Academy of the Hebrew Language

Client Academy of the Hebrew Language
Location Jerusalem, Israel
Project Type Institutional
Status Concept Only

The Hebrew language has been a vessel to its people, and the new Academy of the Hebrew Language building is designed to embody that relationship.

In partnership with Spector Amisar Architects from Jerusalem and landscape designers Deborah Nevins & Associates from New York, Handel Architects collaborated on an anonymous submission to a design competition for a new building for the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem. The competition brief called for a building that serves both academic and cultural functions and includes a museum and auditorium that are open to the public, as well as a congress hall for members of the Academy, an archive and library, and offices for the Academy’s staff.

As we approached the task of designing the Academy of the Hebrew Language, it was important for us to underscore the connection between the language and the land of Israel. The Academy building is sited on the western slopes of Givat Ram in the heart of Jerusalem; it emerges from the hillside as an exposed rock face, a cornerstone of contemporary Israeli society.

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In planning the building and the site, we also considered the connections between language and the scholars and everyday people it gathers, and who are its stewards.

We therefore placed great emphasis on the public and civic role of the Academy: about half of the site is set aside as open space for the use of the general public, the better to weave the site into the adjacent urban fabric and contribute to its development. The building and its landscaped and planted areas are carefully integrated into the surrounding urban context.

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A plaza paved in limestone and basalt serves as a forecourt to the Academy building.

The plaza is planted with local trees that communicate a sense of place by their look and even their smell: carob, olive, almond and cypress. These trees cast shade on a path connecting the Academy building’s primary entrance to a future light rail station planned nearby.

A curved and battered retaining wall composed of rough-hewn boulders delineates the entrance plaza on one side, running roughly parallel to the major traffic artery Derech Ruppin. The boulder wall emphasizes the change in grade from Derech Ruppin to the lower elevation of the entrance plaza. The entrance plaza connects directly at this lower level to the bend in the road at Shmuel Stephan Weisz Street and its sidewalk, creating an open and inviting public realm that welcomes pedestrians.

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The roof of the Academy building emerges from the existing topography and rises westward.

The terraces, steps, seats, and extensive plantings of the roof’s landscaped surface invite visitors and passersby to wind their way around an interior courtyard as they ascend to unique views of the surrounding natural and cultural landmarks. The planted roof reduces the environmental and energy footprint of the building while providing a biodiverse setting—one of a variety of green building strategies tailored to this site and climate.

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The main façade of the Academy building faces south and is characterized by a metal screen wall that shades the glass behind it.

The screen is composed of stylized Hebrew letters, the text of a poem by Sigalit Banai titled “My Skin Is Hebrew”—a slyly self-referential mashrabiya that channels and protects from sunlight while celebrating the beauty of the letter forms and the embracing, embodied relationship of language to identity.

The eastern edge of the roof cantilevers past the building’s main entrance, shading it. A large entrance hall affords views thirty feet down into the central courtyard around which the building is organized. The entrance hall gathers together visitors to the Academy as well as the scholars and staff that work in the building before dispersing them in different directions. On this main floor are located Academy offices as well as other major public spaces, such as a café, a museum store and an auditorium. The path to the auditorium is located directly behind the stylized letter screen and provides a unique processional experience and views to the landscaped plaza and beyond.

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The central courtyard is defined by three large letters in paleo-Hebrew script.

These ancient roots of the Hebrew language emerge from the earth like an archaeological record of the past, even as their angled, sculptural forms echo the shape of this new building oriented around them and the history they represent.

The Academy’s congress hall and a synagogue are located above the main entrance level and are oriented eastward.

The exhibition halls for the Museum of the Hebrew Language are located on the two levels below the entrance hall on the east side of the building, where they are shielded from daylight. Most of the other spaces of the Academy are located along the west side of the building, where they are fed daylight from windows opening onto the courtyard, or along the perimeter of the building that becomes more exposed as the adjacent slope to it falls away. This change in grade creates a private space at the lowest level of the building along its north façade: a scholar’s garden.

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The Hebrew language has been a vessel to its people, and the new Academy of the Hebrew Language building is designed to embody that relationship.

Its prowlike form rises from the ground, poised between Mount Herzl and the memory of those who guided the rebirth of the Hebrew language to the west, and the new National Library building, the Knesset, and the Temple Mount and its historical freight to the east. Place and mission are intertwined: the building, like the Academy, connects the past to the present and the future.


Concept Design

Design Partner(s)

Spector Amisar Architects Deborah Nevins & Associates (Landscape Architects)