Edited for Clarity
A common canard of museum expansions is that they’re all about displaying an institution’s rich holdings. Donors are told that there is a trove of priceless Maori statuettes kicking around in a musty basement somewhere, and the public must be given a chance to see them. James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, knows better. “We have 500,000 things here,” he says. “You’re not going to put 500,000 things in the galleries.”
That’s why, when he undertook a complete renovation of the museum’s 1965 Mediterranean modernist campus, officially completed in July, what Snyder wanted was clarity more than just size. He turned to James Carpenter, the New York designer—he’s not licensed as an architect—who’s best known for his sculptural glass work on other people’s buildings: SOM’s 7 World Trade Center; Norman Foster’s Hearst Building; Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands. Snyder says, “I felt we needed an architect who would create a design that would resonate with, relate to, and even subordinate to the pre-existing, and who wouldn’t focus on building buildings but would focus on the experience of moving through an already built environment.”
The Israel Museum’s architecture—boxy, Jerusalem-stone-clad galleries by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, a sculpture park by Isamu Noguchi, and one of Frederick Kiesler’s only two built works, the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls—was iconic, but it never quite hung together. “They’re all independent projects that sort of happened to fall on this campus,” Carpenter says. “There was not really a master plan for these things.” A service road cut off one side from the other, the street entry was haphazard, and gaining access to the galleries required navigating a maze of staircases and corridors; visitors in wheelchairs were relegated to vans. Carpenter proposed a kind of surgery for the hilly site: lift up the central Carter Promenade and insert a second, accessible underground path directly beneath it. Visitors now come in through a glass pavilion shaded by terra-cotta louvers and can either climb the old Carter steps to a new three-story entry building for the galleries or take the lower route, which is naturally lit through a high wall of translucent, etched glass and a glass-bottomed stream running along the roof seam.
What they’ll find are new galleries that distill the museum’s collection into a more lucid story than before. The renovation doubled the exhibition space, while the number of objects on view (some in vitrines designed by Pentagram’s London office) actually decreased. Likewise, Carpenter’s buildings are meant to bring the existing architecture into sharper focus. The pre-cast concrete, terra-cotta, and glass play off the simple stone-and-concrete Mansfeld buildings, preserving and enhancing the expansive aesthetic of the original campus. “This mod-ernism really is the right historical moment for a vision of a cultural place in Jerusalem, in Israel, that would celebrate world culture,” Snyder says. “It was the right thing.”