Jerusalem of Gold

The Foreign Ministry of the State of Israel, Jerusalem

Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc./Kolker Kolker Epstein Architects

In 1996, the Canadian firm of A.J. Diamond Donald Schmitt and Company (since restructured as Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc.), in association with the Israeli firm of Amir Kolker, Offer Kolker and Randy Epstein, won a limited competition for the new Foreign Ministry building for the State of Israel. The project was awarded following a two-phase contest that stretched out over approximately 18 months, with 10 architects participating in the first stage and three in the second, final stage. The jury panel was chaired by Adam Mazor, who was assisted by Rimaldo Giergola, James Ingo Freed, Richard Meier, Shai Mandel, Bracha Hayutin, Eli Maious, Dan Wind, Rachel Haramati and Arthur Spector. Construction was completed in 2002.

Located in a precinct of new government buildings in Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry has been sited to relate to its important neighbours. The architects placed the entry to the new building such that it establishes a direct relationship between the Foreign Ministry and the building of the Supreme Court that it faces. On approaching the entrance, one notices how poles positioned before the building stress the visual axis that runs between the two structures. Once on the staircase, the visitor who climbs up can see the entire faade of the Supreme Court building.

But the new Foreign Ministry also distinguishes itself from its neighbours to establish a strong, clear identity. Unlike the Supreme Court–designed by the brother and sister partnership of Ram and Ada Karmi of Tel Aviv–which makes a conscious reference to history, the architects of the Foreign Ministry have taken an approach that is free of any historical references. This is first revealed right at the entrance to the compound: an opening in the stone wall provides access, but not before visitors must pass a security checkpoint. The checkpoint is marked by a glazed pavilion–the guardhouse–which faces the street (Nation Boulevard to the east) and is built like a glass cubicle, endowing the entrance with a feeling of lightness in contrast to the massive stone wall. But despite its light appearance, the guardhouse glass is thick and provides the necessary protective properties for the people inside the pavilion.

This is the first in a series of measures taken to safeguard the building in its volatile political context, and a demonstration of the contrast between strict security requirements and the desire to design an open, inviting building. This is a particular challenge in this historic city, where the use of Jerusalem stone as a building material is mandated by a municipal regulation that requires its use as a cladding material for all new buildings.

The architects regard the use of stone as a major component of endowing the building with a typical Jerusalem character. However, they have treated the stone in a non-conventional way, preferring mechanically cut to manually cut stones. The mechanical stone dressing is even and uniform, transforming the material from a craft product to an industrial one. Instead of a wall that evokes the use of stone as a load-bearing material, they have designed a concrete wall lined with uniform, lightweight tiles free of any constructive function or reference to historical manual construction traditions. This strategy betrays a desire to transform the stone from an object that represents heaviness, impermeability and contact with the ground into a light, sometimes transparent, or even suspended material. All of the building’s details were designed to express this character, an important detail strategy that establishes the modernity of the Foreign Ministry.

The stone chosen for the cladding came from Mitspeh Ramon in the Negev desert. It has a deep yellow shade, which is typical of high quality stones, and thus differentiates the building from nearby structures built with lighter-shade Jerusalem limestone.

Within the secure perimeter, the Foreign Ministry is divided into four distinct structures. The first building encountered by visitors approaching from the Nation Boulevard checkpoint is extensively clad in Jerusalem stone, and is punctured by an emphatic entry with a projecting lightweight steel and glass canopy. This stone treatment was intended to reference the neighbouring buildings and others that will be built in the future on the government’s campus. At the lower level, this building houses offices, a press room and meeting rooms; above are the offices of the Minister, the Deputy Minister and the Director General of the Ministry. This upper portion is extensively glazed and topped with a zinc roof whose complex geometry distinguishes it from other wings of the building.

The shape of the roof is meant to evoke a sense of lightness and appear to hover, in contrast to the heaviness of the stone at the building’s base. The zinc sheet roofing recalls the diversified roofing of various materials on historic buildings in Jerusalem. The roof is arched, and curved in the same geometry as the building base on the western eave. On the east side, the leading edge of the arched roof is cut in a straight line that is parallel to the rectilinear geometry of the remaining buildings. This straight line juxtaposed to the curving arch results in the roof’s special shape and its sense of hovering and lightness.

The large bar-shaped building anchoring the western edge of the complex houses the majority of the Ministry’s employees. It consists primarily of offices–most of which are arranged in an open space configuration, initially arousing strong objections from workers accustomed to private offices–along with a library, a diplomat school and the consular department. The west faade faces other buildings of the government campus across Rabin Boulevard. It was designed as a series of repetitive pavilions to break down the large mass in order to better relate to the scale of the street. Pergolas at the upper floors shade the balconies, softening the otherwise sombre faade.

