New Design, Same Old Problems

Recently released renderings of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem show a welcome departure from Frank Gehry's 'tiresome' design. But the issue of the land the museum is being built on remains unaddressed.

Just a few months after American architect Frank Gehry resigned from the Museum of Tolerance project in Jerusalem, the first images of the new design for the museum by husband and wife architecture team Bracha and Michael Chyutin were made public this week.

The Chyutins have made a name for themselves in public building design in Israel. To their name is the Haifa courthouse site, the Ben-Gurion University Senate building and the Givatayim Theater, among others.

Plans for the Museum of Tolerance

They were awarded the Museum of Tolerance project in a hastily-formed competition conducted by invitation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, after Gehry's resignation. They called the new museum "an iconic structure which reflects transparency and openness and creates visual interest from near and far ... a jewel on Jerusalem skyline."

The SWC limited the number of architects allowed to compete for the project and emphasized local firms, asking them to formulate a new concept that could put the project back on track.

During the recent holiday season, SWC representatives flew to Israel for the final presentations and made their decision in consultation with Jerusalem city engineer Shlomo Eshkol. Among the reasons for choosing the Chyutins, officials cited their existing tender to design the new Jerusalem Courthouse being built next door.

Plans for the Museum of Tolerance

The good news is that the new plans for the Mamilla site look much more reasonable than Gehry's. First of all, they do not have pretensions of creating a another Bilbao museum (after Gehry's successful Spanish effort ) in the center of Jerusalem, or competing with historic monuments nearby. The architectural language is contemporary and light, with a user-friendly vibe.

At the same time, the problematic nature of the site remains.

The lot on Hillel Street where the museum is to go up sits partially over land that was once a Muslim cemetery.

Plans for the Museum of Tolerance

Following public and legal protests to building over the cemetery, work on the site was interrupted for a long period of time. Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that building on the site could move forward.

While the SWC won the legal battle, they still face both local and international opposition over the placement of the museum. By making future moves as transparent as possible and inviting public comment, one would hope there is some chance that the new building will be accepted as a good neighbor and not a hulking bully.

Architect Hillel Schocken, former head of the Tel Aviv University school of architecture, believes a discussion of the particular architect who designs the museum is irrelevant.

"I don't care if the designer is Frank Gehry or Bracha and Mikey Chyutin. The problem is the sensitive [nature of the] site. The Wiesenthal Center had to be the most sensitive in the world about this location and carefully weigh whether to build on it. I have to say that if I had to choose between Chyutin and Frank Gehry, I prefer Chyutin, even without seeing the plans. Frank Gehry recycles his work to a tiresome degree," Schocken said.

Firm opposition to the museum site arose in nearly every conversation in writing this report. Some architects even called for the project to be canceled, and for a discussion to be held about whether or not Jerusalem really needs it.

"It's a highly problematic location and right now it doesn't really matter which project is placed there," said architect David Kroyanker, a historian of architecture in Jerusalem. "I think that the combination of the site with Frank Gehry's strident style is one of the reasons the project aroused so much public criticism."

The Wiesenthal Center asked Gehry to take part in judging the new project, but he refused for moral reasons.

Light and transparent

The depiction of the museum offered here is taken from general information released by the architects, along with first impressions from the series of computerized images they released.

"The buildings around the site reflect the architectural history of Jerusalem from the 19th century to the present day. We wanted the museum to blend into the landscape without overshadowing the texture of city life on the one hand, and on the other to preserve [the museum's] independence," the Chyutins wrote. "We planned a building that stretches along the site's southern and eastern borders. It brings the three neighboring streets together into a coherent urban space - a new public plaza in the renewed center of Jerusalem. The plan for the square includes several different elements: a sunken archaeological garden containing ruins of a Roman bridge found on the site; a terraced amphitheater (meant for outdoor events and capable of holding 1,200 people ); a grove of trees and paved areas for the public."

The planned building is meant to hold an exhibition space, an educational center, a theater, a multi-use hall, offices, a restaurant and a museum shop.

It is divided into two wings: a three-story "floating" wing for the theater and meeting places, and one that is sunk in the ground between two wings for exhibition spaces. An open plan four-story lobby connects the wings. The sides of the building facing the city will be covered in stone, while those facing the park will be transparent. Stylistically, the design has Chyutin written all over it. The lightness, transparency, use of space, and pale tones throughout characterize their most recent projects.

Architect Daniel Mintz, a senior lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, praises the Chyutins' design.

"If there is something called architecture in Israel, then they are the closest thing to it, from my point of view," he said.

He calls the new museum design "a sculpture" but criticizes what will go inside. "The difficult problem is the emptiness of the project. It's like hot air. We need to make peace, not build statues to it," he said. "The museum is filled with these empty spaces, but it's not the kind of place you go to sit and work on your self. It isn't Zen Buddhism. It's possible to live without it, but it isn't so terrible if it gets built."

'No connection to Jerusalem'

Architect Zvi Elhayani, a historian and founder of the Israeli architecture archive, believes that the new museum is a welcome nod to retro-modernism.

"The current design by the Chyutins points to a trend of returning to light, floating and clean-lined modernism which is not obsolete and is at the heart of what is happening in architecture in Jerusalem. This trend is a welcome antidote to the so-called Jerusalem architecture which is forced and symbolic and which spread throughout Jerusalem and beyond over the last few decades," he said. "The current design by the Chyutins marks, finally, a liberation from the traditionalism of Jerusalem architecture that tried with all its might to stick to the spirit of the place, and the spirit of ghosts and almost entirely abandoned the spirit of the present time."

Elhayani, though, believes it is precisely in that break that the new museum's design runs into problems.

"It is too contemporary, too fashionable and too predictable, and in particular seems to purposefully avoid all connection to Jerusalem - architecturally, materially and decoratively. The Jerusalem modernism of the 20th century in most cases used intelligent, elegant hints to express the spirit of place and knew enough to include good art works and landscaping and a wise, low-key environment. These elements are not dealt with in the Chyutins' design, not even at the level of intention. Mostly what is grating about it is the presence of too many open, barren spaces, which in Israel's guarded public expanses, soon invite excessive improvisations, alterations and additions."

There is no doubt that the museum's new plan begs for a broader discussion on new building and the Jerusalem style. Few projects built here on recent years succeeded in capturing the spirit of their time and place and at the same time create a significant public space.

"There is no doubt that there is very brilliant architectural potential here, fantastic even, but not everything is right," said architect Ayala Ronel, a lecturer at Bezalel and Tel Aviv University. "This is a weird project from the point of view of gestures. A sunken garden overlooking a Roman bridge but not the Muslim graves there? Do we know how to look back at the Romans because they are nonthreatening? When I saw the pictures I said to myself that we need to bring back the British Mandate and pass a law that people may not build projects in Jerusalem without proving necessity. I think that no architectural talent can manage to create a proper solution for the problematic situation at this site."

Ronel added she doesn't believe the project will actually ever be built.

"The city doesn't need it, it doesn't need a 'jewel.' Destiny and the way things really happen are wiser," she said. "Just as Frank Gehry found excuses for resigning from the project, this plan too will be put to rest. Now I imagine that people will begin to object - Muslims, young people and older people. This city desperately needs action that will revive it. What gives life to the city center is people and not monuments."