Dolphinarium - Ness - 8.3.12
The Dolphinarium as it looks today. The architect, Nahum Zolotov, insists that the building is worth saving. Photo by Aviad Bar Ness
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The Tel Aviv District Planning and Building Committee met yesterday morning to approve the Dolphinarium plan, under which the abandoned and crumbling amusement park will be razed to make way for a link between the northern and southern sections of the city's beachfront promenade.

However the committee decided not to enact the demolition until it hears public objections.

The plan is a joint venture of the Tel Aviv municipality and the landowner, Jewish-German businessman Josef Buchmann. At its heart is a deal which has already been sharply criticized by the state comptroller: The municipality will receive the land the Dolphinarium sits on and in return, Buchmann will receive an adjacent 12-dunam plot on which to build "a mixed hotel, residential and commercial complex," or in other words, two new beachfront hi-rise towers. This is an unfortunate end to a fantastical architectural dream that never managed to fulfill its potential.

The Dolphinarium's designer, architect Nahum Zolotov, sounded hurt and pessimistic this week. He does not understand why a building that started off as a dazzling commercial success needs to be razed, and is convinced that the alternative solution the municipality is suggesting is no better. "There's harsh criticism that the Dolphinarium blocks access to the sea, but I think that's nonsense. When you walk along the promenade you have an unobstructed view of the sea. It's not so bad if along one section there is some place of interest that separates you and the sea," he says. "Anyone who thinks the Dolphinarium blocks the sea is forgetting that the new towers to be built across from it will block it even more."

Zolotov came up with the idea to build the Dolphinarium in the mid-1970s. In addition to working as an architect, he took up diving as a hobby, and thought of opening an aquarium for educational purposes in Israel. He looked for partners and found businessman Zvi Efron, whom he describes as "a real powerhouse." Efron managed to attract Jewish investors from South Africa, following an agreement signed between their government and the Israeli government that allowed them to transfer money to Israel for investing in tourism and industrial ventures. Zolotov worked on the design and accepted five percent of the shares "in the hope that this would be my pension," he recalls with a wry smile.

The site found was on the southern end of the Tel Aviv shore, north of the Manshia neighborhood that was buried under the grassy hills of the Charles Clore Park. The Tel Aviv municipality still dreamed then of setting up a major commercial center along the shore, and the Dolphinarium was to be an important link in the local leisure and entertainment chain. Unlike aquariums around the world, Efron and Zolotov thought of building a mixed-use underwater amusement park: an aquarium for educational purposes, an arena for shows featuring dolphins and sea lions, stores to help increase the flow of visitors, and restaurants that faced the park. The location between Tel Aviv and Jaffa was a further attraction for both Israelis and foreign tourists.

From an architectural perspective, the Dolphinarium belongs to the late end of Israeli modernism, on the edge of post-modernism. Zolotov, who became widely known following projects such as Be'er Sheva's Hashatiah housing complex and the Super-sol Tower on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, replaced rigid lines with a curving and poetic language, but remained loyal to exposed concrete.

Zolotov agrees it is not a building typical of his work. "True - but it's also not typical of anything else being done in Israel."

He says the curved shapes reacted to the different functions in the Dolphinarium and did not draw inspiration from the waves in the sea or the rounded granulite texture of the promenade, which was designed by Yaakov Rechter.

The beachfront location presented some real design challenges: In order to contain the huge pools and the public spaces, it was decided to reclaim a large chunk of land from the sea and extend the building westward. To deal with the continual wear and tear on the building from the waves, Zolotov cast concrete in a manual hewn corduroy pattern to protect the building's features and prevent cracking ("It could last another 50 years," he says ). Another challenge was the combination of high maintenance functions, each of which required separate technical systems and access; Zolotov skillfully placed the pool for shows above the aquarium, next to a theater adjacent to a restaurant, and managed to get each venue to function well.