Between the two primary office blocks, two distinct building forms–one square in plan, the other elliptical–house the Ministry’s primary pubic spaces. The freestanding oval building houses a ballroom, its stone roof carrying large citrus tree pots, creating a lush roof garden. At the lower level, the ballroom connects directly to the diplomats’ dining room at the base of the reception hall pavilion, which forms both the literal and figurative centrepiece of the scheme.

While the rest of the building respects the city’s requirement for the use of Jerusalem stone, the architects have clad the reception hall in onyx, a semi-precious stone that appears opaque from the outside–remarkably similar to the Jerusalem stone–but lets in warm, soft, yellowish light. The irregular veins of the onyx differ from one another, establishing a level of detail and a decorative effect obtained through the material’s inherent properties rather than by means of applied ornament. By way of analogy, it is a similar effect to that achieved by the green marble and the onyx partitions chosen by Mies van der Rohe for the Barcelona pavilion–the introduction of decoration in an undecorated building. The onyx wall is located in the upper part of the reception hall pavilion, while the lower part and the roof are glazed. Twelve slender columns support the glazed pavilion roof, each capped with a delicate steel caliper-shaped bracket supporting a perforated metal sunscreen that lets the sharp Middle Eastern sunlight into the pavilion in a controlled manner.

The simple form of the hall conceals its spatial complexity. A bridge connects the office spaces in the Rabin Boulevard wing to the entrance pavilion on the upper level. Lining the four walls of the pavilion is a passage partly obscured behind wooden screens that allows employees to traverse the hall even when ceremonies are held on the ground level without disturbing participants in the events.

The Foreign Ministry’s security officials thought the central rec
eption building should have been surrounded by concrete and stone walls for fear that a blast could endanger the building. The architects, however, designed a special blast wall which, in case of an explosion, would not absorb the impact but collapse instead, preventing a chain reaction of additional collapses of other buildings. This decision contributed to the design of the reception pavilion in lightweight materials: glazing at the ground floor, with onyx and a glass roof above. The onyx panels are fastened to aluminum rails that would be discharged from the wall in case of a blast, and blocked by the wooden screens that surround the central space in the mezzanine and conceal the employee passage around the building perimeter. Cables are also used as an additional means for containing splinters resulting from a blast. To assuage the security officials’ concerns, the use of lightweight, transparent materials was only approved following testing of a full-scale mockup conducted on a desert site to test the materials’ resistance to a strong blast.

The architects’ efforts have not gone unrecognized: the blast wall system received an Innovation Award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2001. And most importantly, the special light bathing the reception hall contributes to a unique experience of solemnity and drama in the space, the yellow shade on the outside and onyx glow on the inside granting new meaning to the expression “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Professor Michael Levin teaches history of modern and contemporary architecture and art at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, and in the Faculty of Architecture at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. His most recent publication is Santiago Calatrava Artworks: a Laboratory of Ideas, Forms, and Structures, Basel, Berlin and Boston, 2003.

Client: the Foreign Ministry of the State of Israel

Architect team for DSAI: A.J. Diamond, Jon Soules, George Przybylski, Suzanne Graham, Birgit Siber, Mike Szabo, Anna Kogan, Sandor Rott, Caroline Spigelski, Peggy Theodore, Martin Russocki

Architect team for KKE: Randy Epstein, Amir Kolker, Opher Kolker, Herschel Broncher, Tami Antebbi, Joseph Klein, Yoel Breydman, Michal Davidian, David Miller, Tali Feldman, Tracy Ratner, Lotan Rotman, Julian Tzarfati, Miri Elhadad, Sophy Juanis

Structural: Yaron-Shimoni-Shacham Consulting Engineers Ltd.

Mechanical: Shapira-Hahn Consulting Engineers Ltd., The Mitchell Partnership, Inc., Amnon Yosha Consulting Engineers Ltd.

Electrical: Itken Blum Electrical Engineers

Agronomist: Haddas Tsook

Interiors: Diamond and Schmitt Architects Incorporated and Kolker, Kolker, Epstein Architects

Contractor: Arenson Ltd.

Lighting consultants: Ronit Soen

Area: 39,000 m2

Budget: $40,000,000 US

Completion: November 2002

Photography: Tim Griffith

Key to plans

2.diplomats dining room

3.ballroom court for diplomats


8.reception hall

9.ballroom mezzanine room

11.meeting room


13.entry court

15.check point


17.mezzanine to reception hall

18.executive offices and meeting rooms