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Form Follows Function: Fourth Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial Lecture

by Ada Karmi-Melamede

I would like to thank The School of Architecture and Planning, Delhi, for thinking of me for this very special lecture. I'm only sorry that we cannot be meeting in person.

I come from a place that can often feel “Far from the Madding Crowd" of architectural discourse. And yet it is a place of extraordinary history and culture, and also an area of constant strife and conflict. It is a country where "the unbearable lightness of being" is merely a name of a book rather than a relatable concept. This complicated region has been the center of my architectural work for decades now, and I thought I would share some of my thoughts that come from my architectural searching.

This search has become more personal, intense and maybe focused in recent years due to the constant turmoil in Israel, but also due to what I see as constant turmoil in current architectural practice and discourse. I think of space as the unique material of architecture and of placemaking. Our role as architects is to define, compress, stretch, release, tame and domesticate space at will, depending on a design concept that triggers it.

Different architectural compositions and structures evolved throughout history. In the main, they derived from a clear and formal hierarchical organization which represented the social order of the time. But this has changed with the introduction of the modern movement in the 20th century, which produced buildings divorced of site, of historical and ecological potential. Now, with the free plan and the free façade, the pilotis and the technology that allows one to cover more space with less structure, clear geometrical forms gave way to fragmentary and open-ended design concepts which behave as weak containers obsessed with transparency and spatial flow.

But for me, architecture is about containing space and not about dispersing it. It is about converting space to place and about a sense of belonging. I'm influenced by the material of this region. Here, the stone is soft and therefore porous and vulnerable; bricks and concrete are locally produced, therefore relatively cheap; and shade, water, green are scarce, therefore cherished; and intense light and glare are in abundance. I regard light as the most important local material of all here in Israel, the most ephemeral and elusive and the most available, which needs to be tamed and harnessed in order to be used to full advantage. These material conditions have been around for ages. And when we design in the context of these limitations, relying on local materials, we continue an existing language of architecture and gain historical depth to the making of it.

Two architectural languages exist in Israel side by side, the language of stone in Jerusalem and the language of white architecture that spread all over the entire country.And I'm influenced by both of them.

Old City of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the city of the desert - two and a half miles by two and a half miles, seemingly a very, very small area, but it's endless. And the reason that it is endless is that you can walk on the roofs, and you can walk on the ground, and you can walk below grade, and you can interchange. So therefore, in a sense, it's a city without edges. And unlike any other holy city in the world, this city is surrounded by hills, and you go down to the holy places, whereas in most countries you go up to the holy places. So, Jerusalem is like a stage surrounded by hills. And when you're on the hill, you actually think that if you were to go down, you would know how to go and how to behave but in fact, you go down, you get lost.

Eastern wall of temple mount

This is one of the edges of the city and you can see that this city is layered vertically and it's also layered horizontally - horizontally, because so many people tried to conquer it. And when they conquered it, they actually destroyed what was next to them. So when you build in the Old City, you build on a piece of land which is really unstable, unstable ground because there's always somebody below.

There's only one huge space in the Old City and this is the Temple Mount, which is a sacred place to Muslims and to Jews. This is the Holy Sepulchre. Again, it's all a stone wall - covered in stone. And what is interesting in the thick walls. When you see this thick wall, it can describe a public scale on the outer skin and a private scale deep within. So, you see a small door and yet a big arch. The big arch introduces big scale to the Holy Sepulchre whereas the small door describes the private scale.

Entrance to the church of the Holy Sepulchre

Tomb of the Virgin Mary

This is the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the same story exists - the thick wall with big scale on the outside and small scale on the inside, which actually slowly, slowly makes you want to go in and discover what's inside the dark shadow.

