Cultural identities that over centuries were based on geographical boundaries have in our time been broken down, supplanted by an ever expanding global culture. This trend, as in many other aspects of our lives, is clearly reflected in the field of architecture.
The accumulation of capital enabling building on a far larger scale along with technological changes, most especially the digital and communication revolutions, have for the last 30 years or so, created a breed of star-architects heading internationally famous architectural firms that are awarded commissions to design major building projects world-wide.
Ten of these firms based in the United States, Europe and Asia have already visited our shores. Pei, Cobb, Freed – New York is presently involved in no less than ten important projects in Israel. The latest in line, Herzog and De Meuron Architects, (over 600 staff, completed projects in 40 countries) based in Basel, Switzerland, designed the new National Library of Israel in Jerusalem (construction cost – 240 million dollars), scheduled to open its doors in late October. Foster and Partners – London (1400 staff, projects completed in 75 countries) are the designers of residential towers for Tel-Aviv’s Kikar Atarim.
Supporting this trend is often a local provincial mentality, or private developers hoping to build on their fame in order to gain excessive building rights, thereby maximizing profits.
As many of these foreign firms are international corporations, most local architectural offices are not competitive. Costly technological changes such as new computer assisted drawing programs, help weaken the profession here. Israeli firms are partnered by them mainly to help cope with our formidable planning and building bureaucracy.
Basic and critical to architecture is that it must be inextricably bound to its physical environmental, social and cultural context and appropriately responsive to specific sites – their climate, topography, materials and light. Starchitects have too often imposed their very personal formal language on key locations they little understood.
Perhaps the ultimate case in point was Frank Gehry’s capricious 250 million dollar proposal for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem (2010), thankfully shelved. Former Jerusalem City Engineer, architect Shlomo Eshkol presented Gehry’s design without a word of criticism, for who would dare to question or challenge the work of the famous Frank Gehry?
Simply disoriented was Mexican architect, Ricardo Legoretta, who decided that Jerusalem’s Davidka Square should be an urban oasis, failing completely to understand its life-giving points of access. We are now stuck with yet another dead public square.
Some years ago Studio Liebeskind – New York proposed a 24 story pyramid – tower (in order to gain maximum building area of course) on the site of the former Eden Cinema in Jerusalem’s center which they proudly claimed would be taller than those in Giza.
Although their projects do at times succeed, chances are that some of the future projects designed by star – architects will fail or be invasive as well.
As for Israel architecture, given the present cultural climate where money and power clearly has the upper hand, optimism is difficult. The hope lies with well-informed and well-advised clients, considering the long-range consequences of their decisions, together with young, well-educated native talent, deeply aware of its cultural heritage, given the opportunity to gain significant experience and fully realize its creative potential.
Gerard Heumann – Architect and Town Planner, Jerusalem
Proposed image: Gehry Partners proposal for The Museum of Tolerance