Two kilometers down Jaffa Road, the scene in the Jewish Quarter could be described in similar terms, but bears little resemblance to the shuk, as the outdoor market is universally known here. Like Mahane Yehuda, the Old City is crowded with people; unlike the former site, however, the crush of people in the Jewish Quarter is far more homogeneous than in other parts of the city. Here, the lingua franca appears to be English, as crowds seem to be made up almost entirely of tourists and American and British-born ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Halfway between the two sites, however, downtown Jerusalem is something of a “dead zone.” The historic “Jerusalem triangle”—King George Street, Jaffa Road and the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall—has yet to fully recover from the economic blow it took during the decade-long construction of the Jerusalem light rail. The train began operations in 2011, but signs of economic stagnation remain. Many storefronts in the downtown area remain empty.
It’s a situation that the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design hopes to rectify, with a 37,100 square meter building located adjacent to the Russian Compound, in the heart of the center of town. Bezalel President Prof. Adi Stern told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) that the move stands both to stir the creative juices for Bezalel students as well as to anchor the revitalization of the capital’s downtown.
“Bezalel was historically located in the center of town—our historic building gave Bezalel Street its name,” said Stern. “Now, however, most of our activity takes place at Mt Scopus, with only the faculty of architecture downtown. There are some advantages to that, but it’s really too sterile an environment to maximize artistic creativity. Artists really need the mix of people, languages and cultures in order to gain inspiration for their work.”
Stern states the location of the new campus is a short walk from Damascus and Jaffa gates to the Old City, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, secular Jaffa road and more. In addition, he says the building—which will house a library, galleries, workshops, classrooms, studios, offices, auditoriums, a cafeteria, and a gift shop—will consist of see-through glass to create a transparent structure that allows students to draw inspiration from their surroundings and invites Jerusalemites to be a part of the campus community.
“This project is going to completely transform downtown Jerusalem, from an urban perspective. Imagine 2,500 full-time students renting apartments, living there, opening businesses.
“And from our perspective, being there will increase our opportunities to collaborate with many institutions around. The center of town is very much the heart of Jerusalem—close to the Old City, haredim in Mea Shearim, secular western Jerusalem. Our idea is to reinvigorate and revitalize the center of town,’ he said.
Both Jerusalem city hall and the national government have come on board to the project, which is expected to cost upwards of $100 million. The land for the building was provided by the Jerusalem Municipality.
Like the city itself, Stern says Bezalel is a broad-based, heterogeneous institution, very much in contrast to the popular image of the school as a bastion for white, upper-class, Labor Party-voting left-wingers from Tel Aviv. In reality, he says that this years incoming freshman class of 450 students represents126 different municipalities around the country, including kibbutzim, moshavim, the West Bank and Arab Israelis.
The school is also a mix of Israel’s religious makeup, with secular and Orthodox Jews, a separate campus for Haredi women. and a growing faculty for Arab students. Stern says the interplay between such a diverse group of communities is a challenge, but one that is central to the Israeli—and the Jerusalem—experience.
“The meeting between these different sectors—and let’s tell the truth, it isn’t always easy—but it is key to the quality of our art. It is also part of our responsibility, as a public cultural and academic institution, to our students, to the city of Jerusalem and to the Israeli public,” he added.
As a result of that tension, Stern stressed the unique characteristics of locally-produced music, sculpture, painting and other disciplines. He said there is “no sense” in encouraging Israeli students to create art that looks like it was made in Switzerland.
“To create great art you take the background of the artist, with his or her collective experiences, the complexity of Jerusalem, the weather, atmosphere, local tensions and cultures, the sounds and mix it all up.
“So in that way, we believe the new campus will both draw on the diversity and vibrancy of Jerusalem and also exhale a tremendous contribution to making sure the city can live up to its promise as the cultural and artistic capital of Israel,” Stern says.
This article was reprinted with the permission of TPS.