The Knesset Building in Giv’at Ram - Planning and Construction
  Table of Contents
The Knesset Building: Additions
  Table of Contents
Photo Gallery
Dora Gad and Marc Chagall
The front wall of the plenary hall, designed by Danny Karavan. Photographer: Daniel Goldberg
The synagogue designed by architect David Cassuto

Design of the Knesset Interior

Already in mid-1959, the possibility of inviting the architect Dora Gad, to help with the interior decoration of the Knesset building, was mentioned. She was first contacted in November 1962, but began to work, with her partner Arie Noi, only in December 1963. Gad’s entry into the project was accompanied by various problems, including the fact that she did not like the building which Klarwein had designed.80 In addition, there existed among the members of the Implementation Committee a certain ambivalence regarding the role of an interior decorator - a profession that was new in Israel in the 1960s - and on several occasions Gad found herself explaining the essence of her job to the members of the committee. The main problem which Gad perceived was “how to designate to this rigid structure and its vast and monumental spaces, a human dimension, a certain pleasantness and Israeli simplicity and modesty, and at the same time, preserve its dignity and representational character”.81 She decided to solve the problem by having few decorations, unadorned floors and wall spaces, and a limited variety of colors.

The Plenary Hall

Despite Klarwein’s original objection, it was decided that Gad would participate in the design of the plenary hall, after various problems emerged regarding its planning. The two main problems concerned the chamber’s ceiling and the wall at its front, behind the Speaker’s podium. As to the ceiling, Klarwein had planned it in the shape of a vault, constructed of bare concrete, with 16 upper windows, seeking to make do with natural lighting only. His opponents argued that the ceiling was too high and creates an atmosphere of alienation in the chamber; that it would erase the effect of the wall at the front of the chamber; that the lighting would not fall evenly in the chamber; that in any event there would be need for artificial lighting after sunset; and that the height would create acoustical problems.82 The solution that the opponents proposed was to lower the ceiling, or alternatively to add a hanging ceiling (or intermediate ceiling). Klarwein strongly opposed these solutions, while Gad insisted on the intermediate ceiling being added, and suggested a circular ceiling.

The Knesset plenum (November 21, 1988). The “guillotines” can be seen clearly above the gallery.

Among the experts brought to express their opinion on this matter some supported Klarwein and some supported Gad,83 but the Implementation Committee was impressed in particular by the comments of the Haifa architect Shmuel Rosoff: “Since it is necessary that in the Knesset plenary hall there will be a serene and balanced atmosphere, the existing ceiling, being an extraordinary and dynamic structure that catches the eye, is liable to be a factor that disturbs the creation of a quiet atmosphere in the hall, and it is therefore necessary to find a way to ‘calm’ the ceiling down, and make it less dominant. This can be achieved by hanging a ceiling under the existing roof”.84 The interior architect Rafi Bloomfeld, who was brought at Klarwein’s request to help in the planning of the plenary hall, after differences of opinion emerged between himself and Gad, supported the idea of a hanging ceiling.

The hanging ceiling was finally designed by the sculptor Danny Karavan, who also constructed the wall at the front of the chamber (see below). In the beginning Karavan proposed that under the vault a “net-like metal structure be installed, so that the light coming through it would be in the shape of tents with vertical lines, symbolizing the desert, and with horizontal lines, symbolizing a Star of David”.85 But this proposal was rejected, and it was decided to install a hanging ceiling, made up of twelve wooden planks (nicknamed ‘the guillotines’) painted white, the weight of each of them being 200 kg. Klarwein, who described the ceiling as “abominable”, and argued that the ceiling constitutes a “mortal danger”, since the planks were liable, Heaven forbid, to fall.86 Furthermore, the members of the Knesset House Committee, who visited the plenary hall after the “guillotines” were put up, were shocked and demanded that they be removed.87 But the ceiling remained, and today there is hardly anyone who pays attention to its existence. As to the lighting, most of the windows in the vault were painted black, and projectors were placed behind glass, facing downwards.88

Originally, Klarwein proposed that the wall at the front of the hall behind the Speaker’s podium, be overlain with wood, and decorated with a candelabrum made of shining copper, with the symbols of the tribes, and Herzl’s picture in the form of a relief.89 Later he proposed that the wall be covered with marble, with a relief of Herzl made in silver, bronze or copper, and that the wall be divided by a vertical line. However, a totally different concept was approved by the Implementation Committee, based on a proposal made by Gad.

