Meet ToHA: The Most Talked About New Building in Israel

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ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.
ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.Credit: Gal Filiba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The unusual proportions of the 'Totzeret Haaretz' building in Tel Aviv, with architect and superstar designer Ron Arad’s distinctive style built into it, can elicit extreme reactions. Some hate it, some love it and some are plain awed by its sophistication.

Architect Asa Bruno, who has directed Arad’s studio, in London, for the past two decades, and who has overseen the project (which has also been branded as ToHa), says he and his colleagues are unmoved by the reactions. “You can’t build a building on a scale like this and in a location like this without it arousing emotions. It’s definitely not a bland building that tries to please various sides. Yet at the same time, the building wasn’t planned with the intention of arousing emotions, but rather so as to create a good and unique environment for the people who work there. And yes, also a special urban experience for Tel Aviv.”

The building, a few minutes’ walk east of the large Shalom train station, is indeed taking up a prominent place on the ever-more crowded skyline of the Tel Aviv metropolis. It will house mainly office space, but its look is quite different than the other multistory buildings that have gone up around it of late, like the Azrieli buildings or the Amot Atrium Tower: It is not narrow, but rather has a relatively low and plump profile, and rises 27 stories, to be joined by a far taller tower of 60 stories.

Arad’s Israeli-British firm was joined, in the design of Totzeret Haaretz, by the local firm of Yashar Architects. Headed by Avner Yashar, the company already has to its credit a number of projects in the city, among them 1 Rothschild Boulevard, the Wholesale Market project and the Bezalel Market.

The project’s developers are the Amot and Gav Yam companies, who turned to Arad in 2012 with a request that he come up with an extraordinary architectural concept for them. To that end, they embarked on a long statutory process intended to combine seven different lots into one large plot of land of more than 18 dunams (about 193,750 square feet) for the site of the complex.

Architect Asa Bruno.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ron Arad.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In a conversation in Tel Aviv, Arad – who has lived in London since the 1970s – praises the developers who contacted him asking for an unusual concept: “There are lots of idealistic and ambitious architects, but there are fewer good clients. But, behind every good building there’s also a client. We weren’t out to build an icon. I firmly believe that aesthetics and functionality aren’t enemies but rather friends, and I don’t take part in contests over who’s tallest and who’s the best-looking. I devote the same amount of thought to choosing frames for my glasses as I do when I’m working on a building,” he adds, clutching his eyeglasses, “and I do everything as though I were doing it for the first time.”

Arad maintains a relatively small studio, with about 20 employees, who work on a wide range of projects -- from product design to sculpture, and from interior design to public buildings. In Israel, the latter include the Beit Shulamit Cancer Center, at Afula’s Emek Medical Center, and currently under construction.

Seen from above, the Totzeret Haaretz complex is like the letter “L” placed on three legs, each of which rises into a tower of increasing width as it goes higher. The quasi-towers connect with one another via a broad bridge, creating a three-legged complex. One of these legs, which has been sheathed in brass sheeting that now appears golden in color, has attracted attention, although the architects explain that the material will darken into a shade of bronze.

“I wanted the facade that faces the street to get a special treatment,” Asa Bruno explains to us on a tour of the intriguing sie. “We don’t like to use materials that are treated or painted to look like something else. We are always looking for qualities that come with the material, with its integrity. This material will acquire a natural patina within a few months and will be less shiny and bright.

“The footprint of the complex covers 1.5 dunams of the plot (just under 16,150 square feet), and containing 5,000 square meters (nearly 54,000 square feet) of floor space. That’s much more than in similar buildings on a similar-size piece of land,” Bruno notes, adding that the generous space between each pair of feet on the structure allows pedestrians to continue to see the city though the building. As a result, the complex is not experienced as a wall of towers (though residents of the tall buildings in Nahalat Yitzhak do experience it as a wall in front of their windows).

The ToHa building in Tel Aviv. Arad maintains a relatively small studio, with about 20 employeesCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Also freeing up ground space is the developers’ decision to situate only a restaurant and a cafe at street level, instead of building a shopping mall, as is common with other multi-story buildings in the area. In order to encourage workers in the building to use green transportation, the structure offers hundreds of secured parking spaces for bicycles. The underground parking lot, in contrast, has only 950 spaces – less than the 1,300 that were approved by the planning commissions.

ToHa is the most significant complex at the intersection of Derekh Hashalom and Yigal Alon Boulevard, but around it are many other plots that are expected to accommodate multi-story buildings. It is not yet known how they will connect with one another; what is clear is that this is going to be a very hot section of Gush Dan: In addition to the adjacent train station, an express lane for public transport, and in the more distant future, two metro lines. Today, the area is not pedestrian-friendly, but the decision to make the ground floor of Totzeret Haaretz a public space could indicate a trend, and even set a high bar for other developers who will build multi-story buildings here, as well as to municipal policy makers. In any case, City Hall would do well in the near future to present the public with a collage of all the projects slated for the area.

ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Landscape architect Lital Szmuk, who is working on the project’s landscape design, says that the ground floor will be exceptional, and vary from other private open spaces around the city. Very often the developers who manage such spaces prefer to design them in a way that in keeps pedestrians away, so that even though they are designated for public use, they end up being empty. (Examples of this phenomenon are the Frishman 46 building, at the corner of Dizengoff Street, and the Remez Tower on Arlosoroff St.) Here, says Szmuk, a great deal of effort has been put specifically into drawing in the public.

