|Address:||Museum of Art, Ein Harod 18965 Israel|
by Benoit Le Thierry d’Ennequin
Published in the architectural journal AMC, October 2001
The building that houses the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, the work of the architect Samuel Bickels, was constructed in stages, gallery by gallery, in the years 1948-1958, in extreme penury. It turned out to be a rare terrain of experimentation on museographic lighting.
In 1981, Dominique de Menil was looking for an architect to plan a museum to house her important collection of Surrealist and primitive African art in Houston. The Texan project had originally been entrusted to the architect Louis Kahn, a short while before his death. Made aware by her first encounter with him of the question of natural lighting, Dominique de Menil decided to make this the project’s basic theme.
She sought advice from Pontus Hulten, then director of the museum of modern art at the Pompidou Center. Without hesitation, Pontus Hulten proposed the candidature of Renzo Piano, who had not been on the list of architects being considered. Hulten described his own role as follows: “I understood Mrs. de Menil’s desire to build a museum for her family’s collections, and also knew that she was not enchanted by the Pompidou Center. […] it was therefore necessary to arrange for them to meet. For me, the best way to get to know someone is to make a journey together. I suggested to Mrs. de Menil that she travel with Renzo to Israel, to visit a very small museum that I am very fond of, built in the ’30s [sic] by an unknown architect, a museum in which the light had been treated in a particularly intelligent manner…”. Renzo Piano, on his own confession, was at the time quite indifferent to the question of natural lighting.
The visit to the small museum in Ein Harod, situated on the same line of latitude as Houston, had a decisive influence on the progress of the project. The two buildings, both of them white and very luminous, both have strange concrete structures designed to filter the light.
Other echoes converge to characterize the Ein Harod museum as an inimitable building. Andrew Sedgwick, director of the lighting department at Ove Arup and Partners, has intervened decisively in the conception of the lighting systems of numerous contemporary museums. He collaborated in the final positioning of the ceilings for the Menil collection, but it was much later and by chance that he discovered the Ein Harod museum while he was working on the lighting at the Tel Aviv airport. In a recent interview he spoke of the interest it had for him: “There are still some buildings in the world that have a magic aspect in terms of light.
They conserve something intangible. This is the case with a small museum in the north of Israel, in Ein Harod, constructed to the plans of a little-known architect, Samuel Bickels. This museum, which has influenced many people, is very simple. The materials are rough but it emanates an extraordinary light. I would really like to know why, to go and measure its spaces at different moments and to make a study.”
This museum, which is frequently referred to in an allusive way, thus appears to be a major reference for the architecture of contemporary museums, a reference that has unjustly remained confidential.
The story of the Mishkan le-Omanut (literally, Abode for Art) at Ein Harod is intimately linked with the history of Israel. It enjoys an exceptional position in this country, in several senses.
Kibbutz Ein Harod was one of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine. It was a small collective community based on agriculture, living in precarious and isolated conditions, with nothing to predispose it to welcome an art museum of national scope. The Mishkan le-Omanut was created in 1938 by a group of art lovers inspired by Chaim Atar, a painter and the kibbutz baker, who first housed it in his hut-studio. After the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, this embryo museum found itself sharing, together with the few museums inherited from the British Mandate, in a considerable quantity of works by Jewish artists who had disappeared during the Holocaust.
It soon became necessary to construct a new building. This would be the first concrete structure built “to measure” in a universe of prefabricated huts. Since the kibbutz was unable to finance the construction of the large edifice, it would be built in stages.
Opposite: the roof of Gallery 4, which is simultaneously the most complex and the most technically perfect. Offering homogenous lighting from all four cornices, this hybrid structure is composed of a concrete screen suspended from steel beams and stabilized by four rods serving as drainpipes for rain water. Here one can see a prefiguration of the system developed by Renzo Piano.
Sketch of Renzo Piano’s first studies for the Menil Collection, done during his visit in Israel.
