The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tel Aviv’s bus station is an eyesore, but an urban playground for artists

Girls from Eritrea play in an open area opposite to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

TEL AVIV — It’s impossible to remain apathetic toward Tel Aviv’s “new” Central Bus Station, a grimy, peeling concrete structure that spans five blocks and reaches seven stories in a run-down section of this bustling city.

No longer new — it opened its doors in 1993 — and certainly not central, the bus station evokes sharp responses from anyone who steps inside. Some are fascinated with the urban eyesore, while for others, it instills fear after years of violent crime marred its reputation.

Designed by renowned Israeli architect Ram Karmi, the hulking station, said to be the second largest in the world, was envisioned as housing an entire city under one roof. But Karmi’s brutalist style, with coarsely strewn stairwells, mezzanine floors, winding walkways, vast corridors and dark hidden spaces made the station impractical and impossible to navigate almost from the start.  

Twenty-six years later, its legacy is as rough and as unwelcoming as the abandoned stores and deserted floors inside it. Only a small part of the station is used today for daily travel, with most commuters hurrying through, hoping to spend as little time there as possible.

But the expansive space has given rise to a cast of exotic characters and myriad artistic initiatives that take advantage of the unique charms of this gritty interior.

The surrounding neighborhood is populated by a mix of African migrants, Filipino care workers and longtime Israeli residents, all of whom mill about the station’s ultracheap clothing stores, bargain electronic outlets, beauty salons and foreign food markets. 

Over the past five years, artists have realized the benefits of this unadorned space, brightening its walls with graffiti on the seventh floor or filling the abandoned stores on the fifth with modern installations. A Yiddish Cultural Center and a bat colony also call the station home. 

Recently, a group of architectural students opened an exhibition on the fourth floor that ­reimagined the space, with ideas including a basement swimming pool and even an indoor athletic field. Others, with less admiration for the massive structure, continue to call for it to be torn down.

In the meantime, a local theater group has adopted the bus station for its site-specific and immersive performances. 

In “Seven,” an artistic interpretation of the seven deadly sins, the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble spotlights some of the station’s darkest corners: a former waiting area it has renamed “the red square,” the oddly painted concrete staircase and even the dreaded first floor, with its abandoned movie theater, stores, cafes and ticket booths. 

“It’s an urban playground for artists,” said actress and theater manager Dana Forer. “For us, this is an ideal space. We have seven floors, and the people who come here help turn our performance into a world of fantasy and reality.”

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