Posted in projects on April 1, 2016 2:50 pm EDT

A Building for Building Bridges

A look at the history and role of the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Images courtesy of BYU photographer Mark Philbrick.











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TAGS: architectural design, collaboration, community connection, interfaith, site selection,


By Rachel Hayes

“We could have just built a tower, but we wanted a relationship.”

—Frank Ferguson, Principal, FFKR, Salt Lake City, UT

When asked about my recent trip to Jerusalem my go-to response is: “It was eye-opening.” There’s no more succinct way to sum up this coveted city and its layers of culture, conflict and history. Jerusalem is full of surprises: some delightful, others harrowing. Among the former is Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

The idea for The Center was born in the 1960s when BYU established a study abroad program in Jerusalem. Participants were housed on a kibbutz between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, according to Jim Kearl, who has been the Provo, Utah-based director of The Center since 1989.

In 1979, BYU’s vice president of support services, Fred Schwendiman, approached Salt Lake City-based architecture firm FFKR about designing a facility around the program and invited founding principals Frank Ferguson and Bob Fallor to Jerusalem for a week.

Building plans and relationships

When Ferguson and Fallor arrived, various leaders from BYU were on the ground exploring and building relationships in Jerusalem. The group looked at three potential sites, but none were exceptional and they kept looking. Soon after, the Jerusalem mayor’s office and city planning group began scrutinizing BYU’s plans. “We needed to prove to them that we could design this facility to be a part of the fabric of Jerusalem,” says Ferguson, who would ultimately become principal-in-charge of the project.

While the Jerusalem team continued networking and searching for land, Ferguson returned to Utah and began modeling a facility design for the program that would serve 200 students and faculty—without a site. When he returned to Jerusalem to present the model it was a success. “They kinda liked us,” recalls Ferguson.

The Center’s main auditorium has floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and offers spectacular views.

With design approval in hand, full focus turned to finding an ideal site, which was finally discovered in East Jerusalem on the side of Mt. Scopus overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. The Center, which had become an Israel corporate entity, was able to negotiate a 49-year lease, renewable for 49 years, with the Israel Lands Authority, which holds the title to the property.

“It was an idiosyncratic shape, but the topography made a lot of sense, and [the view] is just a stunning assembly of geography and history,” says Ferguson.

Meanwhile, Ferguson was interviewing potential partner architects in Jerusalem for ease of meeting local requirements, such as completing plans in Hebrew. He selected Israeli architect David Reznick (1924-2012). “We were both modernists and as soon as we started drawing, our language barrier went out the window—architecture is a universal language,” says Ferguson of the partnership that turned into a decades-long friendship.  continued >>