Eliezer Armon was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1955. He tried a number of career choices, including studying engineering, mathematics, and serving three and a half years in the Israeli Defense Forces, before, at the age of 25, deciding on pursuing architecture. Along the way, he also dedicated himself to becoming a Kabala scholar and a martial artist, and after 50 years of practice he is a 6th Dan master in Dennis survival Jiu-Jitsu method. Both fascinations have contributed profoundly to his work as an architect. Also, after years of duty in reserve at the Israeli Defense Forces, he was discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Armon graduated from the Architecture School at the Technion in Haifa in 1985. After working at a large office in Tel Aviv he was hired as the chief engineer of Immanuel, a small settlement in Samaria. A few years later he became the chief engineer of Be'er Sheva, the capital of the Negev and the largest city in the south of Israel, becoming, at the age of 35, the youngest city engineer in all of Israel. He was responsible for planning housing and infrastructure in the region, leading the design and construction of 10,000 dwelling units in Be’er Sheva, resulting in a rapid growth of the city.
In 1992, Armon opened his practice, Armon Architects and Town Planners in Be’er Sheva, overseeing about 50 ground up projects. Over the last 27 years, the architect has realized close to 100 buildings, including museums, culture and civil centers, schools, train stations, and a synagogue for the Israeli Defense Forces Officers school. All buildings are in Israel. Eli Armon’s book If Architecture is a Language, then a Building is a Story was published in 2018 and his solo exhibition will open this May as part of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale. The following interview is a condensed version of our conversation over Skype between New York and Be'er Sheva.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You said that ever since you can remember you were a nomad. Could you talk about that?
Eli Armon: My given name is Eliezer, the name of Abraham’s servant who was the ultimate nomad, the father of all nomads. I believe that I was given this name for a reason. Being a nomad is how I see myself in retrospect – I studied engineering, martial arts, I tried to have a career in the army, I contemplated a thought of becoming a mathematician, and then I became an architect. How am I not a nomad? I always questioned what I did. I was never satisfied. I wanted to try different fields. My philosophy is about the circle of life. I am always moving. What makes a nomad fundamentally different is that he can’t remain in one place. He has to move. If you ask a nomad where he will be tomorrow, he will not give you an answer. I was born in Northern part of Tel Aviv, a very posh neighborhood. Anyone who lives there would never even think of moving to another place. But I left the comfort of city life to live in the desert. I felt a sense of mission, and I was fully supported by my beautiful wife and two small children who came along. Sure, we were not the pioneers. Still, what we did was pioneering. Looking back, I can tell you that I am very proud and happy about what we did.
VB: What did you gain by parting with city life? What did you find in the desert?
EA: The advantage of being in the periphery is that here architects have a chance to build from scratch. Emptiness means potential. It is in the emptiness that one can build the future that one can imagine. Almost all my projects are ground up buildings. They are standing without any abstractions in all their glory, seen by all. It is a divine feeling when you can leave the first mark on the ground. You put your seed in the ground, so to speak. Metaphorically speaking, you have to give your building water, light, direction, and plant it in a safe way, in harmony either with open space or other buildings. I can say that I have left an impact on the landscape. I see my buildings like beacons of light. When I wander through the dark nights in the Negev, I connect all these beacons; they are a sort of Hanukkah menorah lights for me.
On the other hand, so many buildings in Tel Aviv present themselves with an attitude. They try to prove something. I am a martial artist, not a bodybuilder, and I am not competing in a beauty pageant. My buildings are about concentration, not showing off their muscles. I aim to win. I don’t like buildings that put all their virtues on display like pretty vases and statues in a window display. There is something fragile about urban architecture, pretty but flimsy. My buildings are strong and grounded. They are rooted in the ground, rooted in the landscape. I study Kabala, which is about finding the roots of everything in life. I also study martial arts. To be an effective fighter you have to find your roots and power. That’s what I found in the desert – my roots and power.
VB: You said that an architect is someone who makes order and harmony in the world of shapes. You said that architecture is about finding a balance between addressing function, contents, ideas, and expressing them all in three dimensions to do justice with all. What would you add about your architecture?
