On a family vacation in the Arava Desert, we popped in to see the new Art Center of Kibbutz Neot Smadar. When driving toward Eilat, we had always seen the tower sticking out of this tiny kibbutz, but never had the opportunity to check it out from up close.
As we approached the enormous building, it felt as if we were entering a palace from a fairy tale: bright pastel colors right out of a Crayola box, surrounded by manicured gardens and well-placed water fountains (in the desert!) balconies surrounding the inner courtyard, decorated by cement birds in place of guardrails – and huge dimensions.
Kibbutz Neot Smadar was founded in 1989 in the middle of nowhere. The idea was to form a relationship with the desert and the environment through organic farming, water recycling, etc. In the late 1990s, the members embarked upon building an art center, creating new architectural techniques and building materials using the resources of the desert. The heart of the project was the six-story air chimney that collects the wind, cools it via a water spray system and then uses the force of the wind to disperse the air through underground ducts and vents to cool the center’s studios and workshops — in essence, an efficient natural air conditioner.
I bumped into a former teaching colleague who decided to leave suburbia some five years ago in order to join in the completion of this project, which took 13 years. Yuval was known at the “botzan” – the mud teacher. He would build things around the school out of natural products, such as a huge teepee out of palm branches, benches out of mud, a fish pond, a gazebo. With Yuval’s help, the builders were able to complete the art center using only materials that they created and their own manpower.
And there’s more to the story of this quirky kibbutz, where members eat their meals together in silence and start each day with a mandatory yoga/meditation session.
Exhibiting their newly created natural concrete molding reliefs and sculptures, the kibbutz put in a bid to design and decorate the inside of the soon-to-be-opened Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem – and won! Soon we will be able to see the relationship between the extravagant, world famous hotel and little-known, minimalistic Kibbutz Neot Smadar.