Tel Aviv's forgotten palace
The city is seeking to restore the mandate-era Produce of the Land palace, a symbol of the modernist European tradition Tel Aviv once sought to embrace.
The Barcelona pavilion designed by Mies Van Der Rohe, one of the modernist icons of the 20th century, attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. Its precise proportions, the series of surprising internal spaces, the generous use of expensive materials, the pair of reflecting pools and the Barcelona chairs, designed specifically for the pavilion - all together create an unusual space that manages to be both monumental and modest.
Van Der Rohe built the pavilion for Germany as part of the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition, where it was used to host receptions and social events. He was already an internationally renowned architect and his pavilion quickly became part of the modernist canon. Yet, those who visit it today are not privy to its original structure since the pavilion was dismantled immediately after the exhibition. Only in the mid-1980s was a decision made to rebuild it according to the architect's plans, and - in the shadow of a dispute over the essence of preservation and restoration - it was rebuilt using the same materials.
Now, Tel Aviv city hall is trying to apply the same concept here, too, by rebuilding its very own version of the Barcelona pavilion: In this case, the building in question is the Produce of the Land (Totzeret Haaretz) palace, the largest and most important structure of the Levant Fair, an international exhibition presented in the 1930s on the Yarkon peninsula. The palace, designed by noted architect Richard Kaufmann, and dedicated in 1934, sprawled across 3,400 square meters and was designed in the International style. The interior space soared to a height of three stories, with an observation tower situated on one side and a kind of apse on the other. Next to its sparkling white facade stretched a large public plaza at one end of which stood a sculpture of the "Hebrew laborer" (Ha'poel Ha'ivri).
Today, the only thing that remains of the building is its rounded apse, which became a factory for tiles and ceramics. Remnants of the palace are scattered throughout the area; later a building blocking the line of sight and the traffic coming toward the fair was built in the plaza. "Tel Aviv always wanted a palace, even in the 1930s, when modernism dominated architecture," argues architect Yirmi Hoffman, the head of Tel Aviv municipality's preservation department. "The people who came to Palestine as part of the Second and Third Aliyah never abandoned the European tradition. A palace always symbolizes the values of that society. In the case of the fair, it was a modernist palace that symbolized the values of the society that was built here."
Hoffman attributes the palace's importance to its urban component, too: "If you look at the city from a bird's-eye view, as it was in the 1930s, you can see how its central perpendicular axes, Ben Yehuda Street and Dizengoff Street, run into the Levant Fair. At their ends a large square was built with a Hebrew palace. It reminds me of the planning of cities such as New Delhi, where the whole concept is a central artery with a palace at the end, or the Eiffel Tower and the avenue that runs below it. I think Tel Aviv wants to go back to the palace. To this day, this hole remains and Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda lead nowhere."
On the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Levant Fair, there is renewed discussion today of the complex's future design and function. Almost ever since the fair's closing, a series of different construction plans have been proposed for the site: from razing all the pavilions and building a city of high-rise towers in their stead, to precise individual preservation. However, until recently, no one dared to discuss the option of rebuilding the Produce of the Land palace. This is a preservation project of the utmost importance, at the heart of which lies the question of whether historic buildings that were destroyed should be rebuilt.
The Levant Fair was an international commercial fair held in Tel Aviv from 1924 onward. Its first exhibition was held at the Zionist Club on Rothschild Boulevard. From here, it traveled to the girls school in Neveh Tzedek, on to the Ahad Ha'am School, and finally to a plot in the city's Neveh Sha'anan quarter (the same plot on which the new central bus station was built several decades later).
The fair was organized by the Mis'har ve Taasiya (Trade and Industry) company, through a private initiative, and it managed to attract a growing number of countries and visitors to the exhibitions. At the end of the 1932 exhibition, which registered some 286,000 visitors, it became necessary to build a permanent home for the fair. The British Mandate authorities were enthusiastic and allocated a space on the Yarkon peninsula, then at the far end of Tel Aviv. A year later, the ceremony marking the laying of the cornerstone was held in the presence of British high commissioner Arthur Wauchope, Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff and leaders of the Hebrew community. At the same time, the British began the groundwork for an airport in Lod, designed to serve the visitors.
The new fair spread across 10 dunams and housed 1,225 exhibitors, including 821 foreign companies from 23 different countries. Kaufmann was responsible for its master plan and architect Arye Elhanani was in charge of the design and maintenance of the fair buildings. Elhanani also designed the "Hebrew laborer" sculpture that stood at the entrance to the complex.
