Museum Geometry

For the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the architect Preston Scott Cohen reconciled large galleries and a difficult site.

Preston Scott Cohen

Herta and Paul Amir Building
Tel Aviv Museum of Art
27 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard
(972) 3-607-7000

Tel Aviv

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“Poetry is as exact a thing as geometry,” according to the French writer Gustave Flaubert. Faced with seemingly impossible site dimensions at its new Herta and Paul Amir Building, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art found a solution using equal parts of both.

With growing attendance and collections, the museum knew, in the early 2000s, that it needed to expand. But positioned as it is in a tightly configured urban cultural campus, the only available space was a triangular site nestled among the existing museum, an adjacent library, and the Golda Meir Cultural and Art Center. So when the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based architect Preston Scott Cohen won the museum’s 2003 competition to design its expansion, he had to reconcile two contradictory directives from Mordechai Omer, the museum’s late director and chief curator, who oversaw the $55 million expansion project before he passed away in June 2011. “He wanted rectangular galleries,” explains Cohen, referring to Omer’s aspiration to keep the museum from falling victim to idiosyncratic galleries formed by the building’s flamboyant shell. “But this was a peculiarly shaped site, a triangle.”

To resolve this apparent paradox, Cohen designed seven galleries that pinwheel around a central space, each at a different level, allowing him to maximize the usable volume. In order to integrate the different geometries—triangle and rectangle—he introduced a central void composed of hyperbolic paraboloids, allowing their saddlelike curves to absorb the transitions in shape. With three stories of the museum below grade, this central void carries sunlight down to the lowest spaces, and its billowing, cast-in-place concrete walls make circulating between galleries a sensory experience unto itself.

When asked if computer software provided the configuration of galleries in the tight site, Cohen quickly responds, “Oh, no—I’m actually a very traditional architect. The layout came from me sitting down and thinking through the museum.” The building’s envelope—made up of 430 faceted panels—is stretched tautly around structural steel, underscoring the building’s difficult fit.

Cohen’s design is no exercise in rote geometry, either. Though spatial constraints drove much of the project, he was able to use them to support a poetic synthesis of architectural precedents. His addition, which will open in October, draws upon the earnest rationality of the original Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Completed in 1971, the main building is a textbook case of Brutalism—a hulking concrete cuboid. Its galleries are quite nice, but the circulation can be somewhat banal. Taking this into account, Cohen introduces some of the plasticity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Where the original Tel Aviv building privileges galleries, the Guggenheim emphasizes pure circulation, reducing its galleries to canted niches. With the Herta and Paul Amir Building, Cohen manages to create both large, completely serviceable galleries and an affective circulation system.

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