Onyx finery

As the city's only blast-resistant public building, the new Foreign Ministry blends into the National Precinct
August 11, 2010

In Jerusalem — a center of religious fervor, ancient archeology, ethnic diversity, and political struggle — a new building has joined the ranks of architecturally distinct government facilities in the National Precinct.

The Jerusalem Foreign Ministry, a campus of five connected buildings, stands proudly above the agency's former home — originally an army camp of sheds put up by the British years before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.

Remaining true to a municipal requirement that all city buildings be made of native stone (either limestone or dolomite), the design — a joint effort by local firm Kolker Kolker Epstein (KKE) and Diamond & Schmidt Architects, Toronto — blends the ancient with the modern within a highly secure environment.

The relationship between KKE and Diamond & Schmidt's Jack Diamond dates back to 1988, when the designer, later a recipient of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's Gold Medal and considered among Canada's elite designers, chose KKE to be the local architects for the Jerusalem City Hall project.

After being disappointed in their bid to design Jerusalem's High Court of Justice, KKE decided not to take any chances when the Foreign Ministry project came up for bid in 1996. The firm asked Diamond to come on board, and that put them over the top.

The $70 million Foreign Ministry carries the distinction of being the only blast-resistant public building in the city. "The building would remain standing even if something happened to one of the columns or walls," says Danny Shaham, with structural engineering firm Yaron Shimoni Shaham, Tel Aviv. "This would give people time to evacuate."

With more than 200 hidden cameras scattered throughout the site's 450,000 sq. ft. of space, two sealed rooms (which double as conference rooms) on each floor, security checkpoints, and steel cables designed to catch imploding glass, the facility could have easily ended up looking like a fortress — an effect the Building Team worked hard to prevent.

"It had to be an extremely secure building, but had to appear to be open and welcoming as a symbol of a live democracy," says Diamond.

Ironically, the Israeli Treasury — the client — and the Foreign Ministry — the end-user — originally had diametrically opposed design requirements. The Treasury sought a deep, open space building, while the Foreign Ministry wanted a narrow, closed facility.

"We did a building which was really a hybrid, flexible enough for both," says Randy Epstein, a partner with KKE. As a compromise, the office depth runs 24 meters along the building, while the courtyards were cut down to 16 meters in width.

Opting for onyx

The building's most captivating feature is its extensive use of onyx. But before the approximately 1,200 stones could be imported from China, the onyx had to be tested at a special blast-testing site in the southern part of Israel. "We feared that the onyx would fly like shrapnel when exploded, but instead it stayed in rather large pieces," says Epstein.

To ensure that the onyx was of top quality, Epstein and Danny Rahat, project engineer with E. Rahat & Associates, Jerusalem, spent two full days in China hand checking every stone.

Serving as a curtain wall and making up a large part of the walls surrounding the project's central building — more than 700 sq. meters — the onyx casts a stone-like appearance on the exterior by day and a mysterious yellow glow by night. That same amber translucence permeates the interior during the day.

Another security concern had to do with the glass for the lobby. Rahat says that some of those involved wanted to install relatively small pieces to meet the blast-resistance criteria. But Epstein insisted on 2x2-meter glass panels, which were installed around the perimeter of the main building's ground floor.

These, too, had to pass the shatter-proofing test. As an extra safety measure, steel cables were hung from the second floor and connected to a steel pipe near the ground. This arrangement allows the cables to absorb most of the energy of imploding glass. The architects even managed to make these functional steel rectangles aesthetically pleasing.

The area surrounded by onyx and glass is a large, open atrium, crowned with a shading device on the roof. This mechanism protects the building from the sun, in a climate where temperatures in excess of 100 F in mid-summer are common.

A forum for public events

The centerpiece of the campus is the atrium, where special ceremonies and events are held. The inauguration of the new Foreign Minister took place there in early March, only weeks after the building officially opened. Diplomats and other VIPs enter the building from a sunken, circular driveway/parking area. They pass though a lobby that leads into the atrium.

The view from the second- and third-floor hallways overlooking the atrium is partly blocked by horizontal slits of wood, which create the effect of gazing through venetian blinds. While this filter was designed for a utilitarian purpose — to protect occupants from imploding onyx and glass in the event of a blast — it also reinforces the tradition, in both Jewish and Muslim law, of "mechitzah," or separation, of genders during times of prayer.

