A row of huge buildings lines the entrance road to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in the Negev - imposing metal skeletons hung with pipes, cauldrons, and chimneys that serve the prospering local chemical industries. For architect Ada Karmi-Melamede, winner of the Israel Prize in architecture, these buildings seem like giant, expressive dinosaurs: "It's better than any work by Frank Gehry, and with desert all around it looks like a moonscape. You can't help but be impressed by them."
In recent years she herself has been adding dinosaurs to the group, thanks to her position as head planner of the Teva Tech plant (for the Israeli pharmaceutical company, Teva ). The plant was founded in 1995 and was originally intended for the waste processing of the company's chemical division and for solvent recycling. Two years later, its function was changed and it now serves as a center for the manufacture of the active ingredients used to produce the pharmaceuticals marketed by Teva and other companies worldwide.
Karmi-Melamede began working on the 100-acre plant in 2001 and has since planned five buildings on the site: the Copaxone drug plant (an original drug used to treat multiple sclerosis ); a chemical facility; a pipework bridge; a cloakroom building for workers; and a visitors' center, inaugurated four months ago, which has already won the "Ot Haitzuv" design award in the category of public buildings (shared with the Israel Museum's renovation project ).
"The decision to locate our international visitors' center at Ramat Hovav expresses our vision regarding the development of the Negev," explains Merav Avigdor, director of the Israeli generic products line at Teva. "It is a place that will host students, soldiers from the Negev training base complex, and groups from Israel and abroad who will see up close how pharmaceutical products are developed using advanced technologies."
The visitors' center is located on Teva Tech's southern side and is expected to host some 50,000 visitors a year. Alongside its role as the company's public face, it also functions as the main entrance hall to the plant - through which some 900 workers pass daily. For this reason, Karmi-Melamede was required to create a building with two completely different functions, planning neutral contact zones that allow for a superficial encounter between the different populations while keeping them functionally separate and preventing friction.
She chose to create a building with two arch-shaped wings that flow into a common entrance hall and open onto a green, shady garden. The eastern wing contains the visitors' center, the auditorium, and conference rooms; the western wing contains the cafeteria (used by both employees and visitors ) and the dining hall that is built above ground level and overlooks the garden.
Karmi-Melamede's architectural framework for the building is typical of her work and includes interesting use of natural light, both through skylights and through unusual apertures created at the points of separation. The sensitive treatment of light gives the building a sense of ease and elegance, both inside and out, and manages to filter the rays of the glaring desert sun, creating a pleasantly sunny atmosphere. This is especially true of the dining hall, where natural light penetrates through a large panoramic window and a skylight, alongside sophisticated artificial lighting.
A fundamental part of Karmi-Melamede's role as head planner of Teva Tech was the creation of a uniform design language for all of the buildings, that would provide each of them with an independent identity while preserving the sense of a group. She chose three basic finishing materials - terra-cotta bricks, exposed concrete and aluminum - with which she wrapped the facades of the visitors' center and the other buildings she planned. "Because the surrounding sand is endless, I hesitated regarding the coating materials to be used on the buildings. I thought that strong coloration was necessary against this yellow background," she explains.
The red bricks do indeed stand out against the surrounding background, creating the sense of an honest, European, prettified working environment that is perhaps even a bit foreign to the industrial feel of the place and to the desert in general. Incidentally, the material palette obligates all the other architects who are working or will work on the plant's grounds, recalling Karmi-Melamede's decision to insist on building in exposed concrete as part of her role as head planner of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva between 1994 and 2004. "It is a robe that unites everyone," as she puts it.
Karmi-Melamede's predilection for long perspectives, such as those that can be seen at the visitors' center she planned at the Ramat Hanadiv park in Zichron Yaakov, is prominent at the Ramat Hovav site as well. From the moment one enters the building, a green space can be seen stretching to the horizon and continuing the entrance corridor in a northern direction. The green promenade (planned in cooperation with landscape architect Eitan Eden ) is a central element in the site's general plan. The promenade cuts through the plant from north to south, separating production areas from the research area. It contains local vegetation and small lawns. Along its entire length runs a stream of recycled water, and above it stretches a pipework bridge that calls to mind the site's industrial essence.
This "linear oasis," as Karmi-Melamede calls it, is an integral part of the plant's community life. It serves all of the employees on their way to and from the production lines and, despite its modest dimensions, its effect is immense: Most of the existing buildings face it in one way or another, the dining hall overlooks its southern part, and the plant's management holds various events in it throughout the year.
"I thought, what does someone working at Ramat Hovav lack? Water, vegetation and shade," says Karmi-Melamede, adding, "The moment you've done that, you've refreshed the place. When I began preparing the general plan for the site, I wasn't sure how to divide 100 acres so as to create a unified work environment. The green promenade provides the plant with a representative, communal axis; it is a place that everyone passes through." In the future, the promenade will be elongated northward in accordance with the expansion of the plant's production complexes.
Karmi-Melamede is known to the general public as the architect of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, which she planned together with her brother Ram Karmi, and additional prominent public projects such as the campus of the Open University in Ra'anana and the Beit Avi Chai cultural center in Jerusalem. She says she has never worked on commercial projects such as residential or office buildings, but finds the planning of industrial structures fascinating. At the new Teva Tech visitors' center and the other buildings she planned throughout the site, one can see how a talented architect can create an intimate, significant ambience even in an alienated desert industrial environment.
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