Making it like it was

Tel Aviv’s iconic Dizengoff Square is set for a major overhaul. ‘Metro’ investigates the details of the restoration – and the ramifications.

Dizengoff Square, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dizengoff Square, 2014.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is a story, probably apocryphal, told about New York City mayor Ed Koch.
Shortly after he was elected, he went out to the seaside Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island to meet and greet his new constituents. As he was strolling along the beachfront, surrounded by reporters while waving at people and shaking hands, an old Jewish lady shuffled up to him, yelling, “Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor!” Koch smiled at her and said hello.
With a look of mingled yearning and hope, the old lady swept her arm in a wide circle around the severely deteriorated area and said, “Mr. Mayor, make it like it was!” The new mayor looked at her for a moment and said gently, “Lady, it never was like you think it was. But I’ll try to make it better.”
Here in Israel, Tel Aviv officials, city planners, architects and engineers are planning to start work on what is generally considered to be a similarly deteriorated area in the heart of the city, and “make it like it was.” After years of discussion, surveys, often acrimonious debate and even a couple of lawsuits, Dizengoff Square – as we know it now – will no longer exist.
A “new” Dizengoff Square will soon be constructed, made to look like the “old” Dizengoff Square, as it was before 1978. Or perhaps, as people think it was.
FIRST A little background. Dizengoff Square, which is actually not a square at all but rather a circle ringed by Bauhaus- style buildings, was built in 1934 and inaugurated in 1938. Conforming to the 1925 “garden city” concept put forward by city planner Sir Patrick Geddes and designed by architect Genia Averbuch, the circular plaza immediately became an iconic public space at the corner of Dizengoff, Reines and Pinsker streets. Named in honor of Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff’s wife, Kikar Tzina Dizengoff – or “Dizengoff Square” as it came to be known in English – was for 40 years a “White City” landmark, with a garden, fountain and pool at its center, along with a few shaded places for people to sit.
But the Tel Aviv of 1978 was a very different city from the one for which Dizengoff Square’s original plan was designed. Traffic congestion had become a problem – or was perceived to be a problem – and a new plan was devised to make Dizengoff Square “split level,” with the upper tier for pedestrians and the lower level for cars. Approved by then Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat and designed by architect and city planner Tsvi Lissar, the new configuration featured what we have there now, an elevated pedestrian plaza covering the old roundabout, with connecting ramps to surrounding sidewalks and adjacent streets. Traffic flows through an underpass below the elevated plaza. The original design included a glass sculpture and fountain in the middle of the plaza, which was replaced in 1986 by a much larger kinetic and multicolored fountain installation, created by world-famous artist Yaacov Agam and called Fire and Water.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this new incarnation was controversial, provoking furious debate between supporters and detractors. The detractors’ voices grew louder over the years as both Dizengoff Square and the surrounding houses began to deteriorate.
Agam’s colossus of a fountain turned out to be unmanageably high-maintenance – with numerous partial and total breakdowns – requiring two major rounds of restoration.
These were made even more dramatic by lawsuits and court cases over who was responsible for maintaining the sculpture, the municipality or the artist. The artist won, and the city paid for the restoration work. The square itself was neglected, left to look rundown and covered with graffiti, and allowed to become home to the homeless, a haven for street gangs and a convenient venue for drug use.
Newspaper articles began to appear, each one more critical of the square’s condition. By 2007, several proposals were put forward to restore Dizengoff Square to its previous configuration and return it to its “former glory days.”
Tel Aviv city engineer Hezi Berkovich noted the deterioration of the square and the houses surrounding it, and declared his determination to “avoid split-levels, raised or sunken, in the center of town.” He said that the current square “cuts off the line of sight that is so important for pedestrians, who do not walk along the street sidewalks and do not enjoy them. They simply go up and down at the square.”
Lahat was quoted in an article as saying, “I am responsible, and I take the blame.
