Restoring Jaffa's past

Students from the Azrieli School of Architecture have been laboring to save Jaffa's languishing structures and convert them into modern facilities.

old TA building 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
old TA building 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Visitors to Tel Aviv's Galeria Bashdera (Boulevard Gallery) possess a rare opportunity this month: to simultaneously glimpse part of Jaffa's rich past and its potential future. "Well Houses: Disappearing Palaces of Jaffa," currently on view through March 21, is the culmination of three semesters' worth of work undertaken by students from the conservation studio at Tel Aviv University's Azrieli School of Architecture. Using what is known as the Sandel map - a detailed view of Jaffa dating from 1878 - as their starting point, the students located 55 structures still in existence (some nearly in ruins). The budding architects then painstakingly documented the buildings' history and current condition, and drafted plans to help restore what remains of their grandeur by converting them into community, educational and medical centers. All this, despite the fact that a majority of the well houses (called Biara in Arabic and Batei Habe'er in Hebrew) are likely destined for demolition. "We hope that these structures will stop being destroyed," said Amnon Bar Or, one of Tel Aviv-Jaffa's leading architectural preservationists, who mentored the students and curated the show together with colleague Sergio Lerman. "We hope that the newfound recognition of these sites will lead to their integration into the city's preservation plans, for the good of us all, Arabs and Jews as one." Built in 19th and early-20th century Palestine, the well houses served as an integral part of Jaffa's citrus-grove culture and contributed to the city's growth. Each "house" was in effect a compound comprising accommodations for orchard workers, a water well, a reservoir and an irrigation system. Members of Jaffa's upper class eventually converted a number of these sites into luxury mansions and summer homes. By 1948, around 200 such well houses existed, but many of them were evacuated or abandoned during and after the War of Independence. The exhibition - which is jam-packed with architectural models, photographs, videos, installation art, maps and time lines - brings to light the houses' storied, often overlooked histories. "In its 100th year, the city is embracing the different eras of its past, and is caring for them," said Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, at the gallery opening. "Batei Habe'er in Jaffa, which this exhibition is revealing to the public eye, are an additional aspect of our city's rich history." Touchy politics abound regarding to whom these structures belong and what should be done with them - as evidenced by a video work that questions whether the conservation effort continues the eradication of Palestinian history in Jaffa. But the students insist that they approached this endeavor from a strictly architectural, not political, perspective. Above all else, they say, the buildings should be appreciated for their esthetic and cultural value. "It's architectural heritage and it's important to keep it and know about it and preserve it," said Osnat Linder-Assouline, one of the participating students, whose project, the Aturki house, is one of the few that may survive. "Architecture is one of the representatives of our culture," Linder-Assouline added, noting that if the well houses and similar structures are razed, "all of our cities will look like Modi'in. So what are we going to be left with?"