EA: Every project is a search for a new way. Every building is a new voyage. Every building is a new fight, of course! We are fighting all the time. And I know how to fight, believe me. [Laughs.] Sometimes, the Mayor wants this, and I want that; how can we agree? When you pick up a pen you can only succeed if you find the direct connection between the hand, heart, and soul. That’s the moment when the building begins, not when you draw something random on a computer screen. What is architecture? What is creativity? Creativity comes from a divine source. No one will tell you what it is. To me, creativity starts when you take clay into your hand. The fingers represent restrictions – there are so many – gravity, budget, material limitations, regulations, municipalities, and so on. The clay is the architect’s creativity. Then you squeeze it really hard. What you then put on the table is architecture. A good architect is all about finding a wise compromise with both inner and outer forces. Architecture is the art of finding harmony between political, economic, social, environmental, creative forces and express them in three dimensions, putting the architect’s heart, faith, and soul deep within. If architecture is a language, a building is a story. In other words, each building is a book. First, I write a story, then I build a building. There is no good building without a story. There is no architecture without a soul. When I say compromise, I don’t mean compromising the main story. You can tell your story in 100 different ways, but the main storyline must remain intact. It cannot be compromised. I am writing my stories with my buildings. I hope my buildings can inspire people, just like books.
VB: The Book of Creation describes God’s creation of the world through the manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet and ten numbers. You express your buildings through letters and stories. Why do you conceive your buildings as stories? Is the purpose to educate about history and religion?
EA: Of course, letters make up stories. With letters you build communication, you build dreams. One of my competition projects for the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem is based on this very concept – letters descending from the sky. Letters and stories have tremendous power. I envision a city as a giant library – streets as shelves and books as buildings. And if buildings are books, then the architects are writers. In Hebrew, there is a double meaning to some words. For example, the word page in Hebrew is the same as the pillar. This wordplay is a real inspiration for my architecture. In my library project I manifested the building’s pillars in a form of pages with Hebrew letters, literally.
VB: Could you talk about the origin of this concept – planning your buildings like stories? What triggered your interest in conceiving your buildings this way?
EA: When people look at any design, they have to realize that they are looking at a result, not the process. Where do the ideas come from? To me, ideas come like a lightening. You cannot expect it. It can happen any time. This is how it was from the very beginning. When it comes it comes, at the time that it should come. I put real stories in real buildings. Every one of my buildings has a central space where I put all my energy, all my strength, all my creativity. I call this space a knockout. Again, I am a martial artist. My goal is the knockout. I am always looking for Chi, the internal energy of life, the spirit of each building.
VB: Your synagogue’s design is based on a strong metaphor, the biblical story of the burning bush. Could you talk about that and also address the importance of metaphors in your work? There is a seed in the Ministry of Agriculture in Gilat, infinity in the Senior Citizen and Kindergarten Center in Meitar, blades in Lehavim-Rahat Railway Station, Abraham’s well in the Tourist Center and the crack in Yad Sara, both in Be'er Sheva.
EA: I put a metaphor in the center of all my buildings. The seed, infinity, blades, Abraham’s well, the crack, burning bush, all these metaphors bring meaning to my buildings. For example, the Lehavim-Rahat Railway Station is situated in Lehavim. In Hebrew, the name of this town means Blades. That’s what I took as the basis for the project. A blade is all about movement. I used a whole field of enlarged blades to design the station’s roof. The driving inspiration for the synagogue was the image of the burning bush because Moses received his mission in front of the burning bush.
VB: Have you discovered something new by completing this project? Was there a particular surprise during either the design or construction process?
EA: Well, we knew from the start that we were embarking on a non-conventional project and that we would be facing many problems. For example, when we were installing the flame panels, the very first one broke and we had to come up with a different installation technique. When something is done for the first time a solution needs to be found. Every day we were facing new challenges. We were on a mission; it was not just another project. This is what every architect needs to be aspired to – being the first. If you simply want to complete a project that’s one thing, but if you want to say something with your work, if you want people to experience and learn something new then you have to be original every time. This may not sound humble, but it is. As an architect, I want my buildings to give something back. It is not about taking but giving.
VB: Do you think architecture is art?
EA: Of course, it is! I believe that only when a building becomes art, architecture is born. Without art there is no architecture, just forms and facades. The ultimate dream of an architect is when architecture and art become one.