Quick demise

The Dolphinarium opened in 1981 and was dubbed in the press "the blue-and-white Disneyland." At night, its spotlights illuminated the skies over the city, and during the day, thousands of visitors stood in line to see the amazing show. Few hesitated to shell out the exorbitant price of 400 [old] shekels per ticket. Zolotov estimates that earnings from the first month of operations were enough to cover all the construction costs.

The Dolphinarium's demise started shortly after its opening. The South African investors used the project as a way station en route to investments in Europe, and within a year shut the pipeline completely. Local newspapers started featuring reports about the project's difficult financial situation, the shows stopped gradually, and the dolphins were transferred to the Luna Park fairground and to aquariums abroad, and died a few weeks later.

In 1985, the Dolphinarium closed and Tel Aviv found itself with a white elephant (or more accurately, a gray elephant ) in one of the city's nicest locations.

A September 1985 Maariv article under the depressing headline "The end of the entertainment season" surveyed the rise and fall of the place, alongside ambitious plans to reopen it. The name of the complex was changed to Hofeshiyada and the impresario Miki Peled was hired to refill the ticket lines with people. The solution: a musical by Yoram Taharlev called "The dream boat," starring singers Yizhar Cohen and Riki Gal.

"Most of Israel, as of today, has already been there and whoever didn't want to see it, won't come," Peled said, explaining the Dolphinarium's flop. "The place gradually deteriorated, and its financial problems leaked into the press. The gamble did not pay off. The managers did not take into account the commercial considerations and were really stuck on the dolphin mania."

At the same time of the failed rebranding, Efron tried to come with a solution together with Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat. The two agreed informally to have the promenade run through the Dolphinarium and reclaim another chunk of land from the sea for a country club. "Three thousand square meters of pure entertainment," Efron promised at the time, but nothing ever came of the megalomaniacal plans - and perh aps that is a good thing.

Since the mid-1980s, the venue struggled; a catering hall, Dolphiton, and a movie theater, Dolphitek, nightclubs and diving equipment stores opened there, and various exhibitions were held in the interior spaces. A deadly suicide attack on June 1, 2001 at the entrance to the dance club in the complex killed 21 young men and women. It was the last straw for the site; neglect and abandonment spread to the entire complex and today there is hardly a remnant of Zolotov's architecture, the corduroy concrete stripes or the show pool.

Under the new plan, the Dolphinarium will make way for another section of Tel Aviv's beachfront promenade. In return, the owner, Buchmann, will receive land east of Hakovshim and Herbert Samuel Streets. He will be allowed to build a 48,000 square-meter hotel and residential complex spread across two hi-rise towers 100 meters high, each with commercial space on the ground floor. Tel Aviv municipality will receive enormous betterment taxes to use on developing projects in the area.

Throughout the plan's approval process, there has been harsh criticism over the areas approved and their intended uses. At the same time, there were discussions in City Hall over whether it would be possible make new use of the Dolphinarium and whether the compensation to the developer is justified. Either way, the bottom line seems to be that Tel Aviv municipality took the easy option.

Zolotov believes that it is possible and desirable to restore the Dolphinarium to its original function. "Maybe with nuances regarding the restaurants or the cafes, but I think it can contribute a lot to life in the city and to the experience of visitors to the promenade," he says.

Hezi Berkowitz, the Tel Aviv city engineer, feels the layout of the Dolphinarium justifies the land swap. According to him, the new plan has undergone many revisions and is considerably better than the initial proposals. "We lowered the height of the buildings to 100 meters, made them narrower and created a textured complex with quality public space. We learned from our mistakes, as with the David Intercontinental Hotel where the entire hotel is elevated and pedestrians encounter utility pipes."

However, Berkowitz says, it is possible that today the municipality would have considered another solution. "With all the investments in the public space, Tel Aviv could have swallowed 6,000 square meters of construction on the beachfront," he says, adding that for the long term, the city prefers to keep the beachfront strip construction free.