An architecture report from Tel Aviv by Yuval Ben-Ami
Architect Yoav Meiri recounts his plan for a library
accessible to all, including illegal immigrants
It''''''''s Saturday afternoon on Tel-Aviv''s Neve Sha''anan street, a pedestrian
mall leading from the city''''''''s main bus terminal, through a derelict
southern quarter, to the outskirts of its actual downtown. Here are the
southern slums. It''''s only at the very northwestern end of Neve Sha''''''''anan
that "Central Tel-Aviv" begins by the book, yet the bustle along this badly
maintained street easily rivals that of the city''''s major avenues.
It certainly rivals them in diversity. An east African bride makes her way,
accompanied by her violet-clad bridesmaids, among makeshift stalls
offering everything from second hand shoes to pots and pans and from
statuettes of the Virgin to stereo systems and boxing gloves. Bustling
eateries offer Chinese dim sum, Eritrean injiras and plenty of Israeli and
This is Tel-Aviv''''s International quarter, but is not known as such
formally, nor even commonly. Israel itself is greatly in denial of its
growing population of refugees which number over 30,000 within its
boundaries, and of work immigrants who overstayed their work permits,
which number over 90,000.
Gaining a legal status or even asylum is nearly impossible. Of 856 asylum
requests filed in 2009, Israel approved only 2. A special policing force
named the Bravery Unit was formed to deal with work immigrants who
overstay their official welcome. The authorities treat these two
populations with a bureaucratic hostility that sifts down to the public at
large. It often transcends bureaucracy and leads to prison terms and to
deportations. Recently, Israel began deporting hundreds of children born
on this soil to members of the two groups.
This may seen ironic behavior for a nation state founded by refugees, but
may also be explained from an historical perspective: the Jews of the
Diaspora, having established a national homeland and wounded by a
history in which such a homeland was lacking, are now fortifying it. To
Israelis, the very existence of the state and the survival of their society
seems extremely fragile, we tend to feel threatened by the nearness of
troubled Africa, from which most refugees arrive, and suspicious of
strangers in general.
Not everyone, however, feels this threatened. It is left for grassroots
organizations to offer a welcome and a helping hand—sometimes a
practical helping hand, sometimes a symbolic one. In one case merging
the practical and symbolic, Jewish history may have made another
appearance. The volunteers, bred in a culture which holds education and
the written word in the highest esteem, chose to offer the neighborhood''''s
population a library, and a fairly atypical one at that.
There are people here, but not a public
Architect Yoav Meiri set up home and office in this neighborhood sixteen
years ago and has known up and downs since. During the course of a
more difficult spell he even contemplated career change "I asked myself
what else I would have liked to be, and realized that I always wanted to be
a librarian," he recounts. "While looking into it I realized that the
neighborhood had none. It has no library, no community center, nor any
real public building. I started asking myself why that is and realized that
there really is no public in this neighborhood, not anything that has the
rights of a public. There are people here but not a public."
The dream eventually gave way to more activity as an architect. First signs
of gentrification offered more projects and Meiri found himself doubly
busy. He was playing in both fields, designing apartment blocks for local
real-estate moguls on the one hand and supporting social causes on the
other, an activist in both "Mesila", an organization supporting work
immigrants, and in the "Neighborhood council" a forum of the area''''s
veteran Jewish residents.
Then, local performance artist Hadas Ofrat came to him early in 2009 in
search of new ideas. Ofrat represented a task force named "Artim" that set
out to find educational and artistic solutions for social matters and which
featured also artists Romi Ahituv and Marit Ben Israel and curator Tali
Tamir. Meiri spoke of a library and the idea was embraced.
The city offered help and proposed locations inside the bus terminal
itself, a labyrinthine leviathan featuring over 1,000 commercial spaces,
many of which are vacant due to the terminal''''s dysfunctional qualities
both as a shopping mall and as a bus depot. Meiri opted for the open air.
Across from the terminal is Levinsky Park, a true hub for the borough''''s
various communities. Rather than placing a new structure in the park and
distracting its flow, he drafted an open-air library that has neither walls
nor roof. Indeed, it can be said to be made up mostly of the books
The library that only exists when it''''s open
Two steel bookcases were placed across from one another in the gap
separating two low existing structures—bomb shelters intended to serve
the population during a possible air strike. One of the bookcases is taller
and holds books for grown-ups. The other is sorter and holds children''''s
books. When the library is closed, both are shut with firm lids. When it is
open, the adult bookcase''''s lid is stretched above the gap between the
cases, offering a shading pergola. Since it is made up of steel bars
shielding panes of glass, the overstretched lid reflects the ribbed pergolas
of the city''''s famous Bauhaus buildings.
