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SURFACE ACTIVATION: THE AMIR BUILDING AT THE TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART

View of Preston Scott Cohen’s Herta and Paul Amir Building, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2011. Photo: Amit Geron.

THE CONTEMPORARY MUSEUM often resembles a FedEx box: a generic packaging unit designed with just enough attention to the exterior to lend value to the contents, while the apparently neutral interior purports to accommodate anything. And just as there is no link between the box and its geographic location, the container and its contents have a perfunctory relation to each other. The recently opened Herta and Paul Amir Building of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, designed by Preston Scott Cohen, was eagerly anticipated in architectural circles for the way it promised to break with this paradigm and refute the logic of the box, inside and out. Pinched and pulled by the need to connect with the existing building, the triangulated, twisting, turning structure occupies a small and oddly shaped plot. Three of the building’s five stories are underground, and especially given the museum’s ambitious exhibition program, the space required a level of sectional dexterity that is not possible in the standard flat-pack museum. Across the street from a massive military compound, the site is not only architecturally jumbled but politically encumbered as well. That the largest of the building’s eight inaugural exhibitions was a show of Anselm Kiefer’s work while another was a presentation of the institution’s holdings of Israeli art pushed home the point that this museum could only be where it is, at the intersection of historic conflicts with those that continue in the present.

Architects are often asked to get blood from a stone. But Cohen has a particular interest in such impossibilities and heightened the complexity of his undertaking by premising the design on something like a square peg in a round hole. He decided to take as model the round atrium of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York—a hole that is the virtual cipher of the modernist project itself—and reappropriate it by drilling an irregularly shaped central void, lit from the top, into the ground; surrounding this expanded oculus with a spiral of rectilinear galleries, each of different size and height; and bundling it all together with an external surface that works like a flexing skin rather than a facade. The result is not only a negotiation between the given facts of the site and imported architectural ideas but also an intellectual and creative endeavor that embraces the impossible.

The complex surface of the building offers a language for this negotiation. From the outside, a low-slung envelope snakes through and around existing obstacles, then lifts up off the ground to allow visitors to enter before twisting and turning away, pulling the eye along rather than asking visitors to stand and stare. Inside, a dramatic vortex of spiraling surfaces brings daylight down even into the submerged galleries, while allowing these spaces themselves to remain unflinchingly neutral, although varied in scale and dimension. “Lightfall,” as the architect calls the central shaft, is as internally variegated as Wright’s rotunda is Platonic, allowing it to perform as the binding agent rather than the hieratic center that holds all the other elements of the museum together. In other words, the surface—outside and in—is not an abstract plane or a transcendent core but a site of exchange between competing concerns.

Inhabiting a structure with such an operative surface poses a significant challenge to the late-capitalist museum, for an essential feature of this corporate entity is the transformation of any given building’s plan and elevation into enforcers of abstract economies and placeless centers of power. In Tel Aviv, the dexterity with which the surface takes on its various roles renders it materially present but visually elusive: No wall can be said to guard the boundary between inside and outside or between art and architecture. Rather than a generic box that purports to be a critique of star architects but displaces stardom to the artist or even to the museum director, Cohen’s package emerges as a new kind of building, sent via special delivery to a place where negotiation is urgently needed and heroism inconceivable.

The building as site of negotiation interrupts the course taken by the agonistic relationship between art and architecture over the past thirty years. Ever since Minimalism made it inevitable that artists and architects would produce work that was claimed not only to occupy the same ground but to produce the space of art itself, art and architecture have engaged in a disciplinary competition about who should do what for whom and at what cost, which discipline is more properly part of the service economy, and which is higher in the cultural hierarchy. This conflict began at the scale of the object and quickly escalated to the scale of the building, bringing the museum itself into the latent logic of Minimalist art and making not merely conceivable but crucial the question of whether architecture should ever be more than what you bump into when you back up to see a picture, a sculpture, or a car. Cohen’s new building obviates this logic of rivalry by allowing certain architectural surfaces to appear in a virtually painterly aspect ratio and others to turn the matter-of-fact logic of Minimalist sculpture into an issue of deliberate expression within a minimal surface—one no longer bound by obedience to gravity or its Euclidean geometries. Indeed, the most productive moments in the building are precisely those when art objects and architectural events are seen simultaneously. Lightfall permits the viewer to see through one gallery to another and to exercise a kind of double vision, while simultaneously prodding curators to develop unanticipated installation strategies—a case in point in the first round of exhibitions being the projection of Michal Rovner’s Broshim (Cypresses), 2011, directly onto Lightfall’s striated and warped concrete—and inviting artists to situate their work in new ways.

