A View to a School

The University of Haifa sits atop the Carmel range, but until Bracha and Michael Chyutin came along, the school never took advantage of its commanding views of the sea and Carmel Forest.

The University of Haifa has in the past two years undergone a dramatic facelift. Its main building, a modernist icon common in the mid-1960s in the work of noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, underwent an essential and comprehensive refurbishment after years of neglect.

Over the coming year, the university's central library will undergo similar renovations, according to the plans of architect Asaf Lerman. In addition to the welcome investment in refurbishing the original buildings, all over the campus several new buildings have recently been dedicated, the most notable among them the Hatter Student Building, named for Sir Maurice Hatter.

The terraced Student Building
Amit Garon

The building is located on the northeastern end of the campus above the steep slope of the Carmel range. It was planned by architects Bracha and Michael Chyutin, partners inside and outside the office, who won the commission in an anonymous competition arranged by the university.

The Student Building pays homage to the stunning view of the Carmel range and Haifa Bay and is a valuable asset for the student population, but it does not contribute to the strengthening of the dense and compact nature of the campus imagined by Niemeyer. The location of the Student Building was determined in the university's master plan and was a fixed element in the planning process.

Bracha Chyutin herself feels that it would have been better to position it along one of the campus's lengthwise roads in order to strengthen them. The building serves two main functions - the offices of the dean of students and multipurpose rooms for the student union that include offices, classrooms, a club and banquet hall. The architects chose to separate the two clearly - the dean is in a rectangular two-story section that emerges out of the mountain into the panorama while the student union is located in the series of terraces built that spill along the slope of the mountain.

The tension between the soaring section and the terraces wedged into the ground create a dramatic play of light, shadow and movement.

Observation points

The most important contribution of the new building is in its generous outdoor spaces. All the roofs are covered with trendy wood decks that allow for them to be used as observation points, gathering places or meeting spaces. One of the university's main problems since its beginnings was the lack of open space. The campus may command one of Israel's most spectacular views, between the Carmel Forest and Haifa Bay - but it never gave students and staff adequate access to the vistas.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that construction was not completed as per the original plan. Niemeyer (together with his Israeli partner, Shlomo Gilad ) originally planned to position a series of pavilions on the roof of the library that would be used for various university functions and enable access to the views. A rooftop fence and staircases were built and still exist but the pavilions never made it off the drafting table.

According to Bracha Chyutin, the public space is the most important element of every university campus. She herself is today the chief architect of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.

"The spaces between buildings is what makes a campus because there people gather and meet," she says. "As a campus architect I deal a lot with arranging these spaces. Of course inside the buildings there have to be inviting and well-lit interior spaces just as much, that will be used for the same purpose and so that the students are not depressed."

Chyutin agrees that in the Haifa campus, the open spaces seem afterthoughts and not like planned spaces with air and light. She hopes the new building she designs will help improve this balance.

In the meantime, there is no budget to install benches and to complete the landscaping of the building's public expanses. This does not stop some students from lying on the deck and using their backpack as a cushion. The Student Building connects with Niemeyer's concrete and with the ivy that covers it in many points on the outside of the building. The center of the building features a wide staircase, a version of the typical Haifa "street of stairs" that enables access to each of the floors separately. From the upper portion of the staircase it is possible to see distant views and the lower you go on it, the more you see the closer panoramas - the forests of the Carmel range.

Chyutin hopes that in the future the natural flora will blend with the planted shrubs and blur the building's foundations. She says after the Carmel fire, colleagues phoned her to ask about the building. It was undamaged, but might not be so lucky next time.

Bracha and Michael Chyutin have positioned themselves in the last decade as the leading firm for public projects in Israel. Among other things, they designed the courthouses in Haifa's lower city (2003 ), the senate building of Ben-Gurion University (2004 ) and the Givatayim Theater (2006 ). In addition, they have in recent years won two prestigious public competitions - designing the courthouses in central Jerusalem and the Museum of Tolerance, located next door.

Unlike other projects that are positioned as objects in the urban fabric or in the fabric of a campus, this time the Chyutins succeeded in harmoniously integrating the building into the mountainous topography and the panorama. They concealed two thirds of it underground but still managed to create a fine outdoor space for its many users on campus.

This is a breath of fresh air in the mediocre building typical of the university in recent decades and should serve as a starting point for the design of additional buildings in the future.