A Labor of Love or a Grave Mistake?

The new wing of TAU's school of architecture, designed by benefactor David Azrieli, has unleashed a firestorm.

On Sunday the cornerstone was laid at Tel Aviv University for a new wing of the school of architecture named for David Azrieli, an Israeli-Canadian businessman and a local shopping mall magnate who has been supporting the institution generously ever since its inception. Present at the ceremony were his daughter Danna Azrieli, vice president of the Azrieli group, senior university administrators, lecturers, teachers and students who all crowded onto a small strip of parking lot in order to view for the first time what is supposed to become the school's growth engine in the coming years. Prof. Hannah Naveh, dean of the Faculty of Arts, spoke about Azrieli's contribution to the school and heaped praise on the design of the new wing - which is signed by David Azrieli himself. "After David Azrieli considered awarding the project to a local architect he decided to give it his personal attention and his inner artist developed and grew," she related with her characteristic enthusiasm.

azrieli - Courtesy - May 18 2011

However, behind Prof. Naveh's complimentary words there is a fierce storm raging over the construction of the new wing. Teachers at the school, nearly all of them outstanding figures in the professional and academic world, are strongly opposed to the planning and believe that building the new wing is a grave mistake.

"Azrieli's design does not relate to the existing building or to the campus environment but rather mostly to himself," says a senior teacher in the department who, like the rest of the speakers in the report, asked to remain anonymous. "We had no alternative but to agree to this plan because you don't look a gift horse in the mouth," said another teacher. "This transmits a terrible message to the students. A wealthy individual can give the money, do the planning, carry it out and also have the building named after him. It would have been appropriate to have held a competition among architects for such an important building of this sort."

The construction of the new wing, which will be erected on top of the existing building, has been bruited almost since the day the school was established about 15 years ago. In return for naming the school after him, Azrieli undertook to support it by means of a generous annual donation of $300,000 and by paying for a new building if and when the school opens a Master's degree program. During its early days the school operated out of Kiryat Atidim in north Tel Aviv until moving into its current location in the De Botton Building, formerly the main campus cafeteria. With limited means the founding teachers managed to transform the kitchens and dining areas into classrooms and even succeeded in creating a number of pleasant spaces in the building.

The most recent heads of the school, Prof. Moshe Margalit, Prof. Hillel Schocken, architect Yitzhak Laiwand and now Dr. Eran Neuman, each tried in turn to advance building of a new wing in order to address the severe shortage of space for teachers and students. Prof. Margalit in his day even signed on a handsome sketch for a new wing that would float above the existing building. For its part, the university sent a special emissary to London to ask the donors of the original building, for permission to change its name solely to that of David Azrieli in order to prepare the ground for the desired donation.

After a number of failed initiatives, about a year ago the idea of building a wing came up again after the school received authorization to open a Master's program. Azrieli summoned a number of senior lecturers to his office on the 48th floor of the round building at the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv and ceremoniously informed them he would be planning the building. He showed them a preliminary model and declared he intended to hasten the planning with the help of the firm of Moshe Tzur Architects & Town Planners.

'Who could say no?'

"At that time no one imagined saying no even though we all came back in shock from what he had shown us," recalls one of the faculty members who was present at the meeting. The school set up a team to accompany the project, consisting of Prof. Hillel Schocken, architect Shem-Tov Tzrouya, school head Dr. Eran Neuman and Ofer Lugasi, vice president of the Engineering and Maintenance Division at the university. The team met with Azrieli several times in order to follow the planning. A source close to the team says: "Questions were asked there concerning the strange location of the stairs and the restrooms and why it was necessary to go up four floors when one would have sufficed for the building. Azrieli said to them: 'This is the proposal and there is no other.'"

The plan for the new building was finally shown to the architecture school faculty members about three months ago at what became an especially stormy meeting. Among the teachers there was agreement that the plan is problematic, "amateurish in everyone's opinion, and suitable, maybe, for a second-year student," as one faculty member defined it. "The faculty split into three groups," recalls another teacher at the school. "There were those who were absolutely against the building; there were those who thought we had no alternative but to accept the proposal because you can't say no to Azrieli; and there were those who supported the building, despite its planning, because it would contribute to improved conditions."

At the meeting there was also a discussion about the exclusion of teachers and students in the planning process.

"There is a real dilemma here," adds another of the faculty members. "Azrieli gives a huge sum of money to the school every year and manages to keep our heads above water. On the other hand, this is sending a terrible message to the students. On second thought, maybe it is giving them a devastating lesson on the bleak professional life awaiting them after their studies," he says ironically.

In the end, the teachers voted with heavy hearts in favor of the new wing. "We were delicately given to understand that an order had come from the university saying we had to go along with this and also to say it is a beautiful building," he adds. "This is a distorted message like (Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt's play ) 'The Visit of the Old Lady.' There is no professional integrity but only the person with the money."

