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Arts & Culture for Tel Aviv, UNESCO Award is an Honor — and Responsibility

May 24, 2004
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Under the layers of soot, the stucco walls are beginning to crumble and the once-sleek rectangular balconies have peeling walls and battered shutters. Inside, a bicycle is chained to the curved metal railing lining the staircase.

The address is 79 Gordon St., one of hundreds of Bauhaus-inspired buildings that line the streets of Tel Aviv, home to the largest collection of Bauhaus-style buildings in the world. Many, like this 1935 building, are classics of design but are in sore need of restoration.

In recent years, however, the conservation bug has begun to catch on in Tel Aviv, with hundreds of the city’s 4,000 or so Bauhaus-style buildings restored — repaired, painted in gleaming whites and pastels, and returned to their former glory.

On June 6, the “White City” of Tel Aviv will be declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. The White City refers to the concentration of Bauhaus-style architecture in and around the city center.

City officials hope the honor — Tel Aviv is only the second city in the world to be given the title — will give a boost to much needed restoration efforts.

“Tel Aviv is not an ancient city, but now it looks like an old city, and I would like it to look like a new city, fresh and clean, all the wrinkles ironed away,” said Danny Kaiser, the city’s chief engineer, who is an architect by training.

To make that happen, the city is offering unique incentives to the owners of the buildings to take on the expense of restoring their properties. In exchange for committing themselves to restoration, for example, owners can receive permission to add additional floors to the building as long as the floors are as “unseen” as possible, blending in with the original structure. Some real estate-related taxes also can be reduced.

“I think people are starting to recognize that it is not a burden but an opportunity,” Kaiser said, adding that owners need to see their buildings as precious property worth investing in.

Restoration ultimately is a worthy investment, he said, providing extra income from the creation of new apartments and increased rent because what was once a run-down building suddenly becomes a highly sought-after property.

The building at 3 Strauss St. has been expertly restored. It now appears as it originally did — a large, cream-colored building with dark red railings and a window running vertically the length of staircase.

Such windows, dubbed “thermometers” by local architects because one could see people going up and down the stairs, are typical of Tel Aviv’s Modern-style buildings.

“You look around and each building could look like this,” said Peera Goldman, who heads restoration efforts for the Tel Aviv municipality. She shakes her head and sighs.

The Bauhaus-inspired architecture, more accurately referred to as part of the Modern or International style, reached the country’s shores in the early 1930s with the arrival of Jewish architects fleeing Europe.

Many had studied at the top avant-garde architecture schools in Europe, and it was their convergence in Tel Aviv that helped create a synthesis of truly modern architecture in ideology and style, stripped of the heavy ornamentation of the past.

“They created an outstanding architectural ensemble of the Modern Movement in a new cultural context,” a UNESCO statement said.

Constructed between 1931 and 1956, the buildings always had looked somewhat out of place with their flat roofs and pastel colors, but here along the Mediterranean coastline they seemed to find their home.

Architects also adapted their designs to suit Tel Aviv’s weather and landscape.

The Modernist movement was based on the concept of art in the service of society, striving for architecture that was functional but at the same time aesthetic. It sought to remedy the ills of the Industrial Revolution and concomitant urban poverty, and its emphasis on concepts of utopia and equality fit well with the Zionist ideology in pre-state Palestine.

“The buildings adapted to the culture and climate of the place,” Goldman said. “It was a very good integration of the socialist spirit of the Israeli ethos of the time and the ideology of the Modern movement.”

Characteristic of the building style are columns and ribbon windows running horizontally. There is experimentation with the idea of volume and a focus on the asymmetrical — similar to Cubist art of the period.

Balconies often are curbed and overhung with ledges that provide shade. In an effort to keep interiors cool in humid Tel Aviv, angled skylights and small windows were installed.

Tel Aviv was chosen by UNESCO not only because of the buildings themselves but also for the city’s original urban design.

“The new town of Tel Aviv is an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century, adapted to the requirements of a particular cultural and geographic context,” a UNESCO statement said.

Tel Aviv started as a suburb of Jaffa In 1909 with 66 families. The original residents planned a garden city, so the sandy terrain was leveled and a linear garden was planted, the remnant of which can be seen today on languid Rothschild Boulevard, lined with ficus trees.

The garden was envisioned as the heart of the city, a point of social connection.

As the city grew, a Scotsman named Sir Patrick Geddes won the competition to design a city plan. He was moved by Tel Aviv’s community feel and he sought to preserve that sense as he planned for the city’s northward expansion.

Though his plan was not fully implemented, Geddes’ innovative idea — to create green squares tucked away in neighborhoods between major streets — gives the city a feeling of intimacy even today.

The design allows for residents to live in quiet neighborhoods but still be close to major, commercial roads.

The underlying plan was “a city that is very informal,” Goldman said — a city that fit with the informal lifestyle championed by the early Zionists.

UNESCO’s recognition of Tel Aviv stands as a challenge to the city and its residents to protect their urban heritage, officials said.

Kaiser, the city’s chief engineer, said he thinks the honor will help keep the conservation movement’s momentum.

“I hope we are in a new era in Tel Aviv,” he said.

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