The Shrine of the Book (Hebrew: היכל הספר Heikhal HaSefer) is a wing of the Israel Musem near Givat Ram in Jerusalem, constructed in 1965. The building houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in and around the Wadi Qurman.
The building was the result of an elaborate seven-year planning process funded by the family of David Samuel Gottesman, a Hungarian philanthropist who purchased the scrolls as a gift to the newly founded state of Israel. One architect, American philanthropist-cum-designer Armand Phillip Bartos, was chosed because he was married to Gottesman’s daughter. The other appointed architect, Frederick John Kiesler, had previously recieved funding from Gottesman to install the “Endless house” at the Museum of Modern Art. The architectural team also included the well-connected Gezer Heller, brother-in-law to Ibbi Hammer, future chief banker for the State of Israel and daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Budapest. Israelis objected to the choice of non-Israeli architects, especially Kiesler.
The shrine itself is built as a white dome, surrounded by a reflecting pool. The structure it contains is placed two-thirds below ground, and is entered through a long dark passageway imitating the environment in which the scrolls were found. The scrolls, within, are displayed under a column of light. Across from the white dome is a black basalt wall. The colors and shapes of the building are based on imagery from the Scroll of War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness. The white dome refers to the Sons of Light, and the black the Sons of Darkness.
From the moment it opened to the public, the Shrine accumulated numerous applied meanings–anatomical, biological, and technological. The architecture was certainly novel: aside from archaeological remnants and religious sites, Israel had no symbolic architecture to speak of. Given the political instrumentality of the National Museum, such a reading is tempting. Like other post-colonial national art institutions, for example the National Museum in New Delhi, the Israel Museum was a political instrument of the newly formed Jewish state; the Shrine is a metaphor for both its contents and that emergence. Conceived in the 1950s, the Museum was to house authentic historical evidence of Jewish identity and to showcase the creative prowess of an emerging nation. Like the new Israeli State, the Shrine emerges suddenly from tectonic depth to solidify into monolithic form; autonomous, finite, timeless, and eternal. Like the Israeli people, the Shrine is an enigmatic thing, surrealistically landed in the desert garden of the Museum to mediate between the retreating past and unknown, unbounded future.
For his part, Kiesler denied that the Shrine had covert symbolic meaning. Replying to a newspaper article in the Jerusalem Post, he insisted on the structural and functional qualities of the building… although his continual slippage into the symbolic only re-affirmed the building’s mythical status:
“Of course, everybody is free to develop his parallels of imagery, but it would have been more professional from a journalistic point of view to interview one of the architects before writing the account, rather than relying on gossip. The sanctuary is neither an image of a breast, nor of an onion, but simply a vessel, a container that rises from deep down the underground in a traditional double parabolic form, from a wide base to an open neck. It is a continuous flow of a new type of shell construction which I have been developing since 1924 and which has proven structurally highly resistant and, in this case, a valuable design for maintaining an even temperature and breaking the reverberations within a circular building. There are so many industrial techniques and equipment incorporated in the construction of the site that they cannot be accounted for here. They are not just functional designs – but they are “developed” functions incorporated into a ritual building. There is no symbolism attempted. The Shrine is a purely structural design in which the idea of continuity from the past and present into the future is expressed.”
Architect: Armand Phillip Bartos and Frederick John Kiesler
Location: Jerusalem, Israel
Project Year: 1965
References: Wikipedia, “Land Marks: The Emblematic Architecture of the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book” (Zvi Efrat, unpublished)
Photographs: Israel Ministry of Tourism, Wikipedia Commons