The National Library of Israel: symbolism or urbanism?

The cornerstone was laid last week for the new National Library of Israel building — a smooth, modernist crescent of limestone-compound and glass that is destined to take its place within a monoculture of standalone tourist attractions, in that part of Jerusalem known as Kiryat HaLe’om  —  the National Quarter.

Below is a rendering of the National Library building, followed by images of some of the other cultural facilities that already exist or are slated for construction in the National Quarter:

nature museum schwartz
Nature Museum campus, Schwartz-Besnosoff Architects

The media buzz about the new National Library building is very upbeat, and populist. A major cultural institution is being moved from its secluded setting within a gated university campus to a freely-accessible quarter of the nation’s capital — a win for the common man. While we’re rejoicing over that, we can also exult in the sleekness and poshness of the future structure’s design, its generous skylit reading room.

The talk is upbeat; but something has been left out of the conversation.

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It doesn’t take a degree in city planning, or more than a passing familiarity with the urbanist literature freely available on the Internet, to perceive that there’s a problem with Jerusalem’s National Quarter. In an era when the phrase “mixed-use development” is on everyone’s lips, and when even the most banal housing projects proudly offer ground-level retail, we can’t seem to get past the idea that major museums and cultural institutions have to be concentrated all in one place — if you can call an assortment of widely-spaced museum campuses, each comprising its own gardens, cafeterias and souvenir shops, a “concentration.”

More than half a century ago, Jane Jacobs cautioned against creating “decontaminated” cultural districts and made a compelling case for the strategic deployment of cultural and public buildings as “chessmen,” to enhance the vitality and diversity of different city areas. This approach would view the concentration of major museums and cultural facilities in a single, dedicated compound not only as a problem for that area, but as a loss for the city as a whole.

In his famous essay of the same era, A City Is Not a Tree, Christopher Alexander had this to say about one well-known single-use cultural district, NYC’s Lincoln Center, whose problematic design ultimately necessitated a $1.2 billion renovation:

Does a concert hall ask to be next to an opera house? Can the two feed on one another? Will anybody ever visit them both, gluttonously, in a single evening, or even buy tickets from one after going to a performance in the other? In Vienna, London, Paris, each of the performing arts has found its own place, because all are not mixed randomly. Each has created its own familiar section of the city. In Manhattan itself, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House were not built side by side. Each found its own place, and now creates its own atmosphere. The influence of each overlaps the parts of the city which have been made unique to it.

Will even the most gluttonous culture vulture, the most rapacious tourist, want to visit both the the future National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel and the National Library of Israel on the same day? Will Israel’s future Nature Museum benefit from proximity to the Knesset?

Jerusalem the city, or Jerusalem the symbol?

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In our suburban-sprawl world, Jacobsian urbanism has hardly been implemented; yet there is a backlash. I’ve heard it argued, for instance, that because Jerusalem is hilly and lacks an egalitarian street grid, it represents a different kind of urbanism that needn’t emphasize the diverse street over the dedicated compound.

Assuming that there is merit in this argument, the response would have to be that there are compounds — and there are compounds. Berlin’s Museum Island, for instance, as described by Hazel Borys of Placemakers, is near “restaurants, hotels and shops” that offer up a “walkable, compact, complete neighborhood:”

berlin museum island spree
Courtesy Hazel Borys/Placemakers

This is hardly the case with Jerusalem’s National Quarter, where the existing and future museums and cultural/governmental buildings are scattered and surrounded by “greenspace” that is more buffer than usable park.

knesset view
National Library of Israel — view from the Knesset

The problems with the National Quarter are nothing new, and efforts are being made to address them, including a plan to bring a measure of order to the compound. But it is unclear how effective the efforts will be. It’s worth noting that the architects chosen to design the Nature Museum, one of the institutions slated for construction in the National Quarter, have publicly ridiculed the city’s hopes to generate urban vitality there, declaring it a “lost cause,” since the buildings “do not stand in any relation to each other.” This contempt for the National Quarter’s potential for urban intensiveness is reflected in the Nature Museum’s design, which has been described as presenting “no meaningful frontage to the surrounding streets” and as “retreating inward” and “entrenching itself underground.”

Likewise, the Israel Museum underwent a hundred million dollar renovation a few years ago that, as I have noted elsewhere, both accommodates and reinforces the Museum’s anti-urban quality.

The Swiss architecture firm hired to design the National Library of Israel is also fully cognizant of the problems with the National Quarter — but is a little more circumspect than the Nature Museum’s architects. Rather than open mockery, it has chosen the path of obfuscation, as demonstrated by the firm’s background statement on the NLI project:

Jerusalem has two primary urban precincts. The historical center lies to the East while the modern administrative and cultural zone sits among newer development in the West. The dense and highly pedestrianized old city forms the dominant image of Jerusalem. Unlike the old city, buildings in the new development are heterogeneous, freestanding, and primarily linked by vehicular traffic. It is in this area that the site for the National Library of Israel is located. [Emphasis mine, JR]

Translation: We know that Jerusalem’s so-called National Quarter is an urban disaster, but we have an opportunity to design an iconic building there and will grasp at it no matter what.

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As part of the National Library’s cornerstone-laying events, one of the architects, Jacques Herzog, delivered a public lecture on the project. The lecture provided a fascinating glimpse into the starchitecture process.

I was able to relate to the inner logic driving the genesis of the soon-to-be-iconic building. It’s like responding to the inner logic of any other element of the built environment — a prison, a big box store — that is not meant to be integrated into a functioning streetscape.

Once you accept the premise of “freestanding” buildings “primarily linked by vehicular traffic,” you simply proceed with your bird’s-eye — or windshield-eye — view. You talk about your building’s “urbanistic contribution” in terms of its “gesture” to the area’s “two main players” — the Knesset and the Israel Museum. You do this with a straight face.

Surprisingly, the lecture actually left me with doubts about the building’s interior — which, on the face of it, should be entirely separate from its urban contribution. The renderings certainly give the impression of a luxurious, handsome, bright and airy space for users. Yet the architects appear to have been stymied by the difficulty of making windows in the building’s limestone-and-concrete upper portion. Their unwillingness to “violate the purity” of the “totally opaque object” — the sculptural mass that gives the building its iconic quality — led them to a rather weird solution: making a latticework of small, irregular perforations in the sculptural mass.

From the outside, these perforations look interesting and tactile, like a pseudo-alphabet etched into a clay tablet:

But an interior rendering, projected on a screen during Mr. Herzog’s lecture (my apologies for the photo’s poor quality) shows a problematic internal environment. Wouldn’t it be oppressive to be surrounded by these window “teasers”? In the rendering, library users are entranced by the perforations; but is it really human nature to prefer oddly-shaped slits to actual windows? Wouldn’t the perforations be a constant source of visual frustration?

perforated windows inside

I guess this is what comes of valuing icons and symbolism over traditional urbanism. Even something as basic as a window can’t be taken for granted.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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