View of the Menil Collection in Houston
These particular circumstances made this the first modern museum in the State of Israel, in spite of its peripheral location. The construction was undertaken by a kibbutz member, the architect Samuel Bickels, who devoted much of his time and energy over 10 years (1948-1958) to the development of his favorite project.
Samuel Bickels was born in Poland in 1909, left that country after receiving his diploma at the university of Lvov, and continued his architecture studies in Paris for some time before immigrating to Palestine in 1933. He later played an important role in the planning and development of many kibbutzim, for which he designed numerous buildings (schools, communal dining halls, sport and cultural centers, as well as three museums). He is also remembered for his planning of fortifications and defense networks for these kibbutzim.
Despite his prolific productiveness, and perhaps because of his distanced Bauhaus style, Samuel Bickels will never be remembered as a prominent figure in modern Israeli architecture. Although he created more prestigious works, such as the monumental Holocaust museum, Beit Lochamei Ha-ghettaot, today the Mishkan Le-Omanut appears to be his master work.
Bickels’ preliminary sketches for Gallery 2, proposing very varied solutions (p. 109)
At first sight, the architecture of the Museum of Art is baffling. The building is blind, and ignores the splendid valley of Jezreel which its terrain nevertheless dominates. The formless fa?ades and the volumetry, with the exception of the entrance, seem to stem exclusively from the interior architecture. The daring concatenation of the spaces results from a successive accumulation of autonomous rooms. We can find the reason for this chaotic outcome in the complex history of the museum’s construction. Equally, in this free assemblage of objects/rooms we can see an application of Julien Guadet’s theories of composition.
The project’s main achievement, however, lies elsewhere. This building is above all a kind of machine for controlling the light. If the building seems to have a brutal rapport with its environment, its lighting arrangements are eminently receptive to the local climatic conditions. These filters capture the noon light laterally, in order to shut out the devastating solar radiation. The great stability of the climate (long periods of blue sky) ensures a factor of constant transmission of light, which makes adjustments unnecessary and the construction simple.
The light at Ein Harod is above all calm and functional, far from any stage effects. The question may be posed in technical terms: we recall Alvar Aalto’s statement at the competition for the Aalborg museum: “The lighting in an art museum is as important as the acoustics in a concert hall”.
The museum diffuses a light that is white and homogenous, but subtly different in each room. Stable like a fluorescent lamp or betraying the course of the sun, it constantly plays on a diapason of very slight contrasts.
The sketch below shows the poor visibility of the primary light source and the principle of shading the middle of the room.
Opposite: a view of Gallery 2 (p. 108)
Bickels’ study for the artificial lighting of Gallery 4 (p. 109)
We can distinguish two filtering strategies, which correspond to two different kinds of rooms. The intermediate spaces – the foyer, the sculpture gallery, the library – have a quite direct rapport with the exterior. Covered by a flat ceiling, these rooms receive light laterally from high windows that are most often covered with vegetation that gives pleasant protection from the sun, while the actual exhibition galleries are covered with ceilings that have a more complex geometry, where the search for a controlled light has led to more inventive solutions.
It is striking to discover that all of Bickels’ sketches found in the museum archives deal with the planning of arrangements for natural lighting. This work is comparable to the patient designing of the roofing of the Kimbell Museum or of the Yale Center for British Art attested to by the hundreds of drawings conserved by the Louis Kahn Foundation. An examination of the sketches reveals extensive research on the subject, with Bickels considering a large variety of hypotheses that certainly recall Wright or Aalto, with an obsessive use of the round motif (Johnson Wax, Viipuri). These solutions are often very far from what he actually built. The plans for execution also take into account changes that were both radical and belated.
The very limited means of construction made it necessary to execute the floor, the walls and the very complex roofs using a single material. Each of the museum’s rooms is designed as a monolithic object in which the structure, the roof and the light filter are all contained in the white mass of painted concrete.
The creation of the desired light filters appeared to be the chief priority, the other constraints being adapted more or less passively. I have already referred to the awkwardness of the plan and the volumetry. This ambiguity also affected the construction of the light filters. Bickels encountered the greatest of difficulties in adroitly combining a “sound” structure and roof with the aerial forms required for the reflectors.
