An architectural masterpiece on Tel Aviv’s coastline canvas will enhance the city among the leading cultural capitals of the world
By David E. Kaplan
It is said that the 21st century is destined to be the century of cities rather than countries. This forecast is evident in the vocabulary of today’s tourists – at least before Corona – of visiting Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg or Shanghai rather than mentioning the countries in which they are situated – France, Spain, Russia or China!
More than half the world’s population has already moved to cities and this is expected to rise to 80% by the middle of this century. With so many cities vying for center stage, Tel Aviv is now going beyond its branding of being the “Bauhaus Capital of the World” – reflecting early 20th century clean, utilitarian architecture – to an uncertain and exciting future of flirtations and fluctuations. This has given rise to one of the most poignant descriptions of Tel Aviv as a city “waking up each morning and deciding what it’s going to be.” The new spectacular sculptures ascending to the heavens across the Tel Aviv landscape, attest to this branding and in a few short years’ time, there will be a major addition that encapsulates the city’s essence and affirms its rising global status. That addition will be the new World’s Jewish Museum designed by the legendary award-winning Canadian-born American architect – Frank Gehry, whose masterpieces have disrupted the very meaning of design within architecture. These “disruptions” are powerfully projected in such monumental works as the La Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
It was hoped before the Corona pandemic that this world-scale museum, cultural and entertainment center would have been completed before May 2023, in time for the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. However, when completed, the World’s Jewish Museum on the 22-dunam (5.5-acre) site overlooking the Mediterranean along the bank of the Yarkon River at the northwestern edge of Hayarkon Park and steps from the Namal ( Port of Tel Aviv), will be the hub of cultural and recreational activity and the heart of the city’s vibrant waterfront.
While engendering great excitement, there are however, those that remind us that society cries out with so many pressing needs from education and health to socio-economic inequalities and criticize the need for such expansive and expensive adventures.
There is however a strong counter argument.
Look to Bilbao in Spain and what Gehry achieved for the status of that city and just as important – the benefit for Bilbao’s citizens!
From Bilbao to Tel Aviv
Architects and city developers talk about the “Bilbao Effect” referring to the “WOW factor” that followed the opening in 1997 of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain. From being a lack-luster industrial city totally off the tourist’s map, Bilbao emerged virtually overnight as one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Frank Gehry’s stunning monumental structure hailed as “one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture” and which the late esteemed architect, Philip Johnson, called “the greatest building of our time”, rapidly reversed the city’s fortunes which had fallen victim to an industrialization that had either aged or moved elsewhere. Within the first year, the museum with its distinctive titanium curves and soaring glass atrium attracted over 1,300,000 visitors exceeding all expectations and infusing $160 million into the local economy. In its first five years, the Museum generated more than a billion US dollars for the Basque country, more than ten times the museum’s cost. Whatever the staggering costs of financing alluring cultural magnets, the returns far exceeded the outlay. Widely credited in putting Bilbao on the map, Gehry’s masterpiece has subsequently inspired other iconic structures around the world, which will soon be joined by the World’s Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv.
Back to the Roots
It may at first seem strange that Gehry, who doesn’t identify as Jewish, took on a uniquely Jewish project in the Jewish homeland?
His explanation is a long journey – nearly as complex as his architectural designs, but it includes this admission:
“There’s a curiosity built into the Jewish culture. I grew up under that. My grandfather read Talmud to me. That’s one of the Jewish things I hang on to probably— that philosophy from that religion. Which is separate from God. It’s more ephemeral. I was brought up with that curiosity. I call it a healthy curiosity. Maybe it is something that the religion has produced. I don’t know. It’s certainly a positive thing.”
What intrigues the architect – who was born Frank Goldberg – is that “The Talmud starts with the word ‘WHY’.”
So little surprise that on the model of the museum sitting in Gehry’s offices, the word Lamah (“why” in Hebrew) is carved into one of the buildings, although the architect remains usure whether it will be included in the final construction.
Fellow Canadian Gail Asper of the Asper Foundation – the visionary behind the museum – explains that “The site will have the greatest story that’s never been told about the Jewish people. It will celebrate the joys not the oys. The museum is more about how Jewish values have transformed and improved the world.”
For Asper, having Gehry bring her vision to fruition “is like hearing angels sing,” she says. “Frank immediately loved the vision. I know that beautiful architecture inspires the soul and Frank designs incredibly breathtaking, inspiring buildings. I love Bilbao. I love the Disney Concert Hall. I love what he does. And for all the countries in the world to not have some extraordinary breathtaking Frank Gehry building, Israel absolutely deserves that. And Israelis deserve that. They put up with an awful lot living in Israel. They pay high taxes. They’re dodging rockets, even in Tel Aviv.”
The Museum will provide a cutting-edge, educational and inspirational experience that explores the contributions that Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel have made to civilization in numerous fields over the past 3,500 years, from the Bible to enterprise, science, education, culture and social justice. Says Gehry:
“Most of the buildings until this point to represent Jewish causes and issues have included the Holocaust because that was such a searing, burning, terrible issue in our lives. This museum will really be about celebrating the achievements of this culture over time, and some of it is extraordinary, and a lot of it has not been told as it will be in this museum.”
Shape of things to Come
Gehry is passionate about restoring art back into architecture. He laments that “a lot of the world no longer considers architects as artists. So I think what’s needed is architects who are artists.” Historically, he asserts, “architecture was considered an art”, but that changed following WWII when “it got mixed up with other issues like commercial developers.” In the aftermath, a debate has persisted over whether architecture is an art or just the creation of a solid structure for the benefit of society. For Gehry it is both as we will one day see and be bedazzled by the allure of his first building in Israel, Tel Aviv’s World’s Jewish Museum. Israelis and tourists from abroad will visit the museum to see the building as much as its exhibits within. The packaging will be no less fascinating than its contents. This was the case of Bilbao.
Since the Bilbao success – a deliberate choice in using contemporary high-profile architecture as a tourist draw card – the term, ‘Architourism’ has gained currency. There is no doubting the seductive value of these highly photogenic and iconic buildings to lure visitors. Apart from Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one has only to think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Danish architect, Jørn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur that has featured in movies and TV productions, most notably the film Entrapment, where the building ‘starred’ alongside the late Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones.
The building was no less the star of the show!
There is no denying the power of man-made marvels capturing people’s imagination. From ionic structures in ancient times such as the Acropolis and Colosseum to the more modern examples such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Empire State Building, all achieved celebrity status as powerful visual metaphors of their cities. Imaginative architecture brands a city to lure visitors and commerce.
In a few years, adding to this illustrious list of iconic global edifices, will be Frank Gehry’s World’s Jewish Museum that will further lift Tel Aviv to new prominence in the world of contemporary design.
I marveled at this thought when last Friday morning, I stared at the vacant sight where construction has yet to begin and with the model of the museum in my mind, thought of Tel Aviv’s exciting tomorrows.
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