Monday, October 14, 2013

Mall and sprawl at the Israel Museum

This past summer vacation I happened to visit the Israel Museum for the first time since, perhaps, 2008. Because my recreational activities tend to be child-centered, and because my older boys would react with grimaces and groans in recent years whenever I suggested a Museum visit, I never got a first-hand look at the Museum’s highly-touted "renewal" until a few weeks ago, when I ventured there with my youngest child. All I could think was: they closed large portions of the Israel Museum for an extended period, and spent $100 million ...  and they couldn't plant a few trees?

It's a daunting task to criticize the Israel Museum, whose collections I'm always a little ashamed of not knowing better, and whose temporary exhibitions I'm often sorry I don't to get see (the "not getting to" is one of the main problems, see below). I'm certainly not qualified to judge the professional-curatorial aspects of the recent renovation. I'm perfectly willing to accept the consensus view that the organization of the displays is now more logical and user-friendly than it was before. In point of fact I have little basis for comparison, since my visits to the Museum, from the early 1990s up until the time the renovations started, were sporadic and, from the late 1990s on, conducted in a young-family context. I never expected to see more than a little bit of the art and archaeology stuff at a time, and was often restricted to the Youth Wing sandbox and the dim tunnel of the Shrine of the Book, which my kids, like everybody else's, related to as a kind of amusement-park funhouse.

What I find hard to grasp is that so considerable a sum of money was spent on refurbishing the Museum without addressing its inner-sprawl problem in a more meaningful way. The issue of the Museum's location -- sprawl in "macrocosm" -- is theoretically going to be addressed by urbanization plans for the surrounding area, which I discuss briefly below. But what about the grounds of the Museum "campus"  itself -- sprawl in "microcosm?"

Kiryat HaLe'om

The drawbacks of the Museum’s setting are no news to anyone. Its various structures are dispersed within a self-contained compound -- generally referred to as a "campus" -- in the city’s Givat Ram-Kiryat HaLe’om (“National Precinct”) area; the campus itself is surrounded by a sea of parking and separated from its nearest neighbors -- the Knesset, the Bloomfield Science Museum and the Hebrew University -- by a forbidding network of multi-lane roads. This setting has obvious implications for the Israel Museum’s ability to function as a public/urban amenity. You can't catch an exciting new exhibition in the course of a downtown shopping trip; you can't stop at the Museum after a stressful day at the office to decompress while contemplating a favorite painting.  It's not situated at a comfortable walking distance from anyone's place of employment. Were it more conveniently located, even a harried parent might have a shot at the occasional lunchtime gallery talk. But the Museum’s location precludes any chance at spontaneity: it's like a grand personage whom one can see only by appointment. You have to plan in advance and make an effort if you want to go to the Israel Museum.

Of course, the renovation was not meant to address the Museum’s location. Nobody thought of moving it to a part of town where it might be part of an interesting mix of uses, or be easily reached by people pursuing their everyday activities. No one wants to acknowledge that putting a major cultural institution on an isolated hilltop was a dumb idea. One could argue that moving the Museum would be impracticable at this point; yet one can’t help lamenting the single-use mindset that keeps us from arranging things effectively. The prevailing view in these parts seems to be that major museums need to be segregated in a specific of town, as with the planned removal of Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum from its longtime home in the German Colony -- near the shopping and eatery hub of Emek Refaim -- to  Kiryat HaLe’om. We also seem to think that a national museum has to be located in a national “precinct,” in deference to the Washingtonian model (and in contrast to, for instance, the Parisian model). There are indeed hopes of transforming Kiryat HaLe’om into something more than it now is. Anything would be an improvement -- even the current plans for  a local equivalent of Washington D.C.'s National Mall will surely produce something friendlier and more attractive than what currently exists. But will this be enough to bring the Israel Museum into the "city" -- to turn it into a destination for short, spontaneous visits as well as extended, pre-planned ones? That seems unlikely.