Since the museum was built in stages, Bickels’ work can be envisaged as progressive refinement of the envelope of the galleries.
Each room of the museum is envisaged as a monolithic object or structure, with the roof and filters blended into the white mass of painted concrete.
View of Galleries 4 and 5
A chronological analysis of the sections over the five most outstanding galleries seems in effect to reveal an intent to make clear the overall functioning of these complex roofs, while assimilating the structural elements into the “aerial” geometry of the reflectors. Although involving two different approaches, the roofs of these last galleries are the most successful structurally, and spatially the most moving. Gallery 4 is the final development of a series of three galleries (2, 3, 4) based on the Seager system, where one can clearly follow the work of integrating questions of structure and imperviousness into the geometric system of the light filters. The fine shells have been removed from the awkward beams characteristic of the preceding rooms, and even the woodwork and the gutters have a structural role, forming a totally appropriate hybrid structure. By trial and error, Bickels finally arrived at a structural system in line with his principle of lighting.
This, however, is still a long way from a structural system or a rational envelope. The fifth gallery, which has a disarming simplicity, with finally the most glaring light, seems nevertheless to pose the following questions: Do not the difficulties encountered so far signify that these constraints are definitely incompatible? Is there any sense in constructing envelopes that are so acrobatic?
In the absence of any knowledge about Bickels’ sources of inspiration for the development of his light filters, we can assume that he conceived them in a context of isolation, indeed that he was their inventor. We may equally suppose that he knew certain past and contemporary works. The works carried out in the ’20s by the New Zealand architect Hurst Seager strikingly prefigure Bickels’ preoccupations, especially the intent to light only the walls.
Since the mid-19th century, when modes of natural lighting were in force, lanterns and glass roofs appeared poorly adapted for exhibiting paintings. These systems had the fault of lighting up mostly the floor, and the works appeared dark. The use of false ceilings made of glass, intended to minimize this contrast, accentuated the gloom of the general lighting of the room while cutting it off even more from the exterior.
These first alternative proposals attempted to direct the light along an angle favorable for lighting the walls, by exploiting the geometrically precise opaque surfaces rather than by blocking – with difficulty – an undesirable distribution of light through the addition of diffusive coatings. The problem became crucial early in the 20th century when the considerable increase in visits to museums made it necessary to protect the works: from that time on paintings were exhibited under glass and objects in glass cases. In addition to the relatively weak lighting of the walls, there was the problem of the reflections on these surfaces of the sources of direct lighting (glass roofs, lamps, or high windows), as well as of the visitors, who were more lit than the walls by this vertical light. To lessen these inconvenient effects, Hurst Seager proposed a system of “lateral lighting from above”, which is currently called an “inverse monitor”. The space is divided into three strips. The central corridor, designed for circulation of visitors and viewing from a distance, is covered with a low opaque ceiling, so that it remains in relative shade. The two lateral strips, which may be divided into “bays”, higher than the ceiling of the central space, are lit up from the top of the corridor. They are designed for closer viewing. Since the visitor receives light from behind, he does not become a source of reflections onto the painting. The openings, situated at a favorable angle, are reflected above the area of the paintings, whatever the viewer’s position. Seager implemented his procedure successfully in two museums: the Wanganui Art Gallery in New Zealand, and the Duveen Hall at the British Museum in London.
However, the extremely codified architecture of the classical museums accommodates itself poorly to the architectural impact of these procedures, and very few museums are prepared to adopt them because the glass ceiling offers the advantage of masking a cumbersome artificial lighting, less adapted to the aesthetics of the galleries and the less homogenous light.
These principles would be more congenial to the plastic concerns of modern architecture, as would be shown later by the projects of Lur?at, Gardella, Aalto, Kahn or Piano.Wanganui Art Gallery, New Zealand, Hurst Seager
Competition for the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, Andr? Lur?at, 1931
Location plan for the galleries (p. 111).
