An injection of art

Include a visit to the lobby and halls of the charmingly renovated Marina Hotel as part of an unusual, circular stroll along Rehov Hayarkon.

Marina Hotel 5214 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Marina Hotel 5214
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Every city has its white elephants. In Tel Aviv, the most obvious one would definitely be Kikar Atarim. Completed in 1975 and planned as a combination parking lot and shopping mall right on the beach, the project turned out to be a disaster.
Architecturally, it belongs to the “Brutalism School,” and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why. Indeed, former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat is often quoted as saying that during the Gulf War he hoped a Scud missile would fall on Kikar Atarim, and the whole enterprise collapse.
True, in the beginning, nearly 200 shops and restaurants opened up in the four-storied complex, and suddenly there was parking galore for the hotels that appeared along the beach. But after “criminal elements” took over and honest citizens stopped frequenting the area, Kikar Atarim was abandoned.
Even after the inauguration of the Coliseum Nightclub, things didn’t really improve. And although every once in a while someone holds an event in the former Coliseum, Kikar Atarim remains a sad, empty and not very clean sight.
Or, as the Internet site Wikimapia succinctly reports: Kikar Atarim “used to be a well-known hangout spot for foreign tourists in summer. Now mostly empty.”
There is one bright star on the horizon, however.
The Marina Hotel at Rehov Hayarkon 167, constructed as part of the complex, recently underwent major renovations. And the result is astonishing – for not only is the little boutique hotel now both elegant and charming, it has become a mini art museum that encourages people to view over 600 original paintings. Indeed, soon there will be gallery talks about the different pieces of art and the men and women who created them.
Do include a visit to the lobby and halls of the hotel as part of an unusual circular Street Stroll along Rehov Hayarkon – named for the river that runs into the sea at its northern end. The jaunt, which also follows the Shlomo Lahat beachside promenade, includes historic buildings, unusual and touching monuments, and even a voice from the not-so-distant past.
Begin inside the hotel, where you don’t have to be an art aficionado to appreciate the fantastic creations on the walls. Although I know very little about art and am not familiar with most of the artists whose works are on display, even I have heard of Samuel Bak, whose painting I found in the lobby, along with a drawing by Avigdor Arikha.
One of my favorites among the hotel’s paintings is also in the lobby: a breathtaking landscape by Eli Shamir called Oak Forest.
While you can’t view the artwork inside the hotel rooms, you can wander the halls. On every floor the walls are artistically covered with beautifully framed pieces. Because of the hotel’s unusual design, with long rectangular halls and a empty space in the middle, you can’t help but feel like you are browsing in an actual gallery. Additional paintings are on view on the landings, and in the dining room.
Thickets in Galilee by award-winning Mara Zer is exquisite, and so is her three-meter-long Orchard.
Look for the unusual works by Shimon Palombo, who mixes metal, wood, oil and all kinds of cloth.
And take a step backwards to view the paintings by Nir Mazliah, whose combination of water colors, Chinese ink and cotton paper create blurry lines that seem abstract from up close, but are full of content when regarded from afar.
And then there are the wildly surrealistic works by Vadim Stepanov. Along with Russian Orthodox churches and harlequins in weird and scary colors, he also produces frames that eerily seem to suit.
Natalya Rakovski works with pastel colors on paper and ends up with morbidly realistic creations that keep you coming back for another look.
My personal favorites are paintings by artist Matan Ben-Canaan, whose subjects are so lifelike that they practically jump out at you from inside the canvas.
When you’ve gazed your fill, exit the hotel, turn left and walk down to the beach. On your right, you will see a cliff made of kurkar (sea limestone).
On the first anniversary of Israel’s independence, in 1949, trees were planted on top of this cliff for what would become lovely Independence Park three years later.
Gordon Pool, on your right as you walk south, was a Tel Aviv landmark for over half a century. Just about everyone who grew up in Tel Aviv enjoyed the pool, which opened in 1956 and is filled with salt water dug up from underground springs.
Older residents swam there daily, even in the roughest of winter weather. Indeed, many of them would appear before dawn, refreshing themselves afterwards with hot coffee and a game of backgammon.
There was talk of demolishing the pool when the beach promenade was slated for expansion; but instead it closed for renovations in 2006. Two years ago, it reopened as a rather expensive municipal pool, and work is under way on a spa that will replace the original changing rooms and restrooms.
Look past the pool to the water, where hundreds of sailing craft are anchored at the Tel Aviv Marina.
Then begin a lovely walk along the Shlomo Lahat Promenade, which reaches all the way to Jaffa. No matter what time of day you take this walk, you will find people on the beach playing volleyball, working out on hydraulic exercise equipment, or just hanging out on the sand.
