Continuing our architectural journey in Israel, we turn now to its principal city; the beating economic heart of the country, Tel Aviv.  Its very name bespeaks the juxtapositions that lie at the core of this Mediterranean metropolis: Tel is an ancient Hebrew word denoting a mound or hill created by layer upon layer of human civilisation and Aviv is the Hebrew word for spring. Quite an ironic, or at least hopeful name for a city built ex-nihilo on sand dunes by the sea. But the layers of civilisation were not absent at its birth, rather they came from elsewhere. Tel Aviv, though young and fresh, was a culmination, of sorts, of a historical process of urban development in the European city. The dreams of European architects and urban designers cast in concrete on the shores of the Mediterranean; the apogee of High Modernist austerity for a nation of pioneers.

Still the city’s name has more secrets to reveal. Speaking to rebirth and renewal, Aviv (spring), is testament to the flourishing community those pioneers intended to build. Yet, more literally, it suggests man in harmony with his environment, a city built within nature, not without it. Unlike its planned, modernist counterparts in other young nations, Chandigarh, say, or Brasilia, Tel Aviv was never intended to be large, nor important. In fact, it was conceived as a garden suburb, another idea then gestating in Europe, in the country towns and villages around London. Sir Patrick Geddes, the Scottish biologist and town planner devised a street plan based on Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement: a limited population, human scale and abundant greenery.

Geddes 1925 street plan for Tel AvivPatrick Geddes’ original 1925 street plan for Tel Aviv

Today, Tel Aviv has matured into a metropolis, yet it continues to inhabit the body of its earlier incarnation. This contradiction gives Tel Aviv its unique feel, as the sheer dynamism of its street life overwhelms the austerity and conformity that often blight modernist place-making. Shops, cafés, bakeries, bars spill out onto the city’s bustling boulevards, yet round the block, residential side streets greet you with lush foliage, dignified and reassuringly repetitive apartment blocks that keep any metropolitan hubris in check.

Hotel Cinema - Bahaus masterpiece at Dizengoff Square

In the 1920s and 30s, exiled Jewish-German architects of the Bauhaus School set to work filling the empty lots of new Tel Aviv with striking buildings of brilliant white, eschewing frills for decorative purity and geometric form. They conjured a Weissenhofsiedlung sur mer, with a generosity of space and lightness of spirit that was inspired, perhaps, by the gentle climate and luminosity of the Mediterranean basin.

Bauhaus residential building

The imposing and elegant Bauhaus style is the fundamental building block of Tel Aviv. Their clean lines and dazzling whiteness create a beautiful blank canvas, on which the sun and shadow engage in dance, framed by the bucolic greenery of the city’s streets. Pioneering standardised construction techniques and championing the use of cheap materials, the Bauhaus, or International Style, saw itself as an architectural panacea; the universal future of cities. The utopian vision often fell short of expectations, creating a host of eerily familiar and sterile non-places (see Augé). In this youthful and dynamic Mediterranean city, however, the rootlessness of the International Style seems very appropriate; its cosmopolitanism feels right at home in this city of immigrants.

Tel Aviv residential street

Though Tel Aviv can boast a higher concentration of Bauhaus buildings than any other city on earth, it is by no means a harmonious bastion of glittering white. Wonderful as this would no doubt be, the city sadly contains many examples of cheaper infill, mostly in the form of monolithic residential blocks. In many cases, the only visible legacy of the Bauhaus School is in the form of standardised boxes of dubious quality, making use, like the master architects, of cheap materials, but shorn of the aesthetic nuance and technical competence of the original movement.

Tel Aviv residential infill

Before the Geddes Plan and the arrival of the Bauhaus architects, the fledgling city, then under Ottoman rule, was largely built in the Eclectic Style, a flamboyant and freewheeling architecture. The style was largely based on classical building types with the addition of Orientalist motifs, Jewish themes, or Romantic features.

Eclectic style Tel Aviv

Since most new buildings at that time were private family homes, individually designed and commissioned, there is a great degree of variety.

