Holon Journal: Will this little known Israeli city become the next Bilbao?

by Ron Bernthal

In the working-class Israeli city of Holon international design aficionados are raving about a new museum building that has captivated them in a way no other museum has since Guggenheim Bilbao opened 15 years ago.

Design Museum Holon, opened in 2010, is attracting tourists and design aficionados to Architect Ron Arad’s innovatively designed building (photo Ron Bernthal)

During the past several decades, as Israel has transformed itself into a modern, high tech-savvy country, so much so that part of its coastal plain is now nicknamed Silicon Wadi, the ability of Israelis to also create imaginative and dazzling art and design objects is just now becoming legendary. The newest results of Israeli art and design is best represented in the dozens of new galleries that have sprouted throughout the country; in the stunning urban architecture that is flourishing in the big cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; and in Israel’s fashion industry, where designers like Yigal Azrouel and Ronen Chen have transformed the way trendy women are dressing themselves in New York and Paris.

But in one the most unlikely Israeli places to showcase the nation’s greatest Israeli architecture and design, recent initiatives by a forward-thinking municipal government are reinventing a blue-collar city into a burgeoning design center. Holon, a city of 185,000 that grew rapidly with Jewish immigrants after the 1948 War of Independence, is now being compared to Bilbao, in northern Spain, which funded the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in 1997 and has become the poster-city for the term, “if you build it, they will come” ever since.

The museum’s ribbons of steel will weather under the Israeli sun, creating a color that will symbolize the desert striations in Israel’s southern desert.(photo Yael Pincus, DMH)

Like Bilbao before the Guggenheim, Holon is a non-descript working-class city, a congested bedroom community of Tel Aviv, is only six miles away, but without Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean beach-front hotels, shimmering glass office buildings, and glamorous nightlife it feels much further. Holon has lots of residential apartment blocks, small stores, and one of Israeli’s largest industrial parks, but the last decade has brought big changes.

Until the local basketball team, Hapoel Holon, won the Israel national championship in 2008, residents were more or less content to live and work in Tel Aviv’s shadow, but after the infamous game against rival Maccabi Tel Aviv, which gave Holon its 15-minutes of fame, resident Yossi Cohen expressed the dreams of many residents when he told the Haaretz newspaper, “If we get tourists, more entertainment places will open, like pubs and clubs. Currently we have no tourism, not a single hotel. It depends on city leaders to make the most of having the state champion. Europe hasn’t heard of Holon. Entrepreneurs invest in hotels and tourism in Tel Aviv, Netanya and Herzliya. Investors love success, so Holon can use this opportunity to develop its tourism infrastructure.”

The sky can be seen between the steel bands at Design Museum Holon. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Fortunately, city officials, including Holon Mayor Moti Sasson and Holon Municipality managing director Hana Herztman, had already begun an intensive campaign to improve the city’s cultural amenities. The Holon Children’s Museum and the Israeli Center for Digital Art both opened in 2001, and the Israeli Cartoon Museum, opened in 2007, is a fascinating venue. The Holon Institute of Technology, established in the 1970’s, was already providing Israeli students with degrees in industrial and interior design, and visual communications design. In 2006, in order to attract more overseas visitors, it was decided to mimic Bilbao, and create a “city of design” that would attract tourists and, hopefully, big name architects, artists and engineers who would participate in the process to make Holon an true international city of design, much like Bilbao is today.

“Hana Herztman approached Ron Arad, the noted Israeli architect, and asked him to design an iconic building that ‘could be put on a postage stamp’,” said Maya Dvash, Chief Editor of the Design Museum Holon online magazine. “Before the museum was built Holon was considered a sleepy town but now, afterwards, everything has changed for the city.”

Nacho Carbonell’s “OneMan Chair” and “The Bench & Tree Chair” part of an exhibition at Design Museum Holon (photo Shay Ben Efraim)

Ron Arad, the architect commissioned to design the museum, is one of Israel’s most well known architects, and his international projects include urban office, hotel, and industrial buildings, as well as interior spaces, furniture, and residential commissions. He has done many projects in Italy, including as lead designer for the Maserati headquarters showroom.

His award-winning design for the Holon project uses five bands of rust colored Cor-Ten steel, shipped from Italy, that wind around the building, and become part of this ingenious structure, providing both a stunning visual image from afar, as well as complimenting the external sculptural ramp that leads visitors into various galleries, and to the museum’s internal courtyard that flows across two levels. A small, glass-enclosed café is located at the entrance, sheltered from sun and rain by the unique ribbons of weathering steel.

Daan Roosegaarde’s high-tech light sculpture “Dune” at the Design Museum Holon’s Decode exhibition. (photo HDM)

Arad’s innovative Design Museum Holon, which opened its doors in March, 2010, was an immediate hit, and the perfect host for the rotating design exhibitions contained within its galleries. The industrial and creative design objects displayed since its opening, including its current Decode exhibition, using digital technology to create fabulous interactive exhibits, has been drawing thousands of visitors a week to Holon. Although many are coming to see and experience the building itself, they are equally impressed by what they find inside.

What is perhaps even more important than the recent buzz about the museum is that its intended purpose, to attract international architects and design events to Holon, is actually working. “After the success of the museum the city is looking to build a new municipality building, and a Dutch architecture firm has won the design competition to build it,” said Ms. Dvash, who said that other design projects are in the planning stages as well. Attractive and expensive residential apartment buildings are being constructed right across the street from the museum, a sign that Israeli’s, as well as international buyers, sense that something magical is happening in Holon and they want a front row seat.

A back view of the museum shows the new construction taking place on the street facing the museum, where Israeli’s and international buyers want views of the new structure. (photo Yael Pincus, HDM)

In October, 2011, the city and the museum organized Holon Fashion Week, which drew several fashion industry celebrities, including American designer Zac Posen, British model Amber Anderson, and Vogue writer Stephanie LaCava. In 2012, during Holon’s first Design Week festival, the city will host an international team of 13 directors of design week festivals in London, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, Tokyo and other cities, for an exhibition at the Design Museum Holon. The exhibit, called Plus Ten, displays the work of 40 young Israeli designers, in the fields of textile design, jewelry design, visual communications, and digital design ten years after graduation from Israeli design schools. The city will bring several Design Week activities to the more industrialized parts of Holon as well, offering evidence to its working-class population that Holon is on its way to becoming a true city of design.

Although street signs are in both English and Hebrew, finding museums and other attractions in your rental car can sometimes be tricky in Israel due to new highways and exit ramps, one-way streets, and road construction in many areas. I brought my own automobile Garmin GPS system and downloaded an updated Israel road map, which covers the entire country, prior to the visit. It worked beautifully, not once did I have to ask directions in bad Hebrew! Driving to the Design Museum Holon from central Tel Aviv, even in a little traffic, was actually fun following the Garmin’s colorful map display and voice narration. The device was especially useful coming back from Beer’sheva one rainy night, when visibility was poor. With the Garmin on the front window it was like having an Israeli resident sitting in the front seat with me, giving me accurate directions all the way back to the hotel. (www.garmin.com)

Design Museum Holon
Pinhas Eilon St. 8
Holon, Israel
Phone: 972 7 321 51515


© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.

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