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This article was originally published in Domus 951/October 2011.
Tel Aviv is hot and restless. The dusty "tent city" of protesting students that appeared in July continues to sprawl its discontent through the main boulevard. I'm told that the weekly marches against the government, which counted hundreds of thousands of participants in recent days, have yet to reach their peak. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is already playing its own role in the city's summer of dissent. Rabin Square, customarily used for mass gatherings, is closed for renovation and so the homemade banners and clanking saucepans of social unrest now parade in the public plaza of the city's cultural cluster on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard. The avenue is grandiose and so is its collection of buildings, with an opera house, library, theatre and the heavy-set 1970s' brutalist museum of art dominating the vista. But from the vast concrete forecourt I can just make out a tangential view of its glistening and dexterous new extension. Could this be the new face of Israeli art?
"The new museum building's mission is to introduce Israeli modern art—a part of modernism, but distinct and unique—to the international community," explains the architect Preston Scott Cohen, who won the competition to design the extension in 2003. "Only foreignness would take the new building out of the Israeli context and place it within the context of the international architectural community... yet I wanted this to be a building that was unmistakably Israeli."
The pale concrete panels of the Amir Building tessellate across oblique, tilting, stretched sheer planes and pyramids. But it was the architect's use of concrete that threatened to unbalance the fragile ecosystem and this city's sense of self. "Initially, the city planners strongly contested the facade material, concrete," continues Cohen. "The idea was to resist the currently popular tendency to import to Tel Aviv the post-modern stone facade vocabulary of Jerusalem. Today, in Israel, cast-in-place concrete as a finish is, for all intents and purposes, taboo. For many, it recalls a by-gone era of provincialism and undignified pragmatism, or worse, it signifies the uglier present-day military infrastructure."
The museum's art collection had already outgrown the original building by the time of its completion. An adjacent triangular site was consequently allocated to the long-planned extension, and the cultural district's urban plan was altered to include this space. The resulting structure hovers between several sun-drenched public spaces. "It was like a keystone, the last piece of the construction," says Cohen. His design filled the void in the cultural district's master plan, and also created a new public space by demolishing parts of failing infrastructure, a process he describes as "open-heart surgery for the city". This stylised form-making disguises a plan that appears to follow an almost conservative approach to museum design.
The building is formed from six overlapping rectilinear boxes—the galleries—which are then twisted around a central atrium. These galleries are reconnected to each other through a series of oscillating vertical lines, which in turn create the dramatic double curvatures. The whole composition is clad in precast concrete panels whose size diminishes in various places, creating playful frames and forceful perspectives. The task of reconciling the client's technical needs for versatile spaces with the implicit demand for a crowd-pleasing design was resolved in an act of adroit architectural diplomacy by Cohen: the white box meets the icon. But the age of the icon has passed, and does Israel really need this twisting, turning extravaganza to prove its commitment to the arts? Cohen believes the building is more modest than it may appear.
Despite its painstakingly constructed shell, the building is all but invisible to pedestrians walking along the road. Largely protected by the older buildings around it, the structure primarily communicates via the interior spectacle of vast exposed concrete hulls and twists and turns. As Cohen states: "In every way, it is a unique situation in Tel Aviv. It will stand out not from the outside, but rather from the inside." The main entrance to the extension is through the existing museum, so it is hard to discern the impact until one arrives at the atrium. The 26-metre-high spiralling exposed concrete atrium is undoubtedly the centre of gravity and star of the show. The temperature and lighting of the galleries is tightly controlled, so when leaving and entering the communal space one feels magnetically drawn to the edges of the atrium to be drenched in some daylight, be dazzled by the structure, and of course to indulge in some people-watching as visitors trickle through the zigzagging spaces above and below.
The casting of the concrete took a year and a half, supervised by the project architect Amit Nemlich. In a delightful twist, the concrete panels for the facade were cast on site in the belly of the structure, as if the building itself were a factory for its own construction. The absence of vertical walls in the foyer and the exposed concrete is beautifully finished and crafted. But we have seen this before and so the structure doesn't feel radical. It is refined and elegant, a gentle, clever and thoughtful connection paying tacit respect to the materiality of the city of the Bauhaus émigrés of the 1930s without indulging in nostalgia. The connection to the sculpture garden and the light-filled restaurant spaces will operate beautifully and the movement around the perimeter and between the old and new galleries is seamless. The Amir Building—named after its benefactors Paul and Herta Amir—will doubtless be one of the most admired new structures in the city along with Fuksas's Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa and Ron Arad's facade for the Design Museum in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. But for many, the purpose of the museum—to connect Israel's art world to the international art scene—is difficult to believe. The exhibitions at the "old" museum were too often criticised for following state narratives and rarely reflecting the political situation.
Recently the board of this institution, consisting largely of wealthy entrepreneurs and donors, was forced to install an artist in its number after a sit-in protest demanding representation. In addition, four Indian artists invited to exhibit in the inaugural show Deconstructing India have decided to boycott the event, refusing to take part in what they describe as "Brand Israel". Preston Scott Cohen's contribution, for all its quality and elegance, helplessly exudes wealth and status and the implicit power that goes with it. The building changes this cluster by creating a public space and adding some freshness to this vast boulevard. Yet despite the protests, marches and sit-ins, this still does not feel like Tel Aviv's Tate Modern moment. The changes that need to be made if it wants to become the open, national institution it aims to be are far beyond the craftsmanship of this structure. Beatrice Galilee Critic and curator