Abigail Klein Leichman
February 5, 2012, Updated September 11, 2012

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but ISRAEL21c has attempted to identify some of the most striking buildings in the land. There is more than enough to choose from, as modern Israel’s architecture is an eclectic mix of the ancient to the avant-garde.

1. The International YMCA, Jerusalem

Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash 90
The YMCA in Jerusalem was designed by the Empire State Building architect.

A landmark on the Jerusalem skyline, the YMCA was designed by Arthur Louis Harmon, the same architect behind the Empire State Building. Like its New York cousin, the YMCA was the tallest building in the city at the time of its opening around 1935.

Harmon wanted to embrace the architectural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, so the YMCA’s design has elements of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and neo-Moorish styles and its foundation contains stones from quarries believed to have been used in the construction of the Second Temple. Forty columns in the courtyard represent the 40 years of Israelite desert wanderings as well as the 40 days of temptation of Jesus, while the 12 windows in the auditorium and 12 cypress trees in the garden symbolize the 12 tribes, the 12 disciples of Jesus and the 12 followers of Mohammed.

The Jerusalem YMCA is considered the most beautiful YMCA building in the world. At the top of the 50-meter tower is a relief figure of the six-winged seraph described by the prophet Isaiah. The capitals of two entryway columns depict the Woman of Samaria mentioned in the Gospels and a lamb represents Jesus.

2. Mivtachim Sanatorium/Hotel, Zichron Yaacov


Award-winning former convalescence home, soon to be a hotel.

Architect Yacov Rechter, who also designed the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center and other iconic buildings, won the 1973 Israel Prize for the Mivtachim Sanatorium. Originally part of a healthcare campus in the Carmel mountains, the long unused 7,752-square-meter structure will get a second lease on life as a boutique hotel set to open this spring with 80 rooms, an art gallery, two concert halls and a recording studio.

The elongated design follows the lines of the topography and is open along its entire length to vistas over the Mediterranean Sea. “The greatness of the project is the way it crowns the mountain,” says Beni Levy, dean of the Architecture School at Ariel University Center.

3. Tel Aviv Museum

Herta and Paul Amir Building

Photo by Amit Geron
The Herta and Paul Amir Wing of the Tel Aviv Museum.

Finished in 1932, the museum on Rothschild Boulevard provided the setting for Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s proclamation of the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art was added in 1959.

In 2011, the Herta and Paul Amir Wing opened. Designed by Harvard’s Preston Scott Cohen, the Amir building is distinguished by a vertical “light fall” that orients the visitor as it leads from one level to another, and brings natural light to the building’s lower level. The exterior surface, made of 430 polished cement panels, breaks at disparate-angled modules.

The main Tel Aviv Museum.

4. Chaim Weizmann residence, Rehovot

The Weizmann House. Photo courtesy of Weizmann Institute of Science.

The Weizmann House, built in 1936 on the campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science, was the first Israeli project for the prolific architect Erich Mendelsohn, who had fled Nazi Germany. The simple and classic house features a spiral central staircase made of glass and concrete, contrasting with the cubic elements enclosing a courtyard with a swimming pool.

Sited on a hill overlooking the coastal plain to the west and the Judean Mountains to the east, the house was described by Mendelsohn as a “model house for a person standing on the stage of history” – appropriate for the man who was the first president of the state of Israel and founded the Weizmann Institute.

5. Design Museum, Holon

Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90
The Design Museum in Holon is called “one of the new world wonders” by Conde Nast Traveler.

This $17 million project of the architect-designer Ron Arad, in cooperation with Bruno Asa, was named “one of the new world wonders” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Opened in 2010, the eye-catching building is enveloped by a steel ribbon façade made of weather-resistant Corten steel bands.

Arad has described the museum’s design as “a hierarchy of outdoor spaces so you walk in under the building into a semi-covered yard, where you have a choice to take the air-conditioned route or one exposed to the elements. The building envelope is not just a pretty space; it’s also a structure.”

6. Bet Gabriel, Tzemah

The prize-winning Bet Gabriel sits on the Sea of Galilee.

This Jordan Valley cultural and social center on the Sea of Galilee provided the setting for the November 1994 signing of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. It won the Rechter Prize, an Israeli architectural award named for Yacov Rechter, for its design by a team of architects headed by Ulrich Plesner and associates. The center opened in 1993.

The stone structure includes gallery and exhibition spaces, a 300-seat auditorium, a cinema, lakeside amphitheaters and a restaurant.

7. Bonem House, Jerusalem

Photo by Ran Erde
Bonem House, an example of Jerusalem Bauhaus style.

The Bauhaus style is synonymous with Tel Aviv, which has thousands of these white concrete, flat-topped buildings with narrow, horizontal windows. Jerusalem has about two dozen of them, including this beauty by Leopold Krakauer, a noted 1930s Bauhaus architect in Israel.

Designed on a corner of the Rehavia neighborhood as a private residence for a physician’s family in 1935, today it’s a Bank Leumi branch.

8. The Ashdod Performing Arts Center

Ashdod’s Performing Arts Center: A stylized whale?

Architects Haim Dotan and Avi Arbel’s creation rises above the sands of this Mediterranean port city in the stylized figure of a soaring whale — or perhaps soaring waves, depending on your perspective. Made of steel, glass, wood and aluminum, the $100 million concert hall captures the light and sea breezes of its surroundings.

9. Supreme Court, Jerusalem

Israel’s Supreme Court complex.

The New York Times once called the Supreme Court complex “Israel’s finest public building.” It was the work of brother-sister architects Ram Karmi and Ada Karmi-Melamede, who won a competition to design this iconic structure.

Arranged around a series of courtyards, the complex opened in 1992 blends different styles from Herodian to modern, encompassing purposeful contrasts in light, dimensions, angles and materials. Guided tours are available in several languages.

10. Mercaz Shimshon-Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem

Photo courtesy of Merkaz Shimshon
Merkaz Shimshon by Moshe Safdie.

Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie designed this complex at the World Union for Progressive Judaism campus, beginning with Beit Shmuel, which opened in 1986 with 41 hostel rooms, classrooms, dining rooms, administration offices around an inner courtyard, and an outdoor reception space. Mercaz Shimshon was completed in 2001, adding 11 guesthouse rooms, conference rooms, the Hirsch Theater and a banquet hall overlooking the Old City.

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