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Re-Modernizing Tel Aviv

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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