In Tel Aviv, Bauhaus rules

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Tel Aviv as a "brand-new Israeli city" during the pre-World War II period when the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. In fact, Israel did not exist at that time. Tel Aviv was located in what was then British-administered Palestine. The error has been corrected below.


Bialik Street, in Tel Aviv, Israel, opens into a pleasant square with several eclectic-style buildings from the 1920s, including the old town hall (white building), now a museum. (JoAnn Greco/JOANN GRECO)
March 30, 2012

Israel’s ages-old city, Jerusalem, is rightly famous for its warm, honey-colored limestone architecture. But its lazily hip rival, Tel Aviv, has lately begun garnering attention for a contrasting — and equally abundant — assemblage of cool and creamy Bauhaus buildings.

Erected by the hundreds as the city grew dramatically and welcomed new immigrants in the 1920s and ’30s, the city’s bright white edifices have become a hallmark, typically portrayed as glowing entrancingly under brilliant blue skies.

Tel Aviv: How to get there, where to stay, what to do and more


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

On a recent visit, however, I found them often tattered and covered with graffiti and, on one afternoon, doused by a rare but quite torrential spell of weeping skies. Still, I was determined to see as many as I could during my short stay.

Named for the German architecture school founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius to advance the design principles of what would become known as the International Style, Bauhaus flourished in Tel Aviv as Jews began leaving Nazi Germany and immigrating to the brand-new city. Established in 1909 as a Jewish suburban utopia just outside the old Arab town of Jaffa, Tel Aviv provided a blank slate upon which architects could experiment.

Because the style emphasized democracy and practicality, architects used cheap and common materials, and by the 1960s, many buildings had fallen into disrepair. Besieged by more urgent political matters, the city and still-new nation didn’t especially pay attention until UNESCOrecognized the wealth of Bauhaus buildings with a conference in 1994.

And with World Heritage designation in 2003, things began to change — slowly. Owners and developers started taking literal stock of the astounding collection — and today the renovations continue. There’s even a burgeoning municipal program — just about six months old — to help building owners and developers give the structures the tender loving care they so need and deserve. About 1,000 of the 4,000 Bauhaus structures are now protected under historic preservation guidelines, a recognition that for too long the buildings have been subject to such careless updates as the addition of stories and the enclosure of balconies.

My first look at these buildings came during a general architectural walk guided by Iddo Katz, an archaeologist with a clear love of the city. That day, the sky shone a crystalline blue and the sun beat down benignly. Bougainvillea bloomed, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the city’s copious palm trees danced a little in the breeze.

Our small group met outside my nondescript hotel, one of several that hulk over the beach promenade. Katz pointed out a few nods to the International Style that these 1990s buildings offer: the vertical strip of “thermometer” windows that run along their sides, the notched corners, the horizontal ribbons of room windows that band the buildings.

Katz also indicated a skyscraper a few blocks away, the Shalom Tower from 1965. A rectangular slab that echoes such modernist classics as the Secretariat Building of the United Nations (designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier) and the Seagram Building (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), the tower represents the height of the “ideology that was behind Tel Aviv,” Katz observed. “It says, ‘We’ve moved beyond mud and stone. We want modernism.’ ”

Using these newer landmarks as a jumping-off point, we traced our way back in time, winding through the bustling Carmel Market, a colorful, aromatic and crammed space of hectoring produce sellers and beseeching craftspeople that harked to those found in Jaffa and Jerusalem. Here, it wasn’t hard to imagine that time of mud and stone, of desert survivalism and downtrodden villages.

As we emerged from the cacophony and entered the six-sided Magen David Square, I was treated to my first look at several signature Bauhaus buildings. They front the square, each one more distressed than the other. Although they were spotted with graffiti, boarded-up windows and exposed rebar, their prowed fronts, curving integrated balconies and flat roofs nevertheless defined them as exemplars of the style.

“These are truly pearls,” Katz said. “It’s very sad how they’ve been neglected.” He pointed to one of the bigger buildings, the upper floors empty and a garish Burger Ranch operating on the ground level. That one, he said, will soon be redeveloped into a hotel.

We strode a few blocks along the main drag of Allenby Street and stopped at a side street. Across the way, Katz pointed to a few shored-up houses rising above a cluster of trees across the way. Faded and pockmarked as they were, it was clear that they had once been very grand.

These were, Katz said, examples of the turn-of-the-20th-century “dream houses” built by Tel Aviv’s first wave of prominent citizens. Designed in an eclectic style that blended Eastern and Western fantasy elements, they typically feature soaring turrets and profuse tilework.

We turned onto a little street named Bialik and, as if stepping over an imaginary boundary, entered the Bauhaus. “This street wasn’t even paved in the 1920s when it was named after a famous Russian Jewish poet who had announced that he would be moving to Tel Aviv,” Katz explained.