We changed the square, and all the greenery, the beauty and the pleasantness went. Now it is possible to do something really beautiful and impressive.”
WELL, IT didn’t happen then, but it’s about to happen now – some 10 years after the initial feasibility studies. A major project aimed at demolishing the 1978 elevated plaza to “make Dizengoff Square like it was” is currently in the planning stages at Tel Aviv’s city hall, slated to begin next year.
“We are planning to take down what is there and bring back the previous situation,” the man in charge of the project, Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Doron Sapir, tells Metro.
Sapir, 57, demonstrates his knowledge of what the “historical situation” was by showing this writer a picture of himself as a very small child, smiling next to his mother, taken long ago in Dizengoff Square.
“I was born just one house from the square, on Pinsker Street,” he recounts.
“It was a place that everyone went to; it was the main place. It was where my mother took me for air, for sunshine, to be outside, to eat, to take pictures of me. My entire childhood was in this square, when it was in its original situation.”
Asked why restoring the square to its original incarnation is so important, Sapir explains: “We are doing this now after thinking about it for many years. The proper situation of a square is that the square should be at the level of the street – not above the street. As architecture is concerned, as master plans are concerned, we should take the street level as the level that people should use."
“They should not have to climb. The square better serves the city’s population when it is at street level.
“Secondly, for the last 10 to 15 years, we have understood that roundabouts are more efficient as far as traffic is concerned. Previous thought involved traffic lights, having to cross at traffic lights. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have learned that roundabouts serve the traffic much better and enable vehicles to go smoothly, without hurting people and with traffic streaming more easily.
We can see at roundabouts all over the city that the traffic is much better, streaming smoothly, and it’s safer for the people crossing. They have to cross a street, but it’s much safer, with fewer accidents.
“This is not only true here, but everywhere – in Europe, the US and other modern countries. They are much more in favor of roundabouts than other traffic solutions,” he continues.
“The third thing is the architecture point of view; this is about appreciating the beautiful houses around the square.
If you’ve seen pictures of the square before, you can understand what’s happening now. You can hardly see the houses, because the present structure blocks your view of the houses around it. But at street level, you can see the square and the houses around it. It’s much more powerful.
“This is one of the main squares of Tel Aviv, maybe of all of Israel.”
Reminded that one of the major reasons for constructing the split-level square in 1978 was to alleviate traffic congestion, Sapir insists that traffic will not be a problem when the square is returned to its former condition.
“No problem. It will certainly be a much better solution, according to traffic experts.” Moreover, he says, this solution will be achieved through a free flow of traffic around the roundabout, without traffic lights.
Will Agam’s iconic but problematic fountain remain in the restored square? “We’ll find a solution. I don’t know the exact solution; the matter is not yet closed. But I’m not sure that it’s the primary issue of the square. It’s one of the issues of the square, a significant issue, but it’s not the main issue. I think the three points that I mentioned are much more important.”
Unlike many of the current square’s critics, Sapir does not hold its split-level design responsible for its general deterioration, or that of the surrounding area.
“I don’t think anyone can point to a reason why Dizengoff Square went down. I don’t think it was because of the square itself. There were many reasons.
We can’t blame the present square for this. Sometimes it is simply a matter of fashion, sometimes this street is very attractive, sometimes another.
“As far as Dizengoff Street is concerned, sometime in the 1980s or ’90s, there were many food businesses beginning to occupy the street. This was a bad thing, because a street should have a mix of different businesses, different uses. There should be places where you can eat, also shops and so on that make a street alive. A mix of different uses, cafes, restaurants, shops of different kinds. This is the secret of an attractive street.”
Asked whether the restoration of the square will lead to an improvement of the surrounding area, Sapir opines, “Hopefully, yes. It will be more pleasant. And the way I remember the square, it was really nice.”
