Tel Aviv’s crumbling, sunbaked smog-coated buildings make it hard at first to understand why it’s nicknamed the White City.
Michal Minsky, a Bauhaus Center tour guide, compares the city, on the Mediterranean beachfront, to ancient Jerusalem, 45 minutes inland.
“When dust settles on stone, over the centuries, we think it’s beautiful,” she says. “On concrete, it’s another story.”
Tel Aviv, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009, isn’t biblically blessed like Jerusalem. It has another distinction: the world’s greatest concentration of Bauhaus buildings, almost 4,000 structures. This architectural heritage, born of a time when Jews fled 1930s Europe, was recognized by UNESCO in 2003.
Bauhaus was a German architecture-and-design school founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius. It closed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Many students were Jewish and fled, creating a building boom in Tel Aviv, making this artistically and politically progressive architecture an integral component of the Zionist movement.
The state of Israel was declared in 1948 from a Tel Aviv building -- the Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard -- renovated during the 1930s in Bauhaus style.
Restoration is lacking.
“Many of the buildings we see will be quite neglected,” Minsky says. “This is what the city could look like if we renovated them all,” she says, showing Depression-era photos. There are gleaming white buildings, some elegantly streamlined, others razor-edged boxes. No flaking concrete, rebar rust, alterations or gray schmutz.
Bauhaus, which inspired the influential International Style, “was easy to build and had no local characteristics, and it fit the society of immigrants who were starting a new life here,” Minsky says.
Holy Land Bauhaus differs from that of its German homeland. Window openings are smaller, blocking sunlight, and balconies expanded.
“Balconies represent the free atmosphere that exists in Tel Aviv,” a liberal, largely secular city, Minsky says. They allowed people in a building to socialize with those in the street, a cultural change for refugees.
“Jews were afraid to be seen at times from the street, and the notion of dining on the porch would have been unheard of in Europe,” with its pogroms and Nazi attacks. Other Tel Aviv touches are ventilation strips on balconies and shade edgings.
Being a Jewish city is written into urban design in a manner certainly not found in Germany. Unique to Israel and not a Bauhaus element so much as local planning, traffic circles are often six-point intersections, forming Stars of David, though these proved circulation nightmares and were altered over time.
After the tour, I meet Dr. Micha Gross, bespectacled, quiet yet excitedly intellectual, in the Bauhaus Center on Dizengoff Street. He and his wife Schlomit co-founded the bookstore, mini- museum and lecture center in 2000, along with Asher Ben-Shmuel. A major role is teaching Bauhaus’s significance, says Gross.
“We are the holy city of Modernism, but we have to educate and show our public it’s worthwhile to keep it,” he says. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the original Bauhaus buildings remain.
Gross, though, isn’t a purist and regards Tel Aviv as a living organism.
“You cannot preserve a whole city after all,” he says. “Then it would be Hollywood.”
Yet preserving as much as possible is the city’s goal, says Jeremie Hoffmann, director of Tel Aviv’s Municipal Conservation Department.
“Seeing historic architecture as a public issue was not part of the law until recently,” he says, adding that a 2008 ruling declared, “people are obliged to conserve their houses.”
Until that point, he says, the laws were almost against conservation. Locals fought preservation, claiming billions of shekels in property value would be lost.
At the end of 2011, however, Tel Aviv passed a new law, providing money for preservation: 30,000 shekels ($7,994) per apartment unit, averaging 300,000 shekels per building.
“Cash money, not a loan,” Hoffmann says. “We are trying to prove there is public interest, that people are not losing money by that law but the opposite. Homes for conservation became more expensive.”
They increase 5 percent in value over non-historical properties, a point now made in real-estate advertising.
There’s still a long way to go.
“To see the critical mass you have to renovate all the city to feel it,” says Hoffmann. “It is still far from where we would like to get.”
Both he and Gross point out that conservation is difficult when a city is full of people, not unoccupied like many historical locations. Declaring Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site was a challenge for UNESCO.
“The issue of historical urban landscape is new for them, Hoffmann says. “They usually deal with isolated areas, buildings, ruins, not cities that are modern and alive.”
He’s excited about returning central Tel Aviv to its 1930s look, “when Bauhaus represents the spirit of Zionism because of the creation of a new society.”
Many forms of this “ideal city” have been lost, particularly its heart, Dizengoff Circle, one of the six-pointed traffic intersections. In the 1980s, a circulation redesign separated cars from pedestrians and obliterated the vista.
Talked about for decades, Hoffmann says the circle finally will be restored.
“It might be pretentious to say, but it’s the only Bauhaus square in the world,” he says. Yet both of us then wonder if such squares exist in Eritrea’s Asmara, another planned Bauhaus city, or Miami Beach, Tel Aviv’s U.S. cognate, also a palm- fronded beachfront city with both Bauhaus and Art Deco elements.
Dizengoff Circle is my favorite part of Tel Aviv. It’s also where the city’s secular nature collides with a certain religiosity. Its most glorious architectural feature is the Cinema Hotel, formerly the Esther Cinema, with its curvaceous insides strewn with reminders of past usage including 1930s movie cameras.
A modern queen of song and screen, who goes by the name Esther in Israel, but is best known as Madonna, is sometimes found nearby at the Kabbalah Center for Jewish mysticism. Among the city’s largest Bauhaus structures, the building’s facade resembles an ocean liner.
The circle’s biggest religious contrast emerges on Friday before Sabbath sundown as men in black with hats and long beards try to tie up beachgoers with leather straps, in service to God.
That’s how I meet redheaded Tzvi Kilov, originally from Atlanta and studying at the Chabad Lubavitch Yeshiva a few blocks away. He’s offering prayer straps, called Tefellin, to passersby.
Tel Aviv’s architecture doesn’t impress him.
“I’ve heard of Bauhaus, mostly in guidebooks, but I don’t think anything about it,” Kilov says, looking at the circle’s mix of renovated and decrepit buildings.
I had better luck at a restored Shimshon Hagibor Street apartment complex. There I meet architecturally knowledgeable newlyweds Naama and Ohad Toledano, sunning on their balcony.
“It’s not really a Bauhaus, it’s a Mendelsohn,” says Naama. The 1937 building was designed by Erich Mendelsohn who worked with streamlined elements, she says. Preservation poses challenges but they love the historic center, they say.
“Basically, a house is a home, but here, you feel like you are living in a piece of history,” says Ohad.
Information: Tel Aviv Tourism, http://www.visit-tlv.com. Bauhaus Center, http://www.bauhaus-center.com.
(Michael Luongo writes on travel for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include: Farah Nayeri on design awards; Ryan Sutton on New York dining.
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