A New Angle On Israeli Art
Thu, 12/01/2011
Israel Correspondent
The entrance of the new Amir Building is nestled into a cultural complex that also houses the Cameri Theater.
The entrance of the new Amir Building is nestled into a cultural complex that also houses the Cameri Theater.

Tel Aviv — In recent years, Tel Aviv has gained international acclaim as a mecca for fans of Bauhaus architecture from the 1930s and 1940s. With the opening of the new Herta and Paul Amir Building of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the city’s architecture is again helping to attracting global attention.

The $45-million building, which opened last month, is part ambitious architectural statement and part display window onto the world’s largest collection of Israeli art, which stretches back a century.

What it all adds up to is part of a wider municipal effort to further upgrade Tel Aviv’s global profile to put it on par with the Barcelonas and Berlins as a leading economic and cultural hub. It is hoped that the new building will be a draw for Tel Aviv tourism and help anchor the city’s thriving arts scene.

“This type of building doesn’t just happen,” said Eitan Schwartz, an adviser to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. “This city is part of a world discourse, and part of that is architecture.”

Designed by Harvard University architecture professor Preston Scott Cohen, the building’s aesthetic seems bent on taking Tel Aviv’s modernist urban motif into new territory.

The building’s exterior looks like a massive arc of flowing geometric shapes that jumped off a computer screen to fit snugly into a cultural complex housing the Cameri Theater, the Israel Opera, the municipal library, and the museum’s original (the staff insists on avoiding the “old”) building, a Brutalist-style creation from 1972.

Once inside, visitors experience a kaleidoscope of shapes and angles as they ascend and descend the museum’s central atrium linking multiple galleries covering Israeli art, temporary exhibitions, architecture and design. Part of the architectural effect is due to what is referred to as a “waterfall of light” that enters through the ceiling and is refracted five stories down to illuminate a cafeteria three stories below.

The architecture is so compelling that it almost requires setting aside at least an hour to take it all in. When a touring Finnish journalist asked if she was satisfied with the museum’s design, museum curator coordinator Pnina Kaplan smiled knowingly. “It’s very good. We have had lots of publicity in The New York Times and Le Monde.”

Indeed, the design has stirred plenty of buzz among the architectural literati.

The website Archinect.com concluded that “the Amir Building’s synthesis of radical and conventional geometries produces a new type of museum experience.”

But this wouldn’t be a truly Israeli building if there wasn’t some local dissent. The Haaretz newspaper published a particularly scathing review suggesting Cohen’s design was overly indulgent, reflecting the hubris of city leaders.

“The architecture forces itself from every side, and can literally smack visitors on the heads,” wrote Esther Zandberg. “Consider yourselves warned. The emperor, it seems, has too many clothes, and they don’t match.”

The new wing nearly doubles the size of the original museum from 60,000 square feet to about 120,000. It marks the fifth major expansion of the Tel Aviv Museum, an institution that is intertwined with city history: The original galleries were housed in the bottom floor of the Rothschild Boulevard residence of Tel Aviv’s founding Mayor Meir Dizengoff, who traveled to Europe to collect art.

At the termination of the British Mandate in May 1948, David Ben Gurion gathered leaders of Jewish yishuv together at the museum to read Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The new building turns the spotlight to the development of Israeli artists, beginning with the establishment of the Betzalel Arts School in 1909 and its initial focus on motifs that sought to fuse the Orient with the new Hebrew culture.

There are three rooms that break up Israeli art history into three periods: in the first, the emphasis is primarily on the collective enterprise of Zionism and state-building, and covers up to 1960; in the second the focus on individual themes, or “private identities,” spans the ’60s,’70s and ’80s; and in the third, which features video art, the emphasis is on a contemporary dialectic between the globalized world and the local Israeli experience, or “glocalism.”

Without the display space created by the expansion, the works would continue to languish in storage, closed away in the museum’s private collection.

In addition to the opening of the new wing, the city is planning a year’s worth of events, aptly named “Art Year.” Featured will be city art tours, all-nighters at the museum and an art focus for the annual citywide “White Night” block party.

It’s the latest push by the city to draw attention to the growing international recognition of Israeli artists. Indeed, at the city centennial two years ago, the municipality sponsored a series of events highlighting Israeli contemporary art.

Schwartz, the Tel Aviv mayor’s adviser, said that focus on art is an attempt to groom the city as a destination for Europe’s entrepreneurs of both business and the arts. Tel Aviv wants to “be an attractive city for the European creative class. Our aim is to be a destination for the young European entrepreneur,” he said. “The opening of the museum is yet another step to making the city attractive to these people.”