Interior of Preston Scott Cohen’s Herta and Paul Amir Building, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2011. Photo: Amit Geron.

Given how Anselm Kiefer’s controversial investigations of Germany’s past often occupy a gray area between mourning and obsession, TAMA’s choosing him for one of the building’s inaugural shows came close to casting the institution less as a museum of art than as a museum of tolerance. But what is perhaps still stranger is that Kiefer added to the structure’s architecture—even creating two new rooms within the space—rather than acting as if it didn’t exist or wishing there were less. The installation, of twenty-one works made during the past decade—which was composed by Kiefer and Mordechai Omer, TAMA’s director (who sadly passed away before the exhibition opened)—is organized as a promenade past the spaces Kiefer constructed. These house the installations East-West Diwan, 2010, and Shevirat Ha-Kelim (The Breaking of the Vessels), 2011, while the artist’s paintings, often encrusted with objects that extended sharply into the space, are hung on the museum’s permanent walls. Rather than a series of works that each demands close and autonomous scrutiny, the whole is an ensemble that does not fully appear as such until its extraordinary if fantastically dissipative ending, where Ararat, 2011—a concrete-gray and bronze mixed-media painting on which a lead U-boat hangs in suspension—is installed with and against the final drop of Lightfall’s concrete pour. The interaction between these two fields of grisaille refuses any coherent unity against which art can be constituted or architecture can be judged.

A further point of negotiation embedded in the building derives from its emergence at a particular moment in the history of architecture as such. Cohen’s structure has the good fortune of coming into being at a time when a new generation of architects, of which Cohen is a leading member, is getting commissioned to do institutional work and introducing not merely digital skills but an entirely new set of architectural questions emerging from the role now played by computers. The complex interchange between analog and digital is the bedrock of this generation’s thought and, of course, has had a whole range of consequences in its brief history—among them handmade designs longing to be freed into the virtual environment, new systems of knowledge enabled by animations, Photoshop images being extruded into three dimensions, and the intricate forms and tectonics that arise from the convergence of design and construction tools. Engaging with these recent developments, Cohen’s distribution of materials and his design program for TAMA open a conversation between generic spaces and analog construction methods, on the one hand, and exotic figures that are materially and structurally complex, on the other. The building could not have been conceived or built without the software that makes it possible to rationalize complex surfaces. Unlike a structure conceived in Euclidean terms, where lines drawn in perspective differ from the literal elements they depict, a building today is shaped by an array of virtual lines that simultaneously draw the geometric logic for the architect, the placement of rebar for the construction worker, and the mass that appears to the viewer. A good set of drawings is now more or less equivalent to a well-constructed building; Cohen’s building is one of several recent structures that must therefore be understood as rendered in a fundamentally new way.

The Herta and Paul Amir Building does not merely break or redraw the box, as Wright often claimed to do, but rather indicates that even when round and handcrafted, the museum was unknowingly already on a collision course with FedEx. From Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s rotunda in Berlin’s Altes Museum to Wright’s Guggenheim, the central void was sacrosanct, a place of unadulterated ocularity devoid of anything other than the ideality of art. Yet these buildings also bespoke a tension between that exalted space and its inevitable contamination of and by the masterpieces—and the visitors—it contained. Revealing that false purity and, indeed, sullying it have been increasing preoccupations of those contemporary architects who have broken away from the astonishingly persistent structure of the instrumentalized container. In spite of their differences, these architects often make use of the double capacity of the spiral to produce both directed mobility and distracted attention, from the spiral circulation of Rem Koolhaas’s Kunsthal Rotterdam, which distends the museum into the city, to Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, where the spiral enfolds the movement of the city within the museum. The operation also bears similarities to Richard Serra’s architecturally scaled spirals, which are drenched with apperception itself.

Unlike Hadid and Koolhaas, however, who rely on the literal intrusion of urban noise to disrupt the sacred space of the museum, Cohen proliferates the range of simultaneous experiences within the museum, by occupying its geometric and ideological center with a twist. Visitors are transformed into performers, and their own movements produce a radical changeability in the architectural figure, making it, too, a performance to which the viewer is witness. Lightfall, in other words, is a happening, not a place where something happens. It is an unfolding event that the visitor alters and observes, moves around but not through, encounters directly but from which he or she can also be distracted by the impinging proximity of other things, spaces, objects, figures. The building constructs a set of differential visual and spatial solicitations and demands a museumgoer able to do more than one thing at a time. In order to produce this subject capable of complex negotiations, the Herta and Paul Amir Building cedes absolute autonomy and categorically rejects the FedEx box, to become instead a point of relation between objects, a node in a network that is constantly recalibrating the limits of its proper place.

Sylvia Lavin is Director of Critical Studies in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles.