Me’onot Aleph -Aviad Bar-Nes - 24082011
Me’onot Aleph in Holon’s Kiryat Avodah. Photo by Aviad Bar-Nes
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On February 27, 1936, the cornerstone was laid for Kiryat Avoda, a new workers' neighborhood built on the sands south of Tel Aviv. It spread over 3,000 dunams and became an important link in establishing Holon at the start of the 1940s. Kiryat Avoda was supposed to solve the housing shortage for municipal workers and to create a socialist utopia in the spirit of Histadrut Ha'ovdim (the Workers' Federation ).

Accordingly, educational and cultural institutions were built: a conservatory, a public library and a school, alongside small shops and a medical clinic. In the heart of the neighborhood a green strip one and a half kilometers long (today's Herzl Park ) was allocated for relaxation and leisure at the end of a day's work.

Kiryat Avoda embodies the principles of socialism, both at town planning level and in the scale of the building. Among the long line of low buildings, three on Shenkar Street stand out. The Me'onot Aleph building (number 55-57 ) has impressive architectural qualities despite years of neglect. These residences were designed by Jospeh Neufeld (1899-1980 ), a key figure in formulating the International style in Israel.

Neufeld, born in Galicia, studied in Vienna and Rome; he was active here and later in New York. Early on, he was employed by Joseph Berlin; the renowned German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn; and the socialist architect Bruno Taut. Among his best known works are the historic Assuta Hospital on Jabotinsky Street in Tel Aviv (slated for preservation as part of a new project ), the children's center at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek and the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital building in Jerusalem. Neufeld belonged to the Architects Circle, promoting Modernist ideas, and professional work aside, he edited the publications Habinyan Bamizrah Haqarov (Building in the Near East ) and Habinyan (The Building ). His life story could fill a number of books.

As a keen socialist who was fairly close to labor leaders, Neufeld was given a key role in planning the workers' residences that went up in the center of the country. In 1936, he planned the Lavie workers' residences in Givatayim (together with Israel Dicker ) and Me'onot Zayyin between Reines and Spinoza streets and David Ben-Gurion Boulevard in Tel Aviv (together with Dicker, Arie Sharon and Carl Rubin ).

Kiryat Avoda, completed a year after the cornerstone was laid, embodied ideas from the earlier projects. The long Me'onot Aleph consisted of 24 two-room apartments, which express socialist ideas and eerily efficient Modernist planning. "The planning tried to solve the problem of he small apartment without exceeding the expenditure of 300 Land of Israel pounds on the building," wrote Neufeld in Habinyan.

Seventy years later, his planning approach is relevant to current times and the housing shortage in Israel. So as not to waste floor space, Neufeld planned a small entrance hall from which one could enter all the rooms. The building materials suited the Modernist spirit and Neufeld's frugality: concrete scaffolding and filling of 22 cm.-thick silicate blocks. The walls were covered with white plaster inside and out, and the floor was simple terrazzo tiles. Each of the apartments covered 55 square meters and consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a toilet and a balcony. Neufeld showed rare consideration for a large sycamore tree and diverted the middle part of the building to preserve it. The tree is still standing.

Architect Yakir Shahak Shaban researched Neufeld's Me'onot Ovdim in a course given by architect and historian Zvi Elhyani in the master's degree program in preservation at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. "Kiryat Avoda is of interest to me as someone who was born and grew up in Holon," says Shahak Shaban. "This is a city that was born 'red' and a lot of its heritage is directly connected to workers and laborers. But today it is trying to shake off its image and brand itself as 'the children's city' or 'the design capital.' What is being built today in Holon is very far from the ideas of Kiryat Avoda. It's building luxury apartments and multistory buildings in the southern neighborhoods and forgetting its own heritage."

Rare refinement

In his opinion Me'onot Aleph express a rare moment of refinement in Neufeld's work: "They say that architects reach perfection when there is nothing more to eliminate. I see the Me'onot as an experiment in minimalism, a very clean building, very impressive and very efficient."

Shahak Shaban spoke with original tenants and was impressed by their connection to the place and their local pride. "They formed a crystallized community not only around the ideology but also around cultural and social events. They were able to tell me about each of the families who had lived there and events that were held on the roof. Today, we don't even know who our neighbor is in the elevator or the parking lot."

As always, there's a gap between the social and architectural ideal and the reality on the ground. After the Kiryat Ovdim cooperative disbanded, the physical state of the buildings slowly but steadily declined. Now, the surrounding public areas are totally neglected, the facades are bedecked with air conditioners and pipes and apartments have been enlarged illegally and with no aesthetic sensibility in the direction of the backyard.

The population was replaced by new immigrants or poor families. With no central management to look after maintenance, it's hard to see how the buildings might improve.

Last May, the Tel Aviv regional building and planning committee decided to preserve the Lavie workers' residence complex in Givatayim and canceled an extensive evacuation-building plan promoted by the municipality and developers.

This precedent proves that even planning bodies now recognize the importance and architectural qualities of workers' residences, especially Neufeld's, as an asset worthy of preservation.

It will be interesting to see how the planning body would react to the idea of renewal for the complex in Holon and what weight the precedent might carry. The workers' residences are not part of a site preservation survey being done for Holon by Mandel & Mandel Architects.

The residences have significant potential, thanks both to their central location and the size of the apartments, suitable for students and young couples who cannot afford to buy an apartment in one of the new neighborhoods (Het 300 and Het 500 ) near the Design Museum.

Shahak Shaban says: "I think we must preserve them not because we can but rather because the model of the workers' residences is of value today as well." He says the need for such housing was proved by this summer's protest.

'No preservation value'

In response to this article, the Holon municipality said that as part of the city's preservation plan, which was adopted about five years ago, the committee in charge of the issue examined Me'onot Aleph on Shenkar Street. But the committee decided not to include the building on the city's list of preservation sites.

"Later, the municipality asked an architectural firm to run the city's preservation plan, and in this context, too, the preservation value of Me'onot Ovdim was examined," a municipal spokeswoman said. "This examination revealed that the buildings do not embody an archetype in the way that other well-known examples do - in Tel Aviv, for instance.

"The buildings do indeed constitute part of the story of the city of Holon, and there is no doubt that Joseph Neufeld's reputation precedes him, but it turned out that not long after the buildings were built, significant additions were built onto the original structure. These additions do not enhance their preservation value from either an architectural or a historical standpoint."