Like an oasis in the city

Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin was starting to look the worse for wear until it was given a new lease on life with a fountain, pond and flora.

Kikar Rabin 521 (photo credit: Avi Levy)
Kikar Rabin 521
(photo credit: Avi Levy)
Arguably one of Tel Aviv’s most famous landmarks, Kikar Rabin has seen its fair share of joy and tragedy. Compared to many of its international counterparts such as Trafalgar Square in London or Times Square in New York, Kikar Rabin doesn’t have quite the same grandeur or excitement. But what it lacks in these categories, it makes up for in history and its own unique, laid-back charm.
In November 1995, it was witness to one of the defining moments in Israeli history when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It is also regularly the scene of angry citizens protesting against government policy or for the return of our kidnapped soldiers.
Kikar Rabin, however, is not all about serious protests and tragic events. It regularly hosts concerts, festivals and celebrations for residents of the entire country to enjoy. But on a regular day it is the main square of Tel Aviv and the city’s residents like to enjoy its open space and central location.
Up until late last year, Kikar Rabin was starting look a little worse for wear, with all the years of protests and celebrations starting to take their toll. Then the often tired-looking square was given a small makeover by the municipality in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. While the renovation did not yet extend to the entire square, a small corner was given a new lease of life.
After months of being cordoned off to the public, a new fountain, seating areas and a fishpond were revealed to the public in December.
The main focus of the renovated area, which stands in the southeastern corner of the square, is a large pool. In its center, a tiered fountain provides passersby with a chance to catch the sunlight glistening on the gently shooting water. In keeping with the ecological theme of the design, the pool is filled with fish and interesting plants.
Concern for the environment is also evident in the use of wood for the seating area that surrounds the pool.
“Constructing a water element which is pleasant and soothing in the heart of the city’s main square was just one of the inspirations for the project,” explains Avi Levy, architectural planner of the pool and fountain.
Levy, who works for the municipality’s city improvement department, supervised and coordinated the work. He says that a mini ecosystem has been created that combines the spirit of time with a variety of vegetation, fish, and shaded, wooden seating areas.
Levy describes the pool as a “relaxed architectural structure which combines natural elements.”
At first glance, when the area is empty, seating areas for the public appear to have been forgotten; however, the thick wooden beams that circle the pool offer a novel seating arrangement. A number of benches have been placed next to the pool, but most people opt for a seat on the less comfortable beams, which provide a “ringside” view of the ecological life in the water.
A few months have passed since the mini-park was unveiled, and the public is becoming more and more accustomed to this little corner of tranquility. If the sun is shining, the wooden benches are filled with a cross-section of Tel Aviv’s residents enjoying themselves.
Mothers take their young children to see the fish in the pond; students and professionals take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere to discuss the day’s events, and elderly men and women watch the world go by while their carers catch up on the latest gossip.
“Now we have a central square we can be proud of,” says Liat Gefen, a local resident who now takes her young son to the square regularly. “Before the renovation was completed, I never really came here even though I live close by. There was nowhere to sit. It was an empty space.”
“Now I come here all the time to sit by the water and watch the world go by. I like the simplicity. It is like an oasis in the middle of a very busy city,” she says.
The pool area, located just underneath the iconic Holocaust sculpture by Yigal Tumarkin, had been neglected for a number of years. Levy says there was a pool there previously, but during the ’70s it ceased to function as planned.
“After it ceased to operate, it became a visual eyesore in a no-man’s-land in one of the most central places in the city. Something needed to be done. The new pool project created an opportunity to revive the central square in such a way as to rival any city in the world.”
The project, which began at the end of July 2010, included a number of stages: installing water filter systems, filling the pool with natural vegetation and designing the fountain element. The whole corner was renovated with new paving, landscaping, irrigation and furniture.
“‘Ecological’ is a popular word, but it is important to really put it into context,” Levy says. “For the first two years the pool will receive the help of mechanical filters to maintain water quality – the aim being eventually to shut off the electricity filters and rely on the vegetation alone to perform the task.”
The man behind the project also explains that various methods were used to save energy and money, including burying the old concrete walls of the previous structure under the new castings.
Levy is justifiably proud of the project and says that based on the public’s reaction, it has been a huge success.
“The area where the pool used to be was deserted. It has now gone back to being a living, breathing urban area and a lively urban square, as a main square in a big city should and can be. It is a place where the public can find peace, serenity and grace all in the same place.”
City Hall gave its full backing to the project, and is proud of the way it has turned out and the opportunity it has given the residents to enjoy the square.
Residents are also proud, but insist that more needs to be done.
“The pond and fountain are great,” says Yoni Manor, a local resident who regularly brings his dog for walks in the square. “But what about the rest of the square?” The whole square needs a makeover, he insists.
“The square in general looks tired and old. They need to add the same green and environmental touch to the rest of the space, especially the raised platform closest to the municipality building,” Manor says while sitting by the pond and enjoying the sunshine.
Hopefully, he will not be disappointed.
Over the next few months, the paving stones – which have taken quite a beating from all the thousands that have gathered over the years to support or disagree with various causes – will be replaced. The larger fountain in the northern part of the square will also be renovated.
And as part of a larger project, Rehov Malchei Yisrael, which runs alongside the square, will become a full boulevard with a cycle lane in the middle going from Kikar Atarim at the beach all the way to No. 1 Sderot Rothschild.
The upcoming renovation works will cost somewhere in the region of NIS 15 million, with NIS 4.4m. going on new paving throughout the square, NIS 850,000 on repairing the fountains in the northern part of the square, and over NIS 8m. on turning the surrounding boulevards into full cycle paths.
The funding will be provided by the municipality and the overall project will be overseen by Shmulik Katzelnik, director of Tel Aviv’s Urban Enhancement Department. Katzelnik points out that the new pool and the repaving project are just the beginning.
“In the next two years, the square and the area surrounding it will receive a dramatic face-lift,” he says. “The people of the city will not recognize it. We are undertaking this huge project to improve facilities for residents and visitors alike.”
As early as 1925, Romanian-born Avraham Yaskie made the plans for the square with Shimon Povsner, and later, the Tel Aviv City Hall. In 1957, architect Menachem Cohen won a competition to build the municipality’s new headquarters on the square. City Hall became fully functional in the ’60s and has characterized the square ever since.
The idea behind the relatively tall building was to allow politicians and leaders to watch the various ceremonies and rallies taking place in the square. Unfortunately, they didn’t consider the fact that the public would have to look at the building every time they gathered there.
The ongoing urban regeneration includes plans to renovate the iconic building. If this is done with just half the success that the pool area has achieved, it will be a welcome move to the residents of Tel Aviv and lovers of good taste alike.