White City dreaming

Celebrating 100 years of this architectural school’s influential tradition, a visit to the Bauhaus Center reveals Tel Aviv’s storied history – and ushers in a new era for Dizengoff Square.

By
May 17, 2019 07:59
White City dreaming

TEL AVIV is home to over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings: 3 Mapu Street, before 1935.. (photo credit: BAUHAUS CENTER TEL AVIV)

 
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Among the numerous other areas of life where we Israelis disagree, you can certainly note the irreconcilable divide between those who prefer Tel Aviv as opposed to Jerusalem, and vice versa.

Then again, if we could only see our way a little past the patina of such – dare one say? – petty allegiances, we might all realize that both cities have a lot going for them, at least in aesthetic terms.

And just in case any die-hard Jerusalemites questioned whether the metropolis at the other end of Route 1 had something to offer in terms of visual allure, along came UNESCO back in 2003 and proclaimed Tel Aviv’s White City a World Cultural Heritage site. The United Nations organization’s grounds for the prestigious citation noted the city was “an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century.”

GERMAN JEWISH architects brought the Bauhaus style of architecture to pre-state Palestine: 25 Idelson Street, 1931. (Credit: BAUHAUS CENTER TEL AVIV)

That referenced the unusually large number of edifices constructed in pre-state Palestine in the Bauhaus or International style. They are dotted all around town. If, for example, you stroll along Ahad Ha’am Street, you will be able to espy porthole-looking stairwell windows, or catch some balcony on Tchernichovsky Street, behind Meir Park, which conjures up images of a ship’s stern.

Pictorially documented specimens of some of Tel Aviv’s thousands of Bauhaus-style buildings are currently on display at the city’s Bauhaus Center on Dizengoff Street, a hop, skip and jump from Dizengoff Square.

If you have passed through the area over the past couple of years, you could not have failed to notice some dramatic transformative work afoot. The elevated square was being dismantled, and the circle was being restored to something approaching its former glory. Much of that is documented in a new free exhibition at the Bauhaus Center devoted to Dizengoff Square, and which is due to open at the beginning of June.

If you have been living in this country for over 40 years, or took a vacation here sometime in the 1970s or earlier, you would surely have passed by Dizengoff Square in its original manifestation. Just in case you missed out on that, never fear. For starters the current design of the circle is pretty similar to the first one, and, as noted, there are several shots of the Tel Aviv nodal point now on display at the Bauhaus Center.

DIZENGOFF SQUARE is surrounded by white buildings with elongated balconies: 1 Zamenhof Street, 1939. (Credit: BAUHAUS CENTER TEL AVIV)

The square, which was named after Zina, wife of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, has been through several reincarnations over the years. First off, one should note that it was viewed as an integral part of the new city of Tel Aviv, as it rose out of the sands in the early part of the 20th century. Now our most populous conurbation – a term coined by a certain Sir Patrick Geddes – Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 by a group that formed the Ahuzat Bayit - “homestead” – society. Eight years later, Gen. Edmund Allenby led the British and Allied troops into Jerusalem, and the 29-year British rule in Palestine began.

Unlike the Turks, the new League of Nations-sanctioned overlords invested significant resources in developing the region, and infrastructures were duly installed and upgraded over time. Geddes was part of that imported continuum.

Geddes was a Scottish polymath who spread his talents across numerous fields, including biology, sociology, geography and town planning. It was the latter area in which he made his mark here, particularly in the 1920s. His scheme for the evolving coastal town was the first master city plan for Tel Aviv, laying out a blueprint for the urban center and the area now known as Old Tel Aviv.

Geddes envisaged Dizengoff Square as a focal point of the city, along a main thoroughfare with cafés and other eateries, and stores. Decades later, the street became so ingrained in the local psyche that the act of strolling along it, taking in window shopping and, possibly, a slurp or two of coffee became known in Hebrew slang as “lehizdangeff.”

Dizengoff Square was built in 1934, based on a design by architect Genia Averbuch – a female professional being awarded the project was in itself an innovative move in these parts at the time. And she was all of 25 years old.

Averbuch’s take on the urban hub was pretty similar to what eventually emerged in the 1980s, with the square to be raised above ground level, and a parking lot installed below. That idea did not come to fruition, partly simply because of the fact that not too many locals owned cars. Instead, Tel Avivites got themselves a park-like circular mini green lung, complete with lawns, benches and a fountain at its center – very much in line with Geddes’s vision of garden squares that encourage a sense of community, and designing streets that prioritized pedestrians over vehicles. Quite a visionary outlook which, in time, became all the rage, as global environmental issues become ever more pressing.

DIZENGOFF SQUARE (seen in 1964 at left and today at right) is being restored to its former glory. (Credit: RUDI WEISSENSTEIN/THE PHOTOHOUSE)

THAT WAS the Dizengoff Square I encountered when I made my first foray to Israel, in 1974. I recall having plenty of time to observe the goings-on within the tarmacked ring as the No. 5 bus inched its way northward or southward through the heavy traffic. Indeed, it was road congestion that ultimately led to the next phase in the checkered time line of the spot, which became a landmark of Tel Aviv’s White City.

