Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem
1966 - A.I.A. award of merit (for 1965) to The Shrine of the Book, The D.S. & R.H. Gottesman Center for Rare Manuscripts, Jerusalem.
The Shrine of the Book was built in 1965 to the designs of US architects, Frederick Kiesler and Armand Phillip Bartos. It was meant to house, exhibit, and, most uniquely, symbolically represent in architectural terms the Dead Sea Scrolls. A collection of approximately 900 manuscripts and manuscript fragments found in caves at Wadi Qumran between 1947 and 1956. The scrolls comprise the biblical and exegetical canon of the obsolete Essene sect of Judaism, and were composed, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, between 150 BC and 70 AD. Today, the Shrine is also host to the Aleppo Codex, a 10th century AD text accepted to be the nearest evolutionary text to the modern Hebrew Old Testament. The Israel Museum, of whose extensive campus the Shrine is a part, has described the Shrine as a "symbolic building, a kind of sanctuary intended to express profound spiritual meaning," whose "location next to...the Knesset, key government offices, and the Jewish National and University Library attests to the degree of national importance that has been accorded the ancient texts and the building that preserves them," while its physical structure serves as a constant and unmistakable reference to the ancient manuscripts it contains.
The Shrine of the Book was designed to reflect its contents and their history. The white ceramic-tile dome, sometimes referred to as a "Chinese pagoda" or even "breast-like," is shaped like the lids of the jars in which the scrolls were found. Much has been made of the contrast between the white dome and the black basalt monolith beside it, and the overt symbolic weight of this contrast; the white represents the "Sons of Light," a prominent allegory in the scrolls, and the black the "Sons of Darkness," both of which are interpreted by critics to reflect the recent struggles of the Jews in the Holocaust, and, more controversially, the bloody battles leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and the hope for a better, brighter future in a newly-independent nation on land still referred to as "the Promised Land."
Kiesler himself intended for this to feel like a purification of sorts, akin to the mikvah, the ritual bath practice that originated with the Essenes before being adopted by mainstream Judaism. This is also reflected in the fountains that play against the dome. Like the fact that the space is underground, the water feature also contributes to the maintenance of a cool interior in the extreme Jerusalem heat---and also likely contributes to wear on the tiles, necessitating their eventual replacement and repair. In order to recreate, for visitors, the caves in which the scrolls were discovered, the Shrine of the Book is built two-thirds underground, with only the dome fully above grade.
The Shrine of the Book is located on the campus of the Israel Museum, the national museum dedicated to fine arts, ethnographic studies, and archaeology. The Israel Museum was founded in 1965, the same year as the Shrine; it is constructed of form-cast concrete clad in native Jerusalem stone, and was designed in its signature modular modern style by Al Mansfield, a Russian-born architect who trained in Berlin before emigrating to Palestine in 1935.
Though the Shrine and the Israel Museum were built concurrently, they refer to each other only in their modern structural fabric; the Museum has none of the Shrine's symbolic value. These were the first buildings on the campus, which now hosts the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, the Youth Wing art museum, and the Second Temple Model, a scale replica of the topography and architecture of Jerusalem circa 66AD.
Though the materials used in the Shrine's construction (terra cotta, local stone, bronze fountain) are not in and of themselves radical or innovative, the Shrine's distinctive reinforced concrete ceramic-clad tile dome, constitutes a unique adaptation of Modern form (its mimetic shape, suggesting clay jars and drops of purifying water) to the far older regional tradition of the tiled dome. Furthermore, the Shrine belongs to a specialized architectural genre of buildings meant to house rare books, and where preservation concerns relating to the building itself are entwined with the preservation concerns relating to the objects the building was made to protect. In the case of the Shrine of the Book, the largely-underground structure of the Shrine allows almost total protection of the delicate artifacts from direct light, while the individual cases have undergone extensive retrofitting in the most recent renovation to created air-tight environments on a small-scale, where the climate can be minutely controlled for temperature and humidity. Because the scrolls are rotated from cases to storage every few months to minimize the fatigue of display, the "back-stage" archive areas are also very tightly controlled environments, and must correspond to the circumstances of the cases.
