Contemporary Music in Historic Tel Aviv
Beauty in the Eye of the User
In replacing the older building, Portugali insists: "The past has no monopoly on values like beauty and comfort. If we try understand these values, we can use them to create buildings today which possess the same qualities that we appreciate from the past."
Beautiful, she adds, is synonymous with functional.
The Shakers, who in the mid-18th century created useful furniture and utensils that are still being imitated today, contended that beauty lies in usefulness. They rejected ornamentation for its own sake and argued that there is no room for a beautiful form that does not flow from functional need. The secret of beauty lies in function and simplicity.
And, Portugali claims, beautiful is not necessarily costlier.
For her, beauty in the music center meant the use of natural materials — African wood from Gabon and floor marble from the Galilee. She also used steel for the building's structural columns and lots of glass for abundant natural light.
The exterior was originally orange, chosen to complement the blue of the sky and the green of the large palm tree at the entrance, and be "like a spot of light in the square." Unfortunately, the imported Italian color has faded to an indeterminate yellow.
"Architecture as I see it is made to create an environment for human beings," Portugali declares. "User participation is a basic element in our design process."
This process began by translating user needs into the budgetary framework. The architect used 3D computer presentations to get the clients involved in the architectural decisions without their having to understand professional drawings.
Such decisions were made on the site in the context of forces acting on that site such as views, climatic conditions, land structure, and features in the environment.
A Debate on Preservation
Part of original building's facade was preserved during demolition, and the municipality asked Portugali to reconstruct it and integrate it into the new library.
But Portugali balked. She comments: "The concept of preserving part of an old building seems to me architecturally wrong, and does not serve the purpose of preservation." The meaning of a building, she argues, depends on the relationship between the parts and the whole.
"Once you demolish the whole and isolate one element, it becomes a meaningless fragment. Preserving part of a facade does not bring back the spirit of the place; it is just a reference to one architectural fragment."
Therefore, she chose to regard the owner's request the same as she would treat trees, landscape, or any other element in the environment that must be taken into the overall consideration. "The result," she says, "is a whole building in which the reconstructed part and the new ones complement each other and form one coherent entity."
The architect adds that normally there are two common approaches to architectural language when dealing with projects that integrate the old with the new:
The new construction is either an exact replica in style and form of the old part or done in complete contrast, with the aim of highlighting the difference between the periods. The result of the latter is distinct wings, which do not form a continuous architectural whole.
"In designing the music center," says Portugali, "I chose to reject those two approaches and to concentrate on the question that, in my mind, was the only relevant one: what is the right thing to do now in Bialik Square to preserve and strengthen the spirit of the existing environment?"
She chose neither to reconstruct the past nor to dissociate herself from it. Instead, she integrated the new building with the existing historical environment by choosing appropriate building materials and colors to brighten the square.
"The music center was built," she explains, "with a concept that the potential inherent in a modern scientific-technological society ought to be used not as a value in itself, but in order to attain and revive human qualities destroyed by modernism and of no interest to postmodernism."
The Center Today
The Felicja Blumental Music Center and Library is dedicated to the Polish-Jewish pianist who was known mainly as an interpreter of Mozart and Chopin. The composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Krzysztof Penderecki wrote special compositions for her.
The center houses 85,000 scores and books on music, 17,000 records, and more than 3,000 compact discs and videos.
Chamber concerts, lectures, and master classes for the city's schoolchildren are held here. A permanent display of musical instruments and periodic exhibits are featured in the center. Recently an international Arnold Schoenberg exhibition formally opened in the presence of the composer's daughter.
Prize-winning Nili Portugali studied both in Israel and at the Royal Institute of British Architecture and has practiced in Israel and the United States. In 1979 she opened her own architectural office in Tel Aviv.
Portugali's work includes libraries, synagogues, a post office, senior day centers, public housing, and private residences. Her work has been exhibited in Israel, Austria, Spain, The Netherlands, and Brazil.
Lili Eylon is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.