History Refracted at the Israel Museum

History Refracted at the Israel Museum

James Carpenter designed three new entrance pavilions and a dramatically-lit stairway for the campus.
Tim Hursley

The Israel Museum is a complex of buildings scattered across a 20-acre hilly site called Neveh Sha’anan outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem. A project actively supported by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, it was opened in 1965 according to a plan and design by the architect Alfred Mansfield and interior designer Dora Gad. Mansfield and Gad are important figures in Israel for having forged a regional architectural modernism for the new Jewish state. The drawings for the original museum depict it as a Mediterranean hilltop village of stacked modernist boxes. But the site that the museum calls a campus is also home to an Isamu Noguchi–designed sculpture garden, a 50:1 outdoor scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, and the spectacular Shrine of the Book complex by Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos.

In 1997, James Snyder became director of the museum, overseeing the construction of a long-planned fully funded expansion project. Snyder soon realized that the entire campus, particularly the Mansfield-designed exhibition buildings, had become a disheveled group of dated structures. It had, for example, a wide entrance ramp and service road running through its center, separating the Mansfield exhibition buildings from the Noguchi garden and the Shrine of the Book.

The stacked modernist boxes spill across the hilly campus, which has been newly connected to the surrounding landscape. 

Snyder cancelled these plans and developed a new “vision” for the reorganization of the campus. In 2004 he was impressed by an article in The New York Times about the work of James Carpenter Design Associates on the below-ground connecter and light reflector roof of the Fulton Street Transit Center. He visited Carpenter’s New York studio to discuss the Israeli site and began a dialogue on the campus, and the museum eventually hired the firm to direct the commission.

Carpenter, who has created a fascinating niche practice as a glass designer and artist, along with local firms Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv and A. Lerman Architects renovated over 200,000 square feet of existing galleries, and added 84,000 square feet of new public space. This included three entry pavilions housing information, retail, and special-event spaces at the front of the site, and in the heart of Mansfield’s galleries, a new exhibition space.

The new main entry brings clarity to both visitor circulation and the museum’s exhibition spaces.

Carpenter wanted the architecture of the complex to “resonate” with Jerusalem’s very particular light, describing it as “intense, but because there is always a degree of moisture or dust in the air off the desert, the light is tempered by atmospheric interference and has a substantial presence as it hangs in the air.” The low-iron monolithic glass walls of the pavilions are all lined on the exterior with ceramic louvers that give the walls a more substantial volumetric presence and diffract the sun’s intense heat while still admitting light.

In Carpenter’s mind, this project is as much about shading as it is about the qualities that glass can bring to a building. It’s a brilliant transparent solution for the museum, and transforms Mansfield’s once closed-off environment into a new light-filled one where structures open up to the surrounding landscape.

anish kapoor’s turning the world upside down, jerusalem (left) commands the crown plaza level. the renewed muslims and crusaders gallery (right) has been sensitively updated.

Finally, Carpenter also created a new below-ground passage connecting his entrance pavilions to the new central glass gallery space. The on-grade ramp that runs from the bottom of the hilly site to the galleries at the top of the complex has a watercourse spilling down one side, and below this, Carpenter has placed the new passageway. This new entrance has etched glass walls several feet away from a ceramic wall, which bounces the activated light coming through the overhead watercourse onto the glass walls and into the subterranean entry space. There are also three small gardens below that bring more light and connection with the landscape into these subterranean areas. Carpenter, the master of glass, has even found a way to bring light below the ground to activate space and create a thrilling experience.