The White City: Tel Aviv And Its Bauhaus Tradition

By Ron Bernthal

In all respects —culture, topography, climate, history— the Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv seemed an unlikely place for the emergence, in the 1920′s and 30′s, of thousands of European-influenced, International Style structures, many designed and built by architects

and designers who had recently arrived from Germany, after years of study and internships under Bauhaus masters.

Young architects who had studied with Gropius, Kandinsky, Albers, Breuer, Hannes Meyer, and Klee, among others, under the grey and dismal skies of northern Europe, would bring their talent and friendly competition to the hot sand dunes of Palestine and help create a “White City” on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Miraculously, they would take the cool rigidity of the Bauhaus style and create buildings as warm and soft as the sea breezes that would caress them.

 

Tel Aviv was founded in 1909, when Jews in the nearby Arab town of Jaffa decided to create a Jewish garden suburb along the beach just a few miles away. They established a company called Ahuzat-Bayit, and with the financial assistance of the Jewish National Fund,

purchased some twelve acres of sand dunes, north of Jaffa. In 1910, the suburb was named Tel Aviv after Nahum Sokolow’s translation of Altneuland, Herzl’s fictional depiction of the Jewish State.

Following World War I, a town-planning project for a city of 40,000 was prepared by the British overseer Sir Patrick Geddes, which provided for small plots for family houses, quiet, narrow streets, and public gardens.

By the late 1920′s and early 1930′s, Tel Aviv was growing rapidly, especially with young European Jews, whose Zionist ideals made Palestine the choice destination. Later, as Hitler’s power in Germany expanded, the need to leave Europe became more imperative.

 

Among the new arrivals were architects such as Zeev Rechter, Richard Kauffmann, Leopold Krakauer, Dov Kutchinsky, Joseph Berlin, Yohanan Rattner, and Arieh Sharon, who returned to his original home in Palestine.

Before the influence of the European and Bauhaus-trained architects,

most buildings in Tel Aviv were modeled after traditional Middle Eastern dwellings, in which flat-topped or domed stone structures were built around a central courtyard. Occasionally, architects would meld European influences, trying to modernize the arches, Palladian windows, and interior courtyards so common in the Middle East, with British or Germanic touches.

Despite the challenges, or, in spite of them, Tel Aviv’s architects went on a building spree, and by the early 1940′s the city had one of the world’s largest concentrations of buildings designed in the International Style, although many of the structures were just labeled as “Bauhaus.”

Defining all these “white cubed,” “modern” buildings in Tel Aviv as Bauhaus is somewhat misleading, for the term Bauhaus refers to the school in Weimar, Germany, that Walter Gropius founded in 1919. The school moved to Dessau in 1925, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director, dissolved the school in Berlin in 1933 under pressure from the National Socialist party.

 

But the term “Bauhaus” has become a concept, a catchphrase that stands for the modern, avant-garde architecture and design that developed during the 1920′s and 30′s, by a number of well-known architects. The original approach of Bauhaus was based on simple lines void of non-utilitarian features; it emphasized functional space, not aesthetics. Walls were viewed as “curtains” or “climate barriers,” and forms were based on geometric units, especially cubes and cylinders.

The 19 Palestinian-born architects who traveled to Germany from the Middle East, and who studied at the original Bauhaus school, eventually went back to design buildings in their homeland, and were certainly influential in Tel Aviv’s overall plan. But their ideas were also absorbed by others, as the small, close-knit group formed joint design firms and worked together on everything from small private homes and residential apartment blocks, to hospitals and collective farms (kibbutzim) throughout Palestine.

“All these architects had to work together, meeting in coffee shops, on street corners, where there was a synthesis of various European influences, all coming together in one place,” said Dr. Michael Levin, a professor at the Hebrew University, and an expert on Israel’s Bauhaus architecture. “But they were very lucky, because Tel Aviv was a new city, and these architects had hundreds of commissions to create new buildings. This could never have happened in Europe because all the cities there had already been built up.”

Columns, known as pilotis, became quite common in the city. By using Le Corbusier’s idea of resting the first floor on pilotis, architects were able use the prevailing sea breeze to cool the underneath of the buildings, as well as to extend the garden. In addition, by raising the ground floor above street level, much of the noise and dust of the roadway could be eliminated.

Construction of buildings in 1930′s Palestine was mostly with reinforced concrete, accomplished by unskilled workers, and coated with plaster and whitewash. Although Jerusalem buildings were often faced with stone, giving that city its distinctive look and color, the buildings in Tel Aviv were smooth and white, with textured plaster used at the end of the period. The use of white or beige paint on thousands of new Tel Aviv buildings is the basis, of course, for the term “White City,” said to be uttered first by Israeli poet Nathan Alterman.

