Raising up the garden-suburb called Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv seems to be falling apart.  If you look around you see clumps of stucco and concrete lying on the ground, and then look up to see the shaved-off edge of a building''s balcony or a hole in the facade where the fallen chunk once was.


It''s a dangerous situation. Not long ago I watched as a man stepped out of the way of a falling chunk of  building just a moment before it struck what otherwise would have been his head. A girl ran out from a shop and told the suddenly-pale man to go buy a lottery ticket: it was his lucky day.


I began wondering why so many of Tel Aviv''s buildings were built this way, with balconies overhanging the street, or even more noticeably, with the second story raised up on rectangular concrete pillars. Why a city of stilts? Why raise the buildings up and leave the kind of ragged, uncared-for gardens seen around Tel Aviv today?


"Tel Aviv, the metropolis of Israel is rather like Topsy in ''Uncle Tom''s Cabin'' - she ''just growed''," wrote the seminal Israeli architect Arieh Sharon. "A few Jewish families living in the predominantly Arab town of Jaffa decided in 1909 to establish an all-Jewish suburb on the adjoining dunes. They retained their shops and businesses in Jaffa, but visualized living in a pleasant garden suburb, with individual houses surrounded by little green plots, on quiet, narrow streets."


Sharon explains that as the city grew an emerging metropolis was simply superimposed on the layout of a garden-home suburb and its calm narrow streets. To widen the street and provide a place where people could garden, sit, and gather to talk, the early architects of Tel Aviv turned to pilotis, supporting pillars that lift a building above ground level.


The influence came from the French architectural giant, Le Corbusier, by way of a young Jewish architect from Paris. The young architect was Ze''ev Rechter, a member of a group of young impassioned architects active in Israel, and particularly in Tel Aviv, in the 1930s. Like the great Hebrew poets of the time, the young architects "used to sit together, after hot, busy hours in the office in the then famous bohemian tearoom" to discuss "raising design standards, introducing contemporary building methods, and creating a lively and spirited architectural climate," Arieh Sharon says. As the Jewish cityscape began to form these young, highly skilled and impassioned architects wanted to seize the opportunity to create new living spaces in a rethought environment for life in a new country.


These young architects, who would later be known as the pioneers of the Bauhaus design movement in Israel, battled "savagely" to defy existing building regulations in order to raise the new buildings of Tel Aviv onto pilotis. In the pilotis, the young men had found a way to harmonize the needs of a burgeoning city with the layout of a garden-suburb. So they fought hard, and apparently won.


Today you can still glimpse the vision of the young developers like Sharon and Rechter who raised the city, and much of Israel, onto pilotis. Though usually untended, the wide garden areas of Israel''s residential buildings are still there, and neighbors, who have grown more distant as the cities have grown, still stand and chat, protected from the desert sun by an overhang clinging to a pure Bauhaus box.


Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.