A Monumental Disaster

Will the Mann Auditorium be the next victim of Tel Aviv's culture of impermanence? Or can it regain what it has been denied?

The outgoing municipal engineer of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, architect Danny Kaiser, based his arguments on those of a very important personage when he wrote his article "Respecting architectural legacy - and the audience" (Haaretz, June 30). This would be none other than Ram Carmi, the son of Dov Carmi, who designed the Mann Auditorium with Ze'ev Rechter.

Kaiser cites a short passage that appears in two articles Carmi wrote on the Mann Auditorium: one published in Haaretz and the other in Skitza, an architectural periodical published by the Israel Association of United Architects. He writes: "In my opinion, an ideal concert hall is that of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ... or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles ... these are halls in which the orchestra sits at the heart of the auditorium, and the audience is intimately fanned out around it. It may be possible to create a hall of this kind in the Mann by making some slight changes."

After the headlines specifically indicating "it should not be touched," Carmi permits "slight changes." Kaiser chooses not to cite the following paragraph by Carmi, in which he wrote: "In the existing building, constructed toward the end of the period of austerity, most of the money was invested in the design of the concert hall. If it is demolished, the investment in the building will essentially go down the drain. It would already be better to build a new concert hall for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and leave this hall for the young at heart." So much for the choice of quotations and the contradicting opinions of "important personages."

Kaiser leads the move for changes in the Mann Auditorium with the blessing of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who apparently did not learn the lesson from his predecessor's predecessor, Shlomo Lahat, who in his enthusiasm for "renovation" destroyed the beating heart of the "White City," Dizengoff Square. Lahat could not say he wasn't warned. In 1977, before the changes in the square were carried out, Haaretz published a letter to the editor I wrote, entitled "Tel Aviv - a temporary city," which said, among other things: "The historical value of urban monuments is a value that many Israelis learn to appreciate on their travels abroad .... Almost all of them are familiar with Trafalgar Square in London, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Empire State Building in New York, even before they have set foot in these places. There is pleasure knowing these places preserve a historical continuity of which the visitor is aware, and from which he draws his pleasure.

"Compared to these cities, Tel Aviv is a temporary city. The Habima Theater on a postcard from the 1940s is not similar to the Habima Theater on a postcard from the 1970s, because the Habima Theater ... is a temporary structure .... I could present many other examples of historical buildings and sites in Tel Aviv that have been sacrificed on the altar of impermanence .... Dizengoff Square has for years been the Trafalgar Square of Tel Aviv. ... It has tremendous sentimental value both for locals and strangers, not to mention the fact that it is a first-rate cultural asset. ... The actions of the Tel Aviv Municipality in Dizengoff Square are a disaster for the city and its residents." Toward the end of his long term as mayor, Lahat internalized the barbaric significance of the rape of the square, apologized and promised to restore its original glory - a promise yet to be fulfilled.

Since the disasters of Gymnasia Herzliya and Dizengoff Square, public awareness of the value of preserving the architectural legacy has increased. The Tel Aviv Municipality expressed this in an ambitious preservation plan designating 1,500 buildings for preservation, including the Mann, and had Tel Aviv declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. As a result, two Templar buildings in the Sharona neighborhood were moved recently, with great effort and a large financial investment. And now, the municipality is ignoring the preservation plan and the Unesco declaration.

When an ordinary citizen wants to make even the slightest change in a building marked for preservation, he encounters a stone wall. But when it comes to the city, the municipal establishment is showing disdain for a World Heritage Site, as well as rudeness and disregard for the law.

Large but intimate

I saw the plan for the proposed changes to the Mann Auditorium on two occasions: first when the municipal engineer presented it to the Knesset Education Committee, and again when he presented it, along with Maestro Zubin Mehta, to the professional committee of the architects association. On both occasions, the design was shown in a computerized presentation that did not enable a thorough perusal of the details, but was sufficient to understand the plan involves substantially changing the entire structure, outside and inside, of one of the most successful buildings designed and constructed in Israel since the founding of the state, if not the best of all.

I once again find myself strenuously opposing the plan the municipality is promoting. But this time I do not want to find myself saying "I told you so," as with Dizengoff Square. I find myself in the good company of other opponents who are not necessarily architects. The pioneer of the struggle, Esther Zandberg, revealed the municipality and the orchestra's plans in Haaretz, bringing the subject up for a public discussion that the municipality had wanted to prevent. The Israel United Architects Association and the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Settlement Sites have also joined the struggle. MKs Eti Livni and Yuli Tamir initiated a discussion in the Knesset Education Committee. Let Huldai et Kaiser, the board of directors of the orchestra and the donors, know that the battle over the Mann Auditorium is only beginning.