Watch for a monument to the Altalena, a ship that anchored off this shore on June 21, 1948, with hundreds of fighters on board. Here you can read the sorry tale of a temporary Israeli government blowing up the ship and a large quantity of desperately needed weapons and ammunition. Even worse, the incident caused the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and 16 fighters from the ship, most of them European refugees who had come to join the war effort.
A plaque stuck to the wall further on to your left brings back other memories. It is inscribed with the sketch of a ship that anchored in international waters five kilometers from this beach. Press the button to hear the voice of former pilot Abie Nathan, who broadcast a message of “peace, love and understanding” from 1973 to 1993 from the Voice of Peace radio station inside the ship.
When the boardwalk splits at Bograshov Beach, ascend the ramp to read a monument honoring the Palmah forces that fought in the War of Independence. Then, as you continue south, London Park will be on your left.
At the Jerusalem Beach (signs can be found on the lifeguard towers to your right) gaze across the street to enjoy the fountains at Knesset Square, originally called Casino Square for the gambling operation located on the beach in the 1920s. During the British Mandate, the name was changed to honor high commissioner Herbert Samuel.
Take a good look at the building to the right of the fountain. Then examine the Opera Tower, on the other side of the square. Do you notice some similar designs? The Opera Tower replaced a historic structure identical to that on the right, and the architect attempted to reproduce many of its elements.
The original structure, built in 1945 as the Kesem Cinema, was appropriated in 1948 for the use of the first Knesset of the brand-new State of Israel.
Knesset sessions were held in the cinema until the end of 1949, when the parliament moved to Jerusalem.
The Israeli Opera began performing in the auditorium nine years later, and the plaza, which had been renamed Knesset Square, then became known as Opera Square. After the opera vacated the building in 1982, it was replaced by today’s modern edifice.
Cross the street and walk inside, heading for the far wall next to the little fountains to see an enlarged photo of the very first Knesset.
Now begin walking back, heading north. When you reach London Park, walk up the ramp. The park was dedicated to the people of London by the Tel Aviv municipality in 1942, in a gesture of admiration for their heroic stand in the face of German bombs.
Ironically, on this shore, ships filled with Holocaust survivors were turned back by those very British – at times returned to their European ports of departure, and at other times sent to detention camps in Cyprus or in Palestine.
As the decades went by, the park began to deteriorate.
Fortunately, it was landscaped and renovated a few years ago to permit handicap access and create underground parking. Also added was an unusual outdoor museum dedicated to the ma’apilim – Hebrew for the would-be immigrants who bravely tried to make it through the British blockade. Read their stories on the ship-like sculptures, and their names on the wavy memorial erected to mark their heroism.
Ascend to Rehov Hayarkon, and look to the right for a view of Isrotel Tower, the highest in the area.
Then head north (left), where you will soon pass the American Embassy.
The embassy remains in Tel Aviv although a law passed by both Houses of Congress in 1995 required its relocation to Jerusalem by 1999. Each American president since that time has prevented the law’s implementation.
Beginning with Hayarkon 96, which dates back to 1935 and is undergoing massive renovation, you will find that several of the houses on your right are fascinating architectural creations. Note, especially, the delightful buildings at Nos. 100 and 102.
Tel Avivians wax nostalgic about the Paris Cinema, which opened in the 1950s and was replaced by the edifice at No. 106. The cinema was known for its cult films and as a center for avantgarde artists.
Note the beautiful house at No. 108, and then prepare for more irony: The b u i l d - i n g at No. 110, once famous as the home of the Labor Party, has completely fallen apart.
The Sheraton Hotel at No. 115 was constructed on the site of the historic Red House. Stop at Mira and Alex Indich Park, just past the hotel, to read about the reddish structure, built in the mid 1920s. The city’s workers met there after their labors, and in the evening would dance and sing on the beach.
In the 1930s, the Hagana ran illegal immigration operations from the Red House; the noise and activity allowed ma’apilim to disembark and mix in with the crowds. During World War II, British police occupied the Red House. They were replaced by the Hagana Command, who used it in 1948 as headquarters for conducting the War of Independence.
In the distance, you can see Kikar Atarim to your left topped by the large, round former Coliseum.
Walk through the square, which seems to be cleaner and slightly more populated these days than in the recent past, and look back and below for a lovely view of the marina and the beach.
Then return to Rehov Hayarkon. Across the street from the Marina Hotel, slightly to the north, you have a view of the Crazy House – Habayit Hameshuga. It was designed by architect Leon Gaignebet in 1982, and many people assume that it was inspired by, or attempts to resemble, Antonio Gaudi’s famous Barcelona buildings. Actually, Gaignebet was into “fractals” – geometric shapes that can be split into parts that look just like the whole and are reminiscent of the sea limestone ridges on the beach.
Because it is right on the main street, you naturally think that this is the front of the house.
Actually, however, it is the back. It is worth ending your walk by finding your way to its even more unusual front which, in a strange, typically Israeli way, is also located on Rehov Hayarkon.