Eclectic private home Tel Aviv

Many such buildings are to be found in the gentrifying Neve Tsedek neighbourhood, where the crumbling Eden Cinema is to be found; the city’s first, opened in 1914.

Eden Cinema Tel Aviv

The future of Tel Aviv

The Eden Cinema closed its doors in 1974, during a decade that witnessed a low point in the city’s architecture. The period saw the ham-fisted work of Brutalist architects and aggressive urban planners, who set about transforming the city’s face, with scant understanding for the integrity of the Geddes plan and the modest craftsmanship of the Bauhaus architecture. Their addition to the city’s heritage came in the form of concrete banalities and nondescript hotel towers. These were particularly built along the seafront, thereby cutting the city off visually from its shoreline, with a wall of architecturally inept towers.

Towers on Tel Aviv's seafront

This disregard for the city’s heritage saw scores of Bauhaus buildings demolished or left to rot, while 1972 was marked with the construction of the Dizengoff Centre by architects Yitshak Yashar. This boxy shopping centre spills over both sides of Tel Aviv’s principal artery; a piece of suburbia catapulted into the city by the gods of consumerism. Worse was to come in 1978, with the remodelling of Dizengoff Square to accommodate traffic flows. A key part of Geddes’ plan, the square was built in 1934 as an elegant plaza. Mayor Shlomo Lahat’s widening of the roads and construction of an elevated pedestrian walkway spectacularly destroyed the square’s proportions and visual coherence, leading to its degradation along with its surrounding buildings.

New Dizengoff Square in Tel AvivA desolate square in the sky, cut off from the street and surrounded by decaying Bauhaus buildings

The latest phase in the city’s development is increasingly market-led, with a strong push for new and haphazard construction. With the Israeli economy now firmly operating in the neo-Liberal mode of production, Tel Aviv, as its major city, competes with other global cities in the pursuit of iconic landmarks and buildings that soar, Babel-like, to the heavens. The Opera Tower, built on the site of the former municipal opera house, and finished in 1993, is typical of the Postmodernist turn in Israeli corporate architecture. Its pink arched balconies perform a representation of the authentic arched windows of the opera house that it replaced.

Opera Tower on Tel Aviv's seafront

The nod to heritage within the Postmodernist tradition, however glib and ultimately futile, does seem to have fomented a reappraisal of the role of heritage in the built environment. Indeed, some recent architecture in the city self-consciously imitates the angularity of the Bauhaus style, mixing it with contemporary techniques to create a sort of Bauhaus Revival, without fully returning to the craftsmanship of the original school.

New seafront development in Tel AvivModern versions of the Bauhaus, centre and right. Left, an ‘iconic’ hotel tower reaches for the sky

Nevertheless, despite its UNESCO World Heritage status, which guarantees the partial preservation of over 1000 Modernist buildings, clumsy development continues to denature the city’s human scale and the sprouting of faceless corporate towers and luxury condos throughout the city threatens to rupture the continuity of the street plan, destabilise the socioeconomic mix and undermine the Mediterranean street life that is so characteristic of Tel Aviv.

Azrieli Towers in Tel AvivAzrieli towers against a tangle of roadways. A sign of things to come?  

As seen below, unusual juxtapositions of old and new, crafted and industrial, can be thrilling on a serendipitous encounter; energising the city because of their sheer chutzpah.

New construction in Tel Aviv Rothschild Boulevard

If the pace of development continues, however, the new threatens to overwhelm the old, crushing it under the steamroller of progress. Unlike its more demure sister Jerusalem, to follow soon, Tel Aviv faces modernity head on, revelling in its dizzying adventure. It must do so, though, on its own terms if it is to preserve what makes it special and unique. If the forces of standardisation and their minion of skyscrapers colonise the white, winding streets of Geddes’ Tel Aviv, then its architectural, and human, charms will be lost forever.

Come back for part 3 of the series, where we turn our attention to Jerusalem, a city of many architectural styles all built in the same stone.

