Levinsky Library

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

foreign beer.

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

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.