Buildings like the Mann Auditorium are complex structures. There are few in the world that possess the simplicity and clarity that distinguish the Mann. Its transparency and lightness turn every event held there into a municipal event. In spite of its size (2,750 seats), both the auditorium and its lobbies are intimate. Passing from the entrance through the lobby to the auditorium is simple, clear and easygoing. The intermissions in the hallway are an impressive social event, because of the planning that links the spaces between the levels of the lobby. The balcony that descends from both sides of the auditorium to the stage level unites the audiences in the lower auditorium and the balcony, and divides the seating areas into intimate clusters, which compensate for the auditorium's large dimensions. The auditorium's side facades, with their aisles and space for latecomers, are a work of art of three-dimensional design. Even the ceiling of the auditorium - the white pyramids surrounded by an airy wooden grid - is a work of art, which allows for warm and varied lighting, and quiet and interesting complexity, thus contributing to the sense of intimacy in the auditorium.

The surrounding balconies were not properly exploited by those operating the hall, until lately, when the eastern balcony facing Huberman Street was turned into a smoking area, and now serving many. They reduce the unnecessary monumentalism that is typical of buildings of its type in Israel and the world over; they endow it with an atmosphere of accessibility and openness, and enable cooperation between pedestrians on the street and the audience.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which talks about the importance of culture, has neglected the Mann Auditorium during its 48 years and has shown great disdain for it. The wooden paneling around the stage has been damaged but never repaired. The delicate wooden ceilings were damaged by careless installations and were "repaired" with a network of patches. A few years ago, the elegant gray linoleum was covered with a fashionable parquet floor, but a few weeks later, it already looked like the original floor, which had been damaged after 50 years of use. The metal frames of the glass facades were painted a trendy green, instead of the original elegant gray. Women's bathrooms were built under one of the levels of the lobby, reducing the open space, and with shoddy work by an inferior renovations contractor, without proper supervision. Over the years, commercial posters were hung on the main facade, and the front lobby turned into a showroom for car importers.

A dangerous gamble

Kaiser brings up two "winning" reasons for the proposed renovation. He claims that the building, which was constructed about 50 years ago, does not meet the security and fire regulations in force today, and that in fact, as the municipal engineer, he should have withheld the operation permit from the orchestra. If Kaiser were to enforce the latest regulations all over the city, he would have to close at least half of the buildings, which do not meet regulations for bomb shelters, fire security, earthquakes, railings, stairwells, et al. Clearly he is not doing that, and were it not for his barbaric approach to heritage, he would find a way to improve what can be improved while punctiliously preserving the building.

His other argument relates to acoustics. With admirable courage, he and Maestro Mehta reveal to the hundreds of thousands of orchestra subscribers - who for years sat in the auditorium and thought that they were enjoying a musical performance by a wonderful orchestra, with the best conductors and performers - that they were actually undergoing these experiences in an auditorium that is acoustically inferior.

Acoustics are a matter of fashion. When the Mann Auditorium was designed, the fashion was to emphasize details at the expense of the "size of the sound," based on a reverberation time of about 1.5 seconds. Recently, the fashion has changed, and orchestras prefer "a large sound" to distinguishing details, and therefore, they want a reverberation time of two seconds. On the other hand, in a double reversal, in recent years the fashion has developed of playing ancient music on period instruments; these instruments are actually acoustically "inferior" to those that developed over the years, which have a "large sound." So what will happen if in another five years the fashion changes again?

With characteristic frankness and charm, Mehta explained to the members of the professional committee of the architects association that he is interested only in music. And that's a shame. Music is one aspect of the culture being created in Israel, but culture has many aspects, and architecture is an important and inseparable part of it. For 40 years, Mehta has linked his destiny with the IPO and the Mann Auditorium - 40 years during which he turned into one of the leading conductors in the world. How did he remain silent for 40 years and refrain from telling us that we were listening to music being played in inferior conditions?

The original design of the Mann Auditorium was monitored by one of the great acoustical experts of the time, and yet, according to Kaiser, the result, immediately upon the dedication of the building, was inferior. The design of the "renovated" auditorium is also being carried out under the guidance of one of the greatest acoustical experts of our time. Who will guarantee that with the completion of the "renovation," Kaiser will not come and claim that the design has failed once again? Will we sacrifice a top-notch cultural asset in such a dangerous gamble?

The failure is not only a matter of architecture and design. It is mainly a cultural failure. It begins with the demands being made of the architects by the clients - the IPO, the directorship of the Mann Auditorium and the Tel Aviv Municipality. Most of the required changes can be made through a restoration faithful to the original, and a renovation of elements that have become worn out. Some of the changes can and should be relinquished.

When the Taliban destroys statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, they are called barbarians, and the act is called vandalism. "Renovating" the Mann Auditorium is such an act. I call on the IPO, the auditorium directors and the Tel Aviv Municipality to reconsider their demands and to do everything possible to restore the Mann Auditorium building, and to return to it the culture it has been denied for so many years.

The writer is an architect and the head of the Azrieli School of Architecture at Tel Aviv University.