Architect Rafi Segal's Understated Approach

Wins Competition To Design National Library of Israel

Greece is the Word: Segal designed the Korthi houses in Andros, Greece.
Courtesy Rafi Segal
Greece is the Word: Segal designed the Korthi houses in Andros, Greece.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published October 27, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Another Segal project, for an IDF Memorial Museum on Mount Eitan, Jerusalem, placed second in a 1996 competition, so it was not built. But this plan, too, was conceived as grippingly close to nature, emerging from the mountain as a part of the landscape. Was the building’s closeness to the land meant to evoke a sense of security? “Well, I am not sure security is the right term to use,” said Segal. “But in Israel around the Jerusalem hills the IDF Museum is a memorial, so we wanted to avoid the appearance of a building that tries to conquer the hill, and so we chose not to build on the top of the hill, but rather within the hill.

“It was a kind of critique. The IDF is a defense force, and so its memorial would not be about conquering. It’s much humbler, in a way, to create a different sympathy for the army, just as the design for the Palmach Museum was meant to create a different interpretation of what the Palmach was about. These projects are very charged with meaning.”

For Segal, meaning in architecture has been illuminated by the exemplary precedent of his colleague Hecker, an Israeli born in Poland in 1931. Hecker’s mastery of asymmetric geometric forms has won him plaudits. Another much admired predecessor is the Czech-born Alfred Neumann (1900–68), who worked with Hecker to introduce polyhedral geometries to buildings in Israel when plainer, boxlike designs were in fashion.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Israel’s Ashdod Museum opened in 2003.
Courtesy Rafi Segal
Upstairs, Downstairs: Israel’s Ashdod Museum opened in 2003.

Segal wrote a doctoral thesis at Princeton about Neumann’s innovative achievements. This legacy of modern architecture will be more accessible to Segal when he spends more time in Israel for planning and constructing his library. Asked about his favorite neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Segal replied: “Most of Tel Aviv’s central section feels like one neighborhood. Tel Aviv is more one neighborhood than a big city. It has a human scale, with almost every street lined with trees and very welcoming to the pedestrian. Jerusalem is heavier, more monumental, with its stone and hills and history. Tel Aviv’s flatness allows a different kind of interaction between people. It has no monuments; it’s a very secular city in many ways.”

Which of the two cities has the uglier architecture?

“Jerusalem is a very powerful city, and although a lot of its architecture is awful, it still conveys the sense of a city and a strong place and a strong presence and beauty, of course,” Segal said. “It’s very different from Tel Aviv, which is essentially an ugly city. I was born in Tel Aviv, and I consider it home, and it has its charm and a very humane scale which allows people to interact in a way that is very Mediterranean and promising and optimistic. It’s the perfect city for the everyday, and it’s a walking city, but it can do much better [architecturally].”

Will Haifa’s Munio Gitai Weinraub Museum of Architecture, opened earlier in October by film director Amos Gitai in honor of his Bauhaus-inspired father, and the Tel Aviv Museum’s Archive of Israeli Architecture Gallery, scheduled to open next year, help Israel to raise architectural awareness? “Absolutely,” Segal said. “I think they are both fortunate and extremely necessary, especially at a time when the built environment is densifying and questions of development and preservation are more challenging than ever. The biggest challenge in Israel on a cultural level with relation to architecture is how to bring architecture into the cultural discourse. To enhance the discourse of architecture in order to turn architecture into a much more significant cultural factor.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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