White city: the story of Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

2 November 2018 (Last Updated October 31st, 2018 14:10)

In the first of a season of articles celebrating 100 years of Bauhaus, Patrick Kingsland looks at Tel Aviv’s White City – a collection of some 4,000 Bauhaus and International style buildings built in the 1930s by Jewish immigrants and designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.

White city: the story of Bauhaus in Tel Aviv
For many, the most impressive example of Bauhaus-style architecture outside of its birthplace in Germany, is Tel Aviv. Image: Andrew Nash.

Founded in 1919 by the German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus movement has had an unparalleled influence on 20th century art, architecture and design. Its clean lines, modernist aesthetic and socialist ideals can still be found in cities around the world – and in the minds of the people that design them

For many, the most impressive example of Bauhaus-style architecture outside of its birthplace in Germany, is Tel Aviv, the second largest town in Israel. Lying on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, the city boasts more than 4000 Bauhaus-style buildings constructed by Jewish immigrants in the 1930s.

Building Tel Aviv’s White City

Together they form a part of Tel Aviv now popularly known as the White City. In 2003 the area was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO which dubbed it “a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning”.

Before modernism arrived in then Palestine, the search for a “Hebrew” language of architecture had brought mixed results. Many buildings were constructed using an eclectic blend of biblical motifs and orientalist themes that borrowed arches and dooms from Islamic architecture.

“It was a pastiche of different styles,” says Zvi Efrat, professor of architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

But with the arrival of Jewish architects from central and eastern Europe like Arieh Sharon, there was a rapid change of heart. Starting in the early 1930s the ornamentation of the so-called “eclectic” style was replaced by a new, local, modernist vernacular.

“Architectural zeitgeists often take several years to develop but modern architecture in Jewish Palestine quickly became the only option,” says Efrat. “The municipalities would reject plans in the former style and only accept modernist buildings. And it was not just a radical architecture of the left…it was accepted by all, across classes and ideologies.”

A local vernacular

Of course, working out how to define the style of architecture that was built in Tel Aviv is slightly harder than Israel’s tourism brochures make out. Many say the White City framing is really a misnomer – not least because the buildings are more monochrome than white – and that the style of modernist architecture found in Tel Aviv differs significantly from what was produced a decade earlier in Europe.

“Unlike its German counterpart it is not a pure Bauhaus style,” says Sharon Golan Yaron, architect and program director of the White City Center. “It is a specific vernacular style that has been developed here.”

For Efrat, modernist architecture in Israel was specifically adapted to the climate of the Levant. Unlike the flat, cubic boxes of Dessau – the former German headquarters of the Bauhaus – the buildings in Tel Aviv are “far more complex volumetrically and far more diverse”, Efrat says.

“Take the idea of raising the building on pilotes,” he continues. “In Tel Aviv it became almost a municipal zoning regulation because it is a city where you want to allow the breeze from the sea to go underneath the building and to ventilate the ground floor. The same is true about roof gardens: it was almost a rhetorical element but in Tel Aviv it became an urban feature.”

In his book, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the dissident Israeli architect Sharon Rotbard describes the narrative of the “white city” as a dangerous decoy; connecting Tel Aviv to high-culture and the European avant-garde while obscuring the ruined Arab villages it was partly built on.

The idea that scores of Dessau-trained Jewish architects fled Nazi Germany for Tel Aviv is also false, Rotbard says. Just four Bauhaus architects were active in Palestine during the 1930s and just one – Arieh Sharon – left what could be accurately described as an “architectural legacy”.

Conservation efforts in Tel Aviv’s White City

However the White City narrative is viewed, before UNESCO designated the area a World Cultural Heritage Site many of Tel Aviv’s modernist buildings were in a state of disrepair. Like other cities around the world, a process of suburbanisation in the 1980s had left behind a trail of inner-city decay in Tel Aviv.

“The city really died,” says Sharon of the White City Centre.When these buildings are run-down and the plaster is grayish because of air pollution, you cannot really understand the style unless you knew it before.”

In 2008 plans were approved for conserving Tel Aviv’s modernist buildings. This included placing certain buildings under “high protection” where no changes are allowed and “defined limitations” on constructing additional floors on top of other protected buildings.

“This has enabled a big shift because the city gets another layer,” says Sharon. “The city really needs to grow. We don’t feel ourselves as a UNESCO museum but as a lively place that changes according to the needs of the people who live in these buildings today.”

How much appreciation today’s Tel Aviv’s residents have for modernist architecture is hard to quantify. Much of the White City is now viewed through the billboards of real estate campaigns and it isn’t uncommon, says Sharon, to find parts of historic flats, such as old wooden doors, being peddled down local flea markets.

“Appreciation for the authenticity of the buildings still needs to be evaluated in the city,” she says. “The most important issue is to raise awareness about these buildings among the people that live here, awareness that would bring them to take care and maintain them.”

With Tel Aviv ranked the 9th most expensive city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, and a series of new high-rise buildings transforming the city’s skyline – “there are a lot of attributes that the modernist architects can teach us today,” Sharon adds.

“Their environmental values are amazing and there was a lot of consideration about how they should be shaded and ventilated,” she says. “Today’s market on the other hand is controlled by real estate developers more interested in how many square meters they can get out of a building.”