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Viewpoints: Peter Cook on Tel Aviv

Relating what one sees and does to expectancy and the idea of ‘comfort zones’ seems to have become my theme in the last few of these pieces and the recent weeks don’t seem to have blown it away. You would think that as an inveterate teacher, gossip and viewer, that by now I’d been there, ‘seen it all’ with my well burnished responses to almost anything − and it might even be quite reassuring to go around never expecting to be jolted in one’s tracks.

So the other day I pitched up out of the searing sun of a Tel Aviv summer to see the recent extension to the city’s Museum of Art whose principal building is always a welcome escape into the calm of a well-stocked rack of galleries − very much in the Corbusian manner. I had heard that Massachusetts-based Preston Scott Cohen’s addition had ruffled a few feathers, but I was completely unprepared for the quality of that ruffling.

Now Cohen is one of those architects who looks interesting on paper yet has, on juries and in conversation, some of the picky characteristics of the American East Coast that for me, seem to get in the way. But the building − man! − Wow! I mean ‘WOW’ or − as the late Cedric Price would have said ‘hell’s teeth’. It is undoubtedly one of the two best buildings that I’ve seen in the last five years.

The spaces within twist and manipulate ‘light-fall’ in ways that are able to go beyond the levels of magic that we have seen in some of the work of Louis Kahn or, more recently, Steven Holl. Cohen is quite fearless when it comes to presenting shifts of scale and pace: with a descent down towards the restaurant that feels to be three storeys worth through what is − let’s face it − an unadulterated architectural experience. This is virtuoso stuff, with a formidable accumulation of special moments: so that light pockets at the corners of a large, low gallery, have an intriguingness that one experiences only rarely (perhaps in Sigurd Lewerentz’s Klippan church, perhaps in those tricky hidden-clerestory French Gothic cathedrals), plus the fact that you can delve into these light pockets that reveal themselves to be usable space. Or diagonal shifts, that in lesser work can become quite irritating, are here part of an innate development of the theatre of space.

I have not yet heard Cohen lecture about the building, but reading various commentaries, attention is constantly drawn to his preoccupation with geometries and certainly they are diagrammatically essential to the concept. Yet this in itself could rapidly become a bore if it were not for the fact that he knows just how much and just how little they have to be insistent − and precisely when to immerse the digitised twist into the orthogonal planes and boxes. So you come across tantalising little tweaks and crevices at unexpected (though surely intended) moments.

Usefully, the museum sells a number of publications that feature the building, one of which is a documentation of the competition process. At this point I became particularly fascinated; for this project stands out as far more ambitious and more challenging than any of the rest of the submissions. Moreover it is neither by a local hero nor by a really Big, Hot Name. I bow to a jury that must have experienced some moments of discomfort (Israeli architecture is not often as refined and ‘tweaky’ as is this), but they held on, and maybe, surprised themselves.

I ponder on this, since in three recent jury experiences, I have heard more conversation concentrating on the ‘Who did it’ than on the actual quality and operation of the individual schemes, with enormous nervousness about the symbolism of decisions and the likely reaction of peer groups afterwards.

Characteristically, the locals reported that ‘all Cohen seemed to do was sit there eating crisps’.

We should not express surprise, but use such architects’ architecture (for which there is certainly a cultural and creative role) to attack our predilections, refresh our palates, encourage us to tackle geometries in a creative, rather than procedural way − and generally look at methods by which the occurrence of light, shade, direction and expectancy can be given flesh.

And, if being a picky Harvard academic, having a small office and eating crisps does the trick: why not? It’s his comfort zone even if it’s a new one to me.

PETER COOK

Peter Cook was interviewed for the AR’s innovators series where he discusses design and his inspirations

Find out more about Peter Cook and read some of his other articles here

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