Skeptical Modernism - Interview with Amir Kolker, Opher Kolker, Randy Epstein

Skeptical Modernism


            Kolker-Kolker-Epstein is today one of the leading architectural firms in Jerusalem. It is to their credit that they have reached the final stage in every competition they have ever entered. They have recently been appointed the local firm representing Frank O. Gehry’s work on the Museum of Tolerance. The non-contextual structure, currently in an advanced promotional stage, will no doubt become the subject of public debate, and reawaken the issue of locally commissioning international architects, solely on the merit of their international acclaim. The issue has been raised in relation to a number of projects, in which the firm acted as a 'silent partner', such as Jerusalem City Hall, or full partner, as in the case of the proposal submitted for Kikar Ha’medina in Tel-Aviv. The climax of the debate is represented by the Foreign Ministry building, recently completed in the Jerusalem Government Precinct, in partnership with Jack Diamond, but which has not yet been occupied due to objections by employees.


            Some background: Amir Kolker arrived in London following the student riots that swept Europe in 1968. His first experience was a mammoth demonstration opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia: a march of two million socialists and union members, carrying huge red flags and protesting against the brutal Communism of the Soviet Union. Ron Harrod, Richard Rodgers and Norman Foster were instructors at London’s Polytechnic at that time -- all three were members of 'Archigram' which was among the harbingers of high-tech architecture. 'We did not, however, believe that a technological solution that could solve an entire building presented a guarantee for good architecture. Alvar Aalto, a brilliant architect searching for human solutions within a dogmatic modernism, was our hero after graduation. At the time, Opher Kolker was working for Niv Braun, who encouraged him four times to visit Finland. It is therefore no coincidence that we submitted a proposal for the competition of the design of the Rish'.

            Randy Epstein studied at Cooper Union in New York during the late sixties at a time when John Haddock was at his prime. 'We met him on Ram Karmi’s team while he was working as an architect with the Department of Housing. Karmi brought Randy there as reinforcement after working in Richard Meier’s firm. Throughout our studies in London we attempted to form a fusion between Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, and here we had an authentic representative of an architect who had succeeded in doing so. We used to  sneak glances at his Cooper Union’s sketchbook and at his drafting table. Later Rami brought us together on a common project, which developed into a long-standing partnership in our own firm.'


            As I recall, your partnership was launched in 1986, when your proposal for the design of the Supreme Court building entered the final stage, amongst some two hundred and fifty entrants. How were you affected, as a young and relatively anonymous firm, by reaching the final stage of the competition and by subsequently being disappointed by not receiving the commission?


            'Opher was disappointed that we didn’t win first prize, and I thought that with the little experience and knowledge that we then had, it was perhaps too early to secure the design of such a significant and symbolic building. The main conclusion was that architecture presents no short cuts. It nevertheless raised us from anonymity to the limelight. Until then, the firm’s work mainly focused, as in all firms of similar experience, on private residences and contractor buildings. We were commissioned to design a psychiatric hospital in Bethlehem following the competition, an impressively large project for us at that time. Shortly thereafter, we were chosen to serve as the local project architects for Jerusalem City Hall following a review made by the project architect, Jack Diamond, of Jerusalem Architects. Despite our relative inexperience at the time, we performed the lion’s share of the new construction in the complex. After these projects, we were no longer anonymous.'


            Your rather restrained proposal for the Supreme Court has set your firm on an architectural course of conservatism, to which you have been faithful for a number of years. What has changed the nature of your more recent buildings, are you finally bowing to the fashionable trends?


            'Our proposal for the Supreme Court expressed an initial articulation of the idea of layering that we adhere by to this day. Over a long period, we perceived the Modern Movement as the principal element of the design departure point, but not as an automatic solution to a specific program. We have always doubted the Modernist idea of that point of departure. A building is born of the earth, and is never a blank page. Until recently, we used to take our guests to the Old City in Jerusalem. We would enter through the New Gate to the Christian Quarter, meander through the alleys, and then, with the complete surprise of a successful magician, would expose the quality of layering in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Ethiopian village built into the remains of the fourth century Franciscan church, which in turn, is built on the roof of yet another church. That is the essence of Jerusalem, in its most abstract form, and also the foundation of our architectural concept. '


            Which of your buildings do you perceive as being an articulation of this concept?


            'All of them. The principle of layering is boldly implemented, as in the Gesher Building on Radbash Street, which has been an opportunity for us to grapple with the issue of preservation. A Greek priest who lived by the Muslim cemetery, originally owned the building. In 1860 it was acquired by the 'Mugrabim', and became the first building to house Jews beyond the walls of the Old City. We decided to preserve the original building (with the approval of the Conservation Committee), three vaulted halls and a water cistern that had been closed over an extensive period of time, after accurately identifying the original structure and the chronology of all its additions. The new addition, housing a hostel, was built in a modern building, visibly supported by concrete columns. The point of confrontation between old and new is prominent in the street facade, but reaches a climax in the interior courtyard, where the assembly halls and synagogue are located.'


            Is the 'earth' principle applicable also in less historical locations, such as Tel Aviv?


            'Every building is a new human condition. Not a single idea that can be transferred from one building to the next, but a specific solution for each program. The Dan David building at Tel Aviv University is a variation of the same principle. The building’s foundation - the 'Earth', is a public floor encompassing the large lecture halls, which connects to the main campus via the foyer. The class structure stands over the 'terrace', where classes and lounge areas are strung like a necklace along the halls. Lounge areas, oriented towards the balconies and the courtyard, are located on the roof of the halls.'


