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New National Library building, a dramatic Jerusalem landmark, nears completion

Expansive facility covering 45,000 square meters (480,000 square feet) of space between the Knesset and the Israel Museum will open to the public next year

A view from the reading rooms of Israel's new national library, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basel (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)
A view from the reading rooms of Israel's new national library, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basel (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)

Some six years after the first cornerstone was laid, construction on the new National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem is nearing completion and it is hoped will be ready for visitors next spring.

The library will become a city landmark and find a new home between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, moving from its current location adjacent to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus to which it has been bound since its opening in 1925.

Oren Weinberg, library director since 2010, has been working since 2016 on setting up a new home for the largest repository of Israeli and Jewish heritage in the world. The new library will cover 45,000 square meters (480,000 square feet), with six above-ground floors and four below, including an auditorium, a visitors center, and an outdoor amphitheater to host all kinds of cultural events.

The library, home to world-class collections of over four million books, 2.5 million photographs, manuscripts, artifacts, and maps, will be open to the general public as well as to researchers and academics.

The library has promised to have a “robotic retrieval system” that “will be an attraction of its own.”

The design of the new library was by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, an office that has worked on national museums, stadiums, and halls worldwide.

Speaking to an international audience as part of Jewish Book Week this week, Herzog & de Meuron senior partner Jason Frantzen said the project has been “an incredible journey.”

“We started out by trying to understand the meaning of a library today, to understand the site and the challenges it posed, and we went out to look at Jerusalem architecture to try to create something that is both contextual and contemporary,” he said.

An architectural rendering of the new National Library of Israel building, set to open in 2023. The building was designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. (Herzog & de Meuron 2022)

“Our first key concept was that books needed to be at the center of the project. And so at the center of the building, the light comes down to showcase rings of books and multiple reading rooms, as well as offering a view out over the underground stacks of volumes. We want to make the place welcoming to people who use the existing library and to create a space for a whole new audience,” Frantzen said.

The exterior has a carved stone roof that “rises up to meet the Knesset and dips down to preserve views from the Israel museum,” he described. A pattern of openings in the stone is based on a study of how the existing city stones have eroded over time, helping the building to look as if it has always been there, he added.

Model of Israel’s new National Library and the surrounding cityscape, designed by Herzog &de Meuron, Basel(courtesy of Herzog &de Meuron, 2022)

Building sustainably has also been a major focus, and the team has looked to source materials that can not only survive Jerusalem’s extreme temperature, but also reduce the building’s carbon footprint on an ongoing basis.

Funding for the $200 million project has come from the government of Israel, the Rothschild family through its Yad HaNadiv foundation, and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman family of New York. David Sanford “Sandy” Gottesman passed away last month at the age of 96.

Gottesman told The Times of Israel in 2016 at the cornerstone-laying ceremony that he hoped the new building would allow the National Library of Israel to take its place among the great libraries of the world and serve as a dynamic center for intellectual and artistic collaboration and creativity.

Reflecting on the decision to get involved in the project, Yad HaNadiv Chairperson Hannah Rothschild cited the late Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Congregations of the Commonwealth who “said we should work to make good on Isaiah’s wish that Jerusalem become a center of knowledge for the world.”

Speaking as part of an international update on the project, on the Lockdown University platform, she said, “it seemed to us that there wasn’t a suitable home for the book for the people of the book. I can’t tell you how proud we are of this building”.

New National Library proposed entrance, designed by Herzog &de Meuron November 2022 (courtesy National Library of Israel).

The new library – without its ties to the Hebrew University – is intended to welcome all sorts of visitors, including researchers from around the world and new groups and individuals who may have shied away given the strong former connections to academia.

This “openness” has played a major part in the design, Weinberg said. “We want visitors not only to absorb information, but also to engage in discussion.”

“We envisage many different kinds of readers and have tried to create many different spaces that they can use, inside the library and outside it. We’re anticipating whole new audiences coming to visit,” Frantzen added.

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