The original, American, National Mall is not generally thought of as a successful urban space. A lively debate is still going on about how to improve it; at the same time, no one appears to think the area can be turned into an exemplar of Jane Jacobs-style mixed-used urbanism. The best that seems to be hoped for is that specific portions of the Mall will be fixed up to make them more hospitable. So how optimistic can one be regarding Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om? About a year ago I shared my concerns about how removing all government offices from Jerusalem's "historic downtown" would affect that part of the city -- turning it into a tourist-oriented Disneyland whose traditional, human-scale architecture houses pubs and cafes but little else of substance. The flip side of that is Kiryat HaLe'om -- a government-institution and national-monument enclave whose hypertrophic buildings are separated by lots of what Nathan Lewis would call Green Space. The public request for proposals that was issued in 2010 for the transformation of Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om into a "central place in the life of the city" appears, on the surface, to encompass and link quite a few disparate elements ("culture, sports, leisure and recreation, tourist attractions, and events of a ceremonial, official, social and political character"). But does this really amount to a healthy mix of uses? Where's the (affordable) housing? Where's the (affordable, non-elitist) shopping?

I'm no urban fortune-teller; my crystal ball doesn't give me an entirely clear view of how the Municipality's visions of a lively pedestrian-oriented urban boulevard on Derech Ruppin will play out with Kiryat HaLe'om's existing and future iconic, monumental structures. But the plan for a new Museum of Natural History building, to be situated near the Bloomfield Science Museum, gives us more than a hint. In a Haaretz article, architect Gabi Schwartz, one of the winners of the Museum's planning competition, essentially ridicules the Jerusalem Municipality's hopes for urban vibrancy in Kiryat HaLe'om, remarking that the area is altogether chaotic and that the buildings in the vicinity do not "relate" to each other: "We felt that the battle here had already pretty much been lost, and we decided it was more important to preserve the site's green character." Haaretz reporter Noam Dvir goes on to note that the proposed building "presents no meaningful frontage to the surrounding streets, but rather retreats inward and entrenches itself underground. The main entrance from the Museum Boulevard is relatively obscure and situated in the shadow of one of the galleries."

That so major a project could have been awarded to an architect who publicly mocks the Municipality's hopes for urbanizing the area, speaks volumes about the future of Kiryat HaLe’om. The aforementioned Haaretz article notes that the planning competition's second- and third-place winners made more of an effort to relate to the urban fabric, meaning that the anti-urban choice must have been a deliberate one. One can't help but see parallels with the Israel Museum: a renewal plan by James Ingo Freed that (whatever its drawbacks) apparently encompassed a number of pro-urban and pro-human features was proposed in the late 1990s, only to be rejected following an outcry by Israel's architecture community -- which felt that it "dishonored" Alfred Mansfeld's original sprawling, user-hostile design. The renewal plan that was ultimately adopted -- the work of Efrat-Kowaski Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates -- both accommodates/reinforces the Museum's non-urban setting at the macro level and, at the micro level, perpetuates and sanctifies the campus' interior disunities and inhumanenesses.

