History of the National Library

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.