We Told You So

The report by a UNESCO advisory panel, published here for the first time, points to irregularities in the redesign of the Mann Auditorium

This summer the Fredric R. Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv will close for renovations that the municipality terms "minor." A recently released professional report officially confirms the wide-ranging extent of these so-called minor renovations, and the grave and irreversible damage they will do to the concert hall and the building itself.

The reconstruction is being undertaken despite an endless number of promises and pronouncements by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, owners of the auditorium, and the planners who created an impression among the public that the planned work would not have any effect on the building and the changes to the concert hall would not cause irreversible damage.

Mann Auditorium
Daniel Bar-On

These pronouncements also lulled the courts: the District Appeals Committee and the District Court, which rejected appeals and a petition against the plans by the Forum to Save the Mann Auditorium. History will condemn them along with the rest of the guilty parties in the affair: the city of Tel Aviv, the orchestra and the Kolker-Epstein architects.

The report was issued after a critical four-month delay, when a building permit had already been issued and most of the means possible for stopping the renovations had been exhausted.

The report and expert opinion were written by Icomos Israel, the professional body advising the Israeli UNESCO committee about world heritage sites in Israel, and presented to the responsible Education Ministry office. The Mann Auditorium is earmarked for preservation and included in the White City area of Tel Aviv, which UNESCO has officially declared a world heritage site.

On the paper proclaiming the White City as a site to be preserved, alongside the stamp of the Education Ministry is the stamp of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality - which promoted the renovation plans for the auditorium that contradict the terms of the White City proclamation.

In the report's closing summary, Icomos, in an understatement characteristic of such bodies, says that there is "concern that the precedent-setting meaningful damage [to the Mann auditorium] is backed, paradoxically, by the Tel Aviv municipality."

The report points to the municipality's improprieties in the transmission of information to Icomos so that the group could carry out its work - which is no small scandal in itself. "We were surprised to learn that the material given to us [in order to formulate the opinion] was not up-to-date and that more current information existed that should have served as a basis for our opinion. The material we examined was not the correct material," the report says. At no other site examined by Icomos for UNESCO "did we encounter a similar phenomenon."

Up-to-date information was given to Icomos only at the start of March, that is, after the appeals and legal petition had been rejected and after building permits were issued. In light of the update, in its report Icomos details the extent of the damage to the auditorium that will be brought on by changes to the plan. They may sound merely technical and are phrased politely, but each one of them cuts into live flesh.

They are: "The solution offered, that technical systems be installed in a subterranean level, cannot be executed in the absence of ventilation and so it is reasonable for these systems to be located elsewhere, perhaps visible to the eye. The air conditioning solution for the entire building does not appear in the plans and may cause changes in [plans for] the entranceways and the hall. The solution for reinforcement against earthquakes by widening walls and visible columns will significantly damage the appearance of the building, in which constructive elements comprise integral parts of the characteristics of the building, its inner spaces and areas. It is desirable to seek the expert opinion of a construction engineer who specializes in preservation, and to examine whether the significant changes presented [in the plan] that comprise only a partial solution [to earthquakes] are worthwhile when taking the future damage they will cause into account."

The appearance of irreversibility

The report continues: "The demolition of an original basalt wall on the ground floor in front of the southwest entrance facing the square, and the opening of new doorways in a section of the sealed wall will significantly change the [building's] facade. The raising of the roof and moving it slightly backward in order to position photovoltaic cells will be noticeable from the street and mainly from the direction of Rothschild Boulevard, and will change the roof's appearance. The elevator on the northeast corner will be higher than the current roofline. The changes in the levels of the hall as authorized by the local Planning and Building Committee are to be built as additions to the present flooring so that the construction will be 'reversible.' In fact, the construction [requested in the plans] is wide-ranging and permanent, made of cement, and will put a stop to any chance that changes may be reasonably reversed."

Icomos staffers express amazement at the idea of reversibility, bandied about by everyone associated with the project as insurance against potential mistakes and failures. They write: "We did not see the point of executing 'damaging' changes and justifying them by calling them 'reversible.' It is more logical to carry out the correct procedures from the beginning and not the 'reversible,' damaging ones."

In connection with the rule of "authentic materials," a basic of building preservation, the report determines that "the wide-ranging changes to the hall, the dismantling of its outer layer, the flooring in the entranceways and the stucco on pillars and walls, and replacement of glass are in effect a replacement of most of the original materials and a loss of the building's authenticity."

Icomos also points out that "the building permit does not faithfully display all the changes requested, and so makes understanding them difficult."

It is already possible to write headlines for the articles about the Mann Auditorium affair that will be published when the work is finally finished in five or six exhausting years: What happened to the auditorium and to world heritage? The Mann Auditorium was robbed of its identity in broad daylight. This is the Habima affair times two. What else can go wrong that hasn't already? Acoustic failures in the hall. Where was the public when the failure took place? Where were Israel's architects? Who is the prime suspect in the Mann Auditorium fiasco?

The state comptroller will issue a grave report but no personal conclusions will be drawn. We told you so. Meanwhile, the Forum to Save the Mann Auditorium, which fought against the plans from the start, is not defeated yet and continues to fight.