed a design museum that would have made a difference.

But for reasons known only to themselves, the city municipal leaders turned their backs on the existing central city – perhaps its folksiness didn’t appeal to them – and exiled the Design Museum, the highlight of the city’s cultural enterprise to an outer borough. The architectural toy thus found itself stuck in a one-dimensional neighborhood of residential high-rises alongside roads that are too wide, sharing a bald “compound” with the Mediatheque, an older city landmark.

Holon Design Museum.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Despite the abundance of activities on offer, there isn’t even a hint of urban life in the compound. No galleries, cafes or kiosks sprung up around it, or any street art, because there’s no actual street. There are no passersby who will pass through randomly other than in their cars, en route to the nearby mall.

The wrong location

In the downtown area, even one in the heart of Holon that’s in desperate need of renewal, the museum could have made a difference. In its current location, even if it screamed to the heavens for people to look at it – and by its own admission it isn’t yelling hard enough – no one would hear it.

The old formula of location, location and location is surely contributing to its stagnation – perhaps even more than its inherent limitations, like the lack of museum collections, its limited dimensions or exhibitions aimed at a too narrow segment of the population. The museum could probably deal with all those issues. But in order not to degenerate, it needs a proper urban setting, which doesn’t seem to be in sight.

Urbanity is a valuable commodity that’s created layer upon layer over the years. The recipe for success can’t be found in any book; it emerges only in retrospect.

Today’s global trend is to return to the central cities that have deteriorated because of the exodus to suburbia and malls, and to rehabilitate those urban components that have already proven themselves.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.Credit: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

News of this trend apparently hasn’t reached Holon, which is insisting on establishing a new center in the suburban complex of the museum and the Mediatheque. It’s not too risky to predict that the city will come out losing on both sides. The existing downtown area will continue to decline and the new center won’t take off. Such things have already happened.

Holon is a city that never sleeps; it never stops trying to revive itself and never stops its efforts to enter the big leagues, instead of just being itself, a proper, mid-sized city with a heart. It branded itself as the “children’s city” and then the “design city.” It is developing “story gardens” or something like that and there are countless sculptural attractions, of which the Design Museum is indisputably one. But as was already written here in a similar vein when the museum opened, all these may make a name for the city, but it doesn’t make a city.

Back to Bilbao, where the Bilbao effect hasn’t been a bed of roses even for the city for which it’s named. Two years ago Bilbao hosted a pan-European cultural conference that examined the implications of the effect over time. The Guardian’s correspondent, Chris Michael, reported in his paper that he was surprised to discover a city that was “strangely quiet,” with relatively empty streets, and a sterile museum complex with no graffiti in sight. It turns out that the Guggenheim boosted the city’s economy but the prosperity did not trickle downward.

Life in Bilbao got more expensive since the museum opened in 1997, but unemployment has remained as high as ever, particularly among young people. Local culture activists complained to Michael that the city doesn’t really support culture, only showcase projects. Does the Guggenheim actually encourage creativity in the city, or is it just a Disneylandish castle on the hill, asks Michael. Does the Bilbao effect spread culture, or just spread money?

Put another way, would the Design Museum, even if wildly successful, have any effect on the Holon’s distressed Jesse Cohen neighborhood? That’s food for thought.

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