            How does a structure such as Gesher, with a clear social content, differ from a more vaguely natured industrial structure?


            'We perceive each building as an attempt to create a complex environment, rich in interior and exterior spaces and opportunities for interaction, especially when dealing with an environment devoid of any urban foundation. These buildings have presented us with an opportunity to create architecture free of the historical 'burden' so characteristic of the buildings in Jerusalem. The high-tech boom brought us a number of important projects, some the result of winning competitions, and others by direct commission. The new industrial zones are, for the most part, located at the municipal border or in the best scenerio, in the heart of orchards - as in Ra’anana and Rehovot. The Compaq (Digital) building in Raanana is efficient and economical in space, but our desire to create a rich perception of a campus in the courtyards was expressed through the reinforcement of their relation to the surrounding orchards.'


            Its no secret that partnership with well-known architects improves your chances in bidding for larger projects. What does it do to your creative ego as architects?


            'It’s hard to argue with the facts. With the announcement of the competition for the Foreign Ministry building, we submitted two proposals - one individually, and the other in partnership with Jack Diamond. The committee chose the second option, but this time we submitted our proposal as equal partners. The work was conducted in an open manner, on the basis of complete trust, and at the end of the process, we produced a building that expresses the common outlook of both firms. With all the disadvantages of the need to compromise, working with top echelon firms presents us with challenges and professional standards that force us to stretch ourselves to the limit. Jack Diamond taught us how to manage and produce professional work to acceptable standards in the United States. And, at the risk of sounding immodest, our firm has also influenced Diamond’s firm.'


            Frank Gehry’s ego is a completely different story. What do you expect to achieve from working with him?


            'We hope that what happened with Diamond will eventually happen with Gehry. In this case we are aware that it is not exactly a partnership, since we’re only acting as local architects. However, since we are experienced architects, we are not afraid of starting once more from scratch. We are content, at this stage, to work with one of the most talented and professional firms in the world. Working with him exposes us to world ranking engineering and planning firms, elevating us to a level beyond anything we’ve known before. The question is whether it’s preferable to be a small fish in a large pond, or a large fish in a small pond? We once knew a Tel-Aviv architect who at the age of fifty decided to travel to Finland to work for Alvar Aalto, since he thought he had much to learn. Our advantage is that Frank Gehry is coming to Israel, enabling us to continue to work in our office, and each day of work with him is a unique opportunity.


            Beyond your personal interests, do you believe the 'intrusion' of foreign architects can actually be harmful to the local market?


            'When we opened our Jerusalem firm, Jerusalem Architects distributed a petition to prevent Tel-Aviv architects from working in the city. We had no desire to confront such a petition on opening up a practice in Tel-Aviv, and therefore refused to sign. Luckily, it is an open market and one may design anywhere in the country, according to one’s talents and capabilities. Likewise, we believe in an open world. It is an accepted practice to hold international open competitions and to design abroad. When architects such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel design in Israel in partnership with local architects, we are compelled to live up to their standards and we benefit from their knowledge.'


            The Foreign Ministry complex is the largest project you’ve designed and the pinnacle of your work. Yet it remains unoccupied due to employees’ resistance to relocate from their antiquated sheds. This might arouse questions as to your capability to 'sell' them a new work environment. You might have erred with your 'too confined' concept?


            'One of the reasons for the employees’ objection to relocate to the new offices stemmed from the need that some of them move to open space workstations. This was one of the terms set by the programme written by the Government Facilities Administration. It was also a condition of the programme in the competition stage. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to begin with. Already in the early design stages, when the issue caused a great deal of resistance, we decided to develop a building that would allow for a larger number of enclosed offices. After having proved that it was possible, it was finally decided to revise the ratio between closed offices and open-space workstations, setting it at 50%. It turned out, however, that the employees’ objection to the relocation was not solely based on the issue of offices.'


            Still, those familiar with the unrestricted work conditions of the Foreign Ministry employees in their outdated building complex can understand their opposition to relocate to a more enclosed and controlled environment. How is this fact expressed in the new structure’s concept?


            'Primarily in the way we utilized the topography to construct a composition of moats and hanging gardens on the site that eliminates the feeling of a wall-enclosed military compound, which might recall the open environment in which they were used to working. This problem presented the essence of the intrinsic conflict in designing the building. The design challenge was to build an open and inviting building, in a secure and compartmentalized environment. In fact, the entire design process was based on the resolution of conflicts amongst the employees, not within the narrow framework of the programmatic list of areas, but rather in a genuine effort to answer each of their individual needs. It seems to us that the ability to simulate human interactions is more important than the ability to simulate spaces and shapes, since it is there that the true solution of the building lies.'


            How does your partnership of 'genetic' twins and an 'external' partner work?


            'Our office reflects the characteristic way a partnership is run. We design as a team, while holding dialogue with all the employees involved. The three of us meet each morning to discuss and present the projects in the office. There is, of course, a partner who is in charge, but in principle the three of us execute the design together. Randy’s entry (bringing a completely different cultural background) enriches the process and enables critical review of the design stages. This type of work prevents early infatuation with unripe solutions, and immunizes the participants to sensitivity from criticism. It preserves insight and rationalism throughout. We consider it important to allow for theoretical debate, by including additional participants in the discussion.'


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