An initiative to restore the Bat Yam town hall - the avant-garde and highly regarded 1960s creation of architects Neumann-Sharon-Hecker, which gained worldwide praise - is now being examined in the municipality's engineering department. According to Bat Yam's municipal engineer, Liora Stoller, the building is a "diamond in need of polishing."
This is a revolution in the municipality's attitude, as the city never recognized the worth of the building that houses its offices, neglecting it for years until parts crumbled. Years ago, on orders of the city, the wind shafts on the roof were destroyed; and until recently there were voices in the municipality calling for the building's destruction.
Now, as it turns out from the comments of Stoller, who in the past approved the destruction of the chimneys, Bat Yam is considering turning the building into an arts center or a museum, when the new municipal building goes up in the city's planned commercial center.
As part of the initiative to restore the existing building, the city is examining the possibility of implementing parts of the original building plan for the compound, which were never carried out. The plan was chosen in a competition held in 1959, in which dozens of senior Israeli architectural firms participated. Today proposals are being considered for creating a square in the remaining public area surrounding the building, and for constructing commercial buildings around it.
An initial discussion of the plan, the proposals, and the future designation of the municipality building itself after the renovation, will take place this week, with the participation of Stoller, and architects Rafi Segel and Eyal Weizman, who worked with architect Zvi Hecker, one of the original planners. The two took the work upon themselves after Hecker rejected a request that he participate in the renovation plan. Nevertheless, Hecker will cooperate in supervising the planning.
From the beginning, the Bat Yam town hall has been a source of problems and complaints. Its original design was changed beyond recognition during the planning. The areas surrounding it, intended for public use, were sold to private entrepreneurs, and on part of them, a major highway was built. The building, which was meant to be part of a civic center, stands today in the heart of a residential neighborhood, and looks like a small kindergarten or a forgotten toy. Now the municipality intends to build the new municipality building in the old industrial area in the city center, according to an urban plan approved five years ago.
The planners made many justified complaints about the distortion of the initial planning idea, but some of the responsibility for its fate rests on their shoulders. The avant-garde creation they planned was more of an experimental laboratory than a realistic building. It presented an almost impracticable challenge to construction capability at the time, many defects were discovered in it, and its cost inflated to almost triple the original plan. And many a problem has been found in the building.
Its planners, enfants terribles of Israeli architecture, treated it less like an efficient enterprise for the use of civil servants, and more like a work of art, an original interpretation of Islamic culture, an alternative to modern architecture and a cultural manifesto. Perhaps for that reason, the building aroused tremendous interest from its very first day, both praise and controversy -in Israel and abroad, and put the discussion of architecture on the agenda. When the building had just been dedicated, and shone in red, blue and gold, it became a site of pilgrimage for lovers of architecture and the curious. It was written up in professional journals, served as a backdrop for fashion and advertising photos, and appeared on an Israeli stamp.
Bat Yam, a city without many pleasant spots and tourist attractions, has not been wise enough until now to exploit its treasure properly. Many cities in the world base their identity and their economy around an extraordinary architectural creation; one can argue against this trend, but it should not be taken lightly. The Bat Yam town hall preceded the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, but the city fathers did not notice the "diamond in need of polishing" under their noses.
The building, which did not succeed as a municipality, can succeed in another role; as a cultural and arts center, it may serve the original intent of its creators more than it did as an office building. One can hope that the building will be renovated, despite the city's financial straits, perhaps with the assistance of private investors or donations.
Perhaps even today, the scenario according to which the building will one day be secretly destroyed (as the wind shafts were destroyed) is not a product of someone's wild imagination. Its location far from the eye, and the fact that architectural discourse in Israel is dormant and indifferent, makes such jobs easier. Israel's community of architects and of those who love culture would be well advised to keep a suspicious eye out to see what happens.