The Knesset Building in Giv’at Ram - Planning and Construction
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The Knesset Building: Additions
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Photo Gallery
The temple constructed by the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut in Deir El-Bahri in Egypt
The model of the Second Temple, at the Holyland Hotel in Jerusalem
The Altes Museum, designed by Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin
The U.S. Embassy building in Athens, planned by Walter Gropius
The Ataturk Mausoleum in Ankara


The location of the building

Not all the criticism that was heard about the Knesset building, and continue to be heard,132 was connected to the building itself. There were those who criticized the mere concept of a government complex, within the framework of which the Knesset was built, and there were those who criticized the location of the building within the complex.

During a symposium on the subject of "the monumental building in the current century", which was organized by the architectural magazine Tvai shortly after the building was inaugurated, the participants dealt, inter alia, with these questions.133 The editor of Tvai, Abba Elhanani, was one of those who questioned the system of complexes:

I think that from an urban point of view this solution is faulty. In principle, the system of 'complexes' does not seem good or desirable to me. Not a 'government complex', a 'university complex', a 'museum complex', etc. This is truly a lethal concept both from an urban and a social point of view. It is more desirable that every area should have its own 'Sabbath'. The fact that one places the complexes close to each other, and joins them all together into a 'magnificent neighborhood of complexes' - seems to me a mistake, which one may view as 'a long term tragedy'. What one is created is an island of beauty in a sea of the mundane, and in this way one robs the city of its pauses. One may achieve distance through the uniqueness of the public building, and sometimes one also requires physical distance. But this distance must be carefully considered and examined, in order to create distance without causing detachment.134

In the pamphlet published by the City Planning Section at the City Engineer Department in the Municipality of Jerusalem in 1974, one may find all the arguments of those who advocated the concentration of the government and administration offices in one place, and of those who opposed it. The advocates argued that the establishment of the State and the status of Jerusalem as a capital justify the establishment of a national governmental center in the city, which will symbolize the sovereignty of the State. They believed that it is possible to separate the old city, which is an historical and religious center, and the government complex, which symbolizes a new era of the sovereignty of the Jewish people, in a clear and absolute manner. It was also argued that distancing the complex from the city center would enable the construction of high rises, and construction in stages.

The opponents argued that in terms of the regime’s image it is not desirable to create one giant complex in which thousands of government officials are concentrated, that the establishment of government offices in the center of the city would solve a problem (which existed in the first years after the establishment of the State) of a shortage in demand for the upper floors in the building there, and that the arrival and departure of the officials to and from the complex at regular hours, would create serious traffic and parking problems.

It should be noted that even the opponents did not object to the location of the Knesset building, and they agreed that "it is necessary to concentrate in the complex... all those government offices whose ties with the Knesset is especially close".135

On the same issue David Kroyanker wrote: "The planning of the government complex as executed, is characteristic of the planning of the typical complexes in the 1940s and the early 1950s, which is based on the concept of neighborhood units, based on the system developed in the new cities in England. This planning idea, which is not appropriate for the climatic conditions in the country, is based on a free composition of separate buildings, with large parks and roads in between".136

As to the location of the building in the complex, the architect David Reznik argued at the Tvai symposium:

I believe that the location of the Knesset building within the general complex of public and government buildings is based on an incorrect approach. The location of the Knesset building is a manifestation of the absence of overall planning for the whole complex. It is not feasible that one should not get a general picture of the complex of administration buildings, of which the Knesset constitutes a certain part, as a sort of crowning glory. It is true that the building stands on one of the most beautiful spaces that exist in the new Jerusalem. But that is insufficient. This is the origin of my criticism of the building: the distance, which is created between it and the other buildings. One does not get a sense of the hierarchy here to a sufficient extent, and this is a serious shortcoming.

Model of the Government complex and the Knesset building of 1966

Aerial photograph of the Government complex in 1997

The architect Nahum Zolotov added:

There was an attempt in the Knesset building to follow the course of monumentality. But one can see that with every step taken in this direction, two steps were also taken in reverse. An attempt was made to integrate it with the buildings of the complex - but it was distanced from them for fear of a small building being swallowed up by the large office buildings. An attempt was made to achieve monumentality by locating the building at the top of a hill, but immediately there was a retreat, and it was 'divided' into small and transparent terraces. A large entrance square was created, without any frame, and from it one enters the building through three small doors which leads into a low an undefined space.