“This is the largest perlite order we’ve ever made at the firm,” she says, referring to the irregularly shaped pebbles of volcanic glass used as a medium for growing plants. “It’s costing millions of shekels. We are going to plant hundreds of trees, including oaks, poincianas, poplars, trumpet trees, blue jacarandas and mulberries on a bed one meter to a meter and a half deep. Some of the trees are already very big and have been moved from other projects.

“The landscaping solution is simple – a concrete surface with round holes in it that are openings for trees. The idea is to create a natural wooded grove spread over 11 dunams, with very dense planting. In between, there will be benches and ecological pools.”

Design Museum Holon, Arad's previous monument project in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It should be noted that while the grove the developers are planting does contribute to the branding of the project, it is the result of negotiations with the municipality, which in return allowed the developers to put up a complex with very extensive building rights.

Adjusting the light

The 'Well Transparent Chair' designed by Ron Arad. Priced at 5,000 pounds each.Credit: Timothy Taylor Gallery via Bloomberg

Preparations for the planting are already underway, but at the moment, imagination is required to understand how the grove will look at the end of the process. In contrast, there is no need to imagine the parts of the building itself – most of them are already in place. From the ground floor, you enter an impressive atrium that is 30 meters high (about 98 feet), and that extends into a skylight of another 70 or so meters. The lower section is bounded by two slanted glass walls that are textured in a way designed to prevent glare. The individual floors are different from one another, but have an average floorspace of 2,800 to 3,000 square meters. The structural envelope has been planned as a series of fixed units that enable optimal and economical planning.

“Over the course of half a year we worked with the utmost care on the geometry of the building: 97 percent of the facades are made of a double-glazed module 3.8 meters high and 1.35 meters wide,” says Bruno. Between the glass panels is a curtain that will go up and down by means of a central smart system, and based on the weather. What varies in the building is mainly the elements made of concrete. Each floor is shaded by an external shelf covered in Dekton – a material made of stone dust. “This is a material with characteristics somewhere between stone and glass. The width of each shelf changes in accordance with climatological calculations determined by computers.”

ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Chen Shalita, the green construction consultant for the project, says that the planners have aimed to create a building where it will be pleasant to work. “The light is controlled,” he says. “There are buildings where the workers suffer from glare and others where they suffer from insufficient light. When it’s pleasant for the worker, productivity is higher. This is an important issue today for planning offices.” Bruno and Shalita will be addressing just this issue at a conference of the Israeli Green Building Council, scheduled for Tel Aviv University on November 19.

From the office flors we go up to a veranda overlooking Gush Dan. Later this will be covered by a deck, a portion of which will house ia restaurant partially open to the public, the developers promise. As we gaze at the surrounding towers, Bruno comments that “the facades of the building are always changing according to the climate. If you look around, you’ll see a lot of multi-story buildings with glass facades that are identical on all sides. This is not construction that takes the climate into consideration. We worked on having every side give a suitable answer to the direction it faces.”

A welcoming campus

A 'Rover Chair' the first piece of furniture designed by Ron Arad.Credit: Barbican Centre via Bloomberg

What motivates a development company to invest in a building like this, I ask Shimon Abudraham, the CEO of Amot Real Estate Enterprise & Development. He replies: “The building where a company’s offices are located says something about the company itself. Just as there are people who want to drive a Tesla and are prepared to put down a deposit a year in advance only for the right to become the owner of an innovative and sophisticated vehicle, there are clients who close a deal quickly in order to ensure for themselves a place in a unique, innovative and well-designed building. We aim to initiate projects that will suit the changes in the habits of consumption work spaces. There is a demand for such offices.”

The companies renting spaces in the building are companies requring large floorspace – such as Natural Intelligence, which has rented three floors, and WeWork, which is down for four. Other companies that will relocate in the building are Tufin, which is in the field of information security infrastructures and networks in organizations, and the Israeli-Singaporean company Trax.

“These are companies that want to feel they are in one large space. Large floors enable closeness among the workers. No [other] tower can provide a floor of 3,000 meters. We did this before other competitors,” says Abudraham.

An artist’s rendering of the courtyard at the base of the building.Credit: Viewpoint Studios

He notes that the choice of Arad, who does not have prior experience with skyscrapers, was made in the clear knowledge that an additional architect would be added. “We didn’t take him solo but rather, together with Avner Yashar. Moreover, both firms have engineering departments with a lot of experience. The architects didn’t start working on the building without a program. They needed to design an aesthetic building but also to answer certain requirements. The decision to build a green building to the LEED Platinum standard [certification for energy and resource efficiency] is also the company’s. The architect doesn’t get to decide at which level the project he plans will be.”

Avi Mosler, the CEO of Amot Investments, adds: “We are glad for the opportunity to work with Ron Arad and Avner Yashar, who joined together in an extraordinary collaboration. The instruction given to everyone involved in the planning and design was to aim for the highest-quality result, with no compromises.”

What was the motivation for a ground floor that is mostly open to the public?

“We wanted to make the campus a welcoming place to work. The ground floor will allow employees to go for a break in something like a wooded grove. We had a unique opportunity here to create a green environment inside the city. That costs a lot more money, because we are reducing the points of contact between the building and the ground. It’s easiest just to sink columns straight into the ground. We are the only project that is returning more open space to the environment than we are taking. And we decided not to put in a shopping mall, even though we had the option of doing that.”

ToHa Tower on Totzeret Haaretz Street in Tel Aviv.Credit: Gal Filiba