For many, Tel Aviv is a romanticized, nurturing and stabilizing city, despite its often menacing pace and complexity. This, I think, stems chiefly from the fact that it is THE city of Hebrew dreams, a magical house of mirrors reflecting all that local secular culture aspires to be--progressive, cosmopolitan, creative; edgy and ever-changing, yet welcoming, with a sense of family and community. From its early days at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the city captured the hearts of those who built and lived in it. Today, it ranks among the greenest, hippest, most successful of cities, a destination for tourists, artists and business types.
Tel Aviv nostalgia runs rampant--it is a city that after a century of placing almost merciless emphasis on the future, has begun to value its past. Nowhere can this be better seen than in Tel Aviv’s iconic buildings, many of whom are emblematic of the century into which they were born. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gave world heritage status to Tel Aviv’s famous Bauhaus/International style buildings that has led to a large scale project of restoration and recognition of the often dilapidated structures which had become collateral damage in the race towards the new and improved.
I love wandering the streets and most especially the leafy, welcoming boulevards of Tel Aviv, discovering their many architectural gems, hidden spots and innovative spaces. I have created a list of personal favorite buildings which may or may not correlate with directories of historic or architectural importance. Though I have a great fondness for the simplicity and harmony of the Bauhaus, my time in Tel Aviv has taught me to look beyond this single era and see the beauty of earlier structures whose detail and intention stand as testament to the nascent concept of a Hebrew architectural language.
1. Bialik Square
Chiam Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) was considered the poet laureate of Hebrew culture, having given the revived language much of its early color, tone and resonance. A grand street was named for him in his lifetime and a stately residence erected for his 1924 move to Tel Aviv. Strolling down the short expanse of Bialik Street--still the most tony of Tel Aviv addresses--is like opening a box of fine, mixed bonbons; there is simply too much delight to choose from. Starting at the corner of Allenby Street with its modernist, oval-sided cafe (named for the great author himself), moving down toward the unassuming biscuit-tin shaped home (now museum) of artist Reuven Rubin and on to the resplendent residences of the city’s founding great and good, pretty much encapsulates the entire history of Tel Aviv architecture in three short blocks.
The very end of the road opens to a modest but grand horseshoe shaped fountained square, a testament to its former role as public gathering space. All around the circle are marvelous examples of early architecture, be it the ocher colored art-déco music center, the uber-Bauhaus Museum, the dove-grey orientalist home of the Balders or the pretentious mini White House that once served as City Hall. The star of the block is the home of the street’s namesake, which served as a center for culture and consultation. It is the quintessence of pre-modernist eclecticism, part European, part Middle-Eastern, all fantasy. Its interior matches the glory of its facade and is now a museum the great man who acted as secular spiritual leader until his untimely death in 1934
Designed by Genia Auerbach in memory of the legendary mayor’s wife, the circular Dizengoff Square was intended to be a centre of public life, leisure and transport. Despite unappealing changes made to the square over the years and the unkempt appearance of its long-neglected buildings, there is a lingering air of modernist elegance which will no doubt be intensified as it is restored to Auerbach’s original vision.
At Auerbach’s insistence, all buildings in the square adhere to the curved shape and are stunning examples of Bauhaus. None is more eye-catching, lyrical or modern as the former Esther Cinema, now known as the “Cinema Hotel”. Lovingly restored, the building features long undulating balconies that appear to roll in large ribbony waves. The building is a playful dance of forms, at some points heavy and solid, at others airy, almost fluid. Inside, a grand staircase lends an elegant Hollywood-esque feel, its flower-like shape enhanced by giant columns and bold, simple ironwork. It is Tel-Aviv nostalgia personified, festooned with vintage film equipment, movie posters and memorabilia.
3. Alhambra Cinema-Jaffa
Not all of the local, sumptuous modern architecture is Hebrew or Zionist in nature. In fact, the imposing, dapper Alhambra Cinema on Jaffa’s Jerusalem Road was designed to compete with colonial era Tel Aviv in order to help retain the elder city’s preeminent cultural presence.
Designed by Lebanese (possibly Syrian) architect Elias Al-Mor in 1937, this showstopper building was meant to draw both the Arab community as well as British Mandate personnel. It is unique on the local scene in that it is boldly Art Deco rather than Bauhaus, its ornamentation and gandur separating it from the utilitarian sparseness of the latter. Along with screening films, The Alhambra boasted top-drawer Arab language performers like Umm Kulthum and large orchestras playing both European and Middle-Eastern music. After many years of decline and neglect, the space was purchased by the Church of Scientology, given a complete facelift and reopened as their local flagship center in 2012.