The Secretary General of the Knesset, Moshe Rossetti, who from the very beginning had supported the separation of the Knesset building from the rest of the government complex buildings, continued to support this approach:

There can be two opinions. One, that the parliament should be in the midst of the government buildings, or complete separation. I am in favor of separation. One must see the Knesset as a separate function. The moment one classifies it as a governmental function, one distorts the constitution. The Knesset must stand above all the government buildings. This is correct from a parliamentary point of view. To the present, in the Frumin house, most of the people who came were passers by, and persons with nothing better to do. We feared that when we came to the new place, which is far away from the residential neighborhoods in Jerusalem, we would be isolated from visitors, and detached from the public. But we have been pleasantly surprised. Every evening there are many, who come to hear the debates in the Knesset. There is a good deal of interest, even though the public must come specially. Nevertheless, they come. This fact makes it possible to examine whether the location has failed or not!

Neo-Classicism and the International Style

One of the harshest criticisms that were expressed against Klarwein's original plan, and the Knesset building as it was finally constructed, was that they were not Israeli. It is not clear what an 'Israeli building' is, and who is authorized to determine this. But even if one were able to reach a definition of what is 'Israeli', and decide on its basis that the Knesset is not Israeli, in this context it is worthy considering Lawrence Vale’s argument in his book on the architecture of capitals, that even though parliaments are expected to represent the national identity in their style, this is usually not the case. In his words, those who decide are the leaders, and what is built represents their personal tastes and ambitions.137 In the case of Israel, it is not the leaders who influenced the shape of the buildings, but the wars among the architects, and the compromises which enabled the truces and armistices in these wars. The compromises were frequently attained through the mediation of foreign architects and officials. The process, at the end of which the Knesset building was built as it was built, was extremely Israeli.

Nevertheless, there was someone who defended the ‘Israeliness’ of the building. Minister of the Interior Israel Bar Yehuda said upon the publication of the results of the competition: "the shape of the building is Israeli, because it has a flat roof. In addition, the shape of the column is not Greek, but original. There is here both great and monumental simplicity. These are two things required for the Knesset building".138

If one accepts the argument that the Knesset building is not an Israeli building, one may ask what it is. There are those who argue that it is neo-classical. The judges in the competition for the Knesset building, who were all Israeli officials and architects, were enthralled with the “hints of classicism” of Klarwein's model. On the other hand, many of the opponents criticized it for the very same reason. As stated above, the basic alignment of the building proposed by Klarwein - especially the two courtyards on either side of the plenary hall, and the many columns at the front of the rectangular building - reminded many of the Altes Museum constructed by Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin in the 1820s.139

Among the critics there were those who argued that buildings with pillars are foreign to Jerusalem, even though according to the description of the tabernacle in the Bible, which served as a basis for the planning of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the structure had numerous columns,140 and in the period of the Second Temple many buildings were built in Jerusalem with columns - including the Second Temple itself, and there was a clear classical influence on the architecture.141 Klarwein himself proposed in February 1959 that the columns should be based on the columns in the first Temple, and one of the members of the Implementation Committee of the Knesset reacted by requesting "that the characteristics of the Temple be set out in writing", for the Committee's perusal.142

Other critics argued that the Knesset should not look, even by insinuation, like a Greek temple. The architect Heinz Rau argued, in relating to the heavy columns proposed by Klarwein, that the building is Fascist, and represents the Nouveau Riche taste.143 There were even some who argued that since the Nazi architect Albert Spier was considered the follower of Schinkel in the Neo-Classical style, Klarwein's building might, heaven forbid, be considered a Nazi building.144

Finally, the original building planned by Klarwein was unrecognizably changed, and after the construction of the building was completed, no one spoke of resemblance to Schinkel's museum, but the great resemblance (in the exterior, not in the building technique or materials) to the American Embassy in Athens (1961), planned by the father of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius.145 The Embassy building in Athens, which under no circumstances can be associated with the Bauhaus school, was also criticized for its Neo-Classicist hints. In his defense, Gropius could have argued that he acted in accordance with the instructions he received from the American State Department when he started planning the building in 1956: he was asked to use motifs from Greek architecture, without copying it.146 But the columns appeared not only in the embassy in Athens, but in several additional embassies built by the United States in different countries in that period, most of which have some resemblance to the Knesset building (for example, the embassies in Accra in Ghana, built by Harry Weese and Associates, the embassy in Baghdad, built by Joseph Louis Sert, and the embassy in New Delhi, constructed by Edward Durrell Stone). What all these buildings have in common is possible to attribute them to the late 'International Style'.147 The architects who built in this style dealt a lot with social construction (in other words, especially housing projects), and one of their problems was that they did not manage to find original solutions for monumental buildings, and kept returning to the "good old recipes from past experience", in other words: pillars.148