Idelson st. Tel Aviv

Now, this is Tel Aviv. This is where white architecture actually spread, only 60 kilometers away from Jerusalem, and it spread all over the country along the coastline. This is interesting to look at and see that in Le Corbusier's ribbon window, in fact, there's no glass here. It Is described by shade. When it is described by shade, there are two skins, in a sense, to this building. There's the outside skin, which again describes a public scale due to these long, long balconies and within it, one meter behind, there are the doors and windows of the apartments. So it's a building where the light and shade transform its appearance during the day. Sometimes it looks completely black and sometimes it is in between. The side of this building has a very kind of personal, more intimate scale. And that leads you to the entrance. It's interesting that one building has completely two types of architecture. One which has the pergola and the stairs and the plants; all of it reads as intimate and the other one reads as public.

Entrance to Gordon st. Apartment building Tel Aviv

And you see what happened to this balcony. So in the beginning, you had these buildings with the ribbon window type of situation in the elevation. But later, the balcony started to pop out and become like platforms to look at the environment.

Gordon St. Tel Aviv

It was true until the 20th century when the window became a wall, a curtain wall. Around the same time, Mies said "less is more" and the wall disappeared altogether. Henry Sullivan, somewhat before, famously said "form follows function," but then Louis Kahn said "form is ahead of function."

Over the past year, I took advantage of time at home to reread Peter Rice, the amazing engineer who said, "form follows movement." I appreciate this idea most of all - form follows movement - because it is the most three-dimensional, the most visual, the most dynamic and therefore the most architectural.Movement for me means the movement of light, the movement of weight - that is to say structure - and the movement of people.Light, structure and people: these are the three dynamic forces that run through the building. And when they come together, they set up an order within the space, a rhythm and a sense of time and purpose. So I'm going to show four buildings that express the coming together of these movements - of light, structure and people.

1. The Supreme Court

This is a bird's eye view of the Supreme Court, which shows very clearly the way this building is organized. There are two axes that bisect this building - there is a north/south axis that that is the formal route to Parliament and there is an east/west axis which combines and which fronts on Jerusalem on the one side and the Mediterranean far away on the other side. So one of them connects the desert and the green, and the other one connects people to Parliament.

There are two different types of axes. One runs in the building on the upper level and one runs on the lower level at grade, allowing people to come from the public bus station and walk to the Supreme Court, or use their private cars and park quite far away from this place, and enter along the formal route, which takes them to Parliament and also leads to the entrance of the Court itself. It is it is basically a gate. I mean, the building acts as a gatehouse to the government precinct, which has Parliament at the southern end, and all government offices on the western edge that you don't see in this particular photograph.

The building has four parts. And you can see the way that we were trying to organize these four parts. And what is interesting is that these two axes all the time appear, whereas the pieces of the four different functions rotate around these axes. The four different functions are the library, the judge's chambers, the courtrooms, and the parking.

This is the entry, and it looks as if it is carved into the stone wall and when it is carved into the stone wall, it basically reads with a very public scale.It incorporates the second floor of the building, which is mostly the public floor, and the third floor, which is the Judges' level.We can go through that gate. When we go through that gate, we face the passage to Parliament. You can see here, as you will see often in the photos that we would show you, that the structure, the light and the people, are somehow always combined. And when they are combined, there's a rhythm that becomes very prominent all along the axes.

In plan, the route to Parliament looks symmetrical because at the lower level, there are two arcades, and there's a passageway which is open to the sky. But in reality, one side belongs to the courtrooms and one side actually is the Judges' chambers. In fact, the symmetry gives in. And as light comes in, it accentuates the fact that symmetry just doesn't exist all day long.

We go up to the Supreme Court and and we face Jerusalem. We then turn our back in order to get to the courtrooms. And you can see that there's a row of columns of light that lead to the lower level where there is an administrative gate to the Supreme Court. And then you see the space on the right-hand side. And that is like an elevated gatehouse, which is the real gatehouse to the Supreme Court. So there are in fact two entrances: there is an administrative entrance and let's say a more spiritual entrance.

In that entrance that I've just shown you, which has a tent like section, light comes from the top. So it's a space which is not very tall, but is extremely, extremely introverted and lit only from above.

