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Jerusalem: monumental architecture

By Simone Masha

Pristine white trousers and a crisply ironed linen shirt may not seem like the appropriate work attire at a construction site. But architect Etan Kimmel of Kimmel Eshkolot Architects in Tel Aviv, looks at ease. He is surrounded by Jerusalem stone while he inspects the latest construction on the new sunken entrance pavilion at the Tower of David Museum.

Designing Memory at the Tower of David Museum. (Ricky Rachman)

This is Kimmel’s third monumental building in Jerusalem, following the Davidson Museum at the Western Wall and the National Memorial Hall for Fallen Soldiers on Mount Herzl.

“Designing new buildings in Jerusalem is unlike building in any other city in the world. You are surrounded by the stones of walls and buildings from thousands of years before, which act both as a huge reminder of the past and the burden that comes with it, as well as inspiration,” says Kimmel.

“You have to take into consideration the sensitivity connected to Jerusalem, with its archaeology and architecture, and consider a careful approach,” he says.

“On the one hand, one must be extremely respectful to the surrounding and, on the other hand, the design has to clearly create a new layer of architecture in the city of 2022.”

Each of Kimmel’s construction projects took years of discussion and returning to the drawing board over and over again to get the plans just right.

Kimmel acknowledges that good design not only hinges on the mastery of the architect but on the relationship and dialogue that is created between the architect and his client. It is this relationship, according to Kimmel, that creates the unique impact on the final design that results in outstanding architecture.

“You have to listen, to hear and to understand your client’s needs, their constraints, the purpose of the building, to get it right.”

In 2019, Kimmel Eshkolot Architects were awarded the prestigious Italian Dedalo Minosse International Prize for the National Memorial Hall. The Hall was commissioned by the Dept. of Families and Commemoration at Israel’s Ministry of Defense in 2006.

The emotionally powerful memorial contains a 250-meter-long “Wall of Names” that wraps around the central sculptural brick structure. The wall is composed of more than 23,000 concrete-coated aluminum bricks, each of which is engraved with the name of a fallen soldier and the date of death.

On the anniversary of each soldier’s death, incandescent lights illuminate the name.

Arieh Mualem, deputy director general of the Dept. of Families and Commemoration, acknowledges that it was no surprise to him that Kimmel Eshkolot Architects were awarded the Dedalo Minosse prize.

“This prize honors the connection between vision and architecture,” he says. “We tasked Kimmel Eshkolot with the enormous challenge of finding a way that would memorialize our fallen soldiers, remembering them both as individuals and as a collective. The final design came after 13 years and many, many hours of discussion and deep thought and reflection.”

The plans for the building, its model and a film that records the construction are now on display at the Tower of David Museum as part of a new exhibition called “Designing Memory.”

The exhibition, which opened on July 1, showcases an expansive overview of key architectural projects from studios around the world that were Dedalo Minosse finalists or prize winners.

It is located in the newest revamped gallery of the Tower of David Museum, which during Ottoman times was the governor of Jerusalem’s reception room, situated in the Phasael Tower built by King Herod more than 2,000 years ago.

Kimmel is the lead architect of the Tower of David Museum’s $50 million renewal and conservation project. As part of the project, all the rooms in the ancient citadel at the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City have been conserved and renovated with a “floating floor” that covers infrastructure and wiring, so as not to harm the national heritage site. The vaulted ceilings have been specially treated for acoustic improvements.

There are inherent challenges when working in the Old City of Jerusalem. Until excavations take place, construction cannot begin, and all the new design plans are theoretical.

“This only makes the design more exciting,” Kimmel says. “In general, such projects are a constant dialogue with the site as opposed to designing new buildings on an empty site. The design ultimately evolves through the construction phase.

“We saw this happen in real time just recently at the Tower of David, when we suddenly understood that, nine meters down, the ancient walls of the citadel had no real foundations, and so we had to completely rethink our design with new engineering plans for the entrance pavilion.”

For Kimmel, it does not matter where he is designing in Jerusalem, whether in the modern city or the Old City. He says the stone is the common denominator in his designs

“It is always about the Jerusalem stone,” he says.

“Our designs play with the color and texture of this building material, which is so predominant in Jerusalem’s urban landscape.

“We look to use the stone in creative and innovative ways.”

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