Symbolic architecture has ancient roots in Jewish aesthetics, and can be traced back to Old Testament descriptions of the construction of the Tabernacle, where materials and measurements are all mandated for their symbolic value. Moreover, Gottesman had been deeply moved by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the discovery of the centuries-old manuscripts coincided with Israel's 1948 War for Independence, and subsequent founding of the state of Israel. So in a building that would, at once, preserve a national treasure for posterity and make it accessible to the people of a newly-independent country, Gottesman's chosen team of Kiesler and Bartos sought to marry the ancient tradition of structures in which every detail is meaningful, to the uniquely freighted objects the new structure would hold. For this reason, the Shrine was built to resemble the humble clay jars in which the scrolls had been stored for generations, and in which they had been found in 1947. Furthermore, the central interior column is built in the shape of one of the posts around which a European-style Torah scroll is traditionally wound; this suggests an attempt to draw the recent European past into the broader scope of Jewish history, and the religious "old country" into a secular state keenly respectful of its faith-based heritage.
The architecture of the Shrine had to compensate for the fact that, but for a handful of elect scholars, the prized scrolls contained therein would be virtually inaccessible, as texts, to the general public. And the intention was always that the Shrine would be a place of pilgrimage for anyone who felt tied to Israeli history and culture; the idea that only elite scholars would visit was unthinkable. The iconic building was meant to instill in every visitor a profound feeling of national and religious history, and a sense of their place within that history. In a sense, the Shrine itself is a metonym for the scrolls: it stands for the things it contains, offers a representational experience of them on a grand scale. Structurally, the Shrine's primary material (reinforced concrete with glazed terra cotta cladding) is very modern, but the building's self-aware symbolic performance, and its almost pastiche nature (the ancient form of the dome, in 20th century materials, and for a distinctly metaphoric purpose), suggest that it is at least partially a product of postmodernism as well.
The Shrine of the Book is not just a repository for historic objects, but a building that is itself, through its symbolic form as well as its distinctive physical presence, a historic object. Modern architecture in Israel was, during the British Mandate, largely geared toward the development of urban centers; even after independence, Brutalism prevailed as a functional, efficient, and, significantly, unsentimental means of providing housing and workspace for the people who had just fought for, or were flocking to, a new nation still an imperiled and dangerous place. The Shrine of the Book occupies a unique place in the construction of the period, in that its aesthetic project can be read as almost indulgent, leisurely, suggesting a time when war will have ended, and one would be free to be surrounded entirely by art.
Israel has a national Heritage Site list, but the Shrine of the Book is not on it. Nevertheless, while it is clear that the Shrine is indeed appreciated and maintained as a site of metonymic significance---that is, the container valued for the thing it contains-- the Shrine itself could justifiably be promoted as significant in its own right, as a work of Modern architecture, and as a marker of a moment in the cultural history of Israel. That it was executed by a team of American designers speaks to its international importance as a symbol of, not merely ancient metaphors for good and evil, but also the good intentions and cooperative abilities of modern nations, and the power of art to transcend the political.
- Anonymous. "Ushering in the future at the Shrine of the Book." Biblical Archaeology Review: 26.6 (Nov/Dec 2000): 6,74
- Anonymous. "Art: Endless Cave in Jerusalem." TIME Magazine: Friday, Apr. 30, 1965
- Erlanger, Steven. "A Museum to Get Lost In, And How Israel Is Fixing It." New York Times [New York, N.Y] 12 Aug 2007, pp. 2.1.
- Hazan, Jenny. "Enter the Shrine." Jerusalem Post [Jerusalem] 14 May 2004: pp. 12.
- Ben-David, Calev and Meir Ronnen. "Shrine of the Book reopens after redesign." Jerusalem Post [Jerusalem] 04 Aug 2004: pp. 03.
- Cohl, Alan. "Meaning and Myth: the Architecture of the Shrine of the Book [exhibition review]." Architecture of Israel: AI31 (Oct 1997): 67-
- A.I.A. award of merit to The Shrine of the Book, The D.S. & R.H. Gottesman Center for Rare Manuscripts, Jerusalem. Architectural record (Jul 1966): 43.
- Feuerstein, Gu?nther. Kieslers Rollendom = Kiesler's Dome of the Scrolls. Daidalos53 (Sep 1994): 124-133
- Kimmelman, Michael. "Review/Art; An Architect's Dreams And What He Built." New York Times [New York, N.Y] 27 Jan 1989, Late Edition (East Coast): pp. C.28.
- Website of the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book: http://www.english.imjnet.org.il/htmls/page_1356.aspx?c0=14786&bsp=14389
- Wikipedia: Shrine of the Book