In the 1970s, at the behest of then-mayor Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, a plan was conceived by architect Zvi Lassar to try to alleviate the traffic snafu by raising the square, thereby allowing vehicles to flow through the spot more freely. The square was topped by an elevated pedestrian plaza which hovered above Dizengoff Street, Pinsker Street and Reines Street. The centerpiece of the new design was a fountain with a glass sculptural affair made by Allen David which, to put it mildly, Tel Avivites did not exactly take to their hearts.


The new elevated square, with the David work, was not completed until 1983 and didn’t last long in that aesthetic format. Just three years later, the glass-based sculpture was replaced by Yaacov Agam’s now renowned kinetic Fire and Water sculpture fountain. The creation comprises gargantuan revolving wheels, with jagged protrusions and with Agam’s world-famous color progressions. On the hour, every hour, the fountain mechanism jerked into life. The wheels began to turn in opposing directions as the fountain produced jaw-dropping aquatic frolics which included flames enveloped and manipulated by the prancing water. Each performance stint also incorporated one of a selection of musical soundtracks. One and all agreed it was a marked step forward compared with the previous sculpture.

Still, not everyone – to put it mildly – was absolutely ecstatic about the pedestrian plaza in the sky. Yes, it attracted young parents and grannies with small children, punks, skateboarders and the odd down-and-outer, but, in general, the original ethos of a primary urban fixture, serving as a focal point of city life, was sorely missed.

The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that raising the square obscured some of the Bauhaus architecture that slinked its way around the circular perimeter. Then again, some of the said edifices had begun to look the worse for the wear. Some of the grimy, fissured and weather-beaten facades were a far cry from the pristine, virginal looking, deftly crafted white fronts that sprang up among the sand dunes of the rapidly growing first modern-day Jewish city.

Luckily, help was forthcoming from foreign pastures.

DIZENGOFF SQUARE (seen in 1964 at left and today at right) is being restored to its former glory. (Credit: RUDI WEISSENSTEIN/THE PHOTOHOUSE)

“When UNESCO made the White City proclamation, in 2003, work began on renovating and restoring the Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv,” notes Micha Gross, director of the Bauhaus Center, up the road from the square. “That’s when things began to change, following years of neglect.”

That included the buildings located around the circle, which featured the Esther Cinema – now Cinema Hotel – which was built in 1930 by Esther and Nataniel Moses, who made aliyah from the British protectorate of Aden. The movie theater was initially called Dizengoff Cinema, but renamed after Mrs. Moses a year later. The building was designed by Ukrainian-born architect Yehuda Magidovich, who served in the 1920s as the first chief engineer of Tel Aviv.

Magidovich went through a range of architectural designs during the course of his long career, but had to follow Averbuch’s lead on the cinema project. Although each building in the square had a different purpose, Averbuch decided they should all have the same style of façade, and be three stories high.

“Some contemporary critics debated that a shared façade went against the principles of modernist architecture,” the exhibition literature notes. “The use of concrete was a popular choice for Bauhaus/International-style architects, and the flowing concrete strips highlight a horizontal movement between the balconies and external walkways of each building in one continuous movement.”

It is fascinating to see how architects – such as Erich Mendelsohn and Adolf Peter Rading, who fled Nazi Germany, and Arieh Sharon, a Sabra who went to Germany to study the discipline, and later earned the grand epithet of “the Father of Israeli Architecture ” – adapted the European-based theory to conditions in the Middle East. While Bauhaus was basically a utilitarian school of thought, allowances still had to be made for, for example, the much stronger natural light here, compared with Germany, and the hotter weather.

That, the exhibition blurb says, was incorporated into Averbuch’s plan for the square and the buildings around it. “Interestingly, as the upper floors project slightly outwards, they serve as a partial roof for the pavement below. The slits found at the bottom of each balcony are to release any hot air trapped in the overhang and also act as a sun-breaker for the below floor, in line with one of the competition requirements to make use of a level below the square.”

Gross says the likes of Mendelsohn and Rading came to a fertile professional domain. “This was a Garden of Eden for architects in those years.” These were, Gross notes, revolutionary times, when the new wave of designers merrily went about doing away with sacred cows. “The new architecture had no regard for the older architecture. The dream of every architect, then, was to demolish everything that had existed up to that point, and to build anew. They found classical architecture repugnant.”

That followed a new Western zeitgeist, in the wake of World War I. “Particularly in Germany,” Gross continues. “The kaiser had gone. The Weimar Republic had been established, and there were all sorts of social innovations which, of course, were also connected.”

That led to a search for a new vehicle of aesthetic expression. “And also pragmatism,” Gross points out. “There was a completely different idea about what architecture should be.”

Jewish architects who managed to get out of Nazi Europe in time brought that mind-set over here, and skillfully adapted their knowledge and experience to their very different physical, meteorological and cultural milieu. Back in 2003, UNESCO noted that “such [Bauhaus] influences were adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.” According to the UN body, there are, today, over 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings in Tel Aviv, more than anywhere else in the world.

Dizengoff Center’s new-old look is now nearing completion. The reversion to the 1930s design line of thought appears to be bearing fruit, and whenever I have cycled round the circular urban open area, there have been plenty of locals and tourists, of all ages, lolling around on the grass, taking a breather on one of the benches or simply using the place as a convenient, traffic-free thoroughfare.
All that remains now is to fully revive the Agam creation, and to benefit from the vision shared by Geddes and Averbuch, and enjoy the space and the beautifully restored grand old buildings around it.

For more information: www.bauhaus-center.com

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