The podium in the plenary hall, and the wall designed by Danny Karavan

Gad approached the sculptor Danny Karavan about designing the wall, and he planned a stone wall, the subject of which was the connection between the celestial, spiritual Jerusalem, and the earthly, material Jerusalem. The wall, constructed of light okra colored Galilean chalk stone, from Dir-el-Asad, is thirty meters long and 7.5 meters high, and it is constructed of stones that are approximately 2X1 meters in size and 20-30 cm thick. The stones were cut by Jerusalem stonecutters, under the instructions of the artist, who got to know the personal style of each of them, and instructed him accordingly. Every stone was designed individually and stands on its own. The work on the wall was performed outside the building in the shade, and went on for eight months. Karavan sought to design a work of art of visual significance, which would be pleasant to the eye and uncomplicated, befitting a wall that is to serve as a background to those sitting on the Knesset podium and the speakers.90

Due to the demand of the Knesset administration that a portrait of Herzl appear on the wall, Karavan considered engraving his image in stone. But this plan did not materialize, and the portrait that was placed on the left side of the wall, is cauterized on a dark zinc board. One of the proposals raised in the deliberations of the Implementation Committee was that the wall be decorated with phrases from the Bible. Again, Klarwein objected,91 but it was finally Karavan, who convinced the Committee to give the idea up on aesthetic grounds. Another idea that was rejected was to construct a seat for the President of the State in a small veranda extending from the wall. At Karavan’s request it was finally decided that the President would sit in a less exposed location - on the right side of the visitors’ gallery. Karavan had argued that if the President would sit in the wall, he would look like “some sort of Cuckoo clock”, and every time he scratched his nose or fell asleep, the whole world would be able to see it.92

In the competition program it was stipulated that there should be two galleries in the plenary hall: the lower one for important guests and for the media, and above it a gallery for the general public. The original idea was to connect the lower gallery to the area in the Chamber where the Members sit by means of a staircase, but this idea too was soon disbanded.93 The architect Ze`ev Rabina, who was involved in the planning of the plenary hall in its early stages, explained that the angle at which the lower gallery was constructed in relation to the hall, gives those sitting in it the feeling that they are close to the Representatives sitting below, while the Members of the Knesset feel separated from those sitting in the gallery.94 For security reasons it was decided to separate the upper gallery from the hall by means of bulletproof glass, and this after a demented person had thrown a hand grenade into the plenary hall in the Knesset ,on October 29, 1957, when it was still sitting in the Frumin building. On that occasion Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and several other Ministers were wounded. Ex Post Facto there were complaints that the glass made the upper gallery look like an aquarium.95

An additional problem in the planning of the plenary hall concerned the seats for Members of the Knesset. At first, before Gad had joined the planning team, it was proposed that there should be 200 seats, in order to prepare for the possibility that the number of MKs would increase should the electoral system be reformed. In December 1964 Gad and her partner Noi presented a plan that included 123 seats, with the possibility of increasing the number to 146. Finally it was decided to have 116 seats for MKs, in addition to the seats around the Government table. The options examined for seats included benches, such as those in the British House of Commons, moveable chairs, and chairs that are attached to the floor. Gad chose the latter option, due to the slanting floor.96 The seats are arranged in the form of a ten branched candelabrum, with the Government table, shaped like a horseshoe, constitutes the two center branches. There is a minor curiosity connected with the Government table. On February 13, 1963, Prime Minister Ben Gurion wrote a letter to the Speaker of the Knesset, Kadish Luz, in which he argued that the special Government table should be cancelled, since it is, in his opinion, distasteful. He preferred the British tradition, according to which the members of the Government and the heads of the Opposition sit opposite each other on the front benches of the Chamber.97 Ben Gurion’s proposal wasn’t even raised for deliberation in the Implementation Committee.

