Architecture for All (Extract)

An 'open house' gives Tel Avivians a more intimate look at their neighborhoods

05arts (photo credit: Houses from Within)
(photo credit: Houses from Within)
Extract of an article in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Have you ever paused in front of a building in your neighborhood and wondered what the interior looks like, what life must be like inside? Or what the cityscape is like from the top of that skyscraper? If so, then the annual walking tour of Tel Aviv's architectural masterpieces is, well, just up your alley. This year's tour, "Houses From Within," took interested urbanites on a two-day odyssey (in mid-May) through the streets of Tel Aviv, to see the best in private and public architecture. "The goal," explains the organizer, architect Alon Bin Nun, "is to expose architecture 'in the flesh.' Instead of seeing models, designs and photos in an exhibition, you are actually in the thing itself." The idea, he adds, is to eliminate boundaries between passersby and homeowners. Architecture "has a social purpose, to bring a number of like-minded people together." "Tel Avivians are very curious and proud of their environment and have plenty of energy to explore it," notes Aviva Levinson, a freelance journalist who is married to Bin Nun and works with him on the organization. The tours are free of charge. This year's sponsors were the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, Tel Aviv Centennial Committee, the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the Society for the Protection of Nature, Israel for Bikes and Access Israel, as well as a number of private companies. The accompanying brochure lists 128 venues open to visitors. For each entry, there is an address, a small photo, the name of the architect, the year of completion and the visiting hours of the two-day Friday-Saturday walking tour. The tour is comprehensive, encompassing the Spartan and the sumptuous, the humble and the arrogant, ranging from the Jerusalem Hotel on Jaffa's Auerbach Street, built in 1867, to the Glilot Overpass in north Tel Aviv completed one month before the tour. The event is in its second year, with tours each year in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. The next one is scheduled for Jerusalem on September 19-20. All the tourists met at Tel Aviv's Azrieli Tower, where they were given an introduction, a map, and wished well as they dispersed to their many locations, bumping into each other all day long. The Jerusalem Report accompanied organizer Bin Nun to various venues, including an office building, school, hotel, bank, square and private dwelling. Going up 50 stories and emerging on a rooftop, one tends to rhapsodize, perhaps a response to a diminished oxygen flow. Such may have been the euphoric condition of Azrieli Towers CEO Etai Reshef, who wished us "a kiss and a sunset" in front of the most spectacular view of Tel Aviv - the helicopter landing pad atop the Round Building, one of three monoliths known collectively as the Azrieli Towers. Begun in 1996 by Israeli architect and developer David Azrieli and finished three years later, the three towers - the round, the as yet unfinished 46-story rectangular and the 42-story triangular - dominate the Tel Aviv skyline with their size, sleekness and spatial interplay. It is easy to see what would inspire the sober CEO of Azrieli Towers to muse about romance in the middle of a business day. On this, the first stop of the architecture tour, Reshef shepherds 150 or so visitors who are curious to know more about the trio of skyscrapers than one can learn by hurtling past them at 90 kph on the Ayalon Freeway below. Reshef greets the crowd on the roof of the two-story shopping mall that acts as a walkway connecting the three mega-structures. On the mall's roof is an amphitheater, used for entertainment and educational purposes. Whatever the quality of the performances, it's unlikely that anyone has complained about the spectacular "stage backdrop." The towers are a combination of office buildings, shopping areas, convention center and, notes Reshef, "$500-per-night hotel rooms." On the ground level is a pedestrian bridge leading to a bustling train station. The complex also plays a crucial part in the city's infrastructure, hosting a reserve electrical power station and a pumping station from underground water reservoirs. The unimpeded 360˚ view from atop the Round Building is mesmerizing. Instead of a circumferential fence on the rooftop, the building has a lowered net that acts as a safety barrier for both the people and the helicopters. From the middle of the rooftop, however, it appears that there is nothing separating a visitor from the wild blue yonder, adding to the ineffable feeling of lightness … or vertigo. The future was also on display. In one of the unfinished floors of the Rectangular Building, architects Miki Mansfeld and Haim Kehat were lecturing about their current project, a massive undertaking called "M'humash" (Hebrew for five-sided), the site for which was visible below. Due to rise on a tract now occupied by the Arlozorov Train Station, it will be a self-sufficient commercial/ residential complex with access to shopping, entertainment, cinemas, hotels and offices, as well as several parks and bike paths. It will be "the center of the center," enthuses Mansfeld, about a project that will not get underway for another few years. The next stop on the walking tour, Asia House, is one of the city's landmark exteriors, whose curvilinear forms belie the tough day-to-day business - primarily attorneys' offices and import-export firms - that is conducted inside. Designed by architect Mordechai Ben-Hurin and completed in 1973, it has an exterior "that has a softness in the façade, seeming to float in midair," says Bin Nun. "The recessed balconies create a dance of light and dark, which makes the façade look either heavy or almost ephemeral, depending on the time of day." Looking up into a brilliant cloudless day, Bin Nun is filled with pride that Tel Aviv is known as "The White City" for the eye-squinting, white color that results from the reflections of a dazzling and friendly sun, just as much as for the white-painted exteriors of many of the original Bauhaus buildings. Bin Nun, an affable 42-year-old graduate of Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, who teaches architecture at his alma mater and is a partner in "Somma," a domestic architectural firm, notes that "two years ago, people wouldn't have been so excited. But now, architecture and design have become more apparent in the public eye, and people want to know more." He continues, explaining that civic society has matured over the years. "Like children, societies are egocentric in their infancy," he states. "As societies grow, they become more sensitive to 'the other' and learn to cooperate, in much the same way as the child begins to learn the socialization process." Much of that local interest has been generated by Tel Aviv's designation in 2003 by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site, due to the Bauhaus architecture of much of the city's center, especially the sleek, unadorned exteriors and the window adaptations designed to cope with a Mediterranean climate. In 1930s Germany and Northern Europe, where the Bauhaus reached its finest expression, huge windows were necessary to capture as much light as possible, but in Tel Aviv, large windows would have made the interiors oppressively hot, Bin Nun observes. "The early builders remedied this by making slit-like horizontal windows and then put a balcony with an overhang in front to give shade. Many of these balconies have since been converted into rooms, but it's easy to see how they originally looked," he says. "Shade-creating terraces are also visible in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood," he adds. Extract of an article in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.