SANAA’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design is designed to connect with the heart of Jerusalem

SANAA and local studio HQ Architects design new home for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem's city centre

angles in concrete and stone at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design
(Image credit: Dor Kedmi)

When talking to the team behind the new Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, which opens for the academic year November 2022, the theme that keeps coming up is 'connection'. The project, created by Japanese architecture studio SANAA in collaboration with local studio HQ Architects, offers a new home for the school, moving it from its former location on the outskirts of the city, right to Jerusalem’s very heart. This, the institution’s president Adi Stern explains, is exactly what the school wanted for its new campus – and its future, in general. 

‘We dreamed of building an exceptional infrastructure for Bezalel, one that would propel it forward to the next chapter of its history. The new campus will enable us to continue to fulfil Bezalel’s vision of shaping the future of art, design, and architecture education and contribute significantly to the development of Jerusalem. Bezalel aspires to continue to train artists who strive for excellence, understand the environment in which they operate, and recognise their power and responsibility as critical and active citizens who impact culture, society, and the economy in Israel and the world. This extraordinary city campus in the heart of Jerusalem will be the perfect starting place for this educational journey,’ Stern says. 

glass facade of the sanaa designed Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

(Image credit: Dor Kedmi)

Making SANAA’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

SANAA, headed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, won the commission for this piece of education architecture through a competition in 2011. Yoshitaka Tanase, partner at the practice, describes what attracted the studio to the project: ‘We think the appeal of this project is that it is a very new form in this city, yet it has a sense of connection and unity with this city. We believe that this relationship will serve as a platform for the Bezalel Academy to nurture the diversity of the different departments and promote their interaction. The creativity and life of the students will spill over into the neighbourhood, energising it and, in turn, influencing the creativity of the students.'

The new building complex, named the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Campus, sits on a hill overlooking the Old City. It is also set among dense layers of Jerusalem's urban history, which the architecture team wanted to celebrate. The result was creating a building that looks a bit like a cascade of terraces, and feels open and transparent so that it can take in all the vistas and connect with the city on various levels. At the same time, this approach allows for its volume to be broken down to create a kind of a ‘village’, with friendly, smaller buildings, routes, plazas, and views carved out as a result, inside and out. 

view from above of building and courtyard at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in jerusalem

(Image credit: Dor Kedmi)

‘The diversity within the Art Academy and its multidisciplinarity were inspirations for the design. Another major source of inspiration was the site, which slopes down to the Old City and is located in the centre of quite distinct surrounding buildings – the Museum of Underground Prisoners, a Russian church, Jerusalem City Hall. However, the size of this site was not large enough for the programme that was required. Another challenge was to fit this large programme into the site while ensuring the quality of the academic spaces, such as natural light and ventilation,' Tanase says. 

Materiality also played a key role in connecting the building to its context, as the team followed local planning regulations around material use, and created a concrete mix that uses local stone aggregates. ‘We did dozens of mock-ups in order to find the right mix and colour,’ HQ Architects’ founder, Jerusalem-born Erez Ella, recalls. ‘We also showed that this building is very Jerusalem in the way it’s built, it has little alleys, many different vistas. We wanted to show that we can make it feel of its place, without being too literal about it.'

sanaa designed interior in Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

(Image credit: Dor Kedmi)

Inside, the thread of connectivity continues, as Stern explains that establishing a building that allows interdisciplinary encounters and cross-pollination was crucial for the new home. 'Transparency was important from three different angles. It's about combining the indoors and outdoors in the way SANAA always does, so you’re inside and most of the time you feel like you’re outside; it's also about the community, and here the passersby can view through and see inside, walk around, see what an art school is like; and we also want to encourage our students to look out too, and remember where we are, and create things that have some connection to the Middle East, Israel, Jerusalem, ultimately, to create a sense of place.’

‘You can look through the building and out, as well as connect between the many departments,' says Ella, highlighting the rich mix of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to be housed in the new Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Campus. ‘So in a way, it’s a very modest building, blending with the environment, but it is also creating these unique conditions for education.'

Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design interior with view and staircase

(Image credit: Dor Kedmi)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).