Yet another "cultural" symbol is expressed in the building's main roof. Drawing on his roots in America, where he was raised and educated as an architect, Epstein designed the roof to emulate the shape of a bagel, even though bagels enjoy nowhere near the popularity among Israelis that they do among Americans. The top third of the "bagel" is sliced vertically, essentially an arched or wavy look, depending on the angle from which the roof is viewed. "It's a fairly simple shape, but it looks complicated," says Epstein.

The roof appears to be made entirely of zinc, but it actually contains a hidden concrete slab to meet blast-resistance requirements. Epstein notes that the original plan was to use steel, but the Building Team found that zinc was much easier to work with and had a more handsome finish.

When it came time to put the concrete and zinc together, the concrete had to have very tight tolerance. "We had no idea how we were going to do it," recalls Epstein. "We spent a lot of time trying to work it out, and in the end, a group of Romanian workers figured it out in a couple of days."

Structurally, the interconnected buildings are supported by a dozen concrete columns connected to a steel structure, according to Rahat. In order to meet the Foreign Ministry's blast requirements, the use of reinforced concrete was called for.

"To achieve this continuity, we had to use 20-30% more enforcement for concrete, and we had to be more particular with the detailing of the connections between the columns and slabs, and between the interior and exterior wall," says Shaham.

Three faces of interest

A major challenge for the Building Team was to blend the new building into the urban fabric, yet give it an identity of its own. "We had to deal with opposing and conflicting requirements," recalls Diamond. "On the one hand, the Foreign Ministry was a significant public building, but on the other, it was one among a ring of buildings that make up the National Precinct."

While it was deemed inappropriate for the new building to detract from Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, or from its High Court of Justice, its architecture had to be strong enough to signify the building's importance in relation to other facilities in the National Precinct, notably the Bank of Israel and the Israel Museum (with the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls). Consequently, the ministry building was given three separate faces.

In order to create a strong geometry vis à vis the High Court of Justice, which sits back on terraces filled with olive trees, this face was designed with a lowered plaza inside a terrace of olive trees.

A second side, with more of the appearance of an office building, fronts an internal street. The design was intended to create a prototype for future office buildings within the National Precinct, but unfortunately, the next building that went up did not follow the Foreign Ministry model.

The third face, the building's main entrance on Rabin Boulevard, stands on its own with no urban fabric to relate to. It is a large, open courtyard leading into the onyx-clad central building.

Prior to construction, the site was essentially open land, except for a parking lot utilized by the neighboring Bank of Israel. It was eventually relocated.

A consistent read

Most of the facility consists of office space, but it also houses an auditorium, a cafeteria, and classrooms for the ministry's School for Diplomats. On the top floor, where the Foreign Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister have offices, uplighting fixtures bathe the floor's high ceilings. The glass in this floor's large windows is cut at varying heights in order to fit the arch of the roof. "We wanted the building to read consistently from the outside and the inside," says Epstein.

The odd shape of the roof presented difficulty in accurately installing sprinklers. To address this problem, piping was put in place before the ceiling plaster set, and the sprinkler pipe was cut to size to blend in with the other sprinkler heads.

Even though the campus cultivates daylighting through its extensive use of windows, it has not translated into significant energy savings for the building. Apparently, this has something to do with the habit of Israelis to use task lighting regardless of how much natural daylighting illuminates their workspace.

In addition to the Chinese onyx, the building materials came from all over the world — wood ceilings from the Netherlands, metal ceilings and lighting fixtures from England, plastic ceilings from France, uplight/downlight fixtures from Germany, carpeting from the U.S., and marble for the floor from Turkey. Only the steel, the shading devices, and the furniture were purchased from Israeli companies.

A true learning experience

Although the project was not without its problems — the Treasury held up its funding for a year — the architects ultimately delivered a successful product, according to the client.

"It's a wonderful building," says Amir Ayalon, head of human resources for the Foreign Ministry. "It's very active, very functional. Of course, we've had some difficulties like any new building — for example, some minor electrical issues — but most of the staff is very satisfied.

"It took time to teach the architects how we work, but it was a successful cooperation and we see the results," he says. "It is a very functional building."

That experience has paid off for KKE, which is currently collaborating with Frank Gehry on the design of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.