ONE PERSON who does not think that the old square was “really nice” or that the restoration will be “more pleasant” is Lissar, the architect and city planner who designed the 1978 split-level square that is scheduled to be completely demolished next year. Lissar maintains that the current move to erase his work stems largely from a misconception of why the 1978 alterations were made, a false and no longer sustainable nostalgia for what was, and Agam’s fountain.
As for the reasons his project was needed, Lissar says it was not just about the traffic.
“This is a leading misconception. It is true that the traffic was one of the main reasons for thinking about a new project in the 1970s. But if you solve the problem of traffic, you solve also the problem of pedestrians. People say, ‘Oh, you thought only about the problem of the cars.’ OK, we thought about the cars, but at the same time, we solved the problem about the pedestrians.
“Because nowadays, unlike before, you can go from one side of the circle to the other side without crossing any road. If they bring back the old scheme, you would have to cross through traffic.”
“My project grew up from the deputy mayor at that time, the late David Schiffman,” he remembers. “I was a young architect, but he knew me from my designs for taxi stations in Tel Aviv.
He then asked me to submit a report on a plan proposed by the city traffic department, to dig tunnels under the circle. They asked me what this would mean from an urban planning point of view.
“I checked it, and knew I had to write a very negative response. I knew it was a stupid idea. In order to dig under the circle and leave it at the same level, you would have to dig up the streets that bring traffic to the circle for about 200 or 300 meters. Which means that you make Dizengoff, Reines, Pinsker and all the other streets into ramps that go down.
“It would be very nice for the circle, which is the ideal concept, having a horizontal pedestrian space with a diameter of 100 meters, but you end up destroying the whole urban area around the circle. So the balance was for thinking in another way.”
“So instead of writing a report just saying that this idea isn’t good, I said to myself, ‘Let’s show them what is good,’” Lissar continues. “So I brought to the traffic department a model and plans for the project you see there now.
The deputy mayor was very excited about it. He took me, with the model and the plans, to mayor Lahat. And the mayor said, ‘You see this project? I want it to be published tomorrow in the newspapers.’ Believe it or not, the next day it was published in the papers.
“This was in 1976. It took two years to build the circle; most of the time, the construction took place without changing the traffic in the circle. When we started the project, by the way, it took between seven to 10 minutes for a car to cross the circle. Now it takes a few seconds. The project also reduced car pollution by a large percentage.”
Like Sapir, Lissar also has a photograph of himself as a small child, smiling under a little sailor cap, taken in Dizengoff Square. But unlike Sapir and others, Lissar is not driven by a nostalgia for what he says never really was.
“We have all seen pictures from the 1930s, 1940s, even from the early 1950s that look very ideal. The roads are empty.
There are no cars, no traffic. In fact, the circle was a traffic island. And if they are going to do what they think they should do, they’ll have a worse traffic island. Reducing traffic on Dizengoff Street is not so simple, because the Tel Aviv metropolitan area has only 40 linear roads going from south to north. Among those, Dizengoff is one of the major streets.
“I can show you some pictures I took a few days before the contractors started our project, and you will see that this island was neglected. The grass was overgrown in most places, the fountain was empty. In fact, you had six roads coming to a circle, and the total area of pedestrian space was about 5,500 sq.m.
In the existing project, according to our plans, the pedestrian space is 7,800 sq.m., about 30 percent more.”
“It’s not only the percentage that speaks here. It’s the nature of the space, because the original spaces were sidewalks, and now you have big squares and a plaza,” Lissar asserts. “What I suggested to the mayor of Tel Aviv in a letter in 2007 was that it would be a mistake to try to bring the square back to its original state, even though it’s going to be more fancy, it will still be the same scheme, a roundabout with roads coming into it. It will become again a traffic island, not the urban space that exists now in my opinion.”
Lissar is particularly irked by the famous 2007 newspaper interview in which Lahat called the 1978 project a mistake for which he was sorry.
“After Lahat’s statement appeared in the newspapers, I called him, and he invited me to his home. I showed him my ideas and he said, ‘You know what? I see again that you are right.’ He went to the association of architects and he said clearly that he was not sorry and continued to support the existing design.
