New White City

Renewed and restored, Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus core enjoys a comeback.

My most vivid memory of a childhood spent in England's dowdy Midlands is the arrival of a crate filled with Jaffa oranges. The sender was "Reik, 109 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv." Reik meant my great uncle, Arthur Reik, his wife, Stella, and their two sons, Heinzi and Otto. Emigrants from Vienna, they moved in March 1939 to Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv's main residential street. They provided my introduction to a mysterious fruit and to a part of my family and a part of the world that were then completely unknown to me.

In the late 1930s Rothschild Boulevard was a grand thoroughfare of crisp new buildings with a ficus-and-grass-lined median that looked more northern European than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. "It was called 'Nob Hill,'" Heinzi recalls, since notable residents, including the city's mayor, lived there. "As far as I can remember, he had the only chauffeur-driven car in the city. This was when most people didn't have much."

Now, after a checkered past of boom and bust, the neighborhood around the boulevard has again become a desirable address. And as a major force in that recovery, hundreds of buildings—pioneering examples of European modernism from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, the world's largest such concentration—have been restored.

The history of Tel Aviv begins at the 4,000-year-old Mediterranean seaport of Jaffa (also known as Yafo), the entry point for countless immigrants. By the 1900s, many of its residents had grown displeased with the rapid growth of Jaffa and its lack of space.

In response, 60 families purchased a parcel of land north of the city. They named the sandy tract Ahuzat Bayit, Hebrew for "housing association." And on April 11, 1909, with a communelike sense of fairness, the property was divided and the housing association became the nucleus for the new municipality of Tel Aviv: Tel means hill, either natural or man-made; aviv means spring, as in the renewal of life. This was the first Jewish city built in 2,000 years.

By 1914, Tel Aviv's population had grown to 1,500. After the First World War, the city expanded north, guided by a 1925 master plan, which promoted garden-city principles within an urban template: free-standing, low-rise structures set into small green spaces, blocks of buildings repeated within a hierarchical street grid, public gardens, and avenues (including Rothschild) with landscaped medians. Much of the architecture in the newer neighborhoods was strictly modern and designed by graduates of Germany's Bauhaus school. (The school, founded in 1919, combines the German words for "building" and "house.") While Bauhaus-trained architects would affect urban design around the world (see page 71), their ideas had a tremendous impact on Tel Aviv. Some immigrated to the bourgeoning city in the 1920s, but after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, many more arrived as part of a huge exodus of German Jews.

Influenced by their studies at the school, and by such modernist stars as Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn (himself an emigrant from Germany), they embraced simplified forms with clean lines and minimal ornamentation. Their buildings, cubic structures of reinforced concrete that rarely rose more than four stories, favored such modern features as pilotis (stilts) on the first floor that let air cool the building above, curved corners, deep balconies for outdoor living, and flat roofs where residents could socialize, cook, and hang their laundry to dry. The pilotis, rooftops, and other elements—relatively small windows, for example—show the influence of the warm local climate. "Think of a chest of drawers with the drawers pulled out," says Yona Wiseman, who leads walking tours of Tel Aviv, in describing the buildings. "White was the prevalent color, hence Tel Aviv's other name—the White City."

"The critical aspect of Bauhaus teachings was the lack of pretension," says Benjamin Forgey, former architecture critic of The Washington Post. "There was this fabulously idealistic notion that human beings could stand on their own legs and use their own minds to determine their own cultural futures, without all the inherited props of cultures past. This ideal had great influence around the world, but it got thoroughly tested with large groups of buildings only in a few places—Berlin, Vienna, and by historical circumstance, most thoroughly in Tel Aviv." Some 4,000 Bauhaus-inspired residential, commercial, and civic structures were ultimately built in the White City.

In 1978 I saw Rothschild Boulevard and Israel for the first time. I had a four-year old daughter I wanted Uncle Arthur to meet (and the thought of Jaffa oranges made me salivate). The words "Rothschild" and "Boulevard" led me to believe the street would be very sophisticated, somewhat ritzy, an example of 1930s architecture at its best. What a disappointment! Nearly 40 years after my relatives had moved in, the area was rundown. The skies remained blue and morale seemed high, but the neighborhood had passed its peak. On the median, in front of 109, the trees looked unhealthy and the grass was all but extinct. Parking spaces had replaced gardens, balconies had been enclosed, stories had been added, and buildings had been poorly maintained (which landlords blamed on rent control). Additionally, the sprouting of high-rise buildings in the surrounding city compromised the area's setting.

But a new renaissance was around the corner. During the 1980s and 1990s, wealth fueled enormous changes in the White City. A thriving stock market driven in part by the tech boom in Israel's Silicon Wadi ("wadi" is Arabic for "valley"), plus the lifting of rent controls, boosted both domestic and foreign investment in Israeli real estate. The older generation had moved on (although the Reiks remained at 109 Rothschild, Stella dying in 1977 and Arthur in 1980). Younger, hipper—and richer—residents, many Russian-born, started to move into the neighborhood. Spurred by citizen and then municipal action, the notion began to take hold of preserving an area that was increasingly recognized as an architectural treasure. Restorations were launched and continue to this day and, for the most part, have been remarkably faithful to the original architecture. Examples pepper Rothschild Boulevard and other streets—21 Bialik St., for example, which houses Bauhaus Tel Aviv, a gallery just opened with help from American philanthropist Ronald Lauder. The Esther Cinema, built in 1939 on Dizengoff Circle (one of planner Patrick Geddes' major public parks) has been restored as the Hotel Cinema, and a four-story 1930s office building that started life in 1909 as a one-story house (built for one of Tel Aviv's founding families) was renovated in 2007 as the French Institute.

In late June 2003, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) named "The White City of Tel Aviv" a World Heritage Site. "What makes the designation work especially," architecture critic Forgey says, "is that it encourages local folks to realize what they have, and helps them to maintain these treasures." Every year on the last Thursday in June, Tel Aviv's status as a World Heritage Site is celebrated with a White Night Festival. Floodlights illuminate buildings, crowds and music fill the streets, restaurants are open late, and Tel Avivians (who under normal circumstances are not early-to-bed types) party even later than usual.

Tel Aviv is getting ready for another celebration—its centennial, beginning next April. Along with sprucing up for the many commemorative ceremonies, there will be special exhibits, including one of sculptor Alexander Calder's works. Milan's La Scala Opera will be in residence for one month. The Israel Philharmonic will perform under Zubin Mehta, and Israel's Batsheva Dance Company is planning a new work for the celebration. Planners are also promising free concerts of rock, Hasidic, and Israeli music.

I have now been to Tel Aviv four times, visiting relatives and witnessing the boulevard as it has changed. Last year, I was saddened to see that 109 Rothschild Blvd. was not one of the buildings that had been given careful attention. But Israel is filled with contrasts: On Rothschild's median strip, the poinciana trees that replaced earlier varieties are capped by flamboyant red blooms, and the grass is green again. Families stroll up and down the boulevard, and children climb on a large concrete sculpture that represents two coffee cups and the continuous flow of liquid (symbolic of coffee and conversation) between them.

I thought of my relatives, the Reiks—their gemŸtlich home, coffee with warm milk, delicious cakes, and conversation that ranged from Israel's future to our family's past.

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