General Criticism

After the construction work was completed, an admirer of the exterior of Knesset building said about it: "The contrasts in shape between the vertical and horizontal architectural components, are intended to increase the sense of serenity and power also manifested in the ‘civic glory of the front, which despite its monumentality preserves its human dimensions".149

But there were those who complained about a lack of harmony in the building, which resulted from the large number of hands that had been involved in its planning and construction. The architect David Reznik argued at the Tvai symposium: "What is lacking in [the Knesset’s] planning is a single guiding hand, and it is possible to discern compromises among various streams, which weren’t helpful". Specifically, it was argued at the symposium that there was an aesthetic fault in the fact that the lower part of the building, the terraces, were constructed of glass, while the upper part, the square structure in the middle, was constructed of sand stone. It was also pointed out that there was a lack of coordination between the design of the exterior and of the interior. "I do not belittle the interior design", Elhanani argued, "but there is a feeling that there are two languages being spoken. The architects of the building are speaking one language and the interior designers are speaking another. On the one hand there is a space made of bare concrete, and steps made of stone - simple, healthy, clean - and suddenly there is a banister made of Mahogany, and upholstery in pastel colors".

The Knesset building before its completion, in October 1964

Among the dozens of articles written in August 1966 on the Knesset building, that written by Yehuda Ha`ezrahi summed up the debate in the most comprehensive manner. "On the whole [the critics] accused the Knesset building of being excessively glorious, on the verge of exhibitionism, of lack of humility, of an over abundance of expensive decorations, of monumentality which is unbecoming a small and poor country like ours, and of being isolated and detached from the reality of the Israeli reality and of the Israeli public... There are those who called it 'an isolated fortress'. Some declared its image to be a symbol of a dictatorial regime. An undemocratic building, heaven forbid". On the there hand, Ha`ezrahi wrote, there were those who argued that "the Knesset building must constitute a well fashioned and tangible image, for the hope of divergence from the mundane, for towering above what is deserted and standard, for the aspiration for the beautiful and even the sublime... Democracy does not need to be constant belittlement, a declaration based on the lowest common denominator, but on the contrary, a constant attempt to achieve elevation and exhilaration".

But Ha'ezrahi also had his own criticism: "The failure of the Knesset building is not in its being too exhibitionist, too adorned and monumental, lacking in humility, isolated and proud, 'undemocratic' etc... Its failure is in the fact that from the very beginning, according to its basic planning, it did not diverge sufficiently from the routine of the architectural style common among us... One cannot perceive of any attempt to diverge from the track of the 'correct' architectural style - an attempt that would involve taking risks, which might lead to a bumpy road of artificiality, pretentiousness, forgery, pseudo-orientalism, and pseudo-romanticism, and dozen other types of 'pseudo', but at the same time has in it something that is able to break through the mediocrity, towards the sublime, whose aesthetic achievements are the only real achievements... The qualities of beauty, which were apparent in the Knesset building in its original planning, in so far that they were apparent, did not diverge from the defined and modest framework of what was ‘safe’. This is its advantage, as well as its shortcomings... The Knesset building, as it was actually constructed, and as it appears today to the eyes of the beholder, is very different from the original plan for its construction... Finally, a building was constructed, which has no uniform creative spirit, and it emerges, even at first sight, as an unfortunate combination of different, and possibly conflicting ideas. It is not a harmonic unity, but a Sha'atnez (a mixture of things that should not be together).150

