Ashdod - A National Project
Ashdod is a medium size port-town located on a sandy shoreline, 27km south of Tel Aviv. The city was built in the early 1960s around two major infrastructural projects – a deep-sea port and an electric power station. Its early inhabitants, primarily Jewish immigrants of Moroccan descent came there in search of work within and around the new projects.
During the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a massive wave of ex-soviet immigration arrived at Ashdod and doubled its population. When the new arrivals, past citizens of such great metropolitan centers as Moscow and St. Petersburg, demanded for a museum, a controversy engulfed the city. The veteran population rejected the demand and attempted to counter it with others, namely for sport and welfare centers. The confrontation culminated during the time of the following municipal election. The ex-Russian community supported on mass a mayoral candidate that run on the agenda of building a museum for the city. Few weeks later he was elected, had to built a museum, but didn’t know how to.
Ashdod Museum before transformation by Weizman Segal & Herz.
Ashdod – Beyond All Imagination
A close friend of the mayor, a big developer specialized in the construction of shopping malls was awarded the commission. The developer promptly erected a structure that un-surprisingly resembled in all its visual and spatial characteristics a shopping mall. On top of the structure, presumably to make it appear similar to his idea of how a museum should look like, he had placed a glass pyramid recalling the extension to the Louvre. Alas, in the hot southern-Mediterranean climate, the glass roof created a ‘green house effect’ that caused an intolerable glare and the kind of over-heating that makes a short stay at the interior of the building intolerable. Regardless of its quality, Ashdod had a museum and started debating its content – perhaps the work of school children or the landscape drawings of Russian pensioners...
During the time of the museum’s construction, a parallel story unfolded: an American art dealer and collector was seeking, upon his 80th birthday, to donate his collection of old masters oil paintings to the state of Israel. He contacted the Israeli minister of culture, and asked to donate his collection, in memoir of his late mother, to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But the Israel Museum couldn’t accept any more private collections, or perhaps did not wish to accept this one. The minister pointed out to the collector that a new museum was recently built in Ashdod. “Where is Ashdod?” asked the collector. Ashdod is 27km south of Tel Aviv!
The deal was signed, and the collection of painting, some of them taken off the walls of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC was on its way to Ashdod. In Ashdod, nobody recognized the signatures on the paintings, and since the building in its current form was unfit to house any type of art whatsoever, the collection referred to as “old oil paintings” was assigned to the city hall basement, awaiting a decision regarding its future.
The museum had to be transformed to accommodate the new works and its new standing. The managing board of the museum commissioned the architects Manuel Herz (Cologne) Rafi Segal (Tel Aviv), and Eyal Weizman (London) to think up strategies for its refitting, content management, exhibition design and curatorial agenda.
During the last century, Ashdod was once destroyed and three times built. First destroyed as an Arab Village during the war of 1948, then “three times built by Israeli Governments: first as a power station, then as a deep water port and finally as a regional centre constructed with speculative capitalist interests”.
Geographically, Ashdod is located on two ridges of sand dune running north to south along the shoreline, a difficult soil to build upon. The decision for its establishment in its present location owes more to military strategies then to considerations of infrastructural efficiency. The power station and the port – two nationally strategic functions – were to be placed in a safe distance from the two cities that defined the contradictory poles of the southern Israeli coast – halfway between Tel-Aviv and Gaza.
Ashdod was therefore located not for considerations of proximity (from other cities/ services), but rather because of its relative distance. This fact is crucial for its development and for its self-perception as a province.
Masterplan of Ashdod
The first modern settlers of Ashdod arrived at an empty but preconceived and preplanned city. The city was built to serve the modern icons of post-war city planning: the port, the truck and the automobile. These called for an extremely utilitarian and new type of urbanism. It was not architects, and not for personal comfort that engineers – the builders of roads and infrastructure – shaped the spatial organization of the city. Ashdod is planned on a basis of a grid of arterial roads, separating the fast moving vehicles travelling along the long stretches of road from the slow moving traffic, moving within each of the grid’s large blocks. The grid of roads create a series of large rectangular squared sites for each of the city’s 18 quarters, each designed to inhabit 12,000 to 20,000 people.
The extremely wide streets between one square quarter and the next makes them urbanistically independent from each other. The quarters – products of an abstract and synthetic planning – are inhabited in succession, so that with every wave of immigration another quarter would be built and inhabited, while the other ghost quarters remain empty sand dunes surrounded by roads. Zvi Zilker, the present mayor of Ashdod, while still attending his undergraduate course at the Technion Institute of Technology, marvelled the qualities of the city’s plan: “Practically it is possible to relocate this plan to every point on the globe, because the design includes all the basic institutions that the inhabitants may need, every where on earth...” Is Ashdod a new solution for the post-colonial city, or an urban nightmare of segregation and control?
Aerial view of Ashdod in the 1960s
The Empty Square
Surrounded by quarters 4,5,6,8,11 and 12, and adjoining the newly developed beach front marina– an entire quarter has been sanctioned as the city’s civic centre intended to house regional buildings and institutions such as a central hospital, institutions of higher education, a central stadium and a cultural centre. Communities inhabiting each one of the city’s squared grid neighborhoods were observing the proposals for the empty square – the last ghost neighborhood of the chequered board of the city plan.
“We Want a Museum and We Want It Now!”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the population of the city of Ashdod doubled within 5 years, as the new immigrants started inhabiting the last 6 quarters on the city’s grid. Inter communal tensions between the Russian and the North African communities were not late to follow, exemplified in the battle over the empty central quarter – the one destined for the city’s common use.
Should the museum be dedicated to the city’s local history or to the Arts? The local community preferred a museum of local history (a compromise for a museum of naval history was put on the table – but the Russian felt that it as well was too “local”) The Russian community wanted to universalize the nature of the museum, perhaps in order to construct the one place – a refuge in which they could avoid contact with their new environment. “Art” they claimed “is universal and non-local”. They won.