4. Palm Tree Building (8 Nachalat Binyamin)
When I first began to visit the fantastic arts and crafts market on Nachalat Binyamin St., I became smitten with a dilapidated, once lavish building whose most unique feature was a stylized palm tree that ran the length of the building. Several years later, the so-called “Palm Tree House” was restored to stately perfection, enhancing my love of its whimsy and romanticism.
Built in 1922 for the Cohen family, this is the most important building designed by Y.Z. Tabachnik, who aimed to create a new Jewish style of architecture by blending the then trendy Art Nouveau esthetic with Jewish motifs. Unable to use overtly religious symbols (he was denied permission to include the Ten Commandments), Tabachnik made due with Stars of David and a jugendstil inspired menorah. Rather cleverly though, he hinted at Jewish themes through the use of Holy Temple-like double columns, capped with alter-like crowns. A blank triangle adheres to the tradition of leaving an empty space in memory of the Temple’s destruction. The signature palm is a reference to the ‘oriental’ nature of the new Tel Aviv community, part of that generation’s attempt to blend east and west in what became known as the “Eclectic” style.
5. Pagoda house
Rising above the forked intersection known as “King Albert Square” stands a three-story structure unlike any other in Tel Aviv. Built in 1924 for the American financier and citrus king M.D. Bloch, it took the Eclectic style to a whole new level by blending Far (rather than Middle) Eastern motifs with what was then contemporary design. The result is an over-the-top yet oddly regal and contemplative space of great detail and character, a standout against the austerity of the Bauhaus that surrounds it.
Designed to Bloch’s specifications, some claim that the idea came from a Japanese- American architect or perhaps from a favored Asian-themed eatery Stateside. Early on it was an attraction, made even more famous when it had the city’s first elevator installed in the 1930’s. After more than a decade of abandonment, the current owner (a Swedish financier) brought it back to life at the turn of this century, adhering to a newly formed municipal code of preservation. Considered to be the most valuable property in Israel, the Pagoda House marks the beginning of Tel Aviv’s growing love for its architectural heritage.
Tel Aviv’s toniest of boulevards is a veritable museum of the city’s architectural story, a delightful walk under a leafy-green canopy. Watch out for the bikers whizzing by or perhaps join them with a rental of your own. Begin your journey at the corner of Herzl street starting at the French Institute’s gleamingly restored Bauhaus bauble. Cross onto the center island and you immediately hit a tiny hipster cafe in what claims to be Tel Aviv’s first refreshment kiosk.
As you stroll past Independence Hall (whose historical importance only slightly compensates for its ungainly blockiness) you begin to see some of the gems from the original ‘Eclectic’ style, built for the city’s founding families in 1909. Their bright hues, decorative columns and Art Nouveau ironwork harken to the days when well dressed ladies and gentlemen stood at the windows, eyeing promenaders on the Boulevard, hoping to catch a glimpse of scandal. Further down, as you meet Allenby Street, look up and take note of the beautiful hand painted tiles from Jerusalem’s Bezalel artisan workshops on one corner, while on the other stands the small but grand “Pension Ginosar” topped with a silvery-dome and lined with arched breezeways.
As you head down the majestic but homey boulevard, you will encounter a myriad of Bauhaus and Eclectic buildings in all stages of repair. Somehow, the ideologically egalitarian symmetry of the former blends seamlessly with the grandeur of the latter. Of course, you will see the new wave of Tel Aviv architecture, the brash young skyscrapers that spring up among the low-rise veterans. At the very end where the boulevard gives way to a shining plaza, you come to the cultural institutions held so dear to Tel Avivians, the Habima Theatre and Bronfman Concert Hall. The former fountain in the large public square has been transformed into a recessed garden, a favorite for families whose youngsters fly around the open expanse while parents check their smartphones, the tenth coffee of the day precariously balanced next to them.
7. Ahad Ha’am Boy’s School
If you take a slight detour off of Rothschild Boulevard just past Allenby Street, you come to Ahad Ha’am Street, yet another treasure trove of recently renovated early Tel Aviv buildings. Nestled in the middle of the street is an unassuming schoolhouse, one of the city’s first and most beautiful. It is essentially a miniature version of the now demolished Gymnasia High School, blending Jewish themes with orientalist early modernism. Named in honor of the celebrated spiritual godfather of Hebrew culture, the building’s beauty was meant to reflect the importance placed on learning in the new city.