132 Much of the criticism comes from people who never bothered to examine the subject deeply, and their criticism, even if justified, is full of disinformation. See for example: Ofer Kolker, "Rega Shel Hessed - Ha`adrichalut Hayisraelit, Halom Veshivro" (A Moment of Grace - Israeli Architecture, the Dream and its Collapse) Mifneh, Vol. 25, No. 7, April 1999, especially the section "From Open Urban Architecture to Fortress-like, Haughty and Closed Architecture", p. 61.
133 See above footnote 99.
134 Similar criticism was also made regarding the administration complex built by the architect Le Corbusier in the capital of Punjab in India, Chandigarh, that was inaugurated in 1951. Despite the great impression made by the buildings, that "make them effective as sculptural symbols of civic order", it is considered a functional disaster, and its isolation from the rest of the city harms the urban fabric. But that is apparently not what interested the Prime Minister of India, Juaharlal Nehru, who ordered the project and viewed it as "symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past... an expression of the nation's faith in the future." (David Watkin, A History of Western Architecture, second edition, New York, Barnes & Noble books, 1996, p. 564-5. See also Lawrence J. Vale, Architecture, Power, and National Identity, New Haven and London , Yale University Press, pp. 105-14.
135 The Municipality of Jerusalem (See above footnote 8), pp. 11-12.
136 David Kroyanker (See above footnote 10), pp. 97-8.
137 Lawrence Vale, op. cit.
138 Minutes of the meeting, which summed up the results of the public competition for the planning of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, July 24, 1957, the Knesset Archive, file 2183 a', box 3.
139 On Schinkel's museum see: John Zukowsky ed. Karl Friedrich Schinkel - the Darama of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago, Wasmuch, 1994, pp 145-8. Yohanan Ratner alluded to the similarity between Klarwein's plan and Schinkel's building at the meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on May 13, 1959, when he spoke of "a building from 1835" (Minutes of the 29th meeting, the Knesset Archive, file 2182, box 26). In an interview with the writer, Ram Karmi explained: "Klarwein, who came from Germany, did not belong to the side of the German Bauhaus, but to the monumental classicism of Germany. He took Schinkel's museum building in Berlin as a prototype, and put the Knesset's program into it... Both the museum building in Berlin and Klarwein's building are based on a central core, two courtyards... and at the front pillars, pillars, pillars".
140 Exodus:27:9-15.
141 See, Chaim Richman, The House of Prayer for All Nations - the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the Temple Institute and Carta, 1997.
142 Minutes of the 16th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on February 2, 1959, the Knesset Archive, file 2181, box 26. Klarwein mentioned several times over the years that in planning the Knesset building, he had been inspired by the Temple, but it appears that he did not always distinguish between the First and Second Temples.
143 Heinz Rau, "No Hurry to Build", The Jerusalem Post, September 7, 1957.
144 Ran Shchori, "Dora Gad, The Israeli Presence in Interior Design," Architecture of Israel Quarterly, 1997, p. 95. On this subject Klarwein's himself said, after the construction of the Knesset building was completed: "Everyone said that it is Neo-Classical and Fascist. But that is not true. It is funny. The last building I did in Berlin was in 1933. It was an Evangelical church. But I was no longer there at the inauguration, because Goring was there. Then I was besmirched by the Germans, because mosaics are foreign from a racial point of view. And here I am told that the Knesset building in Fascist..." (Silvi Keshet, op. cit.).
145 See Michael Levin, "Adrichalut Modernit Monumentalit - Bein Yerushalayim Lebirot Ha'olam" (Monumental Modern Architecture - Between Jerusalem and the Capitals of the World), in Ora Ahimeir and Michael Levin eds. Adrichalut Monumentalit Biyrushalyim (Monumental Architecture in Jerusalem), Jerusalem, Carta and the Jerusalem Institute for the Study of Israel, 1984, Pp. 50-2. It is interesting that already in 1957, when the Gropius building was in its earliest stages of planning, the Jerusalem architect Ya'acov Benor-Kalter argued that such a building is justified, perhaps, in Athens, but nowhere else (Benor-Kalter, "Plan Must Reflect Needs", the Jerusalem Post, September 7, 1957.
146 Jane C. Loeffler, "The Architecture of Diplomacy: Heyday of the United States Embassy building Program, 1954-1960", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, No. 49, September 1990, pp. 251-78.
147 The International Style was characterized, inter alia, by bilateral symmetry, and horizontal lines, that are frequently broken by vertical lines, and in some cases, roofs that protrude beyond the external walls of the building - a description that fits the Knesset building to a surprising degree. (See Henry-Russell Hitchcock & Philip Johnson, The International Style, New York and London, W.W.Norton & Company, 1932).
148 From the comments of Abba Elhanani at the Tvai symposium, op. cit. Apparently, it is not only the Knesset that may be attributed to the International Style, but also many parliaments in other new states. Lawrence Vale explains the phenomenon in that among the factors influencing the style of building in these countries, there is also the desire to prove that they belong to the modern world, in other words, the Western world. See Lawrence Vale, op. cit. p. 53.
149 From the words of Emanuel Freedman, the building's engineer, during the discussion about monumental construction at the Tvai symposium.
150 Yahuda Ha`ezrahi op. cit.


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