A First (Private) Look at Bezalel’s Elegant New Home

Japanese architecture firm SANAA unveils a thoughtful plan for the art academy’s new campus in downtown Jerusalem. School administrators and municipality officials have given the green light but as usual, the public doesn’t have the chance to weigh in.

At the annual meeting of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design last week, among the debates and the politicking, the mingling and the light refreshments, the plans for the academy’s new building were revealed for the first time. The building’s architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Tokyo-based firm Studio SANAA, were hired a year ago after the Bezalel administration suddenly dropped the previous plan by German-Turkish architecture firm Studyo, which had been chosen in an international competition.

Once again, the public will meet the building for the first time as a fact on the ground, and will have no say in the matter at all.

For about an hour, Sejima spoke about the basic principles of the building, the academic and artistic vision it expresses, and its integration into the future campus in downtown Jerusalem. She spoke in Japanese, with Hebrew translation by the architect Arie Kutz of Nir-Kutz Architects, the project’s local partner.  She said she didn’t speak English well enough to describe the spatial richness of the new building.  “It sings more in Japanese,” she said.

For Sejima, the visit was a success. On Monday, she presented the project to Bezalel’s internal committees. The following day, she met with Shlomo Eshkol, the Jerusalem municipality’s chief engineer, and other high-ranking city officials.  This was the first time the building had been shown to an audience outside the small circle of decision-makers. Though not a traditional Jerusalem-style building, it has been well-received from almost every direction. Professor Zvi Efrat of Bezalel, a member of the judges’ committee in the previous competition, said the building’s design was many times better than all of the proposals submitted in the past.

The current stage of the design is only 50 percent of the overall plan . In other words, the Japanese architects still have a lot of work to do before they present the finished product. However, the administration of Bezalel and officials of the Jerusalem Municipality have already made their major comments.  From now on, the planners will focus on implementing the changes and moving the municipal construction plan forward.

A new approach to Jerusalem stone

For Sejima, Jerusalem is a city of glass, open space and light. The new building, located in the Russian Compound between the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Museum of Underground Prisoners, spreads over 40,000 square meters – 30,000 above ground and 10,000 below. It includes an array of horizontal terraces, stacked above one another, along the area’s topography. The main structure contains a thick base from which two four-storey buildings rise on either side, preserving an open line of sight between the cathedral and the museum.

The building’s more functional components are located below ground, including two auditoriums, an operational area and the workshops for wood, metal and plastic. The upper portion holds classrooms, studios and offices. By placing the terraces in multiple directions, the architects succeeded in creating a frame that focuses the gaze outward to the city.

The building has two entrances: a higher one from the direction of the cathedral and a lower one from the museum. Between them, a spacious lobby and staircase allows visitors to observe both levels simultaneously.  To break the traditional separation of the academy’s eight departments, Sejima and Nishizawa created a series of central, multi-level spaces where students can meet, study and display their work.

“This is a building with many levels, but we are trying to make it into a single space, “ Sejima says. “If the floors were divided in the normal way, it would be difficult to connect them,” she says, making horizontal gestures with her hands. “The goal is to create a unified experience for the users.”

Sejima was very impressed with the graduates’ exhibition currently on display in Bezalel’s Mount Scopus building. “The exhibition is very mixed,” she notes. “There’s a feeling that the departments touch each other and that the exhibitions touch each other, too. Everything overlaps. It seems that the students are experimenting with ideas and tools from multiple departments.” Sejima wanted to reflect that shared experience in the building as well, allowing a new relationship between departments. She calls this “a new style of learning and a new style of life.”

One of the biggest planning challenges yet to be solved is the Jerusalem Municipality’s demand to cover at least 60 percent of the building with Jerusalem stone, a difficult task for a building that aspires to a light appearance. Judging from the models and the images displayed last week, the Japanese architects don’t have a final answer. However, Sejima says that the issue is not an obstacle for her.

“I’m not saying whether I like the stone or not. But I respect it. I respect Jerusalem’s style and I want to be part of it. But we bring a new approach. I think it’s amazing that all the buildings in the city have been built of stone for the past century, the past millennium. It makes the city very beautiful.”

