Power to the Architects

The Israel Electric Corporation's buildings show a commitment to design and not just functionalism. A shame, then, that their gem of a Brutalist center in Tel Aviv has lost its charms.

Legendary city engineer Yitzhak Ben Sira planned Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu area to be a neighborhood of public housing with an industrial area at its northern edge.

Beginning at the end of the 1940s, high-quality housing projects were constructed alongside public buildings, including arts and recreation centers. Some of them, like the Yad Eliahu Nokia sports arena (planned by the Milstein-Singer engineering office ), and the Golden Age Home (Arieh and Eldar Sharon ), are icons of Israeli modernist architecture.

electric company building
Israel Architecture Archive.

But the industrial area has some architectural gems of its own. There is, for example, the Cinerama Theater, which is now slated for demolition, and the Israel Electric Corporation's technical center, inaugurated in 1966, and which the company uses to this day.

The center spreads over 20 dunams, including office buildings, workshops, a cafeteria, garage, and a large parking lot.

Each one of the elements on the site was given careful attention to design and original planning solutions. Separately and together they amount to a collection of modernist architecture that faithfully serves a diverse working-class community.

electric company building
Yuval Tebol

The electric company's center was designed by the office of architects Gideon and Tova Ziv. The Zivs already had experience in the planning of energy facilities when they worked closely at the end of the 1950s with the well-known Jewish American architect Philip Johnson to design the nuclear research center in Nahal Sorek. The Zivs created a Brutalist technological center which called attention to the exposed cement skeleton of the building, like other publics buildings of the era.

The exposure of the skeleton enabled them to strengthen its image as solid, transparent and honest in an effort to frame the windows and other openings. The Zivs designed and installed special aluminum panels on the walls, covered with marble inside the building. They put the cafeteria and bathrooms on the ground floor, and three floors of offices above the eastern part of the building. Unlike many office buildings erected in the same period, the technical center featured a central air conditioning system. The electric bill posed no problem for the electric company.

The building's cement features are particularly nice. Railings on the roof and the roofs themselves are characterized by a complex three-dimensional configuration. The columns on the ground level look like stalks growing out of the earth. Elements that are often considered less important were also carefully designed in the same spirit, for example, the guardhouse and even the metal railing that connects the building to the street.

The totality of the plan suits the modernist spirit which seeks to present a new creation, functional and independent within the built-up environment.

The architectural importance of the technical center is twofold. On the one hand, it provides a brilliant example of the Brutalist style in Israeli architecture and on the other it represents the first generation of commercial office buildings here. Despite its importance and impressive presence, it has deteriorated over the years. Some of the cement has been whitewashed, and some has begun to crumble. Air conditioners adorn the panels now and above them, strange pieces of tin block the cement skeleton from view.

A kitschy environmental sculpture of the type that the electric company installs on traffic circles around the country has been placed in the entranceway, and in general the building looks like it has seen better days.

The electric company has a glorious architectural history supported for many years by the company's famed founder Pinhas Rutenberg. The combination of new technologies and more money allowed Rutenberg to invest heavily in the creation of monumental and up-to-date buildings that served a greater goal than pure functionality.

The design of the company's first installations was entrusted to well-known local architects such as Richard Kaufmann, Alexander Brevold and Yosef Berlin.

Their common denominator was an international style of planning meant to symbolize the modernity of electricity.

The electric plant in Haifa was originally placed in the hands of Erich Mendelsohn, a Jewish German architect with an international reputation.

In 1923 Mendelsohn offered his plan for a three-story building with two narrow strips of windows and a mildly slanting roof. Rotenberg argued that the plan was too "European" and gave the work to Kaufmann.

In the end a slightly unusual structure combining the two plans was erected and Israel lost out on a building by one of the most important architects of the period.

The electric company is in fact known for its responsible approach to historic sites. In recent years it has invested in renovation of the power plant in Tiberias, its Haifa district offices, the first power plant in Tel Aviv and other installations.

In addition it has made sure to renovate other buildings on its land, such as the Hephzibah Farm on the banks of Nahal Hadera, and the secondary plant in Jerusalem.

Responding to questions about the technical center at Yad Eliahu, one of the company's spokesmen called to ask whether its architecture was at all important.

This is a clear proof of the worrying lack of documentation and research into Israeli modernism that characterizes public and commercial bodies here. In light of the company encouraging preservation work, it is to be hoped that it will reexamine its list of historic sites and grant the proper treatment to Yad Eliahu and other modernist buildings in its possession.

The electric company responded to Haaretz that it "grants great importance to the buildings it owns and to their historical and architectural value. The Israel Electric Corporation, in cooperation with the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, and the preservation divisions of local authorities, acts to preserve historically valuable electric stations ... At this stage, renovation of the [Yad Eliahu] building is not part of the company's development plans. If it decides in future to renovate the building, it will carry it out in direct accordance with its architectural design."