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Re-Modernizing Tel Aviv

Rising from sand dunes at the water's edge, Tel Aviv presented a defiantly futuristic image to tens of thousands of émigrés who arrived during the first half of the 20th century. "Everything was brand-new: crisp, white, modern," architect Daniel Libeskind writes in his recent autobiography. "These buildings were as beautiful and as inspiring as anyone could dream of." With 4,000 Modernist structures created by students from the Bauhaus school in Germany and other academies of avant garde design in pre–World War II Europe, Tel Aviv has the world's largest concentration of early International Style architecture. There are entire streets and neighborhoods in the Modernist style, comprising an open-air museum of an approach to design that, when it was new, embodied hope for a better future. The newborn urban center of flat-roofed, cubic buildings was celebrated as the White City in a popular Israeli song.

But by the seventies the moniker White City had become a bad joke: salt air, pollution, and torrid summer heat had taken their toll on the concrete structures, and as Tel Aviv decayed, many residents abandoned the city for the suburbs. Rent control measures spurred the decline by discouraging property owners from investing in upkeep. "There's been no culture of maintenance in this city," says Pe'era Goldman, until recently Tel Aviv's conservation chief.

Now things are changing. Two years ago, UNESCO named Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site, and the city began intensive renovations. A new conservation plan, approved by the district government in December, designates 1,000 Modernist structures as landmarks and calls for faithfully restoring 120 of them to their original condition. Results of earlier conservation drives are already visible: some 350 buildings—scores of them designed by disciples of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier—have been refurbished in recent years. The American philanthropist and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, who founded New York's Neue Galerie, a museum of early-20th-century Austrian and German art, is set to open Bauhaus Tel Aviv in September: a small gallery devoted to the art and design of the Modern movement, located in an apartment building he has purchased and meticulously restored. And, perhaps inevitably, the renovations have been accompanied by vigorous debate—about both the practicalities of conservation and its various and contested political meanings.

The latest plan is one of a series adopted over the past decade, after a 1994 conference on Bauhaus architecture brought leading foreign architectural historians to Tel Aviv and helped heighten local awareness that an invaluable legacy was in peril. "It's a slow process of changing the mentality," says Goldman's predecessor, Nitza Szmuk, who carefully documented Tel Aviv Modernism after spending 14 years working as a conservationist in Tuscany.

To encourage preservation, the city allows landlords to add up to three floors atop existing buildings and use income from the sale or rental of the new space to pay for restoration. In other cases, air rights to build above a landmarked property can be transferred and sold to owners elsewhere in the city, provided that the resulting cash is used for refurbishment. Tel Aviv also plans to offer more interest-free preservation loans. But preservation according to municipal guidelines costs more than twice as much as a normal restoration, and many property owners oppose landmark designation, arguing that it imposes onerous financial burdens. Attorney Ofer Toister says he and other lawyers for landlords plan to sue the city in an effort to eliminate some of the preservation requirements.

To be sure, not all renovations are as exacting as that of the small International Style apartment building at 21 Bialik Street, which will house the Bauhaus Tel Aviv gallery on its ground floor. The gallery project is being overseen by London-based art dealer Daniella Luxembourg. The Israeli-born Luxembourg, who cofounded Sotheby's Tel Aviv office and the auction house Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, was involved with the renovation and proudly displays photographs of the dilapidated 1934 building prior to its transformation.

"More and more people want these houses," she says, describing clients who have called looking to buy Bauhaus apartments in Tel Aviv. Such interest bodes well for her planned series of exhibitions of Bauhaus textiles, metalwork, furniture, drawings, and photography. The inaugural show features works on loan from private collectors from Israel and abroad, including Ronald Lauder. "It's a tiny thing," Luxembourg says of the new gallery, "but it can be a pearl if it's done right."

Founded by Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1909, 39 years before Israel became a state, Tel Aviv began as a residential suburb of the ancient town of Jaffa. It was the first Hebrew city to be constructed since biblical times and was a laboratory for inventing a new Jewish identity removed from history-laden Jerusalem or the traditional urban centers and villages of Europe. After the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus in Germany in 1933, émigrés to what was then British-ruled Palestine brought along the design dictum of Less is more and implemented it with Mediterranean flair.

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