Another major topic in the planning process is the building’s “soft panels,” as Sejima calls them, referring to the layered terraces and the extensive use of glass to give the space a soft and airy feeling. The side entrances are located ground level and face the street, allowing passersby to peek in at the activity taking place inside. The construction plan also includes the preservation of a small pavilion from the Mandate era and several ancient trees.

“We are trying to create an interaction not only between Bezalel and the surrounding environment, but also within Bezalel itself,” Sejima said.

I believe in the power of buildings”

Sejima, 56, and Nishizawa, 46, both recipients of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2010, are two of the most prominent and influential architects in the world today. They represent the current generation of Japanese architecture and have helped review the world’s interest in it. Their architectural style is sophisticated, elegant, and poetic at the same time. It is characterized by minimalism in form mixed with a interior richness and precise attention to details. Since 1995, they have been working together at SANAA, located in the Tatsumi section of East Tokyo.

At one point, Sejima was Nishizawa’s boss, but today they are equal partners. Many of SANAA’s buildings can be seen as studies in geometrical shapes that become entire structures.  Their design for the New Museum in New York (2007) dealt with a series of boxes and their relationship to each other. In the Rolex Center at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne (2010), they used the potential of the artificial topography and interspersed it with inner courtyards. In Bezalel’s new building, they are using terraces to serve as floors, ceilings, roof gardens and to provide shade. When placed one on top of the other, they resemble a Japanese temple.

Sejima and Nishizawa submitted plans for the project about a year ago, after Bezalel’s administration held a closed competition for 16 prominent architects from Israel and abroad. Why were Sejima and Nishizawa chosen?

“You’d be better ask Bezalel!” laughs Sejima. “Of course, we’re very happy about this project. The location is special and beautiful, in a unique urban setting – near a church, the municipality, Jaffa Street. And Bezalel as a school is very interesting for us. These are very active people who do many new things.”

The new building has aroused a fair amount of opposition as well. The decision to invite a foreign architect to design a building for the first Hebrew arts academy drew a great deal of criticism. Professor Arnon Zuckerman, the outgoing president of Bezalel, commented on the criticism in an interview with Haaretz in September 2011.

“We were accused of provincialism because we went with someone from the outside,” he said. “But I think that it’s provincial to think that we have all of the wisdom. Not everything is in our hands,” he said.

The size of the project also came under fire, as did the decision to spend NIS 360 million on a new building when there are dozens of buildings in downtown Jerusalem that could have been adapted for Bezalel’s use. “It is clear that Bezalel has other options, but I think what’s important is the kind of building that is constructed,” Sejima says. “It is not only a fine academic building, but also a building that serves the general public, and can create additional opportunities in the surrounding environment. As an architect, I believe in the power of buildings,” she says.

More than the sum of its parts

Arie Kutz, the local architect on the project, believes that Bezalel has not been well served by keeping its departments in separate buildings.  He points specifically to the architecture department, which has no connection to the Mount Scopus campus or any other department.

“A building of this type, designed by this architect, is more than the sum of its parts,” he says of the new design. “If we don’t go with this building, we’ll lose the opportunity of connecting the various departments, not to mention a lot more time.”

People are also wondering which contractor will succeed in translating SANAA’s elegant, detailed plan into an actual building, and whether the final product will fit into Jerusalem’s aggressive urban space. “In every place we plan a building, people remind us that this is not Japan. But we build all over the world. New York is also a very aggressive place, and we built a museum there,” Sejima says.

If the building for Bezalel goes up, Sejima and Nishizawa will become the first Japanese architects to design and complete a building in Israel in recent decades. Their sole predecessors are Junzo Yoshimura, who designed the new wing of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa (with Al Mansfeld) and the landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, who designed the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum. Shin Takamatsu of Kyoto designed a concert hall for the city of Ashdod, but his plan was shelved in the early stages.

Although the building’s plans and images have been shown to a large audience at Bezalel and uploaded to the Internet, the architects have chosen, for now, not to provide publicity materials. Yuval Yasky, the head of Bezalel’s Architecture Department and the liaison with the architects, told Haaretz that Bezalel supports their decision.

Even though project is still at a delicate, early stage, it would have been appropriate to present the plans to the public, not just the upper echelons of Bezalel and the Jerusalem municipality. Although SANAA is supposed to submit more detailed renderings after the summer, a decision was made to move forward with the plan for the campus.

Yael Engelhart
Emil Salman
Emil Salman