Bauhaus in Haifa - – The city by the sea

A once-elegant public building on the corner of Herzl and Bialik streets, in the heart of the Hadar (photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
A once-elegant public building on the corner of Herzl and Bialik streets, in the heart of the Hadar
(photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
While Tel Aviv’s White City has been awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site for its International Style architecture and the municipality has taken advantage of this by establishing a visitors’ center and tour of the cluster of Bauhaus buildings in its vicinity, the Bauhaus style of architecture actually thrived and prospered far more in Haifa.
Speaking with world-renowned authority on Bauhaus in Haifa, Prof. Emeritus Gil Herbert, former dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and former director of the Technion’s Heritage Research Center, I learned a lot about the social history of the city through his story of the evolution of architecture during the first half of the 20th century. His book Bauhaus on the Carmel and the Crossroads of Empire, co-written with architect and Technion researcher Silvina Sosnovsky, takes one through the industrial and demographic development of Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel. The book was launched with an exhibition in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Italy, Japan and Chicago, and aroused much interest among architects worldwide.
From the Templers’ German Colony in the late 19th century and the Ottoman buildings constructed into the early 20th century, the influence of the Bauhaus architects who had come from Germany, Czechoslovakia and other central European countries, as well as Moscow, in the 1920s was appropriate for the socioeconomic climate of the time.
Herbert was born in South Africa, graduated and lectured at the University of the Witwatersrand until 1961, when he moved to the University of Adelaide in Australia. In 1968 he moved with his wife and two children to Israel to work at the Technion and has lived in Haifa ever since. Now in his 90s, he lectures, writes and has an amazing memory for detail. As we talked, we looked out of the window of his apartment in Ahuza upon the ruins of the forest that had surrounded his home until the devastating fires of last November.
“There was a revolution in architecture after the First World War in Europe. Devastated by the war, there was an urgent need to rebuild quickly and cheaply. As Jews in Europe were already losing their jobs, many of these modern vanguard architects migrated to Palestine under British Mandate, for religious and Zionist and political reasons,” Herbert says.
“Until that decade there was not actually a Bauhaus school as such,” he points out. “Most of the architects studied at technical institutes with socialism as a driving force. Many of them learned on-site as apprentices, which gave them a practical and pragmatic approach to building for the people. Only in the 1920s did Walter Gropius open an actual Bauhaus school in Dessau, later moving to Berlin, with departments of design, furniture, materials and building.”
In those years, Art Deco took over from Art Nouveau, and construction became simplified and functional, uniting art and industry. The name “International Style” was given to an exhibition in New York in the late 1920s. Therefore, there was only a handful of architects who had actually studied at the Bauhaus School of Design who changed the face of Haifa, making an architectural statement that reflected the growth in industry in the city and the boom in immigration.
“The post-WWI period under the British Mandate saw Haifa become the first power center of industry – literally a crossroads of geopolitical importance,” says Herbert. “The city had major sea access, although the port was yet to be constructed; had the oil pipelines from Iraq; and was the hub of the railway system, with lines already existing south to Lod and Egypt and the Hedjaz Railway east to Jordan,” he explains.
Herbert is proud of the fact that the Technion, originally built on the Hadar, the middle slopes of Haifa, was established before the Hebrew University. It was built before World War I, although teaching commenced only in 1924.
“It was because of the location of the Technion that the growing population and the Yishuv leaders focused on the Hadar for urban development,“ says Herbert.
He explains that previously the downtown area by the sea was populated by wealthy Christian Arabs, but as Jewish immigration increased, they preferred the higher slopes of the Hadar.
Chaim Weizmann had already focused on Haifa as the city of the future and brought in experts such as Patrick Geddes, followed by German Jewish architect Richard Kaufmann, to plan garden villages in the Hadar, Ahuza, the Central Carmel, the French Carmel and Naveh Sha’anan. The bayside Krayot were also planned as garden suburbs, never foreseeing the 21st-century battle between residents of these pleasant neighborhoods and the industries that are contaminating the environment with their polluting and hazardous materials.
“But it was the Hadar that became the hub of the Bauhaus building of homes, municipal buildings, the Histadrut and commercial centers,” says Herbert.
