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Israel’s Government Campuses: Urbanity, Not Statehood, by Shelly Cohen & Eran Tamir Tawil

In its first few decades, Israel’s government offices were mostly set up in formerly British or Arab structures, or in leased or otherwise temporary structures not originally planned for that purpose. In the state’s first few years, Israeli leadership was mostly concerned with assimilating large waves of immigration and with questions of national survival. Building monumental, expensive structures was viewed as unnecessary and even wasteful of precious resources. After those early years, During the 1960's and 70's, Israel’s monumental architecture concentrated mainly in universities campuses and faculties, built in Modernist or Brutalist style.

In the last few decades, however, new government structures are being built in a process left mostly uncommented by the current architectural discourse. The Israeli government, now wealthier and more stable, has been building government structures – government campuses, or krayot – all over the country. Six different campuses, mostly office buildings, are being built in central locations in Be’er-Sheva, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramla, Nazareth and Haifa.

But while the government campuses projects do make government services more easily accessible to the general public, it would be hard to assign a clear representational and national value to these structures from an architectural standpoint. Lacking sufficient architectural models from our period, it is unclear what “a national architecture” might look like, or even if it is currently needed. Stylistically, the government campuses exhibit a stylistic pluralism: Earlier campuses were built in various postmodern styles, while later ones feature some of the latest trends in world architecture. Anyhow, most of the projects look like ordinary office buildings, products of market economy, and tend to blend in to their surroundings, a testament to Israel’s deeply-rooted neoliberal mindset.

Discussions of national values in architecture inevitably lead to the larger question, of the relation between architectural content and form. We must ask whether our criticism of the new government projects as understating national values is not rooted in our search for direct connections between the structures’ formal aspects, symbolic meanings and their everyday practical goals. According to Immanuel Kant, one must differentiate between two kinds of beauty: free beauty, and dependent beauty (Kant, 1790). Some objects can be judged in a purely formal manner, meaning that the question of their beauty remains entirely separate from that of their purpose. By contrast, the beauty of other objects is inherently tied to their purpose as means to an end. If the aesthetic discussion is replaced with a discussion of national values, we might wonder about the connection between public values and the structures’ practical purposes. This is a question of architectural typology and its relation to the symbolic meaning of structures and social ideology. Perhaps, we might ask, the downplaying of national values in government campuses is really rooted in their transformation from the public institutions type to office buildings type. What is, therefore, the desired connection between the function of an architectural type and its aesthetic and ideological values? And what is the architectural vehicle that carries this aesthetic-ideological meaning: the structure as a whole, a central structural element, or perhaps, the front ornamentations alone (based on Guilio Carlo Argan’s (1963) concept of typology)?

Another possible explanation as to why these projects lack a strong national image lies in the project’s planning stages. Only few campuses were planned by the winner of an open tender. The later structures were built based on the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and Design-Build-Operate-Transfer (DBOT) models. These models mostly emphasize the project’s financial parameters rather than the quality of the architectural proposal.

Still, most government campuses were built based on some updated urban design principals. Rather than closed compounds of government buildings located at the outskirts of the cities, tall buildings were built in strategic locations near main traffic routes. This was designed to allow maximum accessibility to visitors and employees via public transportation, even though compared to most Western counties, Israel’s public transportation is underdeveloped. Some government campuses mix public and private uses, such as the Ramla government campus, which also includes a shopping mall and a central bus station.

Urbanity is thus perceived both ethically and aesthetically as a value that effectively came to replace national values as mentioned earlier. It therefore appears that, for various reasons, the contemporary architecture of Israel’s government campuses once again chooses to refrain from exhibiting a national unified architectural style, that expresses the state and its values.

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