A 7,200 sq. m. contemporary structure acknowledges Israel’s sensitive and charged history, reflected in the various styles of architecture which have comfortably rubbed shoulders for centuries. Bracha and Michael Chyutin of Chyutin Architects Ltd, Israel, design the Academy of Advanced Studies in Jerusalem.
‘Jerusalem takes its architecture seriously. Just ask about the two architects, who legend has it were buried just inside Jaffa Gate, killed by an Ottoman sultan for leaving Mount Zion out of the city’s walls. From antiquity to today, buildings and public monuments have held a central place in the lives and hearts of Jerusalemites, from holy edifices to towering tributes to the triumph of man.’
This dramatic announcement on a website to promote tourism encapsulates the sensitive, charged history of the Holy Land – a land on which starchitects such as Moshe Safdie, Richard Meier and Santiago Calatrava have left their imprint.
With this backdrop of raging passions which architecture has provoked, the firm Chyutin Architects was selected to design a new building (named after the donor, Dr. Leonard Polonsky), as part of the Van Leer Institute campus in Jerusalem. It has an area of 7,200 sq. m. on four levels. “In addition to thirty rooms for fellows, the building has five seminar rooms, a 130-seat auditorium, administrative offices and expansive foyers for both formal and informal meetings,” says Michael Chyutin.
Research labs, including offices, seminar rooms and meeting spaces are located on the upper two levels. The main entrance, adjacent to the central zone, opens to a large exhibition gallery. Below lie an additional conference area, lecture hall, cafeteria and library. The building is a pioneer in the conservation of energy and is the first building in Israel, among educational institutions, that excels in meeting the standard for green construction.
The structure is low and snug, hugging the landscape which it sits on. Flooded with light in some places, protected from the fierce sun in others, it fits in with the dimensions and design characteristics of the existing buildings with their closed stone facades to the city and glass fronts facing the open inner garden. Other building materials used are exposed concrete and wood slats.
Its northern facade faces the central garden courtyard, which acts as the ‘heart’ of the campus. This court has two levels, with a one storey differential between them which makes it possible to create two entrances to the structure on different levels: main entrance near the Van Leer Institute and secondary entrance near the Council for Higher Education.
The building is situated on a cliff facing south towards the Jerusalem Theatre – an abstract, modern structure which combines sculptural elements of exposed concrete with traditional Jerusalem stone (a tawny limestone used for decades for cladding, which has become a symbol of the Jewish identity).
How is this structure rooted in its time and its place? The outstanding characteristic of the architecture of Jerusalem is the coexistence of old and new, sacred and secular, in a variety of styles. From Byzantine, to Bauhaus, Israel has dozens of architectural styles that blend beautifully into the landscape, encompassing several styles from the ancient to the avant-garde.
Bracha and Michael are no strangers to symbolism in architecture, as also an appropriate rootedness. Their observation tower on the Armon Hanatziv walkway in Jerusalem, is symbolic of their perception that Jerusalem is the only city in the world, which constitutes a focal point for belief and a theological centre for the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The observation tower is planned as a spiral set of 3 arms, which symbolise the different religions. Each of the arms turns to a different direction, but as a spiral, all of them originate from the same place in space and encircle one axis which connects them all.
At night, a light beam is projected from the centre of the building towards the sky, creating a dramatic landmark and tangible expression of the idea generating the whole project – Monotheistic belief as a common ground, which, therefore, has the quality to unite different people, communities and religions in the holy city and in the Middle East.
Bringing a nuanced thoughtfulness to their designs, the duo verbalises their credo: “Our buildings are born of Western culture, which grants freedom of choice amongst various legitimate options. But they are also Jewish, in that they sever themselves from the figurative and aspire to the abstract, to the essence of the material. And they are Israeli too, in their adherence to the homeland’s landscape, its colours and vegetation. We do not have a goal, we do not have a truth,” says Bracha.
Adds Michael, “We have only hesitations, accompanied by the faith that hidden in every problem and site, is the building that responds to our inner world. And that if we keep seeking and don’t give up, we will uncover it.” So it is; there is a sense of time and place to their designs. One has to just look for the meaning.
Text By Devyani Jayakar
Photographs By Ardon Bar-Hama