The lid of the kiddie''''s bookcase opens towards the ground. Padded with
cushions, it then offers sitting room for young readers. In effect, the
library only exists when it is open to the public, and even then it is fully
part of the park itself, allowing free access for all who wish to pass
through it or visit it.
The books themselves were donated through the joint efforts of bookshop
owners, embassy employees, friends and neighbors. The library contains
over 2,500 volumes in Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, French,
Hebrew, Hindi, Mandarin, Nepalese, Romanian, Spanish, Tagalog and
Thai. The children''''s section is far richer with Hebrew books.
Coming in from the boxing gloves and bridesmaids gowns of Neve
Shaanan St., the tiny library is a sight to behold. Set in the middle of the
populous park, it is frequented on this afternoon by more than a handful
of children. Nearly all are of African, Indian or otherwise of foreign origin,
but nearly all speak Hebrew among them. The kids are sprawled on
wooden inner surface of their bookcase, playing chess and checkers,
reading and drawing.gn
The second-largest group present is that of Israeli volunteers. One serves
as librarian. She is seated behind a small desk stored within the bomb
shelter. Her peers are playing with the children, reading to them and
looking after them. A volunteer named Alon speaks remarkable Arabic to
one little girl, while the library''s director, artist Lior Waterman, prepares
for a meeting on coming activities.
Waterman came upon the position by being the artist-in-residence at the
bomb shelter. The city offers these shelters as studios for artists at time of
peace, and volunteering with the initiative seemed like a good way to give
back. Planned activities, many of which are proposed and organized by a
number of independent volunteers, include a screening of Disney''s "Lion
King" on a screen stretched over the adult bookcase''s lid.
That bookcase is busy as well. Ted, an Eritrean, came here in search of a
novel in Amharic of which he had heard a fond radio review. The novel,
"To long till Death", isn''t present among the library''s several-dozen books
in this language, but the search led Ted to pile three other books and he''s
heading with them to the makeshift librarian''s counter.
Give me an hour and you wouldn''t know it was there
In Meiri''s studio, a mere three-minute walk from the library''s bustle, he
praises the park itself as a superb hub for the various communities and
explains the project''s intentions of merging with it, drawing on its
energies and adding to them. I ask him whether he knows of precedents
to the project''s various innovations. While he is confident that such
things do exist elsewhere, Meiri can''t recall another open air library nor
another structure that comes into existence only by virtue of being active.
Does the choice of an open-air structure relate to a claustrophobia of
which this community suffers? After all, they are being hunted, and
often are kept in custody.
Architecture deals a lot with boundaries: the boundary between interior
and exterior, physical boundaries and mental boundaries. We thought
that psychologically, if we intend to turn to a public that could be
paranoid, a public that is wary of security guards, of doors that close
behind one''s back and of anything having to do with the establishment,
having the library be in itself an open public space would be a way to
overcome such difficulties. We doubted that our audience will not come
into an enclosed space for political and social reasons.
And you did not worry that it wouldn''t end up being an actual
Once you perform an unconventional move, and this one is
unconventional in several respects, you assume that you''d have to put
together an unconventional program of action for the place, and the
program of action for this place is indeed very unconventional and very
dynamic. There are activities taking place there that aren''t typical to a
library. There are people who come to borrow books, and there are kids
who hang out there to pass the time, and that''s perfectly fine. The library
answers to very diverse needs and it is meant to provide this flexibility.
When designing the library, did you feel that you were working on
something that would be there for the long run? How much actual
optimism is there really in this very optimistic project?
One important aspect of the project is its very temporality. It looks like
something temporary and it is indeed a temporary structure. I can show
you photos of how it was brought to the site on a truck, all ready to use,
and lowered by a crane. We drilled holes and bolted it to the ground. It is
a mobile structure in the full sense of the word. I can lift it up now
complete with the books and within an hour you wouldn''''t know that
there was ever a library there.
But maybe by constructing something that isn''t temporary you could
have made a different statement: that the people are not temporary,
that they''re here for the long haul.
I see the transitory populations as a legitimate part of the city. Some areas
are given to strong currents of gentrification and it is possible that this
international quarter as you call it will drift away from here. The library
will then drift with it. In its current state it can also grow. We are currently
discussing using a nearby space to create an extension.
Then again, the temporality is also a statement—one that has to do with
such dynamic areas that constantly change. We state that there is no need
to wait for things to be set in stone, as far as legal status for example, in
order to answer cultural needs. We must act in this very fluid reality. I
don''t think that viewing this as a stable place, or one that maintains
steady characteristics over the long run is necessarily optimism. I like this
sense of change and the library is very likely to change as well.