The State Hall

The design of the State Hall, planned for State events and receptions, also received much attention. In the plan presented by Powsner and Klarwein in June 1959, the State Hall, the Members’ restaurant and the general cafeteria were to have opened to an inner courtyard.98 However, the courtyard was finally cancelled. According to the final plan, the hall was to be the first large space one would arrive at after entering the building through an entrance with a relatively low ceiling. Some criticized this concept, while others justified it. The latter explained that in the temples of various cultures, the entrance was frequently by means of low and narrow passageways.99

Reception held by Menachem Begin for U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the Chagall Hall (March 12, 1979)

In 1960 the Speaker of the Knesset, Kadish Luz, asked the artist Marc Chagall, whether he would be willing to decorate the State Hall.100 At first the idea was to have stainless-glass windows, such as those that Chagall had designed several years earlier for the synagogue in the Hadassah hospital at Ein Karem, or murals. Chagall proposed tapestries,101 even though he had never engaged in this form of art, and it was not easy to translate his style of painting into tapestry stitches. After the Knesset accepted the idea, Chagall proposed that the themes for the tapestries should be: “At the end of times”; “Moses, King David and the Diaspora”, and the “Reemergence of the State of Israel”. Luz provided Chagall with phrases from the Old Testament connected with these themes, and many of the motifs in the tapestries are based on those phrases.102

The Chagall Hall: Chagall’s tapestries and the “chocolate bar” ceiling

At around the same time as Gad started to work as the interior decorator of the building, Luz promised Chagall that nothing would be done in the State Hall without his consent regarding the lighting, floor, ceiling, colors and curtains, and this promise was kept. Chagall was also the one who chose the option of covering the ceiling of the Hall with 100,000 wooden cubes (the alternative, proposed by Gad, was aluminum cubes). Klarwein, who stated that the ceiling looked like a “advertisement for chocolate”, was not happy with this solution.103

The ceiling of the Chagall Hall, and the Ben-Shmuel relief

In July 1964, it was agreed with Chagall that the floor in the State Hall would not be covered with a wall to wall carpet, made of polished stone. Chagall proposed that twelve asymmetrical mosaics, depicting traditional motifs appearing in mosaics found in ancient synagogues in the country from the sixth and sevenths centuries C.E., be set in the floor. Klarwein’s comment was that this made the floor look like a “golf course”.104 In December 1965 Chagall also decided to add a wall mosaic, representing the phrase from the Book of Psalms: “On the River of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning…” (137:1&6). After concluding that there were no mosaic makers in Israel capable of performing the job to his satisfaction, Chagall sent for his favorite mosaic artists - the Melano couple from Paris, and they came to Jerusalem to do the job.105

There was only one request made by Chagall on which Klarwein refused to yield: “When he wanted me to block the windows [in the Hall] with the view, so that [the natural light] would not disturb his tapestries, I objected”.106

The Government Meeting Room

The Government Room, which Gad designed without any outside intervention, is on the second floor of the building. The purpose of this room is that whenever necessary Government meetings, or meetings with important guests, can be held there. This room is one of the most beautiful spaces in the Knesset, even though its dimensions are small.