It is surrounded by the library, which actually holds the memory of everything that was accumulated in the Supreme Court during the ages.

And from that area, we go to the foyer, which is the main connector of all the four pieces that I have shown you before. This foyer is lit, as you see on the right-hand side, by indirect light. And this light is made by cylinders that are inserted between the concrete ceiling and the and the plastered ceiling. Light comes from the South and starts to bounce and when it bounces, it covers the whole series of niches that face the foyer. And this light changes all day long and reflects on the floor and all along the entire length of these niches.

So you see that basically the foyer is made of two sides. There's one which comes from modern architecture and white architecture and big spans, and the other one comes from load bearing, stone walls within which five gates are carved, and these gates lead to five courtrooms. Again, the people, the light and the movement are all combined, all in the same place.

And the entry to the courtrooms. You can see that when there is a stone wall that tries to be similar to load bearing stone walls of the past, we can carve into the wall and we can create more than once scale to the opening. So when it faces the foyer, it has a large, big public scale, and when you go into the courtrooms, the door slowly diminishes in size.

And these are the courtrooms where light comes from the edges. Basically, it's light which is indirect, as you see in section here. And it comes from both sides of each courtroom. So the place that you enter the courtroom is not from the middle. Nobody walks in the middle of the courtroom. People filter from the sides and so do the judges. So you when you look at these sections, basically all the light that comes into the Supreme Court comes from indirect light, which bounces against the side walls. And as a result, there is a situation where there is a room within room.There is the room of the Law and there is a room around it where people move and where light bounces and comes in, and reflects on the walls and comes in.

This is the courtyard of the judges, which is reminiscent of the place that they came from that was in the Old City befor coming to the (new) Supreme Court. So you could say that this is very much of Jerusalem given that there are arches, there are load bearing stone walls and there's a very, very pronounced center. So it's a very symmetrical kind of courtyard.

One can see that the way we are trying to incorporate the modern side. The modern walkways, which are on top, are situated above the older ones. So the older ones are on the right and are a combination of stone and plaster, whereas the one on the left is columns - these are all concrete and plaster surfaces.

2. The Open University - Ra'anana

The Open University of Israel is the largest university in the country and caters almost exclusively to distance learning. The campus site is located between a regional highway running along the eastern edge, and the other is a typical Ra'anana neighborhood tree-lined street along the western side. Taking into consideration the campus position of being wedged between two utterly distinct situations - the regional and the municipal - the design of the campus is one that develops in layers. This layered quality proceeds from the massive, national scale of the eastern facade that responds to the fast rhythm of traffic along its edge, to the smaller more local scale of the Western facade that relates to the adjacent neighborhood. In plan, parking is allocated along the regional road and the first layer beyond the parking houses all the technical and administrative facilities of the university.

Then there is a garden that stretches and undulates between the most public spaces: the piazza on the northern edge, slowly, slowly meandering and ending in an amphitheater which is used for ceremonial functions such as end of the year graduations.

One comes to the piazza which is open to the sky and surrounded by an arcade all along its edges. So the perimeter or the periphery of the piazza is all in shade. And one can choose one's space during the day depending on the angle of the sun. And people, students, can move along the arcades and enter all the functions of the building which face onto the piazza.

From the arcade, one can descend below grade to the public functions of the University, such as the big shop, two auditoriums and a large dining room.

At this stage, the building actually shows all its concrete surfaces and departs from the language of stone to a language of concrete and plaster. You can see light coming from the top, nine meters above, marking the floor, every day, in different places.

This is the large auditorium, for four hundred people that functions primarily as a lecture room, And the other one is for performances, different performances, and allows the actors above the stage to come down and connect to the public.

This is the elevation of the synagogue at the edge of the garden. It's primarily a building which is of concrete and of plastered surfaces.

One goes in, one can climb up to the gallery or else go to the actual two storey space of the synagogue, which is dressed in wood on the back side of the synagogue and the ceiling. That allows natural light to filter in.