What makes this building truly special are the large number of hand-painted tiles designed by artist Ze’ev Raban, crafted in the Jerusalem workshops of the Bezalel Art School. As with all Raban creations, the tiles burst with sensual color and stylized leafy fruits. The so-called “Holy-cities” of pre-Zionist Israel are featured, meant to show the past to the builders of the future. A vision of Eden-like utopia sits at the very top of the building, guarded by my favorite of Raban’s whimsies, the mythical Griffins. Though cracked in places (with some missing), the tiles have lost none of their luster after almost a century of glaring sunlight, urban pollution and many changes in public aesthetic taste.
8. Levy "Boat" House (56 Levanda St.)
Without a doubt my favorite of the White City/Bauhaus/International Style buildings, it is one of most unusual, both in terms of location and layout. Larger than most, situated far from the concentration of similar styled buildings and unique in its triangular shape, it catches the eye and takes the breath away as one enters Tel Aviv. Ignoring the fledgling city’s height regulations, architect Shimon Levy put up his towering, stark and elegant homage to ego and modernity in 1935. Mayor Dizengoff was said to have been so impressed by the building, that he personally allowed the flagrant disregard of code to go unpunished and unaltered.
Reminiscent of New York’s Flatiron Building, Levy House features pared-down angles and curves of great purity and drama. Almost magically, it gives the illusion of being two contrasting structures. A side view suggests a long, low, elegant dance of shapes intersected by a sharp. tiny-windowed stair column. Seen head-on, it takes on the appearance of a tall ship’s bow floating majestically in a gleaming-white sea of stucco. This reference is neither accidental nor uncommon, many Tel Aviv buildings bear some memory of transformative ocean voyages that brought owners to the shores of what Theodore Herzl called the “Old-New Land”. Few, though, do it as well as this, earning the building its unofficial title of the “Boat-House”. As of this writing, the building is desperately run-down, due in no small part, to its less than fashionable location. Even in its current state, it is a stunner of structure that will someday be lifted to even greater glory.
9. Recanti Synagogue
The newest of the buildings in this post--and the only synagogue to be featured--this unique structure is bold and unabashedly flamboyant, while at the same time completely at home with the far more subtle structures of the White City. Though it looks like the love child of a spaceship and a Bauhaus beauty, it is in fact a giant sea shell, meant to connect the Mediterranean shores of the Holy Land with those of the once mighty Jewish community of Greece.
Architect Itzhak Toledano designed the synagogue in memory of Leon Yehuda Recanati, both men hailing from what was known as Greece’s ‘Jewish port city’ of Thessaloniki. The community was one of the last to be deported to the concentration camps and was almost entirely decimated. The synagogue continues the community’s Sephardic traditions, albeit housed in modernist robes of splendor. The building is a testament to both the community’s tenacity and to the financial and cultural contributions of the Recanati family who number among the most prominent of Israel’s bankers. Sadly, neither the synagogue’s main benefactor, nor its architect lived to see its opening in 1980.
Walking (as suggested above) along Rothschild Boulevards’ smorgasbord of architectural treats, one would be forgiven for ignoring this scruffy, boxy and concrete-laden facade. The only real hint of beauty or connection to any architectural movement can be seen in the play between the curved and wing-like rectangle shapes of the building’s east and west corners. A look at historical photos--along with a peek at a proposed restoration simulation--helps us understand that underneath its disheveled exterior, there beats the heart of true design ingenuity.
Designed by Ze’ev Rechter upon returning from Paris in 1933 for contractor Ya’akov Engel, it is a building that has been widely emulated. Inspired by his teacher, the great modernist Le Corbusier (and his “Villa Savoye”), Rechter bucked the prevailing trend for Bauhaus, opting instead for a composition of even more simplified geometry, typified by the sleek, elongated window panels. The architect took full advantage of the double-sized lot by creating an inner garden-courtyard, an urban island of green privacy repeated on the building's stately rooftop garden. What makes this building a true pioneer though, is the fact that it is the first Hebrew building on stilts (now hidden), a crude attempt at circulating cooling Mediterranean breezes stifled by the city’s poor layout. Along with Rechter himself, the building’s famous tenants included the Shamir brothers, pioneers in Hebrew graphic design.
11. Soskin House (12 Lilienbloom St.)
Though architect Ze’ev Rechter is associated with the boxy, colonnaded, no fuss styling of his teacher Le Corbusier (which eventually morphed into the brutalist concrete monsters all too prevalent in Israel), Soskin House proves that the man was as adept with curves as he was with angles. This relatively modest offering is like a little jewel-box of Bauhaus, which is ironic, since its architect was not at all the product of the German school. Clearly, the more playful aesthetic of Bauhaus came to dominate Tel Aviv architecture and was likely requested by this building's patrons.
