Bennett Tucker

“Starchitects” rebranding Jerusalem for the global future

New Bezalel's Jack, Jospeh and Morton Mandel Campus (Dor Kedmi/Bezalel Academy of Arts)
New Bezalel's Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Campus. (Dor Kedmi/Bezalel Academy of Arts)

The ongoing construction of the Jerusalem Gateway project, Central Business District (CBD), and numerous high-rise apartments scattered across Jerusalem’s cityscape give clear evidence to the municipality’s effort to rebrand the Holy City as a competitive, world-class business, cultural, and hi-tech center. Soon to be the site of 20 new high-rises between 18 and 40 stories, the Gateway and CBD projects alone, noted former city mayor Nir Barkat, marks “the biggest, most significant and essential project for the future of the city.”

Jerusalem’s rebranding campaign is also bolstered by recent commissions from international celebrity architects (dubbed “starchitects”) for the design of landmark buildings. While new soaring glass and steel skyscrapers challenge the city’s longstanding height and façade ordinances with a visual “wow” factor, the signature buildings from renowned starchitects work on a more symbolic level to imbue the city with international appeal and cultural prestige.

This phenomenon is known as the “Bilboa Effect” after California starchitect Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa in 1997. This architectural feat singlehandedly placed the provincial Spanish city on the global tourist map. Since then, municipalities and global real estate magnets have believed that iconic buildings by brand-name starchitects can stimulate local development and international appeal. “Non-Western nations, in particular,” noted Ahmed Kanna and Arang Keshavarzia, “hit upon urban development featuring ‘starchitects’ as a means of marketing their cities and cultures to the investors and tourists of the world.”

Jerusalem is no stranger to iconic architecture. The Dome of the Rock, Tower of David, Montefiore Windmill, and the crenelated walls of the Old City have long stood as recognizable emblems. Likewise, initial starchitect commissions surfaced in 2008 with Moshe Safdie’s hotels and the Mamilla shopping district followed by the Chords Bridge designed by Spanish designer Santiago Calatrava. The municipality’s current aim, however, seeks to propel Jerusalem into the 21st-century with an urban fabric marketable to international investors. The recent completion of the National Library of Israel (NLI) and Bezalel Academy’s Mandel Campus in 2023 by international starchitects, therefore, marks the first stages of an experimental “Bilbao Effect.”

The celebrity Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron – awardees of the prestigious Pritzker Prize and known for the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie and the Beijing National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) – was awarded the NLI commission in 2014 based on their celebrity credentials alone, without even submitting a design proposal. The library building, nestled between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, is characterized by its swooping roofline and enclosed monolithic structure. According to the architects, the abstract patterns and incisions across the stone façade are a nod to Israel’s antiquity and “reminiscent of culturally specific imagery and text.” The appeal of its architecture is evinced by the daily crowds of visitors and professional and amateur photographers.

The Bezalel Academy’s new Jack, Josef, and Morton Mandel Campus between the Russian Compound and City Hall was designed by Tokyo-based SANAA architects. “The appeal of this project,” noted SANAA partner Yoshitaka Tanase, “is that it is a very new form…yet it has a sense of connection and unity with the city.” The campus building embodies a clean and spacious aesthetic created by slender columns supporting intersecting terraces and glass walls. According to a Bezalel statement, “the new campus strives to revitalize and reinvent Jerusalem’s city center, transforming it into a national and international center for culture and creativity.”

While the locations and mid-rise profiles of the NLI and Bezalel’s Mandel Campus are such that both buildings remain relatively out of immediate public view, their signature designs carry enough symbolic weight as “urban boosters” without having to make a public visual “splash.”

Even more out of view will be the Einstein House archive and research center at the Hebrew University’s Safra Campus in Givat Ram when completed at the end of 2024. Designed by Daniel Libeskind – the Polish-American starchitect known for One World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Jewish Museum in Berlin – the 2,700 square meter building was designed as a twisted and curved cube to reflect Einstein’s complex drawings of “projective geometry” and the “curvature of the universe.” The Jewish starchitect’s inaugural work in Jerusalem comes in the wake of a controversial rejection of his ambitious 165-meter skyscraper pyramid that was first proposed for the Mahane Yehuda neighborhood.

Perhaps the most visual “starchitectural splash” will come from the new International Convention Center (ICC) designed by the Italian firm Studio Fuksas and integrated into the greater Gateway and CBD projects. Soon to be the largest conference center in the Middle East, the new ICC will also house a 10-story hotel, two 36-story office towers, and a large plaza that will connect to the district’s walking paths and greenways and allow pedestrian access to the central train and bus stations.

Slender concrete columns will support a massive glass curtain wall exposing the symmetrical inner staircases and elevated walkways and arteries of the new ICC’s grand foyer. The rest of the complex will be cloaked in local stone that the architects deem will integrate perfectly into the surrounding urban context. The famed Italian firm, led by Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, boasts more than 600 architectural projects across the world.

While Jerusalem enters yet another chapter in its immemorial history, the implementation of the “Bilbao Effect” invites critical questions. The development of a distinct “Zionist architecture” in the pre-state era relied on local Jewish architects who adapted international modernist trends for the construction of new Jewish cities. As international celebrities now leave their mark on Jerusalem’s urban fabric at the behest of the municipality and local investors, one cannot help but notice the changing character of Zionist architecture. No longer the sacred task of Israeli or Jewish ingenuity alone; international starchitects are now entrusted with rebranding and empowering the Holy City for the global future.

About the Author
Bennett Tucker is an architectural historian and freelance writer with degrees from the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Hebrew University.
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