3. The Visitor's Centre - Ramat Hanadiv

This building is situated in a natural reserve in which there is a very cultivated garden. We were asked to create a building which acts as a fence between the parking and the cultivated garden. And that fence was supposed to allow people to move through it, to a foyer, which fronts on the garden. That foyer, hopefully, would house many visitors and schoolchildren who come here to get some information about the garden prior to going in. So what you see is the berm, which has two different sides and has two or three courtyards in the middle, and two or three passageways that bisect the berm, and connect the parking to the foyer in front of the garden.

The berm is made of two inclined surfaces that don't meet at the top. So there is a groove that runs the whole length of the berm. And through that groove, light comes in and filters to a walkway which stretches and extends from beginning to end, lit the whole time by indirect light that comes from above.

The berm is made of two inclined surfaces of different angles that allow different types of vegetation to grow underneath. The one that faces the garden is a steep angle and allows trees of the same kind as the ones that exist in the cultivated garden to grow. The other side faces the natural reserve and has vegetation which is similar to the one that exists all over the reserve.

One side of the berm houses the auditorium, the classrooms, exhibition areas, and basically all the public facilities, whereas the other side houses primarily the technical services. From time to time, there are passageways that bisect the berm and connect the parking to the open foyer in front.

Some of them face courtyards below the surface of the passageway, and the courtyards face onto classrooms which are adjacent to them. The plan is a very simple plan and it's more or less a constant plan.

But the sections change all along so you could say that it's that it's a berm that has more or less something which is constant the whole way and at the same time something which changes the whole way and has to do with a different section and different light coming in.

This is one of the passageways that connects the parking to the garden. It is interesting to see the effect of shade on the stone walls, which is so pronounced that it changes the weight and the gravitational force of the stone, and the courtyards, and the green.

So at the beginning, the green was primarily covering the sloped surfaces. But slowly, slowly, it becomes so fertile that it covers the side walls as well. So in a year or two, the whole thing would be green. And in fact, you wouldn't be able to see the building. What you would see is only the passageways between the parking and the foyer.

It was difficult to place this berm in the open, in nature. We followed the gate to the cultivated garden and that gate was leading to a formal route in the garden and we continued that route with the main passage that connects the parking to the foyer.

4. The Visitor's Centre and Council Building - Ramat Hovav

Ramat Hovav is an industrial area situated in the Negev and we were asked to design the Visitors' Center for that industrial zone and the Council Building. This was the beginning and I was looking for something that had to do with the topography of the site, given that the site was sitting on a ridge and it had a slope that continued to the regional road below. And that slope had topographical, very soft topographical lines, and I thought the building should somehow benefit from the way that the ground was undulating towards the edge. So I was looking for a concave and convex kind of line that would stretch between the two parts and maybe connect them from the beginning.

The architectural composition contains two wings bisected by a path that leads to a covered viewing terrace that acts as a threshold to both. A curved concrete wall, which derives its forms from the topography, meanders between outside and inside, and connects those two wings. It interweaves their public spaces, defines their edges and introduces natural light.

The wall that meanders between the two forms is taller than the wings. It maintains its presence to the east and to the west at the edge of the concrete wall that links the roof to the ground level, below the entrance route on the one side, and it shows a stair on the other side that leads to a bridge that travels along the eastern facade of the building.

You can see the elongated wall ending as I said before with a stair that continues the corridors of the Council Building and with another stair that links the Visitors' Center to a bridge that travels along the face of the building, looking towards the desert, looking east.

This is the entrance that includes two passageways that bisect the two wings. Both of them end in a covered space that acts as a threshold and then entry to each building. At the end of the passageways, one can join the amphitheater that links to the lower level of the Visitor Center and houses the auditorium, the cafeteria, which is used by both facilities.

This is a bridge cantilevered from the concrete wall that links the Visitor Center with the Council area and allows the visitors to come out of the building and walk along this ridge and view nature, and the Negev, and the desert.

