rothschild balfour Corner of Bar Orian Architects

Bar Orian office is presently handling the conservation of one of Tel Aviv's jewels - the Templar neighborhood of Sarona. Built in 1871, the Kirya has been inhabited since Israel's independence by the IDF and the Prime Minister's Office. The domain was designated for demolishing in the '80s by the Israel Land Administration, with the encouragement of the Tel Aviv Engineering Administration. However, following an article published in 1998 in AI 34, city engineer Israel Gudovitch got into action to halt the devastating realty scheme, and managed to save 36 buildings (4 of which were moved intact in order to broaden Kaplan Street).

Conservation of one of Tel Aviv's important domains is only one step in the history of the rapidly growing office, established in 1990 by the architecture couple Tal and Gidi Bar Orian. Twenty years of planning prestige villas and several buildings, earmarked for conservation and capped with luxury penthouses, have yielded the firm over 200 projects in various stages of planning and implementation. Among these are several residential towers in Tel Aviv; a hotel in Jerusalem; a residential domain in Jaffa; and an office tower on Hamasger St., Tel Aviv. 

- I can understand why people live in Tel Aviv… but one needs to be a masochist to become addicted to the seven stages of hell of the Tel Aviv municipality… not to mention the Sisyphean work of conservation. What's wrong with working in Haifa, for instance?

…We're working in Haifa as well... doing the post-graduates' village at the Technion... but to answer your question - as with everything else in life it's all by chance. Our first project in 1991 was an addition to an historical building in Tel Aviv. Nobody knew, then, exactly what conservation was - neither we nor the municipality. We were two youngsters following our hearts against all odds. Looking back, that decision took us where we are today. But on the way we learned the hard way to proceed vis-a-vis the municipality, which - as you delicately mentioned - is one of the toughest in the country.

- I hate to admit it, but it seems that even now people don't know what exactly conservation is … what does it mean for you?

I know it may sound surprising, but we refrain from calling ourselves 'conservation architects'. Fanatic conservation doesn't interest us as architects. We see much more challenge in creating something new that will live well with the old. But seriously, one has to first ask why it's at all important to conserve. Cities are naturally built of layers from various periods. This is what expresses the meaning of a place - and as such it is vital to one's experiencing of the city. Working on conservation has taught us first of all to develop sensitivity to details, something we apply as well to new building. In other words, we have good knowledge today of connecting the details to the context they're embedded in. 

- Your office is located in a building designated for strict conservation. How has the fact that you've designed the interior influenced the work going on there?

The ongoing dialogue between the 1920s exterior and the modern interior is an excellent example of the kind of linkages that interest us. We're working in the central junction of the city, with two more buildings conserved by us. It creates a kind of a unit pride, and obligates whoever works here to experience the architecture of the past.

- What does it mean beyond sounding good?

It means that we're conducting our routine in a house planned about 90 years ago. I think that's the beauty of the city, that buildings can be renewed and change but the fabric that withstands the test of time enables it to continue existing. The fact is that Rothschild Blvd., planned in the '20s, is still one of the most successful places in town, despite and probably because of the old and new residing together. I'm not in favor of preservation that looks like a bonbon, it never looks genuine. Truth lends architecture authenticity…and authenticity lends it relevancy… without that, there's no architecture.

- What do you precisely mean by 'truth in architecture'? Isn't it all in one's head?

With me it begins even earlier…in a dream. Then it develops into a preliminary sketch which I define as the 'ideal building'. From that point on you lose control. All kinds of factors begin to interfere with the process - the entrepreneur without whom we have no existence; the municipality departments who without us have no existence - and there are many of them; the consultants and residents who change the building even after it's been completed. Against all of these we conduct a battle to preserve the ideal building. You have to be very persuasive and creative to remain with a result that you can live in peace with. It's a complex and delicate process requiring manipulations you learn to make over time.

- How does this respectable building, which must cost a fortune to maintain, impact on the clients?

It's a type of business card assuring the clients that the cobbler isn't barefoot. From the moment the first connection has been established they know there is a good chance the project may succeed. They undergo an experience here encouraging them to enter into their project with confidence, before they have any clue as to the difficulties lying ahead…

- As long as I've known you, you have always emphasized that you don't work alone…that's clear - you said you're now handling over 200 projects. Even if half of them are in the dream stage, it's still quite a lot even by international standards. You're actually running an economic business that provides a livelihood for many families. What happens to such a business in a slump?

Yes… it isn't easy to sleep at night with that. For the last two years we've employed 35 architects - that's about three times the amount of workers in an average firm…How do we prepare for a cloudy day? We do it mainly by maintaining a quality of operation with a system that shifts the workers among the projects. For this purpose we've industrialized the planning process. We have teams that specialize in different stages of the project - from drafting the concept, through the licensing process, the work plans and overseeing the operation. Each team focuses on its own work, as in an assembly line, and maintains close contact with the team preceding and following it. This enables the transfer of accumulated data from one project to another. 

I'm personally involved in every stage of planning, making sure that progress is made according to schedule, and that the building doesn't get lost. That places me vis-à-vis scores of projects - no minor 'headache' - but it's what creates a kind of 'guarantee certificate' - for us, the workers and the clients… and fortunately it proved efficient in the last slump.

- Ok, so you run a successful business, but not for that did you study architecture… what architectural messages are you trying to convey?

…For that I have a ready answer. We try to avoid producing banal objects. The amount of work enables us to develop a language that connects all my projects. We view the firm as a kind of experiential lab that focuses on extracting the maximum from a minimum of conditions. This is mainly expressed in the extensions where the resident can express his own whims while still influencing the city's evolution.

- It almost sounds utopian…

That's not the intention…in the era of facebook, tattoos and piercing there is no longer a need for solutions of collective compromise. Each person can get what he likes, whether he is rich, sophisticated or merely a wise-guy.

- Where are you heading?  

I have an answer for that as well…in spite of the vast size of Tel Aviv, the city's social boundaries are limited to the narrow domain from Allenby to the Yarkon River. The great demand - especially of the young - to live in the city center is creating a fantastic opportunity to renew certain peripheral areas - mainly in the south, as has happened in New York in TriBeCa and Harlem. The young people are open to new forms of dwellings and that's an interesting challenge for us. 

At the present we're planning 700 residential units on Hahashmal St. - a location no one wanted to hear about till recently, and I believe it's going to be one of the coolest locations in the city. At the same time - we're continuing to create villas in the air, particularly as building additions on small plots, but also in a considerable number of residential towers.

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