Touring the Ramon International Airport

by Joy Bernard | 12.01.16

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Once inside, you’re immediately encased by this wooden shell. You can see all the movements within it: you see the people arriving, you see those departing, all that separates you are cacti and desert-like elements. This is the first time someone does that in airport design, creating this one, free-flowing space that feels like one entity.Asaf T. Mann, partner architect in Mann Shinar Architects and Planners and music video director, wastes no time in inviting us to step with him right inside the mystery of the much revered Ramon International Airport.

Located 18 km north of Eilat (the Israeli resort city situated in the northern tip of the Red Sea), the airport is designated to become Israel’s second largest. Commissioned by the IAA (Israeli Airport Authority), the airport is planned to serve 2.25 million passengers for its first phase and opening, and 4.25 million in phase two.

The firms elected to bring this ambitious project to life are none other than two of the country’s leading firms – Mann Shinar Architects and Moshe Zur Architects – who have joined forces almost three years ago.

The two firms are constructing and designing the airport , due to open in 2017, on the virginal desert land of the Timna Valley, a past hub of copper mining located smack dab in the south’s Arava (wilderness). While the surroundings are breathtaking, they have posed quite a challenge to the architects at the planning stage. “We’re building in the middle of the desert on what’s called in the aviation terminology ‘a green field’, there is no infrastructure for an airfield,” Mann explains.

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But the architects are no strangers to challenges. Mann Shinar Architects and Planners and its talented staff of 40 have already spearheaded an array of impressive projects. One of their most recent works is the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem (in partnership with the Swiss firm Herzog and DeMeuron Architects). It has been preceded by pearls such as the new Shenkar School of Fashion in Tel-Aviv, the new Haifa Waterfront, the American Consulate General in Jerusalem (commissioned directly by the US State Department) and many more.

A flagship of ingenuity in Israeli architecture, Mann Shinar Architects focuses on the architectural and urban design of a wide spectrum of projects, ranging from city planning, new urban quarters and residential neighborhoods to office, commercial, hi-tech and public buildings.

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With a runway of 3,600m, a 40,000 sqm passenger terminal building, a 50m high air control tower, supporting structures and a terminal for private aviation, the “Timna Project”, as Mann refers to it, requires the firm’s attention to the minutest details. Not only are they designing it, they also serve as the Project Managers of the planning stage – leading 40 international consultant firms and engineers, an almost unheard-of rarity in the field.

Plenty of resources, time and thought have been invested in the complex project, and for a good reason at that. The airport is intended to replace the Eilat Airport, a safety hazard as an airfield within a populated city that also breaks the city into halves. It [Ramon Airport] will also serve as a diversion airport from the country’s primary airport, Ben Gurion. In short, as Mann says:­ “The project was a must. It had to be.”

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And if Mann says that something had to be, you’d better believe him. Born in Boston, MA, Mann moved to Israel when he turned 18. He then earned his B.A. in Architecture from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s Architectural Department in 2001. During his studies, he flew to Berlin as part of a student exchange program, where he worked for four years at the renowned firm of Naegeli Architects.

All the while, Mann harboured his life-­long passion for cinema. He returned to Israel and enrolled in his family’s firm, Mann Shinar, and at the same time began pursuing his interest, taking up Film studies at the Tel Aviv University’s MFA Film Program. He graduated in 2007.

It’s safe to say that Mann’s multidisciplinary education and background had a great influence over his work, leave their imprint on his unusual design and creations. The Ramon Airport now stands to become one of the firm’s most brilliant works both in scope as well as in creativity. The terminal itself is made after a desert boulder that is sculpted by the movement of the desert elements (wind and rain) and is determined by the passenger flow at arrivals and departures.

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“When we started designing, the very first thing we did was to decide on a self-shading building. Our inspiration was the design of the New National Gallery in Berlin. It’s basically a roof on columns, below which is a free-flowing single level, where only furniture acts as dividers. We pursued this in our design, something that really intensifies the vision that you get when you look out from the airport into the desert beyond. It’s a cutting horizontal plane, and from it you see beyond to the mountains.

So we took the program and threw it into a simple square design, a square plate, in which the passengers have everything they need on the ground floor, and all the infrastructures run below it, hidden on a sublevel. We took the simple box and pulled its upper corners outward and slanted the walls. By doing so we created a self-shading building, similar to the desert boulder. Finally we carved the mass based on the divisions necessary for the passenger movements – airside and landside, departing and arriving. Through these subtractions of mass we introduced the exterior desert landscape into the terminal.”

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While the exterior is surrealistic, modern and cutting-­edge in feel, the interior design lends an entirely different atmosphere. Cladded with wooden bamboo strips, “on the inside there is a very soft, shell-­like element. You come in from the sun into this really shaded space with the intrusions of the landscape. The furniture echo the white and pristine vibe that the exterior design exudes.”

At one point in our conversation, I am reminded of Spielberg’s 2004 “The Terminal”, a film based on a true story that took place in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, where a man got trapped for 17 years. I then ask Mann what he expects his passengers, who are forced to spend time in an airport (which is not always necessarily a pleasant experience), to love about being there?

“I’m a great lover of airports. Maybe it’s because I’m a very busy guy and that’s the one time when I just get to relax. I think that there’s a major component here in the design where we brought the surroundings in, the desert landscape within the interior. In the heat of the desert, the passengers are within an element that will shade and cool them down and there’s the softness of the bamboo enveloping you. There’s something very comforting about that.”

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Both as an architect and a music video director for partner Petite Meller’s videos, Mann is driven by endless motivation and creativity. His videos for Petite, the French chanteuse whose airy pop music has been lauded by critics worldwide, have been featured by Vogue, Dazed and Confused, Paper Magazine and Rolling Stone, to name a few.

“How are we inspired?,” he ponders the question for a moment and then replies: “We don’t repeat ourselves. The one thing that we really love to do is­ we love to reinvent ourselves. That’s why I’m a giant fan of David Bowie. Where do I get my inspiration from? Everything and everywhere. Blogs, old films, paintings, architecture, sculpture. I can tell you one thing­ when we get to a concept that we love, like the boulder element in the airport­ then we build everything around the concept. My rule is­ if something doesn’t work well with the concept, you should brush it off. Michelangelo said: ‘When you build a model, then you should then turn it over and whatever falls off, you don’t need.”

All images by Amir Mann – Moshe Zur – Ami Shinar – Orna Zur Architects


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