Perhaps the oldest, and certainly one of the best preserved, historic areas of Tel Aviv can be found on Bialik Street and along the narrow, adjacent streets. The first houses in this

area were built in the beginning of the 1920′s, when the Oriental or Arab style was popular, but almost all the architects working in Tel Aviv at the time, including Richard Kauffman, Yehudah

Megidovitz, Yossef Berlin, Alexander Levy, Yossef Minor, Dov Karmi, Pinchas Hutt, Moshe Cherner, Genia Owerbuch, and others, designed buildings in this area.

The avant-garde architects of 1930′s Palestine lived and worked in the sociological pattern of the period. Some of them lived in the cooperative housing blocks they designed, and many of them established their company offices in these residential buildings.

The design plans were discussed and criticized by residents who would live in the

buildings, and construction materials were decided upon with the contractors, carpenters, and others who worked on the buildings. The result of these buildings was a more humane housing unit, closely related both to the existing technical possibilities, and to the people’s needs.

By the beginning of the 1940′s, the city of Tel Aviv consisted of quiet residential streets with three-story apartment buildings, most raised on pillars and shaded by trees. There were also

a number of public housing blocks around interior garden courtyards. Today, with Tel Aviv’s population surpassing one million, and new glass skyscrapers dramatically altering the city skyline, the old “Bauhaus” buildings cry out for help.

Today, with Tel Aviv’s population surpassing one million, and new glass skyscrapers dramatically altering the city skyline, the old “Bauhaus” buildings cry out for help.

A period of 75 or more years has taken a toll on the exterior of the structures, as well as the interior hallways and curving stair rails. In 1991 the Engineering Department of the municipality

of Tel Aviv created a section labeled Modern Heritage Preservation, and hired architect Nitza Szmuk to try and preserve several hundred these buildings.

“We have saved about 300 buildings during the past six years,” Ms. Szmuk said in an interview several years ago, fully realizing the daunting task of photographing, archiving, and researching the more than 1,600
International Style buildings in the city. “ These buildings were built according to the principles of the Modern Movement: they were functional, without decoration for its own sake, and

had flat roofs designated for the use of the residents. There was a clear separation between the structure of the building and the walls of its envelope. The composition of the facade

was generally asymmetrical, dominated by horizontal lines sometimes combined with vertical elements which generally designated the staircase. These buildings need to be saved!”

But it is not an easy task. Israelis living in Tel Aviv are not used to the term “historic preservation,” and, at first, balked at the idea of spending money on old buildings.”The word

Bauhaus meant nothing to most of the residents living in these classically designed buildings,” Szmuk said. “I had to convince them, and pressure them, to consider their houses works of art.”

In an interview with the Israeli magazine Ha’aretz Szmuk said, “It’s clear today that no culture can be created by constantly erasing the past. Architecture is our cultural dynasty, and

each of its periods has its own worth. Remove one stone, and the entire edifice will collapse.”

Szmuk’s department offers incentives to landlords, in the form of low-interest loans, grants, or permission to add floors, providing the renovations conform to design guidelines monitored by Szmuk’s department. Although some landlords fear Szmuck’s designation of their buildings as “historic,” and all the restrictions and regulations on construction and facade change the designation implies, most landlords are willing to work with the city in helping to preserve these unique houses.

These lovely white houses, some with peeling paint and neglected gardens, are a symbol of a Jewish pre-War, pre-Holocaust, lifestyle in Mandate Palestine. Today, surrounded by the helter-skelter architecture of modern Israel, and having survived the region’s tormented last half-century, they are perhaps a reminder not only of a former architectural style, but of a former time of innocence and grace.

SIDEBAR

UNESCO added Tel Aviv’s “White City” historic district to its World Heritage List of places with outstanding cultural and historic significance. Although Israeli had, in the past, refused to participate in the UN organization because of political reasons, the ratification will now benefit, to some extent, Tel Aviv’s threatened Bauhaus and International Style buildings.

The designation was accomplished, partially, at the behest of Michael Levin, and with the blessing of ICOMOS’ Executive Director, Gustavo Araoz when, several years ago, the group decided to recognize the architectural importance of Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv, and recommended to Israel that it begin the process of officially slating it for preservation.

While other Israeli historical landmarks, notably Jerusalem’s Old City and the ancient site of Masada, are high on UNESCO’s priority list, the thousands of pre-War buildings in Tel Aviv are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Today, there are between 3,000 – 4,000 International Style buildings still standing in Tel Aviv, and many are undergoing restoration and renovation. Shutters and awnings are being removed; deteriorating facades are being cleaned and repainted; curving staircase railings

are freshly polished and strengthened; and architectural walking tours are offered to tourists, complete with maps and a narrative history of the International Style neighborhoods.

 

© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.

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