I was touched by the notion of an emerging populace becoming so excited by the renowned expats making their way to the new city. And I could easily understand the promise that the still-sleepy village of one-story houses — built on an idea — could hold for these intellectuals, artists and Zionists.

One of those was Chaim Bialik, who came to his eponymous street in 1924 and soon moved into a house that sits near the end of the block and is now a museum.

Save for a few “dream house” embellishments, such as Moorish archways and minaret-like domes, it’s designed very much along Bauhaus principles, with a relatively plain facade set back from the street behind a walled-off garden of palm trees. Inside, it hews to the Arts and Crafts meme of the time, with exuberantly patterned wallpapers, jewel-toned walls and layers of intricate mosaics.

Bialik House has only recently been restored, as have many of the two dozen or so apartment buildings and homes on this quiet, leafy street. More renovations are underway. As we walked along, the bucolic tweeting of birds was occasionally interrupted by the crash of dumpsters being filled and the beep of trucks backing up.

Across the street from Bialik House, the unadorned Bauhaus Museum posted only a tantalizing sign telling me that I’d missed one of its open days and wouldn’t be around for another. No matter; the entire street suffices as a museum of the style.

Two other luscious public buildings on Bialik Square — a creamsicle-hued music hall and the white porticoed Museum of the History of Tel Aviv Jaffa (formerly City Hall) — provide great examples of dream houses that place Bauhaus in the context of the growing city.

Still, I was left wanting more.

Like many Israelis I encountered, Katz had a disconcerting penchant for trailing off into musings on the Palestinian state, the ultra Orthodox and the Israeli government. Hungry for a little critical distance — and depth — I took myself over the next day to the Bauhaus Center; I’d heard that it offered an excellent self-guided audio tour. And it would take me into an entirely different neighborhood.

This time, the morning was chilly and gray, and a light drizzle threatened to morph into something more annoying. Instead of meandering, I mapped out a more direct path that would take me past a few notable Bauhaus buildings that I’d found listed in an old magazine article.

On Rothschild Boulevard, its medians filled with fountains and parks and tot lots, I noticed several espresso kiosks. As the rain came down harder, I ducked under the inviting green-and-white striped awning of one and watched as the guy behind the counter methodically made his way through a teetering pile of oranges to squeeze out a fresh glass of juice for me.

After a while, I took advantage of a break in the downpour and sped along to the center, on bustling Dizengoff Street. There, Michal Minsky, who also leads a walking tour on Friday mornings, elaborated on how Bauhaus had developed in town and how it was gradually adapted for its new setting and climate.

“The dream houses were really the first attempt at a national Jewish style,” she said, noting ironically that with so many influences, they ultimately had no identity. “The Bauhaus was very plain, so it fit everyone,” she continued. “The idea was not to show off. Everything was new and everything was the same.”

As architects kept building, they modified the style, tinkering with elements that had originally been established to work in a northern clime such as Germany. Windows were shrunk to combat the strong sun and angles were gently rounded, especially around the distinctive balconies, to soften the edge of what was becoming a busy city. Those balconies expanded so that occupants could take advantage of the mild weather. The now ubiquitous shutters were added for times when the sun became too strong.

Minsky directed me to an upstairs gallery, where I watched a 10-minute introductory video. Tel Aviv’s population grew from 2,000 in 1920, I learned, to 34,000 five years later, spurred by a series of riots in Jaffa that caused many Jews to migrate to the new city.

The need for new housing attracted architects from around the world, including diaspora Jews. When the Nazis closed Gropius’s Bauhaus school in 1933, still more left Germany for Tel Aviv.

With the stage set, I embarked on the tour. When I reached the first stop, I turned on the museum’s iPod and was startled to hear the very same Russian-accented voice that had narrated the video. Lilting Hebrew music accompanied my new friend, whom I took to calling Natasha, and I listened as she talked about the movement’s “socialistic principles.”

Some might find the 20 or so buildings on the tour too much, but I lapped it up. Natasha led me to an old movie theater that’s now a hotel, to a series of workers’ flats and to beautiful Shlomo HaMelech street, lined with one treasure after another, all fronted by lush gardens of hibiscus and rose shrubs.

Spying a coffee shop at the base of a squat apartment building that struggled for recognition from behind black scrawls and overgrown weeds, I decided to take a break.

A young woman stood in the doorway, and I asked her whether she lived in the building. “No, but I used to live over there,” she responded, gesturing to another white building down the block. When I asked her what it was like living in a Bauhaus building, she praised the ceiling heights, the cross ventilation, the light.

When I asked whether it mattered that the building had architectural significance, she replied, “Of course it matters. The Bauhaus is Tel Aviv.”

Tel Aviv: How to get there, where to stay, what to do and more

JoAnn Greco, co-founder and editor of the online magazine the City Traveler (www.thecitytraveler.com), writes about travel and architecture.

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