Planning began in 1956 and entailed gaining knowledge of the various challenges that arise when building such a large and complicated structure. The architectural team was guided and assisted in these matters by the senior staff of the National Library and its director, Dr. Kurt Wahrman.
With respect to those days, completion of the library building called for extraordinary efforts — the installation of the air conditioning system on the building's roof was carried out with the help of a Sikorsky helicopter from the Israeli Air Force, “recruited” for the job by Library management.
The building, named after Lady Davis of Canada, spans approximately 20,000 square meters. Three basement floors form a sort of terrace on the mountain, and above these columns support a wholly transparent first floor. Finally, a massive, almost completely opaque block houses the upper two floors of the building. This execution enables the structure to, despite its considerable size, remain unimposing and maintain a clean and simple shape.
Sharing the main University campus square, the Library’s first floor houses the catalogue halls, loans department, and management. From here, a broad stairwell leads to the two upper floors, which are almost completely opaque, save for two inner courtyards that serve as the building’s “lungs”. Located on these floors are the main reading rooms, special collections, press, and reading and research rooms for academic staff. In 1984, stained glass windows created by the artist Mordecai Ardon were mounted across from the main stairwell. The windows’ three panels depict Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace.
The various halls and reading rooms can accomodate
600 readers who can freely access the books housed in these spaces. The two main reading rooms, the Judaica Reading Room and the Islam and Middle East Reading Room, as well as the General Reading Room, have high ceilings and a gallery that circles the entire room. An integral part of the roof, 135 transparent domes provide controlled, natural light for these main halls. Storage rooms are located in the three basement floors and contain over four million volumes. Also located in the basement are workshops for book-binding and microfilm photography, and the Library’s administrative department. The Library’s elegant interior design is the work of architectural firm Dora Yehezkel and Arye Noy.
The National Library stands as one of Israel’s architectural milestones. Reflected in the building’s shape is the architects’ deep admiration of the design principles of Le Corbusier, especially the pilotis (reinforced concrete stilts) and the strip (continuous horizontal) windows. More than any other, this building represents the components and characteristics of the international “classic” style, and the extraordinary influence that Le Corbusier’s design philosophy had on Israeli architecture. In his book, White City, Dr. Levin writes:
“The philosophy, which stands at the core of the building’s design, draws its inspiration from 1930’s architecture. The building is in fact a magnification – on a massive scale – of a private residence, Villa Savoye in Poissy-sur-Seine (1929-1931) – not only a Le Corbusier masterpiece, but an exemplary product of the international style. In other words, this is a transformation of a private residence into a public building of national importance. The Library building is designed as a cube supported by free-standing columns. The ground floor of the Library, enclosed in glass walls, covers only part of the area under the columns, similar to the ground floor at Poissy.” (Levin, 1984, pp. 25-28).
In his article, “Monumental Modern Architecture – from Jerusalem to World Capitals”, Dr. Levin continues:
“The similarities between the National Library and Villa Savoye lie, of course, in their appearance alone. Functionally, the needs of a library are completely different than those of a private residence. Several aspects of the building can be attributed to the referencing of Villa Savoye – the ground floor, which is built on columns, is much smaller than the floors above it, glass walls, ramps and spiral stairways that connect floors, strip windows, and a flat roof with an asymmetric sculptural element. The Library walls are covered with cut, polished stone, meant to create an effect similar to a white, plastered wall (though with time the stones betray those who chose them and are covered by a patina that unevenly changes their color). The Library also has a central room consisting of two floors, similar to other Le Corbusier villas of those years.” (Levin, 1984a, p. 62).
The building’s surrounding landscaping as well as the sunken courtyard of the cafeteria on the lower ground floor is the work of American landscape architect, Lawrence Halperin. Though more than forty years have passed since the inauguration of the Library building, it has managed to keep its original elegance, beauty, and individuality. In her article, “Founding Fathers”, Esther Zandberg notes:
“Among the early Israeli libraries built, the earliest and most prominent is that of the National Library in Givat Ram, Jerusalem… modern Israeli buildings that look as good, will surely no longer look that way after several decades… it has a humble glamour, intimacy, and beauty… the heart flutters at the quality of build and fine taste, which have since then almost disappeared from Israeli architecture.” (Esther Zandberg, “Haaretz”, Galleria, 17.9.01)