The Knesset House Committee room, view from the inside.   Knesset House Committee room, view from the outside. Photographer: Susan Hattis Rolef

Meeting in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee room (March 23, 1989)   The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee room: view from the inside

Most of the room’s space is taken up by a round table, made of heavy wood. In front of every seat there is a black leather pad. Above the table there is a white round interim ceiling, to which fixtures for lighting are attached. The floor is covered with a blue carpet. The room’s walls are plated with light oak wood, and on the wall facing the entrance to the room there is a large oil painting by the artist Reuven Rubin.107

The Committee Floor

The rooms of nine of the permanent Committees are situated on the first floor, in the terraced structure on the Southern slopes of the building. In order to somewhat soften the right angled rigidity of the internal spaces, Ram Karmi decided that the walls of the committee rooms facing the corridor, should protrude in this direction.108

After a proposal to separate the seats in the Committee rooms from the windows by means of a partition was rejected,109 the windows were placed at the edge of each room at a diagonal, so that none of those sitting around the table would be seen by the others as a silhouette. According to Rabina, who participated in the planning of the rooms, this resulted in the rooms having the shape of potatoes.110 The external walls of the Committee rooms, facing the corridor, were constructed of burnt red bricks. On the interior they were covered with Oak, and all in all, three different shades of wood were used in the Committee rooms. In every room there is a large rectangular table, made of heavy Teak. The walls of the corridor opposite the committee rooms were constructed in bare concrete, but were later painted grey.111

A prayer room, that was later renamed a synagogue, was also constructed on the Committee floor. The synagogue was planned by the architect David Cassuto.112

Rooms for Members of the Knesset

Today it is difficult to imagine the Knesset building without a personal room for each of the Member of Knesset. However, forty years ago this seemed superfluous, or at least a luxury. At a meeting with the representatives of the Ministry of Finance one of the members of the Implementation Committee, Member of the Knesset Israel Guri, stated that originally, when he had seen the plan to allot rooms for sixty percent of the Knesset Members, he had felt that this was a very good idea, but that after it was decided to cut down the dimensions of the building it was felt that the number of rooms should be reduced, “and perhaps it is possible to reduce the number even further”.113 When the issue of the rooms for Members of the Knesset came up again for deliberation in the Implementation Committee in June 1960, and it was announced that thirty rooms were to be allotted for the use of Knesset Members of the Knesset, in each of which two Knesset Members would sit, in addition to six common meetings rooms, Yitzhak Eilam, who in those days was the Director of “Koor”, and a member of the Committee, argued that “this is burning away money… It is exaggerated, and cannot be!”114 But over the years it became apparent that a mistake had been made on this matter, and in 1982 a new wing started to be planned to the South of the existing building, in order to solve the problem of a shortage in rooms.115