It is hard to overstate the contribution Azrieli, 89, has made to Israeli architecture. Apart from the generous donation for the establishment of the school, he established the Azrieli Foundation, which awards scholarships to outstanding students and supports research and education. In addition, he donates to various exhibitions and projects in the field of architecture throughout the year at various institutions. Recently he was instrumental in establishing a national architecture archive at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Azrieli studied architecture at the Technion in the mid-1940s until he was forced to stop his studies with the eruption of the War of Independence. After emigrating to Canada, he completed his studies. He has planner's credit of the Azrieli Center project in Tel Aviv (in collaboration with the firm of Moore Yasky Sivan ). He is also expected to get planner's credit for the new Azrieli Center in the Holon Industrial Zone (in collaboration with Mann Shinar Architects ).

The new wing he has planned for the school of architecture includes an auditorium, a new library and studio classrooms for fifth year students. It consists of an addition of three different cubes with a total floor space of 1,500 square meters, positioned above the central part of the existing building. Each cube has a different facade in accordance with its use - two cubes covered in glass and the middle cube in an envelope with random square openings.

Architect Moshe Tzur, who has given "architectural support" for the project, relates that Azrieli was totally involved in it. "He was present at all the meetings of the consultants and was up to date on all the smallest and largest details," says Tzur. "This is a building that is completely his, he has done it with great love and he has invested all his soul." Tzur says the inspiration for the building came from the New Museum of Contemporary Art building in New York designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the SANAA studio, which also works on the principle of superposed boxes.

The new wing poses a number of fundamental problems. First of all, it is alien to its surroundings and to the building over which it leans. The decision to build a tower of blocks signifies a desire to create a local architectural icon on a campus that radiates overall modesty and restraint.

Another problem concerns the internal arrangement of the building. Azrieli has decided to position the main staircase within the lobby space that today serves students and teachers as an informal meeting place and venue for various activities. The new wing also blocks part of the open-air patio, which over the years has become the center of social life at the school. "The new wing does not relate to the form and potential of the existing building," says a senior teacher at the school. "It does not make any respectable perpendicular cross-section and it simply shouts about itself outwardly."

Finally, the new plan embodies a lack of collegiality toward the original architect of the De Botton Building, Nachum Zolotov, who has much to his credit in Israeli architecture. In his day Zolotov planned a very simple yet very handsome building that reflects the values of Modernism and is entirely appropriate to the campus - precisely the opposite of Azrieli's design.

The most disappointing part of the story is that the school faculty are not prepared to speak out openly. Some of them fear for their jobs, some fear damage to possible future projects with the Azrieli Group and others believe that if Azrieli is insulted he will walk away with his money and stop supporting the school. Despite the tight timetable - the building is supposed to be completed within two years - the teachers at the school still have an opportunity to voice their opposition to the new wing and perhaps even initiate a local or international competition for the design of a more appropriate building.

"There is a way to stop the construction of this wing," says one of the senior faculty members of the school. "It is possible to tell David Azrieli very politely that we are not interested in his donation and thank you very much. On the other hand the university is not interested in that and the school needs this place like air to breathe. However, who says an elaborate building is necessary to do good architecture? What is important is to improve the quality of the studies in the current circumstances."

Tel Aviv University responds: "Architect David Azrieli has contributed and is contributing of his time, energy, experience and wealth to the architecture school named after him. David Azrieli's contribution to the school has enabled its development and advancement both in realizing the academic vision and in giving physical solutions to the school's teaching and research needs. David Azrieli has not conditioned in any way or at any stage the giving of a donation to the building of the school on doing the planning of the building himself. In the history of the university there have been donors who took upon themselves direct responsibility for the planning and execution of a building, as in the case of the Cimbalista building. The university administration thanks David Azrieli for his enlistment on behalf of the architecture school."

The Azrieli Group responds: "The architect and philanthropist David Azrieli chose to assist the Tel Aviv University's school of architecture out of a true desire to give future architects the best conditions so they can reach their full potential in order to advance architecture in Israel. The planning was submitted by Azrieli and the architect Moshe Tzur, at the request of Tel Aviv University, and the claim that there is a link between accepting the plan and the donation is completely baseless. The university was a full partner to the process, supported and approved it."

Moti Cohen, director general of Tel Aviv University, said that the university asked Azrieli to assume the planning costs since the budget earmarked for the new building, a total of $2 million, was very insubstantial. "Azrieli decided to take the planning on himself and indeed, in a meeting with the heads of the university and teachers from the school, he presented a model that was the result of his planning," says Cohen.

According to Cohen, in an optimal situation and with a bigger budget, the university would have preferred to build a completely new building for the school, but he believes that the wing planned by Azrieli is a good response to the functional needs of the institution. Cohen also rejected claims that Azrieli had refused to accept criticism of the building, and said he himself was aware of changes that were made in the planning at the request of the team overseeing the project.

azrieli - Daniel Tchetchik - May 18 2011
Daniel Tchetchik