The Big House was built between 1933 and 1937 as the first educational institute of the Kibbutz movement in pre-state Israel/ Palestine. Today located in kibbutz Mishmar Haemek in northern Israel, it was originally conceived as a self- governed ‘Children's Community’ within an enclosed campus where children lived, slept and studied communally, away from their parents. The architectural design complements the mission of molding the young into a utopian, radical socialist society with the cutting-edge and contemporary language of Modernism.
The building was designed by Joseph Neufeld, who nowadays is recognized as one of the most influential modernist architects in 1930’s Palestine. His 1931 plan proposed an educational complex enclosing a large inner court and forming a hilltop campus. The Big House, which was both a dormitory hall and a learning environment (with a library and classrooms at the end of each wing) was the first and largest to be executed. Concepts such as equality and frugality are clearly and intentionally pronounced in this architectural masterwork, and although the Children's Community campus was soon expanded with additional structures and facilities, the Big House always remained its most unique and iconic building. It is, to this day, a powerful and well-known symbol of the Kibbutz.
In the mid 1990’s communal sleeping institutions were abolished in all kibbutzim, and the Big House was vacated of its inhabitants. Gradually demoted to minimal use, it fell into increasing disrepair. Dilapidated as it was, however, its strategic, highly visible location fueled an on oning discussion about its future.
In July 2012, Ruth Liberty-Shalev Architecture & Conservation, an established Israeli practice with a specialization in Built Heritage, was hired to suggest a concept for its adaptative re-use. The design concept was developed in close consultation with a dedicated committee of kibbutz member, and unanimously approved by the kibbutz assembly in November 2012. From 2013 onwards, detailed design and construction documents were produced, and construction commenced in 2015. The proposed intervention restored the building's centrality to kibbutz life by transforming it into a library and archive (lower ground floor), a reading room (main floor), and kibbutz civic administration offices on the main and upper floor. It highlights building's existing architectural assets and reinterprets Neufeld's concepts anew.
Building additions which had been attached to the building over the years and were obscuring the central circulation core were removed. Instead, a new three-story volume of meeting rooms and an elevator was added to the east elevation – discreet, yet clearly distinguishable as a new wing. A two-story shaft was created between the main floor and the lower floor, allowing a new visual and physical connection between the three historic entrances of the building, and emphasizing the intrinsic relationship between its different public uses. Neufeld’s distinctly asymmetrical modernist composition of two identical volumes, vertically and horizontally shifted against each other around a central axis, was amplified. The building became again accessible from all sides and levels via a series of roof terraces and entrance balconies, all connected to the central circulation tower via the new building extension.
The long elevations were conceived as deep, three dimensional elements that accommodated storage cabinets, service ducts, and deep windowsills. They were famously popular among the children as leisure porches, blurring boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Our project restored and reused them, while reinterpreting this 'multifunctional wall' as exterior and interior benches surrounding the new extension. A green roof was installed on the northern terrace to mitigate code requirement and structural limitations with minimal intervention. Interpretive media, curated by a local design committee, was installed throughout the building, making it a living exhibition of the Children's Community and acknowledging the layered memory. With this sensitive renovation the building reassumed its position as a new center for the local community.
Arch. Ruth Liberty-Shalev specializes in the conservation and re-use of built heritage since 1994. She worked on archeological sites in Jerusalem (1994-98) and on historic industrial and educational facilities in New Jersey (1998-2001). In 2002 she received an MA (cum Laude) from Oxford Brookes Univ. and continued to work on conservation projects in Oxford UK (2002-05). Her practice, Ruth Liberty-Shalev Architecture & Conservation, was established in Haifa, Israel in 2005 and focuses on public sector projects. Alongside her professional work, Ruth leads the Conservation of Built Heritage Unit at the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Arch. Adi Har-Noy joined the practice as a partner in 2016, after eight years as a senior architect. Adi has a BArch (cum Laude) and an MSc with a specialization in conservation from the Technion. Since 2017 she also holds the position of Regional Conservation Consultant at the Israeli Ministry of Finance.