The Israel Museum renewal

The renovation does seem to have pleased nearly all those charged with reviewing it in the media (with the exception of Esther Zandberg who fearlessly declares the emperor to be naked). The New York Times liked it, the Jerusalem Post liked it, Haaretz liked it. It is noted with satisfaction in these and other venues that you can now get to the collection wings via a climate-controlled passageway rather than facing the elements above ground. But is this really a cause for celebration? What are we ultimately left with? I'll summarize (to some degree merely echoing Zandberg, though with some added observations):
  • There is a new “entrance compound” at the “front” of the Museum which does not welcome the visitor or signal to him in an orderly, unambiguous way that he has arrived at a major cultural venue; what one sees on one's approach are a couple of banal, boxy structures (resembling oversized utility cabinets) of unclear identity. The slightly larger box is the Museum shop or "retail pavilion", while the smaller one is the actual entrance pavilion, marked by a sign so unobtrusive that many visitors who arrive by bus surely turn toward the store before noticing their error. Visitors who arrive by car (presumably the vast majority) reach the store before they reach the entrance. Given the outcry provoked by the supposedly "mall-like" character of the earlier renewal plan's entrance area, it's hard to understand how so prominent a placement could have been accorded to the retail pavilion in the later plan. The Freed plan was also excoriated for the "grotesque," pseudo-Biblical character of its entrance pavilion, which apparently featured gilded cupolas and was dubbed "the Altar." Are the current entrance structures, which aimed for "modesty," preferable? I guess one person's utility closet is another's "modesty." Or is it?
  • The same old sun-baked surface parking lot is there -- hardly a beloved feature of the Museum in its pre-renewal state. Museum Director James Snyder found that it would be "not pleasant" to enter the Museum from an underground garage. I suppose he finds the above-ground parking lot pleasant.
  • The Museum proper is still linked to the entrance area by passageways that more compact and human-friendly design would have rendered unnecessary. Mansfeld's original tiered open-air path -- the Carter Promenade --  is as shadeless and unforgiving of human physical frailty as I remember it, while the below-grade "Route of Passage" is an over-long, under-activated, sterile space whose most engaging feature is the little green golf-cart that plies its way to and fro, awaiting people with certifiable mobility challenges to transport from one end of the passage to the next. Car dependency, anyone? There's not much on display in the passage, though it's hard to imagine this being due to a paucity of displayable items. I guess the stark greyness of the tunnel is meant to render the headache induced by Olafur Eliasson's psychadelic "rainbow" at the end of it all the more intense.
  • Weirder still is the claustrophobia-inducing corridor that runs parallel to the Route of Passage -- essentially, a partitioning of the available space. Much high-flown language has been devoted to James Carpenter's "reinterpretation" of "the sensuality of narrow alleys and sunken oases by creating a defined arrangement of spatial experiences animated by phenomenal light." Apparently this rather traumatizing little alleyway was created so that the Route of Passage could be "fed natural light through prismatic glass and waterfalls."
    If this space is an example of good design, I can hardly imagine what might be considered to be bad design. Since when do architects go out of their way to create spaces that are unutilizable by humans and/or frightening to them? 
  • Campus grounds that are exceptionally -- almost spitefully -- inhospitable . Here we reach the crux of the matter:

Grounds for outrage: 

I don't expect instant perfection or magic bullets. I'm willing to accept that the Israel Museum will remain an isolated, car-oriented compound for some time to come. What really bothers me -- what prompted this critical post -- is the failure of the Museum's $100 million renewal project to turn the actual grounds of the Museum "campus" into a site that would serve its users -- local residents, foreign tourists, regular and infrequent visitors, individuals and families -- in a humane and dignified way. If the surrounding area has little potential for mixed-use urbanism in the foreseeable future, the Museum campus itself could have been made to provide a greater mix of uses to its visitors.

By "mix of uses" I don't mean that a full-fledged shopping center ought to have been erected at the site or, for that matter, a housing complex. On the other hand, a small convenience store where tourists who, say, run out of diapers for their babies might pick up an overpriced package of Huggies, wouldn’t be a bad idea. The unthinkability of adding such a minor amenity – one that would acknowledge the facility's geographic isolation and the human needs of its visitors – to the venerable Israel Museum campus, is itself a big problem. But what really bothers me is that the renovation did not try in any way to make a virtue of necessity -- to leverage the “campus” concept itself in the form of attractive, welcoming grounds where Museum visitors might relax, picnic, take breaks during their tour of the Museum, and generally enjoy a more leisurely experience of the place -- given the effort they have to make to get there and the lack of any other resources in the surrounding area.