“The first ‘strip mall,’ Beit Hakranot, was originally the headquarters of the JNF [Jewish National Fund] and Keren Hayesod, with shops on the ground floor and offices on the upper galleries.”
With the growing population throughout Haifa, shops, cinemas and cafes were needed, and soon there was little left of the “garden village.” However, the International Style survived, and the Talpiot market was reputed to be one of the most iconic Bauhaus buildings in the world, with its curved contours and its amazing glass roof that shed light on tiers of galleries and down to the main market floor.
“This style suited the climate and was economical to build,” says Herbert. “We had no wood or steel or roof tiles at that time. Working with stone is high-intensity labor, an inherited skill that was not readily available.”
With the opening of the Nesher Cement Works, this commodity was available in abundance and allowed for quick and simple construction, finished with a coat of white paint.
“Circumstances forced architects to be simple, and it fitted in with the spirit of the time,” Herbert adds.
THERE WERE adjustments to be made, of course, between European and Israeli design. Whereas European buildings have large windows to let in sunlight, the recognizable feature of the local Bauhaus building is the smaller aperture, although light is allowed through the vertical windows in the stairways, which cover the areas between the entrance up to the flat roof.
The curved balconies were part of the modern movement, an echo of Erich Mendelsohn, who designed the first power station and the original Rambam Government Hospital.
The architects who had studied at the Bauhaus School itself include Munio Weinraub (Gitai), whose son, filmmaker Amos, opened Israel’s first Museum of Architecture in what was once the architect’s studio on the Central Carmel in 2012. Upon entering the museum, expecting the door to open to the intricacies and history of the movement, I was disappointed to find a small space with a couple of trays of sand depicting a Beduin project and a few sketches, uncaptioned and unexplained, on the walls. A casual visit does not offer much to those interested in architecture, but the museum does have a regular schedule of lectures and events for professionals.
Weinraub (Gitai) studied at the Bauhaus school in Dessau and immigrated to Israel in 1934. He lived in Haifa for the rest of his life. He and his architect partner Alfred Mansfeld designed educational and religious institutions, kibbutzim, industrial buildings and thousands of public housing units, as well as parts of the Holocaust and Heroism monument at Yad Vashem, later joining the lecturing staff at the Technion.
In its heyday, the Hadar was the center for shopping, leisure and commerce. The enormous cinemas were always packed, and even in the 1970s I remember queuing so long for our tickets that the film was half over by the time we got into the auditorium. The wooden seats, the haze caused by smokers, and the noise of bottles rolling down the aisles was part of the cinema experience.
In those days, Herzl and Nordau streets were the centers for elegant clothing and accessories.
Herbert, together with this writer, laments the decay of the Hadar neighborhood and the neglect of those heritage buildings. Peeling walls, littered yards and scruffy cheap shops are the face of this once sophisticated center of Haifa.
Of course, the construction of closed shopping malls on the Carmel and in the Krayot, with their free parking and controlled temperatures, took consumers away from the Hadar; but in most European cities, the town centers have nevertheless retained their charm and ambience.
An attempt in the 1980s to make Nordau Street a pedestrian mall backfired, as lack of parking took business away from those shops, leaving scruffy kiosks and littered walkways. The municipal theater that flanks the park on Nordau was renovated, but the entire area is like a ghost town that shows signs of life only when there is a performance at the theater. The adjacent library, which has an excellent selection of English books, was recently modernized inside, but the exterior and staircase are dirty and depressing, not to mention the washrooms which are a health hazard.
The greatest insult to the Bauhaus period is the condition of the Talpiot market. The main floor and upper galleries are now unsafe, so the market operates in a dirty, noisy crowded basement and on the adjoining streets. Looking at the building from the street below, one can see that the walls are crumbling and the pipes and fire escapes are rusting.
In European cities, such as Budapest and Barcelona, the old neglected markets have been restored and attract tourists and locals to the town center. In the East End of London, the rundown area of Spitalfields and the old market were slated for demolition until the Save Spitalfields group of architects and historians campaigned to restore the old Huguenot homes and the Victorian glass and wrought-iron marketplace.
Unlike Tel Aviv, the city fathers of Haifa seem to have no interest in restoring the heritage of the Bauhaus, and the time will come when these iconic buildings will crumble and fall to the ground. Perhaps it is time for a group of activists to fight for the survival of the Hadar.