It was 11:30 on a Wednesday morning, and architect Davidson Norris was angling to see if any light was refracting on the granite floor of the Route of Passage, the so-called underground axis at the Israel Museum.
“James said it happens at 12:30,” said Norris, referring to James Snyder, director of the museum. “But have you guys changed your clocks yet to daylight savings time?”
That’s a question with a long answer in this country, where changing the clock becomes an issue of synagogue and state, but in this case, it was asked with a specific purpose. The quality of light in this calming hallway, a 130-meter (426-foot) stretch of gray tiles that slowly angles upward toward the 44-foot rainbow-spectrumed artwork at its end, slowly shifts throughout the day, as light from a series of inner courtyards reflects and refracts through a long wall of glass.
While Norris was one of the two principal architects who created the hallway — as well as several other areas of the museum during its three-year renovation, completed in 2010 — last week’s visit was his first time seeing the work in situ. His tall, lanky figure seemed to meld with the wall as he looked up at it in wonder.
“I’ve been inside here a thousand times in my imagination and mind,” said Norris, “but it’s another thing to finally see it in person.”
Norris is currently in Jerusalem as part of American Academy in Jerusalem, a visiting fellows program created by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which brings four creative professionals to spend 10 weeks in the city, teaching master classes, serving as mentors, working on Jerusalem-centric projects and offering professional development to peers.
The other American Academy Fellows, filmmaker Susan Korda, choreographer and media artist Dean Moss and visual artist Diane Samuels, were on hand with Norris to witness his first glance at his Israel Museum work, a visit that took place on one of their first days in Jerusalem.
The Route of Passage is the official name of the hallway, which was built to offer wheelchair and golf cart access as well as an indoor byway between the museum’s entrance pavilion and the galleries. Until the renovation, the only entrance to the museum was via the wide outdoor stairs, part of the promenade that still leads up to the series of block-shaped buildings housing the museum’s collection.
As Snyder explained it to Norris, the renovation was a “rethinking” of a museum that had grown tremendously over the years, but that still had a “pre-existing footprint and envelope” that hadn’t changed as much as it needed to.
Originally designed by architects Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, the Israel Museum sits on a hill overlooking the Knesset and government campus on one end, and the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, translated as the hill of tranquility, on the other. The modernist, modular blocks suggest the terraces of an ancient Judean village. The renovation, which was undertaken by two teams of architects, including Norris, a principal at James Carpenter Design Associates for New York, found ways to bring in Jerusalem’s warm light, without its heat or harshness.
One of the major additions in the renovation was this passage, made by digging down below the museum, while opening it to light along one wall with a series of hidden, inner courtyards that Norris calls “saddlebags.”
“The effort was made in terms of the light,” said Norris. “James wanted to work in the context of the architecture, and the light is everything,” said Norris. “It’s how we design, it’s the medium.”
But the challenge in this part of the world, said Norris, is how to tone down the strong light that shines most of the time — “how to take light and expose its subtlety.”
“You don’t want to feel compressed by the space,” said Norris, pointing to the long axis, which ends with “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” the explosion of pigmented color created by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. “That wall of color,” said Norris, “interprets the light.”
The glass itself has a milky quality, etched with a very slight pebbly texture that helps diffuse the light and doesn’t leave fingerprints, explained Norris. The walls themselves are also divided into successive membranes, designed to allow visitors to peer beyond the glass wall and visit in the interior gardens, set with sculptures and climbing ivy, the leaves of which are visible from the passage.
“It’s our route of passage,” said Snyder. “We take the hyper-energy people have when they arrive, and calm them down before they get to the galleries.”