The renovation's deficiency in this regard  is most clearly exemplified by a near-total absence of shade -- whether in the form of trees or of man-made canopies -- on the campus' extensive grounds. The very word "campus" conjures up leafy images, but the term that might best describe the Israel Museum campus on a summer's day is "sun-scorched:"

Shadeless path at the Israel Museum -- note the
"ornamental" stunted-bonzai olive trees that line the path

Well-hydrated "shrine"

Seating without shade

There is no excuse for this. The campus' various water features -- the dreary little pool at the entrance with the abstract sculpture inside it, looking like some kind of deconstructed Facebook symbol; the gurgling man-made stream that runs along the tiered open-air passageway between the Museum proper and the entrance area; the jets that continuously spray the Shrine of the Book and the "moat" surrounding the Shrine -- all of these things seem to mock the human visitor with their hints at coolness and refreshment. Perhaps the architectural statement made by the white dome of the Shrine and the contrasting black wall -- the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness imagery -- is thought to be enhanced by the glare; to this visitor, at least, the uncomfortable conditions in which one is meant to view the architecture are simply insulting. Children in particular are fascinated by the water jets and will stand gazing at them under the harsh sun for long periods until dragged away kicking and screaming.

Why can't one view the truly impressive and fascinating scale model of Second-Temple era Jerusalem in comfort? Must the model be displayed in the open air? Surely some kind of transparent dome could be erected that would cover it in natural-light conditions? Even if the open-air display has some justification, I can't understand why those who come to see it must be exposed to the elements. There are a couple of small canopies, but they are at an awkward distance from the model (which is itself gated off with a kind of buffer area). In actuality, everyone comes right up to the barrier despite the lack of shade, because they want to see the details:

Then there's the Museum's famed Billy Rose Art Garden. Like "campus," the word "garden" tends to elicit an expectation of greenery. But what is this "garden" but a series of sun-baked gravel expanses, like an almost-empty parking lot. Apparently there was a lot of space to fill up on the sprawling "campus" and not a lot of money for landscaping, so they made a kind of sensory desert punctuated by the occasional nature band-aid that -- as usual -- offers no shade:

Basically, if there happens to be a shady spot you can't sit there because there's no bench and they've made sure to put some ground cover around the tree that would be uncomfortable for a person to rest upon:

Whereas if there happens to be a bench, you can be sure there is no shade:

Of course, one would hope that an "art" garden would have some actual art in it.

Why, in short, could I not find, on my recent visit, a comfortable spot where my little daughter and I could eat the sandwiches we'd brought with us? It's hard not to feel offended by the sight of a museum restaurant's shaded outdoor dining area while one is engaged in a fruitless search for shelter. I personally witnessed a guard shooing away a visitor who, attempting to drink his mineral water in relative comfort, took refuge from the sun in a crevice of this apple core sculpture near one of the Museum's canopied eateries ...

Not everyone can find what they need in a museum cafeteria; not everyone's kids will sit still at a restaurant table; it can be a great hardship to have to stand on a long line with young children in a cafeteria; people have health issues, money issues, kashrut issues, etc. -- you can't expect every museum visitor to patronize a museum restaurant. A compound as isolated and self-contained as the Israel Museum can and ought to provide shade and comfortable seating -- at no extra cost! -- to those who make the effort to get there.

I can understand wanting visitors to patronize the Museum restaurants and souvenir shops; I can't understand the use of mall psychology to force them to do so. The feeling one gets is that the Museum management wants to herd you through the collections, the restaurants and the stores without letting you linger on the grounds -- just as in a shopping mall where there is nowhere to sit except in the food court! 

Perhaps the sprawl mentality of the Museum's original planners has evolved into mall mentality, where every space must be exploited to serve a commercial purpose. That would seem to be a logical progression. Is it unfair to slap a "suburban sprawl developer" label on Alfred Mansfeld? The claim is that he was inspired by the traditional Arab village -- that his white Modernist cubes were meant to hug the hill like village dwellings and to offer inspiring views of the surrounding landscape. It all sounds very high-minded  -- a cultural institution planned, in Zandberg's words, "on the principle of organic growth in the spirit of structuralist and cybernetic linguistic theories, which penetrated the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. It is considered internationally a unique architectural experiment." But all I see is sprawl -- what many think of today as a failed experiment. A cultural institution that in its original state required visitors -- including disabled and elderly visitors -- to "climb a steep path under a strong summer sun or during chilly winter weather to get to the exhibition halls," and whose modular structures evolved into an unnavigable maze: did we really need it? Should we still be venerating it? Was all the effort and money spent on retaining the original idea worth it?