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Ben Gurion old terminal 1

Fourteen years have passed since I was last in Israel and my memories of the country’s architecture are fleeting at best. I remember that Jerusalem glows golden in the sun, the light reflecting off each and every building, all clad harmoniously in Jerusalem stone. I remember, also, that Tel Aviv shimmers with the whiteness of its buildings. Yet, I also remember the banality of much residential and commercial architecture, the cheap materials and shoddy construction. As the plane begins its descent, I am reminded also of the squat, concrete box that used to be Terminal 1 at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The airport welcomed passengers with giant white letters on the facade, before ushering them into a windowless and overcrowded bunker, lit with glaring halogens, as they waited for their passports to be checked.

In the intervening years, much has changed in Israel, politically, socially, economically, and architecturally. I have returned to travel the country and assess its aesthetic landscape. I want to understand how the dynamics of a complex and changing society have shaped the nation’s built environment and what is the current state of play for Israeli architecture.

My first impressions, as soon as I step off the plane, confirm my suspicions of change. The majority of passengers now arrive into Terminal 3, a 2004 construction conceived by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, together with the Americans Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Israelis Ram Karmi and Lissar Eldar. The new building is generously proportioned, with large volumes and plenty of daylight. The central hall, known as the rotunda, consists of a Pantheon-like central oculus, through which rainwater is channelled to create a dramatic falling water sculpture. The boldness of the terminal is symptomatic of a newfound confidence in Israeli architecture, which, after all, has a strong tradition to build on, if we think of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus masterpieces.

Ben Gurion Airport - Terminal 3

The new Ben Gurion terminal is sleek, modern and technological. As an international gateway to Israel, it seeks to proclaim the country’s role on the world stage as a modern member of the club of nations. Yet, for all its showmanship and elegance, the new building has a much stronger sense of place than most national airports. Added to the customary glass and stainless steel – essential accoutrements of twenty-first century cosmopolitanism – is something local, biblical even: copious servings of Jerusalem stone. The airside to landside connector, by Moshe Safdie, brilliant in its theatrical play between two levels, is resolutely monumental and solid, rare characteristics in modern airports, which often strive for ephemerality and placelessness. Safdie’s building is so entrenched and resolute, it is almost reminiscent of the imperial place-making of ancient civilisations and betrays and underlying insecurity about belonging.

Ben Gurion airport by Safdie

This tendency to evoke history, to anchor buildings through a strong monumentality was a feature that emerged again and again in my observations of Israeli architecture. Perhaps this should not be surprising, in a nation so singularly devoted to history and myth. This historicism takes two distinct forms. The first, notable in the work of Moshe Safdie, is a hyperbolic Biblical monumentalism, an attempt to express the grandeur of the past with modern materials and techniques. The second, often employed, to greater or lesser effect, by Ram Karmi, winner of the 2002 Israel Prize, is a neo-Brutalism, where the sheer bulk of the building creates a monumentality of presence. His recently completed extension of the Habima (National Theatre) in Tel Aviv has sharply divided critics.

Habima theatre by Ram Karmi

Both movements suggest an overriding preoccupation with identity and solidity, a need to concretely express the nebulous concepts of history, nation and territory, an attempt to lay foundations as a substitute for roots.

Undoubtedly, this insecurity is a product of Israel’s unusual circumstances, its youth and its attempt to establish a territorial nationalism for a people previously united by more portable, spiritual concepts. Often tabula rasa planning policies have pretended otherwise, but Israeli architecture, for all its internationalism, was not implanted onto virgin land. The desert that was made to bloom, has in fact been cultivated since time immemorial. There is a wealth of architectural legacy that testifies to previous occupants of the land; Palestinians, Ottoman rulers and even the Crusaders. They all left a significant mark on the ground and their architectural forms have further infused the liberal admixture of Israeli architecture.

Eclectic Tel Aviv architecture

As I explored Israel’s cities, its multiple identities and deep attachment to history and myth resounded in the built environment. Everywhere I was struck by the contradictory blend of cosmopolitanism and navel-gazing provincialism, an architecture torn between universal modernity and historical exceptionalism. Beginning with the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv, this series of articles will examine the country’s rich architectural tapestry and attempt to understand the multifaceted threads with which it is woven.

The black and white photograph is courtesy of Guadalupe Casas

Check back for the next article in this series: Tel Aviv

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