But people are more familiar with what was written in the newspapers.”
As for Agam’s Fire and Water fountain, Lissar implies that this large installation, not part of the original design, is a major part of the problem.
“We designed a fountain in 1978, the same kind as the original fountain, to give some meaning to the continuation, not just to change. It was made of glass of a very nice design; it connected nicely with the surrounding pool.
Eight years after that came Yaakov Agam with his design. Everyone was so excited, but from my point of view, it was a big problem. I’m not talking about the art, but the geometry: it blocks your view of the space. It’s a visual obstacle.
“People think that the sculpture of Agam was something brought there hanging from a helicopter that went down slowly and then the municipality built my project to support it, but it was made eight years later and was not part of the original concept. From my point of view, if they put it somewhere else it will be much better.”
BUT WHILE the fate of the fountain remains uncertain, the determination to proceed with the restoration project seems more or less apparent.
“The planning stage will be over a year and a half, something like that, and I think around the middle of 2017 maybe we will start tearing this square down to rebuild it the right way,” says Sapir.
Two questions, however, remain unanswered as this issue of Metro goes to press. The city has not provided this paper with an estimate of the total cost of the restoration project. And as for the specifics of the project timeline, especially the stages in which the work will be undertaken, Moria-Sekely, the architectural firm involved with the project, has not responded to our telephone and email requests for an interview.
So what does the public think of all this? Sapir cites a 2011 telephone survey of local residents in which 61% of those polled favored lowering the square to street level, as it was, while 53% voted also to excavate a space under the lowered square for a parking lot. As currently planned, the former group will get their wish; the latter group will not.
“City planners looked into the issue and decided that there was no need for a parking lot under the square,” details Sapir.
“The municipality is not so much in favor of bringing cars into the city, for obvious reasons. All over the world, the policy is changing toward trying to not have so many cars in cities, and building fewer parking lots, having less parking in the streets, and developing public transportation. Here, the light rail is a solution we’re heading towards. And I think it’s the right way to go.”
Our own informal survey of residents, businesspersons and passersby suggests that most, at the moment, remain quite unaware of any impending plans to remake Dizengoff Square.
A typical reaction is that of Dan Chill, owner and chief curator of the Gallery of International Naïve Art, a few blocks away on Dizengoff Street.
“I really wasn’t aware that this is going to happen, but I think it would be nice to return the square to its former appearance.”
A young man who wishes to be noted only as Avi, working as a clerk in a convenience store at the square, expresses surprise at news of the impending project, having heard nothing of the proposed changes. Upon being informed of the plan, however, he grumbles that Agam’s fountain will probably end up in “some oligarch’s backyard.”
An older woman who prefers to remain anonymous not only claims she does not “give a damn” about the form of the square, but expresses strong objections to spending the money this project will cost. It would be much better to spend that money on other things, she says, although she was vague about what “other things” she specifically had in mind.
A young woman named Coral, who lives at the square, is of two minds about the proposed work: On the one hand she expects to be inconvenienced by the construction, possibly to the point of having to relocate.
“The city is taking on a lot at the moment.
As it is, there’s balagan [chaos] with traffic due to light rail construction.
Why take this on simultaneously and not just focus on one project at a time?” On the other hand, she expects the city to benefit from the project in the long run, with fewer traffic problems.
“The area would just look nicer, and it would keep away the less-than-ideal crowd drawn to the area at times in the late hours of the night.”
The present square, slated soon for demolition, also has its defenders – some quite vehement.
“I like the square exactly the way it is now,” insists another young woman who prefers to remain anonymous. “I like the fact that I can wander around there and walk from one end of the place to the other, without having to deal with passing cars or worry about traffic. I also like the fountain!” While it may not be possible to please everyone or to make Dizengoff Square “like it was” – or what some of us like to think it was – most people in Tel Aviv would probably agree that it can somehow be made better.