80 In an interview with the writer, held on June 18, 1998, Gad said: “I had many arguments with Klarwein, since in my opinion he really wasn’t a good architect. What he had planned was old-fashioned and classicist.
81 Ran Shkhori, Dora Gad - Hanochekhut Hayisraelit Be'adrichalut Pnim (Dora Gad - the Israeli Presence in Interior Architecture), Tel Aviv, Israeli Architecture, 1997, p. 99.
82 In her interview with the writer Gad complained that the chamber’s proportions were very bad. “The chamber is in any event small, and this height (of the ceiling) further dwarfed it. But everything was finished, and I had no alternative but to work with what there was”.
83 The architect Oscar Niemeyer, the planner of the city of Brasilia, who visited the country and was invited by the Implementation Committee to express his opinion, said that both Klarwein’s and Gad’s proposals were reasonable, even though they emerged from different approaches. However, he added, that the final decision is usually that of the architect of the building, i.e. Klarwein. See minutes of the 84th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on June 15, 1964, the Knesset Archive, file 3188, box 5.
84 Letter fro Shmuel Rosoff to Kadish Luz, April 26, 1964, Knesset Archive, file 3188, box 5.
85 Minutes of the 92nd meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on August 16, 1965, the Knesset Archive, file 3188, box 5.
86 Letter from Klarwein to the Implementation Committee, July 27, 1966, Knesset Archive, file 3181, box 5, and Tamar Avidar “Ceiling of Contention”, Ma’ariv, August 31, 1966.
87 Minutes of the 100th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on July 18, 1966, the Knesset Archive, file 3188, box 5.
88 In the late 1990s work was done on the ceiling, as a result of which the windows are completely blocked, and the artificial lighting was changed. Currently (2004) the removal of the “guillotines” is being considered, as part of safety measures.
89 Minutes of the 81st meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on March 23, 1964, ibid.
90 Interview held by the writer with Danny Karavan, May 28, 1998.
91 In Klarwein’s opinion the letters would have given the wall the image of a cemetery. See Minutes of the 74th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on July 17, 1963, the State Archive, Section 60, box 317, file 6.
92 Interview held by the writer with Danny Karavan, May 28, 1998.
93 Minutes of the 78th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on February 4, 1964, the State Archive, op. cit.
94 Interview held by the writer with Ze`ev Rabina, on July 2, 1998.
95 Yosef Schufman, “Parliament or Aquarium”, Hayom, August 30, 1966.
96 Minutes of the 87th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on December 15, 1964, the Knesset Archive, file 3188, box 5.
97 Letter from Ben Gurion to Kadish Luz, February 13, 1963, the Knesset Archive, file 3181, box 25.
98 Interview held by the wrtier with Shimon Powsner, on July 5, 1998.
99 See debate on monumental building in the “Tvai” symposium, held on November 20, 1966, and published in full in the journal Tvai, Quarterly for Architecture, Tel Aviv, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1967, and inter view of the writer with Dora Gad, June 18, 1998.
100 Chagall answered positively, even though a painting he had contributed to the Knesset in 1953, “Solitude”, was transferred by the then Speaker, Joseph Sprinzak, to the Museum of Tel Aviv. Sprinzak had said that it was unsuitable to introduce a picture of a goat into the Knesset building. See Moshe Pomrock, Dusk, Tel Aviv, Otpaz Ltd. Publications, 1971, p. 104 (Hebrew) In fact it is a cow, not a goat, that appears in the painting that Chagall gave Sprinzak.
101 Minutes of the 70th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on January 7, 1963, the State Archive, op.cit.
102 Documents from the beginning of 1963, including letters and notes, the Knesset Archive, file 3182, the Knesset Administration, Box 2, and Moshe Pomrock (above footnote 98), pp. 110-120.
103 “An Arrow from Silvi Keshet”, Ha'aretz, August 26, 1966.
104 Ibid.
105 Minutes of the 85th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on November 16, 1964, the Knesset Archive, file No. 3188, box 5. In Gad’s opinion the mosaic’s were superfluous, but Chagall (of whom Gad told the writer that “He was antipathetic to an extent that is hard to imagine”) did not accept her opinion.
106 Keshet, see above footnote 99.
107 Ran Shkhori, footnote No. 80.
108 Ibid.
109 The minutes of a meeting with the participation Ze`ev Rabina and the Deputy Secretaries General of the Knesset Clara Aran and Asher Tsidon, on August 28, 1959. The Knesset Archive, file 2181, box 9.
110 Interview held by the writer with Ze`ev Rabina, July 2, 1998.
111 In 2008 the Permanent Committees will all be moved to the new wing being constructed to the East of the original Knesset building. The existing committee rooms will apparently be handed over to the parliamentary groups.
112 Knesset Speaker Kadish Luz originally insisted that the room be called a “prayer room” and not a synagogue. It was Member of the Knesset Ya’acov Hazan from Mapam, who argued that it should not be ‘merely a room’, but that it should contain ‘religious articles’. See Minutes of the 69th meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on November 27, 1962, the Knesset Archive, file No. 3188, box 5.
113 Minutes of a joint meeting of the Implementation Committee and people from the Ministry of Finance, held on July 20, 1959, the Knesset Archive file 2182, box 26.
114 Minutes of the 52nd meeting of the Implementation Committee, held on June 21st, 1960, State Archives, section 60, box 317, file 6.
115 The construction of the new wing, planned by Ernst Armon, the Chief Architect of the Public Works Department (Ma’atz), was completed in 1991.


© Copyright 2006, The State of Israel. All Rights Reserved.
We welcome your Suggestions and Comments. Email: feedback@knesset.gov.il