Avraham Soskin was one of Hebrew Culture’s leading photographers, among the first to capture the birth of Tel Aviv on the then new media of film. When he decided to build a structure that combined his work and living spaces, he clearly wanted it to reflect the emergence of the new Tel Aviv with an energy that was unencumbered by the past, though anchored equally to Jewish ideals and those of pre-war European culture. Rechter captured this spirit perfectly in the august little house-- its stunning grand curve and strong angled roof/balcony lines offer a sort of poetic dialogue, a language that attempts to re-think the middle-eastern/Mediterranean aesthetic in more contemporary, global terms. The lasting beauty of the house lies in its ability to be totally at home both in the past and present, being both eastern and western, universalist and particular.
This stunning space in the pre-Tel Aviv Jewish neighborhood of “Neve Tzedek” is one of the most beautiful, most user-friendly and best designed communal refurbishments that I know of. Originally two early Hebrew language schools and a teacher training institute, the buildings and their surrounding grounds have been expertly crafted into a series of public spaces, rehearsal studios and performance halls. Some of the best companies in Israeli dance are housed in the complex such as the Inbal, Batsheva and Pinto-Pollack. Along with local dance and children’s/adult theater performances, the complex plays host to a variety of international festivals dedicated to various forms of performance art. An array of eateries, cafes, artist cooperatives and design shops have sprung up around the center, which led to Neve Tzedek becoming the first of Tel Aviv’s long neglected and impoverished neighborhoods to see rejuvenation and gentrification.
The simple, elegant school houses have been deftly repurposed as arts and performance spaces, respectfully protecting the facades along with the history of their original use. To my mind though, the real genius of the project lies in the open spaces that connect one old school to the next, essentially forming a series of cheery, welcoming courtyards. Old (still thriving) citrus trees remind one of the agricultural school’s presence and add to both the intimacy and the nobility of the public space, which sits under the watchful eye of giant palms. Open irrigation channels run in rectangular perimeters around the schools, giving a lush and contemplative air to the large open expanses. It is not unusual to see small groups of playful preschoolers and tourists mixing with ever-stretching dancers, arts impresarios and meringue-gowned brides who have popped into the square for a quick photo shoot. Look for a colorful ceramic mural honoring the 120th anniversary of the original settlement by graphic artist-collector-political commentator David Tartakover.
I admit that it is somewhat odd to include among my list of favorites a building that I have never seen, demolished even before I was born. However, few buildings hold so much nostalgia, romanticism or capture the essence of early Tel Aviv quite so powerfully as the Gymnasia Herzlia Hebrew high school building which stood at the corner of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am streets. Looking at the ever-growing collection of online photos and videos, one is transported to an era of pure idealism, where people crafted their bodies, buildings and lives in accordance with their deepest desires and most cherished principles.
Poised at the elevated epicenter of what was known as “Little” Tel Aviv, the Gymnasia symbolized the height of Hebrew language/ideological education (it predates the first Hebrew university by almost two decades). It was intended to train new generations of native Hebrew speakers, preparing them to lead both culturally and politically. Along with education of the mind and spirit came that of the body, with emphasis placed on group exercise, competitive sport and newly created folk dance.
The design of the building is perhaps the most stunning product to emerge from the early desire to create a Land-of-Israel-based architecture. Its Jewish nature combined with orientalist fantasy gave it a feeling of antiquity, its relative simplicity and cleanliness made it modern. Bezalel art school founder Boris Schatz consulted on the project and his vision for Judeo-revivalism is evident in the Second-Temple like structure, a statement on the replacement of ritual worship with Hebrew cultural intellectualism.
In 1959 the Gymnasia building was demolished in order to make way for the Babel-like Shalom Tower, a cereal box shaped monument to short-sighted hubris that reigned as the tallest structure in the Middle-East for about two months. Led by artist (and son of the school’s educational founder) Nahum Gutman, the protest movement against the Gymnasia demolition created a national association for historic building preservation (which still uses the school’s facade as its logo). In the tower’s lobby, Gutman received a consolation commission of a mosaic mural to Little Tel Aviv which has morphed, over the decades, into an informal museum of ever-expanding historical exhibitions commemorating the city’s history, cultural and artistic development. A whole room is dedicated to telling the story of the Gymnasia, complete with scale model, historical photos and architectural plans.