These are views of the concrete wall - of this meandering wall when it was built - and the light, the direct light that comes down on it, and the gallery above it which links the Visitor Center and the Council area.

One can see what happens between something which is raw and something which starts to be finished where the light is really being tamed, or domesticated. On the one side, you see direct lines that now looks very, very soft, and on the other side you see light which comes and make a place, or make pockets of light which are of indirect character.

This is the way you go down from the Visitor Center to the cafeteria, and this is the triangular space of the Council room, which has a three-story void in the middle. The lower level opens towards a small garden which relates to the Council area and links the Council area with the amphitheater outside.

These are views of the triangular Council area which has a three-story void in the middle. And the walkway along the convex side of the concrete wall slowly takes you outside towards the amphitheater, which then comes down and links to the cafeteria and restaurant on the lower level of the Visitors Center.

You can see the bridge traveling from the Council area to the extremity of the concave wall and links itself at the end with the staircase that comes down to the Visitor Center. So the trip in this building is a three dimensional trip that all the guests and all the users can take, that basically travels on the face of the building and throughout the building between ground and roof.

This is the lower garden of the Council office building with a big stair that links the ground level with the upper level of the building and the roof.

These are views of the building at night. We are trying to illuminate all the spaces that have either voids or windows that pop out of the elevation.

And this is what I have been talking about in this lecture. We are using light, light that forms a rhythm and creates a lyrical mood in the in-between zones - a light that elongates the perspective and indirect light that diffuses the edges. An alliance with the circulation of people and the rhythm of structure. So, again, when light, movement, and structure go hand in hand, then something quite wonderful happens in buildings.

I believe that light is the most important building material of all. When we pair it with a world in which it can bounce, we create ever changing, endless moods, rhythms, patterns, all of which creates a sense of freedom and surprise. The current fascination with heroic engineering and curtain wall architecture have created a great reliance on transparency as well as preoccupation with skin and surface.

For me, the architectural concept resides in space, and the architectural logic in structure, and architectural mood in light. And without these working together, something is missing. I believe that just as most words have been used, so most forms have been used, but the voids between the words and the voids between the forms have not been used up, and these carry meaning. So I am interested by the in-between spaces where purpose, light and time coexist. I'm also interested in places that are handed from one generation to the next and continue to function irrespective of their original purpose - places where architecture connects the personal dimension with something greater than self. At its best, I believe that architecture can resolve conflicts and complex situations, and when it does that, it touches a zone of complete silence where time stands still.

This is it. This is the end of my lecture. And thank you very much.

The Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial lecture series is sponsored by the Jhabvala Family in collaboration with the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. The first lecture in 2016 was given by Raj Rewal, a prominent architect in Delhi and a colleague of Cyrus Jhabvala. The subsequent two lectures were given by Rahul Mehrotra from the Harvard School of Design in 2017 and Christopher Benninger founder of the Centre for Development Studies and Activities. The virtual lecture by Ada Karmi-Melamede is the fourth in the series.

Cyrus Shavaksha Jhabvala, a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, was a legendary teacher, an eminent architect, and an artist. As head of the Department of Architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, he taught generations of architects in the city. His practice in Delhi, Anand, Aptay and Jhabvala, spanning over three decades covered more than 400 projects of varied scale and nature. In his later life, he sketched many parts of the cities of Delhi and of New York, which have been published as books including Delhi: Stones and Streets, Old Delhi – New York: Personal Views, and Delhi: Phoenix City.

(This virtual lecture given here was delivered by Ada Karmi-Melamede on 27 September 2021.)


Ada Karmi-Melamade is a prominent Israeli architect who received the Israel Prize in architecture in 2007, only the second woman to have ever received this prize. The Jerusalem headquarters of the Supreme Court, considered one of the most important and intriguing buildings in Israel, was designed by Ada Karmi-Melamede in collaboration with her brother Ram Karmi. In 1992 she opened her own firm, Ada Karmi-Melamede Architects, has won many awards since and has executed many prestigious projects.


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