Hilltop Dreams

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer thought it was one of his best ideas - a university campus in a single tower atop Mount Carmel. But his project was never implemented, and today, Asaf Lerman is giving the campus a new look. Would Niemeyer approve?

As with other impressive works of architecture, the idea for the University of Haifa campus began with a flash of inspiration that captured a new and brilliant concept. In this case (or so legend has it ), it came from the cigar that Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer held in his hand as he rode in a car to Haifa. He turned the cigar vertically, squinted, and in his mind, placed it on the peak of Mount Carmel. He imagined a slender, monumental tower that would house all the university departments and create a new urban and academic icon. It would be a single structure, offering students and academic staff carefully designed study and relaxation spaces and creating an unusual link between the building and the spectacular landscape surrounding it.

Niemeyer visited Israel twice in the 1960s and left a tremendous mark on local architecture, despite the fact that he eventually withdrew his name from all his project here. (see box ) His idea for the University of Haifa was no less innovative. Instead of a broad campus of lawns and scattered buildings, the Brazilian architect proposed condensing all the school's facilities into a single tower with a 270-meter-long horizontal structure at its base. On the tower's roof he planned to place a series of modernist, sculpture-like pavilions that could serve various purposes, such as a theater or synagogue (see box ).

Eshkol Tower - Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol

His approach was decades ahead of its time and articulated the importance of denser construction in light of dwindling available land. But the campus was not completed according to his vision, and in the end the building, Eshkol Tower, was designed by Haifa architect Shlomo Gilad. After many promises and disappointments, Niemeyer severed ties with his Israeli clients. Not one of his dozen proposals was ever built in Israel, and the University of Haifa, which perhaps came closest to fulfilling his vision, was deleted from his resume.

In time, the school abandoned his ideas as well. The rooftop pavilions were never built (despite the staircases that still lead to them ); the space designated for a huge library was haphazardly blocked off and turned into offices; and students and staff could see the magnificent view from Mount Carmel only through the windows, as there was no way for them to go outside. Eventually, a number of departments were added to the side of the original building, blocking the view and detracting from the campus' compact nature. About all that remained of Niemeyer's legendary cigar was the stub.

Given this history, in 2001 the university commissioned an architectural competition. Architect Asaf Lerman, then a recent graduate of the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, was invited to participate, sponsored by the firm run by his parents, Rafi and Edna Lerman. His proposal was selected from five competing designs, and after a difficult 10-year gestation, the first stage of his project is finally getting underway. The main donors, Younes and Soraya Nazarian of Los Angeles, have been closely involved in the planning process; Mrs. Nazarian also donated a three-meter-high stone statue that she worked on for several years, which has been installed at the entrance to the campus.

The remodeling project focuses primarily on the university library, which takes up most of the horizontal building. Though it is the largest academic library of its kind in Israel, it suffers from oppressive crowding. Contrary to Niemeyer's original idea, most of the structure's interior space (70 meters wide, 230 meters long ) is completely cut off from its surroundings; it essentially traps those inside in an endless series of indoor areas, without any natural ventilation. Also, because of the countless changes made to the building over the years, the main entrance fell out of use and was eventually shifted to a narrow, uninviting alleyway at the foot of the tower.

Lerman, who calls himself a "critical admirer" of Niemeyer's modernism, was tasked with providing a specific solution for the library, but in the process he also undertook to solve some of the substantial design problems affecting the functioning of the campus.

"People at the university have a complicated relationship with the building, as if architecture has forced them to live in a world that doesn't quite work," he explained while giving a tour of the site. "Since the structures that Niemeyer planned for the roof were never built, the students and lecturers were forced to live in an entirely indoor world - without daylight, without air. You're in the most beautiful place in Israel, with a spectacular vantage point over the sea from the north and south, but you can't enjoy it. It's a terrible contradiction. "

Lerman sought to preserve the compactness of Niemeyer's vision and proposed that a building be excavated between the library and the main entrance road, in an area that was part of the original plan. His structure is completely below ground and is hardly visible from anywhere on campus, with the exception of the tower and the library itself. Its three floors (each with a total of 120 square meters of space ) now house offices, seminar rooms, meeting rooms, reading areas, a small auditorium and a cafeteria. A new parking garage was also built beneath it for university employees and maintenance staff.

Lerman added a new outdoor space to the university grounds and transformed the service area for the library's air-conditioning systems into a patio. Designed (in cooperation with landscape architect Amir Blum ) to resemble an urban avenue, from above it looks like a long seam between the library and the new building.

With plants and seating areas, one side of the patio faces Niemeyer's monumental facade and the other, the glass facades of the new building with their geometric design. An abstract leaf pattern is printed on the glass panes to give privacy to those using the offices inside.

A large plaza in the southern part of the patio is slated to be used for the cafeteria that will open soon. A spiral cement staircase that echoes the curved, erotic lines of Niemeyer's modernist style connect it to the floors above. Lerman chose fashionable materials like exposed concrete, glass and wood, but managed to avoid giving them the yuppie feeling that usually accompanies them.

In many ways, this is not "architecture for beginners;" it doesn't necessarily create spaces that are instantly friendly or easy to take in, but rather requires some patience on the part of those who utilize it. Still, on a campus where most of the outdoor spaces consist of small lawns trapped between buildings, the new patio is certainly a welcome addition.

Lilliput and the dwarfs

Lerman, 41, has specialized in recent years in working on modernist structures in Israel, from the extensive renovations on the Nokia Arena in Yad Eliahu (2007 ), to remodeling the ground floor of Tel Aviv's City Hall (2008 ), to the massive reworking of the Israel Museum as production architect. Smaller projects involving pre-existing buildings include the Golconda Gallery in Tel Aviv, where Lerman transformed an industrial facility into an exhibition space, almost without altering the original structure. The new building at the University of Haifa is another project that involves architects and designers working with an iconic building, attempting to inject new content and purpose into spaces that have lost their original power.

"The [campus building] may be an amazing object in the landscape, but it was never able to create a space alongside it," says Lerman. "This modernist machine, which was a masterpiece a few decades ago, failed to ever connect to the actual place. It failed to create a normative interior-exterior relationship and did not provide those who use it with satisfactory conditions. You know that image of Gulliver lying on the ground in Lilliput while all the dwarfs are sewing him into the ground? That's what I tried to do, to resew the building into Mount Carmel. I think its invisibility is what makes the building I added successful." One would think that a building below ground runs counter to the basic architectural ego. But for Lerman, "The ego isn't measured by how much you stick out or how visible you are. For me, the ego is measured by the success of the project." Unfortunately, the extensive renovation work was not accompanied by careful documentation or a preservation consultant. The university administration apparently doesn't recognize the architectural asset in its possession, and did not require Lerman to adhere to basic preservation requirements. Lerman says the redesign was mindful of architect Shlomo Gilad's plans, as well as other historic materials.

"We made sure to preserve the original elements of the walls of the front and of the open space, and to preserve the main columns and the ramp that led up to the tower," he says.

The next stage of the project, due to be completed in about 16 months, will involve the renovation of the original library building, including a reorganization of the interior spaces - such as bookshelves, study corners and check-out counters. Demolition of the offices that were attached to the building over the years has already begun as well. Eventually, says Lerman, the view along all 70 meters of the building's width will be opened up. The impressive original entrance to the building is also set to be rebuilt and reconnected to the library.

While it's uncertain whether Niemeyer, who just turned 103, will make it to the opening ceremony, the renovation will likely restore to the campus part of his original vision. At long last, the Brazilian architect may perhaps be able to deem at least one Israeli project a success. W