A Trip to the Brutalist Architectural Lab Called Be’er Sheva

When the city was built, `architects could follow to their passions.’ And they did.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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The Negev Brigade Monument.
The Negev Brigade Monument.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Forget the classic tour of Be’er Sheva, the one that leads to the Old City, or a walk among the weird fountains scattered all over the capital of the Negev, which remind you of the facade of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Welcome to the capital of Israeli Brutalist architecture

If you went, as I did, to Marseille to see the strange and fascinating building of Le Corbusier - Cité radieuse - then Be’er Sheva will be much more interesting. Such architecture does not appear even in architecture students’ wildest dreams.

Architect Omri Oz Amar faced the quarter-kilometer (0.16 mile) block in the Heh neighborhood and explained to the tour group I was with that Be’er Sheva was once a test site. Fifty years ago our finest architects examined their theories there.

When you think of a tour around Be’er Sheva as a visit to an enormous laboratory, in which one studies advanced theories of architecture, life suddenly looks like a science-fiction movie.

Another architect, Hadas Shadar, who along with Oz Amar initiated and promoted the recognition of Be’er Sheva as the capital of Brutalism, explains that the city has the largest concentration of Brutalist buildings.

“It is popular with architects but not always with the average person, but since Be’er Sheva was built by the state, the architects could follow their passions,” she explains cautiously. “You can go wild there.”

The promoters of the idea of preserving the Brutalist architecture in Be’er Sheva see the so-called White City in Tel Aviv as their model.

Neighborhood Heh, or the wonders of the carpet

The tour starts next to the multiethnic synagogue at 20 Hatzvi Street in the Heh neighborhood.

Architect Nahum Zolotov, who died in May, built an interesting concrete structure with a dome here. The facade has a wall with openings, a sort of Mashrabiyah (an Arabic term for a projecting oriel window with carved latticework) that is intended to filter out fierce sunlight.

Nowhere else have I seen a synagogue like this one. The space has been damaged a bit in recent years, but basically it looks like something designed by NASA.

The plan is original but the present reality is depressing. Seven years ago a new wing was added to the synagogue, which hides the original structure.

Another part of Zolotov’s contribution to the Heh neighborhood is renowned. He and architect Daniel Havkin participated in the building of the so-called Carpet housing project (Shikun Shatiah).

The idea is interesting, and since we are in the test lab, we can call it brave. But a few decades after it was built, this exemplary housing project looks old and a bit neglected. In the 1960s and 1970s it was considered an exclusive neighborhood, with a lot of academics and nuclear scientists from the nuclear reactor near Dimona residing there. Now, its better days seem long gone. But as a station on a tour, it is a fascinating site and good preparation for the highlight.

About half an hour after we entered the Heh Neighborhood, we stood on the bridge that crosses Ye’elim Boulevard, and stared at a quarter-kilometer-long housing bloc.

This four-story structure with 135 residential units, designed by Avraham Yaski and Amnon Alexandroni in 1958. is truly amazing. It’s a concrete creation, a sort of skyscraper lying on its side to rest. It is impossible to ignore the courage and the daring.

Yaski, 31 years old at the time, was awarded the Israel Prize 20 years later. He described the project as “a conscious attempt that failed completely.”

A success in a public center

A short distance away, in the Public Center Neighborhood, is Yitzhak Reger Street, a main thoroughfare that divides Be’er Sheva On both sides of the street one finds a few more interesting and encouraging examples of the Brutalist ethic.

The City Hall building (6 Shazar Blvd.), built by Michael Nadler and Shmuel Bixon; the Beit Ha’am building (8 Shazar Blvd.), built by Yaakov Rechter and Moshe Zarhi; the Yad Lebanim Memorial (2 Yitzhak Rege St.), built by Yohanan Ratner and Mordechai Shoshani, and the synagogue for Iraqi immigrants in the form of a pyramid (5 Bar Ilan Square, Aleph Neighborhood), built by Zolotov.

The clearest thing that comes out of visiting these sites is how the public buildings built according to the Brutalist ethic survived for decades better than the residential structures.

Relative to many of its peer buildings all over the country, Be’er Sheva City Hall even looks like a nice and interesting place to spend time, a space you could find your way around in reasonably easily.

The Negev Center: a bone stuck in the throat

This is the time to be strong. Take a deep breath. Welcome to the Negev Center (6 Metzada Road). This large concrete building seems to be the most significant symbol and center of controversy in Be’er Sheva’s Brutalist architecture.

It’s also most neglected of all the stops on this tour.

Israel Prize winner Ram Karmi started designing and building it back in 1960, when he was 29, together with his father, Dov Karmi, and Zvi Meltzer.

The structure combines commercial space, offices and housing, and the tour guide said it “was before its time.”

The building was supposed to connect the Bet and Dalet neighborhoods, but only the first part was built, and after everyone was shocked by the result, it seems they could not continue. It is not a pretty building in the simple meaning of the word. Everyone seems to prefer to ignore it.

The university of life

The prettiest and most cared-for examples of Brutalist architecture in Be’er Sheva are on the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in the Gimel Neighborhood. There, a garden with well-tended trees creates a nice contrast with the concrete.

Five buildings in particular stand out: the student dormitories built by Ram Karmi, his sister Ada Karmi Melamede, Haim Ketzef and Ben Peleg; the humanities and social sciences building, designed by Amnon Niv, Rafael Reifer and Natan Magen; the central square and auditorium, built by Yaski, Niv and Yossi Sivan; the sciences faculty, built by the same energetic trio; and the main library built by Nadler, Bixon and Yaakov Gal.

This is a different architectural environment, original, built out of creative thought, a desire to innovate and a lot of courage. After all, it was easy to guess that the criticism would come and how harsh it would be.

The 50-year-old monument

Oz Amar points out that the Negev Brigade Monument of Dani Karavan, at the northwest corner of the city, is not Brutalist in the full sense of the term.

It is made of exposed concrete and includes simple forms and shapes, but the purists will say that it is missing the practical aspect and a lack of decoration. Let us ignore them for a moment.

I love the monument and am thrilled every time by the observation angles it provides the visitor. Something about it is optimistic and nice. Even its maintenance, 50 years after it was built and given what could have happened, is good.

On January 24, 2015, Oz Amar will lead a guided tour in the footsteps of the Brutalist architecture on the Ben-Gurion University campus.

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