Despite its tortuous history, the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem is “rapidly progressing,” according to its backer, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. “All of the building's concrete walls and floors are in place,” the Center announced this month.
The news followed a long media silence regarding the controversial project, located at a prime site in central Jerusalem. Originally designed by Frank Gehry the museum was tied up in court for years and then abandoned by the architect. It was designed again, on a smaller scale, by the Israel-based Chyutin Architects, who also walked away from the project. The project is now in the hands of the Los Angeles office of Aedas and its Jerusalem-based project affiliate, Yigal Levi Architects.
According to the Center, the museum is set to be completed in time for the celebration of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, in the spring of 2018. But the statement’s optimistic tenor belied the project’s troubled gestation and lack of clarity about its function.
The museum is on the northeastern corner of Independence Park, which was formerly a large Muslim cemetery. In recent decades, the museum site served as a parking lot. Israel’s High Court of Justice halted excavation work in 2006, in response to petitions by two Muslim groups after graves and human remains were uncovered. But by 2009, when the court gave the museum a go-ahead, the backer could no longer afford the $200 million tab and asked Gehry to scale back his design. In 2010 he quit the project, and the center held a closed competition, won by Chyutin Architects.
Their design, which received municipal approval, is a low-rise elongated structure. It draws the three surrounding streets into a new public square that includes a sunken archaeological garden and an amphitheater. The side of the building facing the city is stone-clad, in keeping with a century-old municipal regulation, while the park-facing facades are glazed.
In late 2011, Tafnit Wind, the company managing the project, quit, and Chyutin Architects abandoned it soon after because of difficulty in working with the client, according to the daily Ha’aretz.
Each side claims ownership of the copyright to the design, and though the dispute remains in arbitration, the Wiesenthal center continues to display what appears to be the Chyutin design on its website.
For now, residents are wondering what the museum’s focus will be. It will not deal with the Holocaust nor will it deal with Jewish-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian relations. A large institution, Beit Avi Chai, already exists in Jerusalem for dealing with relations between diverse Jewish groups in Israel and abroad.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Chyutin Architects, and Yigal Levi Architects declined to comment on the project.