Surroundings / Between Disneyland kitsch and an avant-garde creation
The renovated Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls at
the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, reopened this week amid new controversy
over the meaning of the scrolls themselves.
By Esther Zandberg
The Shrine of the Book at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea
Scrolls are kept, officially reopened on Tuesday after being closed for
renovations for almost 18 months. With perfect timing that seemed to be
part of a planned public relations campaign, the meaning of the scrolls
was again brought to the fore last week, and it turns out that the
mystery shrouding their origins has lost none of its allure since they
were first discovered by accident by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave beside
Qumran in 1947.
As reported in Haaretz last Friday, the new generation of archeologists
are claiming that, contrary to the reigning theory, the scrolls were not
written by the Essenes, the Essenes did not live in Qumran, and they
were not even a sect of poor spiritual ascetics anticipating the coming
of the messiah, but rather a regular community that did not suffer any
The world of archeology is in an uproar, but it is highly doubtful
whether the affair will cause any harm to the Shrine of the Book, which
was built especially to house the treasured scrolls, considered the most
important archeological discovery of the 20th century.
The reputation of the shrine, which was designed in the late 1950s by
American architects Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) and Armand Bartos, was
built more than a little on its enigmatic qualities, controversy and
opposing interpretations. Some of these are connected with the scrolls,
others with the architectural style - "architecture of the soul," as
defined by Kiesler - which stands out on the background of the modern
rational architecture of the period.
The shrine hovers between the Disneyland kitsch of an amusement park
pavilion and "the only architecturally avant-garde creation ever built
in Israel," in the words of architect and critic Sharon Rotbard. The
shrine's curator, Adolfo Roitman, sees it as "an impressive example of a
structure with a temple-like character," while Kiesler described it as a
"new kind of spiral structure."
Roitman feels the shrine's most prominent feature, the double parabolic
dome rising above a pool of water that bathes it in a continuous
fountain-spray of water, contains symbolism of a ritual bath. To many
others, the dome is reminiscent of a cut onion, while others see in it
the lid of an urn or a giant breast.
The enigmatic architectural character of the Shrine of the Book, most of
which is built underground and lit to resemble a dim cave - turned out
to be a major drawing card and undoubtedly turned the shrine into the
museum's star attraction. Since its inauguration in 1965, about a month
before the official opening of the museum itself, the shrine has been
the most popular of the museum's wings.
Roitman led the renovations of the shrine, which are the most thorough
and comprehensive since it was built. The renovations were intended to
rejuvenate the building, protect it from the ravages of time and
weather, and improve the conditions under which the scrolls and other
exhibits are displayed, in keeping with the latest technologies and
standards. The biggest challenge, says Roitman, was to maintain the
original face and the period character of the shrine, considered a
national monument and one of the prominent visual symbols of Jerusalem.
The renovations included the replacement of the 250,000 ceramic tiles on
the shrine's dome. The stark black wall that faces the dome, symbolizing
the tension between the "Sons of Light" and the "Sons of Darkness"
mentioned in some of the scrolls, was refaced with stones imported from
The exhibition rooms inside the complex were also redesigned, the
display cases were replaced and new lighting and air-conditioning
systems was installed such that scrolls and manuscripts can be displayed
in both upper and lower halls. In honor of the reopening, the lower hall
is exhibiting the rare Aleppo Codex, a 1,000-year-old hand-written copy
of the Bible.
The scrolls were originally displayed upright, which Roitman explains
caused the parchment to become damaged. Now they are displayed at an
angle of 25 degrees, in keeping with current display practices for such
artifacts. The new design of the display cases, including the framing of
the pieces of the scrolls with thick white mat board does not do the
exhibits justice and turn the scrolls into a diminutive and almost
marginal item in the mesmerizing space.
Architect Nahum Meltzer and designer Rachel Lev were in charge of
planning the renovations. Bartos, now 94, served as a consultant, with
the plans and samples of the materials being brought to him at his home
in New York for his approval. The renovations were financed by donations
totaling $3 million and additional assistance from the Jerusalem
municipality and the Tourism Ministry. The main donations were made by
Herta and Paul Amir families, who also funded the competition for the
planning of the new building for the Tel Aviv Museum, and the foundation
of Samuel Gottesman, an American banker and industrialist who helped
archeologist Yigael Yadin complete the original purchase of the scrolls.
A rejected breakthrough
Originally, the Shrine of the Book was to be just a small room in the
national library at the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus in
Jerusalem. Kiesler suggested building a room with a parabolic dome
inside the library - a space of freedom in the heart of modernistic
fixation, as he defined it - but his proposal was rejected.
"It was a breakthrough," he wrote in his memoirs, "but the Jerusalem
architects politely rejected it. The parabolic lines were perceived as
guerrilla fighters assaulting the Bauhaus cubes."
After many reincarnations, the exhibition room turned into a shrine and
was built in an inflated version at a huge financial investment in its
current location, at the entrance to the modernistic fortress of the
From the outset, the Shrine of the Book, the first "shrine" in Israel,
was a narcissistic structure more involved with itself than with its
contents. Bartos and Kiesler, who was the dominant partner in the
planning, assumed that "the visitors who would come from various
countries would not be able to decipher the scrolls or read the other
manuscripts during a visit inside it," and as compensation for that
disappointment, the focused on the creation of impressive architectural
This assumption turned out to be true, and the scrolls indeed seem
almost superfluous to the architectural idea - apart from the
reproductions of the Temple Scroll, which is one of the main attractions.
The Shrine of the Book is the only real structure built by Kiesler.
There is no disputing the commercial success of the shrine and its
space, but the idea of the Endless House and the galactic free space on
which he worked all his life never came to fruition.
The dim entrance tunnel to the shrine and the display rooms, in which
the floors merge with the walls that climb in endless spirals, seemingly
toward the "eye" in the ceiling, are ultimately absolutely finite
spaces. Compared to them, any modernistic cube is the epitome of freedom.
In the past decade, Kiesler has aroused renewed interest among
intellectuals in the world of architecture. Exhibitions of his works are
on display in important museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art
in New York and the George Pompidou Center in Paris, and the Shrine of
the Book even won classification as "one of the important buildings of
the 20th century," from Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of The
New York Times. Architects of the computer generation consider Kiesler
the forefather of blob architecture and effects that dominate the dome
today, and not only the Shrine of the Book.