In many respects, the Levant Fair was the closest model to the ideal of a white, utopian city with a modernist palace, square, axes and a series of buildings in the international style. It was a complex that was disconnected from the city's physical needs and existed in its own right. At the palace's inauguration ceremony, a play about the birth of the city was performed, which had been written for the occasion especially by writer and poet Emanuel Harusi, and the many guests were requested to adhere to the official dress code of the day, including a jacket.
Within a month and a half, during 1934, 600,000 people visited the fair, which was deemed the fourth-largest of its kind in the world at the time. Beyond its architectural component, the fair also had an important economic impact on Hebrew settlement, and was bestowed with political significance, too. Lebanon, for example, built an independent pavilion at the fair's center; its facade was adorned by a colorful bas-relief of antiquities from Baalbek (today the pavilion is sooty and neglected and houses a garage).
Following the fair's success that year, another exhibition was held two years later, in 1936, which was overshadowed by the deterioration of relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Two weeks after the fair's opening, the Arab Revolt began, shutting down Jaffa port. Many of the events that had been planned for the fair were canceled. World War II sounded the death knell for this amazing Hebrew undertaking, at whose heart stood grand ambitions in which the Land of Israel featured as the center of the Middle East.
As for the pavilions in the fairgrounds: They were initially used as temporary storage space for the Tel Aviv port, built in 1938. Later, they were appropriated for British Army use and after 1948 for the Israel Defense Forces. Over the years, their condition steadily deteriorated, the Produce of the Land palace was almost totally destroyed and ceramics warehouses and garages now fill the remaining pavilions.
The fairgrounds consist of dozens of pavilions designed by leading architects of the time, including Kaufman and Elhanani, Genia Averbuch, Aryeh Sharon, Yosef Neufeld and others. They constitute one of the most extensive collections of International-style architecture in Israel - and perhaps also its most neglected.
The attention with which the Yarkon peninsula has been showered in recent years can in part be attributed to the renewal of Tel Aviv port, one of Israel's most successful urban renewal projects. Ownership of the peninsula is divided among several governmental and municipal companies, which made it hard to formulate a comprehensive design plan. However, the port's public and commercial success proved that the Levant Fairgrounds require similar handling. Architect Tzadik Elyakim, of Elyakim Architects, has been appointed to oversee the project. His firm has prepared a temporary plan that calls for the restoration of the buildings and infrastructure at the site.
The fairgrounds and its pavilions are not earmarked for preservation, making them a sort of lacuna in the list of sites the municipality has designated for preservation. However, even without a formal legal declaration, in the last two years several buildings have been restored, including the Produce of the Land palace and the car pavilion at the edge of Dizengoff Street. Both Palmer Square and the entrance plaza with its historic flagpoles were restored, too, and the Hebrew laborer sculpture is also scheduled to undergo restoration.
"Unlike the port, the fair has clear architectural value," Elyakim says, "but because the pavilions are not on the list of designated landmarks, we are engaged in a struggle. On the one hand, the companies that control this place have no interest in preservation, whereas on the other, they want us to adapt the pavilions, which are in really terrible condition, to commercial use."
In an attempt to impose some order amid all the planning and aesthetic chaos at the site, Elyakim divided the fairgrounds into six complexes, each with a different character, and fixed up the passages between the fair and the port complex. The goal is to create a more orderly mix of uses, even though the existing mishmash holds unfulfilled urban potential.
And what of the fairgrounds' future development? Elyakim believes that new construction should be prohibited at the site and that it should be left exactly as it was in 1934. "The Levant Fair and the Tel Aviv port are the most important assets of the pre-state Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel," he says. "They embody the daring of a handful people who built an exhibition that the whole world attended, and the national campaign to build a Hebrew port. To take these things and turn them into another series of high-rise towers which will house no more than 1,000 wealthy people should, in my mind, be resisted."
For now, construction plans for the site have been frozen, but Tel Aviv city hall plans to promote future small-scale construction, to correspond with the different uses of the site. At present, National Master Plan 13, which prohibits construction at a distance of less than 100 meters from the shores of the Mediterranean, bars most future plans for the site, unless the municipality manages to convince planners otherwise. One way or another, both Elyakim and the municipality are partners in the dream to restore the Produce of the Land palace. "I think there are several icons that should be carefully chosen and restored," concludes Elyakim. "The Produce of the Land building holds an important place in collective Israeli consciousness - it's a historical milestone. It should be treated as a lost artwork."