Re-Modernizing Tel Aviv

Re-Modernizing Tel Aviv

After years of neglect, Tel Aviv's Bauhaus architecture is getting a makeover. But, as Michael Z. Wise reports, this is a conservation effort with political overtones.

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.

Tel Aviv was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In 1920, it had only 2,000 residents, but within five years the population was 34,000. (Today, 360,000 people live in Tel Aviv, with more than a million in the metropolitan area.) To cope with the accompanying construction boom, a master plan was drawn up in 1925 by a Scottish biologist and urban planner, Patrick Geddes, who had previously designed colonial cities in India and was an admirer of the Zionist movement. Geddes proposed a series of wide north–south commercial boulevards running parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. Smaller east– west arteries were built for residential needs. He also created an acropolis of cultural institutions that today includes the Mann Auditorium (home to the Israel Philharmonic), the Habimah Theater, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion.

Geddes envisioned a garden city, with public green spaces at the centers of blocks of buildings. Houses were to be low in height and oriented to the west so as to take full advantage of the sea breezes. The plan was only partially realized, however, and overbuilding thwarted some of his goals. Most unfortunate has been the spate of high-rise hotels and condominiums along the Mediterranean that cut the city off from the water. But leafy boulevards remain, and there are countless streets lined with palms, cedars, pines, and cacti. Innovative, often playful design details are everywhere—curved balconies that lend buildings a nautical air, round porthole-like windows, concrete pergolas with lattices that cast lively shadows in the Middle Eastern sun, stairwells with glazed panels inspired by Japanese screens, and elegant balustrades.

Dizengoff Square stood at the center of the Geddes plan and was intended as the main communal gathering place. It's actually a circle, bounded by curvaceous façades. Dizengoff Street, which runs through it, long served as Israel's Champs-Élysées. Here, in the years after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, its citizens would turn out en masse to promenade, exchange news and ideas in cafés, and see the latest films from abroad.

But in the late seventies a pedestrian bridge was built in the center of the square, and in 1986 it was joined by a sculpture from the kinetic artist Yaakov Agam. The Agam piece resembles a psychedelic tiered wedding cake gone awry. Its multicolored, faceted layers rotate and contain a fountain. At scheduled hours flames as well as water spew out of the top while recorded music—Ravel's Bolero, no less—is played.

Today both the sculptural contraption and the pedestrian bridge seem misguided elements that hastened the degradation of the once grand square. On a recent visit, the fountain spurted water but neither flames nor music were in evidence. Shamay Assif, the former city engineer who oversaw the sculpture's installation, has contributed to a plan to remove the bridge and the fountain and restore the square to a semblance of its original formation. "It is very costly to maintain and to keep it in working order," he says of Agam's piece. The city hopes to revitalize the plaza in time for its centenary in 2009.

"Until recently, the Israelis despised the architecture of the thirties and forties because of its austere quality," says film director Amos Gitai, describing changing attitudes toward the Bauhaus legacy. Gitai originally trained as an architect, following in the footsteps of his father, Munio Gitai Weinraub, who worked with Mies van der Rohe after studying at the Bauhaus. People like his father "created a visual memory for Israel in modern terms and shaped the imagery of the future state," he added. The architecture, with its simple, clean lines, embodied a mind-set that he regretfully regards as less prevalent in the country today. "The foundation of modern Israel had a rational attitude, not a mystical, religious one," Gitai says.

The implicit criticism of Israel's current politics is expressed more bluntly in a controversial new book called White City, Black City by leftist Tel Aviv architect and critic Sharon Rotbard. "What underlies the story of the White City is not just the praise of plain, good architecture," he writes. Rotbard argues that Israel's current focus on the Bauhaus legacy is in part an attempt to deflect attention from the elimination of Arab heritage in Jaffa, out of which Tel Aviv originally grew.

Many of Jaffa's Arab residents left or were expelled after the newly declared nation of Israel was attacked by neighboring Arab states in the 1948 War of Independence, and in the 1960's, Jaffa was turned into an artists' quarter by Jewish authorities, with little effort made to recall the Arabs who once lived there. Thus, celebrating Modernist architecture in Tel Aviv amounts to forgetting "the painful cost of implementing the dream" of a Zionist state, asserts a catalogue essay published as part of Israel's official exhibition at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale. Such statements are heatedly debated within Israeli society.

Meanwhile, some Israelis have argued that restoring Bauhaus buildings is a luxury that the country can ill afford, given its pressing social problems and the cost of protracted armed conflict with its neighbors. Yet Tel Aviv's recognition by UNESCO may be a sign of better days to come—the selection committee was remarkable in that it included representatives from Egypt, Lebanon, and Oman. "The people of Tel Aviv are walking around with their heads held high," proclaimed banners hung throughout the city following the UNESCO decision. And though former city conservation director Goldman admits that there's an uphill battle ahead to turn around years of neglect, she adds, "Especially for a society that is still defining itself, it's essential to preserve our culture and not to erase it."

MICHAEL Z. WISE is a T+L contributing editor.

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