The astonishing ceiling of Gallery 5, shaped like a whale’s belly (above, left), provides a cruder lighting than in the other galleries (below: Gallery 1). The last to be built, this is a structure of great simplicity, made of concrete projected onto the form taken naturally by the iron trellis, and generating a shell with a catenary profile.
To understand the precision of the lighting arrangements installed at Ein Harod, we need to relate them to the museological criteria current before the Museum was built, as exhibited clearly by Hurst Seager. Yet it will be equally useful, in view of the interest taken in them by Renzo Piano and Andy Sedgwick, to compare them to present-day criteria. If the principles of optics have not evolved, the criteria for the conservation of works have become draconian. Comparison of the opposed criteria that govern the conservation and the display of works leaves an almost non-existent margin for maneuvering.
According to Seager, the works should receive the most vivid light possible, and for this to happen they have to receive direct light and be situated as close as possible to the light source. According to present-day criteria, however, it is admitted that over-exposure to light damages and discolors the works. A maximum of 200 lux is recommended to ensure the conservation of oil paintings. In contrast, a level of 1000 lux is considered optimal for good rendering of color and for comfortable viewing. If a uniformity of the surfaces is not desirable for a good perception of the spaces, it is nevertheless recommended for the areas where the paintings receive light, where it should not exceed a ratio of 1 to 2. The floor, on the other hand should receive a maximum of twice the level of lighting received by the walls, in order nor to generate reflections onto the works.
If we relate these criteria to Gallery 4, where the light seems a priori to be the most controlled (light measurements registered on 27 April at 4.00 p.m.), we notice that the average level of lighting of the hanging areas of the walls, 850 lux, is much higher than the conservation level, but also close to the 1000 lux recommended for viewing. The ratio of uniformity of the walls, 1.79, less than 2, is very good. The level of lighting of the floor, 775 lux, offers a ratio of 0.92 to that of the walls, which is much lower than 2, the recommended maximum level.
For Seager, the reflections of the primary light source on the picture plane constituted a major nuisance factor for the viewer. If they were difficult to avoid, these reflections were a nuisance only in the zone the paintings were hung. We can approach the phenomenon graphically by tracing the projection from the light-emitting glass pane in relation to the picture plane, and then tracing the lines between the eye of the viewer and the extremities of the image projected from the pane. The intersection of these two lines with the picture plane describes the reflection. In the case of a close-up viewing, the latter is often in the hanging zone, but the weak opening of the cone of vision (30?) makes it invisible. Put to this test, Galleries 2, 3 and 4 conform to Seager’s principle by offering hanging zones that are reflection-free. From this point of view, the rooms with their high lateral windows, though much appreciated by contemporary designers for their simplicity of form, often pose problems (Gallery 5). But Gallery 1, which belongs to the same family, offers an unnoticed response to the struggle against reflections by exploiting the volume of the reflector as a screen. The issue, then, is incontestably the most efficacious solution, whatever the position of the viewer.
According to Seager’s theory, the paintings should receive direct lighting, in contrast to the rest of the room. According to present-day criteria, it is thought that the lighting should be limited to certain angles, partly in order to prevent the frames generating too long shadows onto the painting (an angle less than 25?), and partly to ensure that the light sources are not reflected on the canvases (an angle more than 40?). These imperatives make it necessary to employ masks to intercept the undesired rays. If we trace lines between the extreme points of the opening and the obstacles encountered (since the windows consist of a white glass that diffuses light uniformly, we may consider them as being the light source), we make three zones appear: one that is totally lit (Zone 1), one that is gradually lit (Zone 2), and one that is not lit at all (Zone 3). These tracings enable us to verify the light relations existing among the various surfaces (floors, walls, reflectors), and, in the case of direct lighting, to determine its dominant angle.
