A Face-lift for the Israel Museum

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has for the first time published details of its plan to renovate and transform the museum compound. This is the most extensive and far-reaching renovation plan since the museum was inaugurated in 1965, and it is expected to cost some $50 million.

Now that the museum has raised the funds for carrying out the plan, it has decided to release the details. Some $43 million was raised from private donors and family foundations in Israel and abroad. The Israeli government will add $7 million to this sum.

James Snyder, the museum's director, describes the donations as "an important example of unprecedented collective philanthropy in Israel." The list of donors who have made pledges is long, and the sums promised range from $10 million to $500,000 per donor. The museum will grant them "joint recognition for their support for the project." Their names will appear on a plaque in the entrance, Snyder says, but the name of the museum will not be changed to include any of the philanthropists.

The renovation plan is being drafted by architects Zvi Efrat and Meira Kowalsky and the sculptor-architect James Carpenter of New York. The Asaf Lerman architechtural firm from Tel Aviv is responsible for the plan's implementation. The project is designed to solve problems that the museum has encountered for a long time: These include, in particular, access to the museum, maneuvering through the various wings and the organization of exhibits.

The plan envisages adding 20,000 square meters to the museum's current 50,000 square meters. The additions will to a large extent be made inside the existing structure through the reorganization and utilization of "dead" areas, and some of the new construction will be underground.

Only one-third of the addition will be from the construction of new structures. This will in general follow the guidelines laid down by the museum's original planners, Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, in the 1960s, without making changes to the institution's distinctive master plan.

Efrat, who was responsible for the concept behind the project, says that it is based on "a proposal for a system of architectural work that relates to what already exists and tries to utilize it to the maximum extent. There is no need to fill the area with new architecture and recreate the wheel. The intention is to provide a new interpretation for Israeli architecture, which is presented here at its best."

As part of the plan, a new center was proposed for the museum - which was originally designed based on the principle of organic, centerless growth. From this center, visitors will move to various wings, thus strengthening the entrance to the compound. A new, covered, flat entrance path will be built below the existing one, and will be one-third shorter. On the other hand, those who like to walk will still be able to enter via the old path, once it is rebuilt and the new entrance is completed.

The path will link the new entrance compound at the front of the museum with the new entrance hall to be constructed at the center of the campus in place of the current cafeteria. The museum parking lot, at the foot of the Shrine of the Book, will remain above ground. (Snyder: "I find that it's not pleasant to enter the museum from underground, and there is no need for this.") It will, however, be significantly expanded. The parking lot will be converted to accommodate split-level parking, and landscaping will be added.

The plan holds good news for the museum's friends: It intends - and this time the intention sounds serious - to do away with the "temporary" reception tent that has been used to host events for the past 20 years in Crown Square. For the first time in many years, visitors will see the original facade of the museum. Snyder says that one of the major tasks was "to retain and respect the image of the existing museum, which is one of the most significant and important declarations of modern architecture."

The tent used for receptions will be replaced by the Weisbord Pavillion, now used for temporary exhibitions. It will be transformed into a reception hall and information center with a balcony overlooking the city. A new hall for temporary exhibitions will be constructed or, more literally, will be carved out of the dead area below Crown Plaza. By moving the exhibition hall, the museum hopes to attract visitors who want to attend only the temporary exhibitions. As part of the project, the existing halls and pavilions will also be renovated.

Arab village

The museum complex is one of the most important modern architectural creations in Israel, winning its creators the Israel Prize for Architecture. It was planned on the principle of organic growth in the spirit of structuralist and cybernetic linguistic theories, which penetrated the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. It is considered internationally a unique architectural experiment.

Since the inception of the museum in 1965, its area has grown tenfold, keeping pace with the donations and collections it received, but consistently maintaining its original format. The expansion on the campus - whose creators compared it with an Arab village, with all the problematics and complexity implied by such a loaded simile - has not affected the appearance of the museum. On the contrary, it has proven the success of the system.

Nevertheless, while the familiar silhouette of the campus on the hills of Neveh Sha'anan has merely become more spectacular with every addition, behind it a chaotic maze has been created, which has made it difficult to operate on a daily basis. The museum received an unprecedented contribution of $50 million for renovation and expansion about a decade ago, but the plan, by American architect James Freed, aroused sharp criticism and was buried.

The criticism focused mainly on the plan's nature, which was not in keeping with the museum's style, but also on the high cost. The price was particularly galling in view of the fact that the money was supposed to be invested in an enlarged, grotesque entrance hall, meant mainly to enhance the name of the donor, instead of answering the needs of the museum. When the plan was rejected (in part also because of the second intifada, which broke out in 2000) the philanthropist withdrew the offer.

Starting anew

The museum has taken the proper decision to start anew and change direction. The estimated cost of the present project has indeed not changed, but it is not merely aimed at dealing with a specific item but rather with the entire campus. The present team of planners was chosen by the museum and, Snyder says, its members were chosen "in accordance with the challenges facing the museum." Most of these challenges are rather thankless ones, and dealing with them is much more complex than planning another new wing. The Efrat-Kowalsky firm specializes in the history of modernist architectural tradition in Israel, Snyder adds, and has experience in planning and designing museum spaces. In addition to developing the concept, the firm will be responsible for renovating the existing compound.

The firm of James Carpenter Design Associates was added to the team after the basic planning had been completed, and it was put in charge of new construction "out of the desire to develop a language of design," Snyder says. Carpenter is best known as a sculptor who specializes in integrating glass with architecture. He was recently a partner in designing entrance halls in prestigious projects around the world.

It took about three years to develop the concept underlying the project. Most of this involved mapping and examining the existing structures, "an essential task that surprisingly had never been done before," Meira Kowalsky says. The mapping revealed the critical areas in the compound and, on the other hand, their untapped potential. The underlying principle was "planning from inside out." The newly-revealed areas added about 500 meters to every wing without additional construction.

Together with the mathematician Ido Zalman, Efrat-Kowalsky also developed a software program that translated Mansfeld's "random" growth program into mathematical terms. They say that further work on the software will make it possible to lay down guidelines for future rational development of the campus.

Giving priority to a system of planning rather than straightforward architecture is a promising start for the future of the museum, both in terms of its functioning and its image. It is to be hoped that this priority will be maintained even in advanced stages of the planning and that the loose ends will eventually be properly tied up.

Another challenge is creating a fitting contemporary parallel to the demanding tradition that Mansfeld and Gad left behind. This holds true both in planning the new construction - which so far has not attained its goal, if one judges by the simulations sent by Carpenter Design Associates - and in renovating the existing campus. It would be proper for the museum, which did not hold an architectural competition to receive draft plans (for more or for less convincing reasons) to submit the project to the public and hold an open discussion before the final stage of planning.