A new spin to the White City.
Seen from the flat plaza that wraps around it on two sides, Preston Scott Cohen's radical addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art strikes a geometrically independent pose. But this angled and faceted block dressed in precast concrete actually connects with its context much more than it disrupts, continuing a legacy of innovative architecture that has made Tel Aviv a Bauhaus mecca since the 1920s. Called “the White City,” Tel Aviv's early-20th-century downtown boasts buildings by Erich Mendelsohn, a master plan by Patrick Geddes, and hundreds of International Style structures. In 2003, UNESCO declared it a World Cultural Heritage site.
- Steel structure: Minrav Steel
- Pre-cast concrete panels: Danya-Minrav
- Stone flooring: Jerusalem Gardens Stone Works
Like those 20th-century buildings, Cohen's 195,000-square-foot museum addition expresses a faith in the latest technology. And like much traditional Mediterranean architecture, it hides an intriguing core within a cool, white exterior. The museum's new wing—called the Herta and Paul Amir Building—works from the inside out. Spiraling around a dramatic 87-foot-high atrium that the architect calls the Lightfall, the building takes visitors through a series of spatial experiences that are complex at its center and simpler at its perimeter. In its construction, too, the project started from the inside, with precast-concrete panels manufactured on-site in an area that is now a gallery. After casting the panels, workers attached them to the building's steel frame to form a faceted, weatherproof envelope. (See sidebar, A Folded and Faceted Facade)
Even the building's location is set within something else—an interior site with no frontage on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, the main street leading to the Tel Aviv Museum. While the museum's 1971 Brutalist-style main building (designed by Dan Eytan and Yitzchak Yashar) addresses Shaul Hamelech from across an entry plaza, Cohen's adjacent building sits behind a public library and a performing arts complex. Visitors discover the addition only by turning left after walking through the entry plaza. (If they arrive by car, they park below ground, then take an elevator to the redesigned plaza in front of the addition.)
Asked by the museum to provide rectangular galleries in a building on a triangular site, Cohen used the central atrium to negotiate between the two geometries—in the process creating a skylit element that cants, angles, and curves from three stories below grade to two above. Beautifully constructed of poured-in-place concrete with long slashes cut out to bring light and views through it, the Lightfall asserts its own identity as a freestanding structure within the museum. Although the Lightfall holds itself up, it does not support any other part of the building. (See sidebar, A Spiraling and Twisting Core)
“The Lightfall is both an autonomous element within the building and the piece that joins everything else,” says Cohen, who used sophisticated computer software to help shape the complex (continued on pg. 79) structure. “It's the source of authority in the architecture, not just the leftover space.” And because the stairs and ramps around the Lightfall provide most of the circulation in the museum, the galleries can provide more space for art.
Visitors can enter the new building two different ways: through a glass-enclosed connector from the main building or from the plaza. In many respects, the addition acts as a pair of museums, and the circulation into and through it reinforces this impression. If you come from the old building, you arrive at a tall lobby with a long escalator that takes you to a top-floor space called the Israeli Promenade. From there, you follow a path along the perimeter of the building to a series of large galleries exhibiting the museum's acclaimed collection of 20th-century and contemporary Israeli art. In essence, this portion of the building serves as an extension of the existing museum and the collections found there.
If you enter the Amir Building from the plaza, though, you discover a different kind of museum—one dedicated to changing exhibitions, as well as photography, architecture, and design. It also houses a museum shop on the entry level, a 450-seat auditorium below, and a two-story library above. From the plaza, the building appears as a horizontal object rising just a couple of stories. But after you buy your ticket and walk to the Lightfall, you can look both down and up the full height of the atrium. “This plunging, vertical space comes as a surprise,” says Cohen.
No matter your route, moving through the new building is an architectural dance between neutral, orthogonal galleries and the ever-changing geometry of the Lightfall. Sculpted as a series of 28 hyperbolic paraboloids, the Lightfall exerts a magnetic pull toward the center of the building. While its concrete shell is exposed on its sides facing the galleries, white plaster on its interior surfaces reflects daylight throughout the building. Cohen stacked the galleries and rotated each one 22.5 degrees from the next, spiraling the spaces around the void.
The museum's director, Mordechai Omer, who oversaw the project since the design competition in 2003 but died just months before it was set to open in November, had insisted on simple galleries with no direct daylight. While the resulting rooms do provide flexible spaces for many kinds of exhibitions, the larger ones—such as the 9,000-square-foot temporary gallery on the lowest level—come across as cold and distant settings for art. Other museums have found ways of filtering daylight to protect art while using the light to animate gallery spaces.
The architectural energy generated by the Lightfall dissipates on the outside of the building, where large precast-concrete panels form a taut, flush skin of folded planes. Cohen had wanted to continue the hyperbolic paraboloids found in the Lightfall on the building's facades, but this proved to be too expensive. So he created faceted surfaces instead. As a result, the exterior lacks the visual excitement of the interior and seems a bit disconnected from its geometries. The plaza beyond the building, which Cohen redesigned as a hard, abstract plane, would benefit, too, from some shaded areas and places to sit.
Yet the Herta and Paul Amir Building offers Tel Aviv an exciting new place to see art and experience innovative architecture. While its Lightfall activates a powerful, centripetal force inside, it makes strong connections to the museum's main building and to the city's history of embracing radical leaps in Modernism within its urban fabric.
Completion Date: October 2011
Gross square footage: 195,000 square feet
Total construction cost: $55 million
Preston Scott Cohen, Inc.
179 Sidney Street, 1st floor
Cambridge, MA 02139