The “Seager” galleries (2, 3, 4) appear to be well adjusted geometrically to lighting the walls precisely. The average angle of radiation is between 26? and 35?, which conforms to present-day criteria. An attentive study of Gallery 2 revels even more subtle geometrical adjustments, if we consider the impact of the exterior masks. We can then distinguish some regulating traces that make a series of alignments of three points appear. We can note that the limit of Zone 2 is then aligned precisely on the intersection of the wall and the floor, that Zone 1 is precisely limited to the zone of the wall, excluding the reflector. This division corresponds to the use of a perfectly transparent glass. The effective presence of a semi-diffusive glass leads to a combination of the two divisions.
An analysis of the galleries reveals two radically different types of functioning. Some of them will receive direct lighting through diffusive glass (“Seager” 2, 3, 4), and others will be lit by reflection on the curved surfaces of the ceiling (1 and 5). It is impossible to determine graphically the proportions of direct and reflected light due to the multiple phenomena of reflection that are difficult to evaluate. For two of the galleries (1 and 2), we made a black model; filling the model with smoke materialized the primary light, before reflections. In Gallery 1 we found a convergent radiation, and in Gallery 2 a divergent radiation. Photometric measurements showed 80% of direct lighting for Gallery 2, and 0% for Gallery 1. In terms of present-day criteria, the principal purpose of lighting the hanging areas totally by reflection is to efficaciously intercept ultra-violet radiation.
Working drawings of Galleries 1 and 2, showing two opposed strategies of the struggle against reflections.
Regulatory traces that permit the precise channeling of light onto the hanging areas – Gallery 2.
Models of Gallery 4 showing the contribution of the external reflectors.
The principal object of the suspended screen of the “Seager” gallery is to keep the middle of the room in the shade. Situated at the exterior and abundantly illumined, its curved extrados may itself act as a reflector, sending a diffuse light towards the curved ceiling of the room. The contribution of this reflector to the overall lighting of the room cannot be estimated graphically. We therefore made a model of Gallery 3, where it was sufficient to change the reflectance (tint) of the extrados of the screen, and then to compare the photometric measurements to determine its impact. The result showed a contribution of 20% of the total lighting.
Gallery 4, certainly the most architecturally perfect of the galleries, follows the Seager system and exploits the phenomena of reflection diffused upon the outer side of its suspended screen. This gallery is the only one that has uniform lighting on all four sides, treated in an identical way due to a suspended central reflector with acute angles that generate a paraboloid surface. This particular geometry is governed by the way the question of drainage of rainwater was resolved. It is nevertheless possible that it equally favors the remarkable uniformity of the lighting by augmenting the luminosity of the angles, which are naturally less illumined, because further away from the light-emitting surface. The downward inclination of the edges may on the one hand favor the penetration of the reflected light onto the extrados and, on the other hand, by offering a larger surface of glass, may augment the intensity of light in this zone. We therefore tested – using a model and informational simulation – numerous forms of reflectors with more or less acute angles (0?, 10?, corresponding to the existing angles, and 20?). It appeared that the uniformity of the picture-hanging zone, which is excellent in each of these cases, improves proportionately to the increasing of the angle from a ratio of 1:4 to one of 1:14.
The precision of the geometrical controls, the variety of the typology employed, the modesty of the construction of these complex arrangements, the strict economy of means, the profound architectural cohesion that results from this, and of course the quality of the light – all these make this otherwise unruly building a major archetype of museum architecture.
It is astonishing to discover that the lessons that could have been drawn from it run counter to recent developments (the museums built by Piano or by Herzog and de Meuron, for example), where we can see a powerful return of the lighting arrangements so decried by Seager – the high lateral window and the ceiling made of diffusive glass.
The historical contribution of the Museum of Art at Ein Harod has received little attention, and remains largely unrecognized. It would be interesting to study its eventual recognition by Louis Kahn, who during his many visits to Israel managed to find a model for the roofs of his last museums (for a light that is certainly very different), certain arrangements seeming to be a rustic prefiguration of the fine pierced roofing shells of the museum at Fort Worth. But that is a subject for a different study.
Test of the impact of the geometry of the reflector of Gallery 4 on the uniformity of lighting, using the Genelux program (p. 113).