“I suppose that when you see me standing before you, you say, ‘Here’s another mercenary local architect,’” Jerusalem architect Yigal Levi declares before a crowd of 150 Jerusalem architects last Sunday at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Levi is the Israeli partner of renowned Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind, who is responsible for planning the Jewish museum in Berlin and the master plan for the Ground Zero site. They planned together a pyramid-shaped tower, which would be built on the ruins of the Eden Theater on Agripas Street in the heart of the city.
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The new building plan perturbed city architects and the local architects’ association so much that they decided to hold the exceptional conference in Libeskind’s presence. Levi demonstrated confidence in the project, despite rustles among the audience, which was outraged by the simulations.
“It’s a rerun for me,” said Levi. “I was in the exact same situation some 10-12 years ago, because I am a signatory on the Calatrava Bridge at the city entrance. Then, too, he [Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava] stood opposite an audience and spoke about symbols that everyone scoffed and laughed at."
Libeskind, in contrast, told the enraged crowd that in every project he planned he deviated from accepted local planning laws and every project arouses tensions, and maintained that it is ethical to reexamine the laws. He added that he thinks Jerusalem also needs a “wow.”
Libeskind mentioned in his defense the pyramid tower that Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron are about to build in Paris, which was approved despite a stormy debate. They are also planning the national library opposite the Knesset. Levi, who is planning with Libeskind an additional tower next to the Tel Aviv beach front, added in a conversation with Haaretz, “Just as Tel Aviv knew to accept innovation, I hope that Jerusalem will also adopt the change that the tower can do downtown.”
The building’s height will be 165 meters. Its 33 stories exceed the 24-story limit set by Jerusalem’s master plan for the central business district, around Jaffa Road. Levi insists in the debate that the height of the building, which will include commercial, hotel and residential space, is not 165 meters but rather 118 meters, and that the additional height is an empty space within walls that complete the pyramid.
The master plan for the city was never approved officially, which allows planning bodies (the city or district planning committee) to limit some developers and give others leeway regarding rights. The developer of the new building is French tycoon Prosper Amouyal, who is not an Israeli citizen. He has tried to remain anonymous, and Libeskind even called him “Developer X” during the conference.
Those who pushed for the project’s approval did not attend: Mayor Nir Barkat and Koby Kahlon, the chairman of the local planning and building committee. The city engineer, the architect Shlomo Eshkol, was present but did not open his mouth. Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir was the only city representative to participate in the debate.
“We are enslaved today to the gods of growth and are obliged to make sacrifices to them,” said Nir. He then presented the audience with several questions: “Is it right to deviate so significantly regarding height? Does the building only belong to the people of means who bought it? What symbol does it offer the city?”
Architect Prof. David Guggenheim added: “Jerusalem itself is a monument and does not need another monument within it. There are no other monuments in the city beside the Temple Mount, and to add another monument is bizarre."
City of the past and future
Libeskind’s projects arouse controversy all over the world. When he took to the stage in Jerusalem this week as a seasoned presenter, he pulled out a number of controversial examples, and according to him they are not the most complicated.
“I am not nostalgic. Nostalgia never created a city,” he told the audience when presenting projects such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a tower in Warsaw and Ground Zero. He said of the Warsaw tower, “It’s a building that creates interest both in the skyline and on the ground.” He said similar things about the plan for Ground Zero, which created a new public space in south Manhattan and changed once gain New York’s skyline.
Libeskind told Haaretz that the deviation in the Jerusalem building from its clear aesthetic language, a deviation that also characterizes the new project in Tel Aviv, is not coincidental.
“It was my idea, and of course it’s a response to the program of the owner and to a discussion,” he said. “You can look at my pavilion in Milan – the dragon – it is different, but it’s completely my building. Signature cannot be a cliché. Each project should original. Eden [the Jerusalem tower] is completely my project. The world is changing and you should change with it.”
Likewise, he said he definitely would not plan the same tower in Paris.
“I wouldn’t do it any other place,” he said. “Each project I plan fits only for a particular site. I studied the site, not only by walking in the area. I went to different places in the city and looked at the site from different perspectives. That is why it is fit only for this site.”
Two years ago, Libeskind said that Jerusalem is a divine city that does not need any icons. He explains that what changed his view was reading Theodor Herzl, who said that it is not enough for Jerusalem to have only holy places.
“The city also needs modern buildings,” he said. “Each city needs modern buildings, not only Jerusalem, for new public buildings and also investment. Jerusalem has a lot of history, but the city also has a future.”
He noted that Mayor Barkat understood the importance of the project.
“Actually, I don’t think you have to say an icon,” he said. “Sustainability is not only about technology. It is also an issue of memory, and the city needs something memorable. It’s also about celebrating the everyday life of Jerusalem. The city should be a dynamic city, and that is why I especially came here.”