Another part of the debate then erupted: Should the museum show Classic European Art or Contemporary/Local Art? While the veteran communities insisted on local (Israeli) contemporary art, the Russians preferred a classic art collection. The subsequent program for the museum, put together by the museum’s managing board, attempted to simultaneously accommodate the two demands – some of the museum will be sanctioned for the classic collection and some for contemporary art. Beyond a candid wish for cultural exposure, the Russian community attempted to establish its cultural status with their insistence on function that demand the kind of appreciation based on western education. The putting of a museum over the welfare functions elevates culture over need.
Money, or: Two Collections
The museum has become, just like the university a public-corporate venture. Because of the scarce resources of public funding, every museum is engaged in a constant competition with others for its share of corporate sponsorship and private donations. Private donors of money and art (enabled by tax incentives and accountancy loopholes), are the fuel that runs public museums, but these collections and funds do not arrives without their demands and agendas. Ashdod Museum attracted two private donors of different nature and characters:
Alexander Raydon: whose Madison Ave. Raydon Gallery – is one of the better-known galleries for classic painting.
And Lelia Mordoch, the owner of Galerie Lelia Mordoch – a small gallery located off Rue de la Seine in Paris’s Rive Gauche. Mordoch gallery represents contemporary French abstract artists. Ms. Mordoch family has donated few million dollars towards the completion and the refitting of the Ashdod Museum. In return, one of the two museum floors will be allocated for her curatorial choices, typically a selection of the artists she represents.
We had to come up with a technique to synthesize this problem into a spatial design to inhabit the inner spaces of the museum.
Scattering White Cubes
The building of the Ashdod Museum was conceived as a consequence of the inevitable and much foreboded clash between two typologies that are ever approaching each other – the shopping mall and the museum (and its archetype: the Louvre). The existing building is a post-modern manifest that relates to signs of second and third degree. Its aesthetics is further developed with an eclectic choice of expensive looking materials: a glass elevator travels through the building marble clad atrium, its details are made of shiny brass, and the glass pyramid – the building’s only museological reference - creates the kind of temperature and glare that renders the exhibition spaces unfit for art exhibitions of any kind.
The re-design of museum is an attempt to synthesize the politics, finance and modus operandi of a museum with the post-modern aesthetics of the existing building.
We started with an ideal – the White Cube.
We imagined a rain of White Cubes over Ashdod.
The city is seeded with White Cubes, dispersed and ready for use in each of the separated utopias that inhabit the city’s rectangular grid. Few have landed within the existing museum building...
Challenging the White Cube
More then any other typology, the White Cube is the modern “ideal” of an art space. The White Cube, rectangular in its proportion, its walls painted white, devoid of windows and natural light, introvert, artificial, hygienic, clinical – embodies the cultural and aesthetic ideology of modernism. Within these abstract frames, spaces capsules of placeless interiority art can ‘take on its own life.
The proposal for the conversion of the Ashdod Museum of Art accepts but challenges this notion, it take the possibilities embodied in the typology of the White Cube further by multiplying and amassing it as independent units against an existing built structure.
Move 1. We proposed to turn the museum’s interior into an empty shell, by the removal of large parts of the floor, separating the two exhibition galleries.
Move 2. We proposed to scatter and pile a series of White Cubes on four levels.
A Building Within a Building
A new and independent structure, made of the repetition of the uniformly dimensioned rectangular White Cubes is constructed within the existing shell.
Two kinds of spaces are created: The interior of the White Cube, and the irregularly shaped ‘left over’ spaces trapped between the exterior of the White Cubes and the interior of the existing building. The visitor moves between these spaces, in and out of the White Cubes.
The outcome is an ambiguous structural circuit that runs through the different parts of the exhibition. The visual, spatial, and material elements of the design create a composition that promote chance discoveries and unexpected encounters.
The scattering of the White Cubes reconfigures the very space it was supposed to unify, reconstituting a whole other and new nightmarish environment. The contrast between the pile of Cubes and the existing building allows for a heterogeneous exhibition system: While formally the two kinds of spaces are dialectical to each other, they allow for a proximate and interwoven placing of the two different museological programs – those demanded by the different communities – a changing program of contemporary art and the museum’s permanent collections.
While within the White Cube the spectator is isolated through his visual seclusion from the totality of the building, outside of it he is faced with a collective noisy and visually busy clutter of contemporary and media art. Orientation is established and lost as fixed islands of tranquillity create, paradoxically, a chaotic and labirinthian space.
No one trashed a museum yet
With the further subversion of the building, its architectural elements change their meaning and use. The central transparent elevator becomes a movable exhibition structure, the glass pyramid a light installation, and still more work to come…
Due to the museum’s spatial configuration, both visitors and staff will be charting ever anew different modes of engagement with the building, redrawing the relationship between different art institutions, beneficiaries and modes of artistic production.
The museum’s larger narrative – its own – is held to scrutiny within the transformation of its architectural frame. If the political and corporate mode of the museum is parodied, it not only meant as cynical critic of its aesthetics, the local politics that conceived it, the urban fabric that contain it, and the financial methods that finance it – as it strongly constructs new narratives that propose different understandings of art within its institutional context. The spatial construct of the building gives a new meaning to the individual works displayed within and throughout it.
The museum itself becomes simultaneously the object enabling the exhibition and the subject that the exhibition enquires. It does not exhibit ‘works of art’, but is rather used to exhibit ‘exhibitions’.
Project: Conversion and Extension of the Ashdod Museum of Art
Location: Ashdod, Israel
Planning: Eyal Weizman, Rafi Segal and Manuel Herz
Status: Comission, Completed 2003