In a busy part of Tel Aviv, a real estate revolution is underway.
A high-rise property dominated by trees and greenery, created by a firm which has never built a tower block before.
“I’ve never done anything like this. But that’s a positive thing. It gives me the freedom to do things differently. I don’t have to be tied to the way that people do towers,” says Ron Arad, Founder of Ron Arad Architects.
Arad is a rarity: an artist, a designer and an architect, fusing all three disciplines and tied by none.
“People talk about ‘breaking boundaries’ but I don’t even like the phrase because that acknowledges the boundaries and makes them stronger. I like to be free from convention and rehearsed solutions,” he says.
It was partly this uncompromising attitude that led to the Tel Aviv commission. Like many cities, Tel Aviv is filled with high-rise commercial properties, most of which follow an identikit format – chain stores and cafes on the ground floor; offices stacked above and mechanics on the roof.
This particular building, known as ‘ToHa’, is very different, not least because it was designed with the wider community in mind.
“We had a client who was curious to see what ‘fresh blood’ could bring to a very tried and tested field,” says Asa Bruno, a director at Arad’s firm. “Tel Aviv is quite short on public and open space. So we started with a two hectare site and suggested making most of it a park.”
To ensure that gardens and ponds surround the block and sit within it, the building has been constructed on huge legs, which house the mechanical equipment, leaving the top floor free for a restaurant, food halls and bars.
“Big busy cities with lumbering planning departments don’t normally have the time to sit back and think what they can do in a particular location to deliver something that will have a massive impact across the city. But in this case, enlightened planners and developers have worked hand in hand with each other and with us. And the whole community benefits,” says Bruno.
This virtuous circle of creativity, lateral thinking and collective effort remains a rarity in Arad’s view.
“Normally architecture is a journey of compromise from your idealistic starting point through a round of shortcuts and concessions,” he says.
The end result can be developments that are more about financial gain than community advantage – a far cry from the best that can be achieved when planners, developers, architects and designers work collaboratively, with a view to delivering projects that genuinely improve local stakeholders’ lives.
Design Museum Holon
“It is interesting to see what happens when no limits are placed on an architectural idea, such as the Design Museum Holon. I didn’t think it would be built.”
Ping pong table
“You don’t have to decide if it is a sculpture or sports equipment. It’s not like other tables so it’s a different game, but is it less valid?”
ToToT St Pancras sculpture
“I was asked to create a public installation for St Pancras. That was Thought of Train of Thought, or ToToT, a huge suspended aluminium sculpture.”
“We started with a two hectare site and suggested making most of it a park.”
An installation at the Round House in 2011. “People really responded to it – from small children to elderly citizens. And they all sat together inside the curtain.”
“We’d never done hospitals but our lack of experience is actually a strength because we bring a new perspective.”
Arad acknowledges that times are changing, albeit slowly. But he also believes that designing everything from sunglasses to museums and from furniture to hospitals creates certain advantages.
“I’m not constrained. I can learn things from all the different things that I do and get ideas as I move from one assignment to another,” he says.
“In essence, I want to inspire delight. Because if people enjoy something and take pleasure from it, that has to be a good thing.”
A 2016 installation at St Pancras International exemplifies this approach. An 18-metre rotating aluminium sculpture suspended from the roof, ‘Thought of train of thought’ is a public artwork commissioned by St Pancras and the Royal Academy. Constructed in Holland, it was erected on the night of the ‘Brexit’ vote.
“It was proof of the power of working together, even as the UK was voting to leave the EU, so the timing was quite symbolic,” says Arad.
Perhaps even more importantly, the sculpture was testament to the unifying power of beauty.
“At four in the morning as we were putting it up, a cleaner was there, sweeping the floor. She looked up and said ‘I love it’. A few hours later, the official launch began and Sir Antony Gormley [the renowned sculptor] was there. He looked up and said ‘I love it’. Exactly the same reaction. Exactly the same phrase. That’s art in the community in action,” says Arad.