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About the Library

The National Library Building

The Hebrew University buildings and the Jewish National and University Library were cut off as a result of the separation of Mount Scopus from Jewish Jerusalem following the War of Independence. Some of the books were taken from Mount Scopus while the new books, those collected after the war, were stored in libraries and buildings throughout Jerusalem where the various faculties were housed. The University’s central library was housed in the Terra Sancta building.

In late 1953 it was decided to establish a library on the University’s new Givat Ram campus and a public competition to plan the building that would become the geographical-physical center of the campus was announced. A joint committee was formed to prepare the final plans. The architectural committee included three architectural firms: architects Amnon Alexandroni and Avraham Yaski; architects Ziva Armoni and Hanan Hebron of the Kibbutz HaMeuchad planning department and architects Michael Nadler, Shulamit Nadler and Shimon Povzner. The panel of judges decided that the plan submitted by architects Ziva Armoni and Hanan Hebron most closely adhered to the guidelines they had provided.

The planning work, begun in 1956, included the study of the many complex problems entailed in such a large and complicated building. The architects were aided during the preparation and planning processes by a senior team from the National Library and its director, Dr. Kurt Wahrman.

The building, with an area of some 20,000 m², is named for Lady Davis of Canada and is built on three underground levels that create a “terrace” in the hillside; Atop a storey of clear pillars is a massive 2-storey bloc that is almost mostly closed off towards the outside. Thus, despite its large size, the building is not overly conspicuous within the campus and its lines are clean and simple.

The ground floor, which borders the University’s central square, houses the catalog, lending and administration areas. A broad staircase leads from this floor to the next two levels, which form a bloc, most of which is sealed toward the outside and open inward toward two interior courtyards that function as the building’s “lungs”. This section houses the main reading rooms, special collections, newspapers and study and research rooms for the academic staff. In 1984 stained glass windows created by artist Mordechai Ardon and dedicated to the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace were set across from the staircase.

600 seats were installed in the various reading rooms for readers, who have free access to the books located in these rooms. The two main reading rooms, which house books in the fields of Jewish Studies and Oriental Studies, and the General Reading Room have 2-storey high ceilings and a balcony running the length of the room. These rooms are naturally lit via 135 transparent domes that constitute an integral part of the roof structure.

The book storage rooms, which currently hold more than 40 million volumes, are located in the three underground levels. These floors also house the bookbindery and the microfilms as well as the library administration. The building’s elegant interior design was executed by the architectural firm of Dora and Yehezkel and Arye Noy.

Tremendous effort was needed in those days to complete the National Library building. A Sikorsky helicopter was successfully “recruited” from the Air Force by the University administration and used to install the air conditioning systems on the roof (Arnan, Information).

The National Library is one of Israel’s central architectural milestones from the establishment of the State to the present. The building’s appearance reflects the great admiration the planning committee had for the design principles of Le Corbusier, and especially the principles of the stilts (pilotis) and the horizontal strip windows. The building illustrates the components and characteristics of the international “classic” style better than any other building, as well as the huge influence that the design theory of architect Le Corbusier had on architecture in Israel. Dr. Michael Levine wrote in his book The White City: “The perception, which serves as the basis of the library building’s design, draws its inspiration from the architecture of the 1930’s. The building is a huge scale enlargement of a private home, Villa Savoye in Poissy (1929-1931) – the seminal work of Le Corbusier and of the International Style as a whole. In other words, it is the transformation of a private home to a nationally significant public building. The library building is designed as a cube, which is poised on free standing stilts. Like the ground floor at Poissy, the library’s ground floor, which is surrounded by glass walls, only stretches over a portion of the area beneath the stilts.” (Levine 1984, pp. 25-28)

In his article “Modern Monumental Architecture – between Jerusalem and the Capitals of the World”, Dr. Levine continues his explanation, writing: “The similarity between the National Library and Villa Savoye is, of course, strictly formative. From a functional standpoint, the library’s needs are completely different than those of a private home. The reliance upon Villa Savoye is expressed in the way the first floor, which is much smaller than the storeys above, is built on stilts, the glass walls, ramps and spiral stairs connecting the levels, the strip windows and the flat roof with the asymmetrical sculptural element. The National Library’s walls are covered with sawn and polished stone, meant to create an effect similar to a plastered and whitewashed wall (although over time the stone betrays those who chose it and becomes covered with a patina that alters the shade unevenly). The National Library also features a central 2-storey room, as found in other villas designed by Le Corbusier during that period.” (Levine 1984a, p 62). American landscape artist Lawrence Halprin designed the gardens surrounding the building and in the sunken cafeteria courtyard on the lowest ground floor. Despite the fact that more than 40 years have gone by since the building was opened, it has retained its original elegant character, uniqueness and beauty. In her article “The Generation of Giants” Esther Zandberg notes that, “the earliest and most prominent of the library buildings in the Generation of Giants of libraries in Israel is the Jewish National and University Library at Givat Ram in Jerusalem… contemporary Israeli buildings that look as good as it does will surely not look that way decades later… it has a modest grace, intimacy and beauty… the heart flutters at the high quality of the construction and the good taste which have nearly disappeared since then from Israeli architecture”. (Esther Zandberg, “HaAretz”, Gallery, September 17, 2001).

From: Kroyanker, David. The Edmond J. Safra Campus, Givat Ram: Planning and Architecture, 1953-2002; Research and editing – Leora Kroyanker. Jerusalem, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002. pp 122-127.