Squaring Off in Tel Aviv

The plaza he designed next to the Habima Theater has not even been dedicated yet, but Dani Karavan already has a litany of complaints about City Hall, and the contractors and architects involved in the project - who have returned fire.

Restless and ill at ease, Dani Karavan roams around Tel Aviv's new cultural square, which connects Chen and Rothschild Boulevards. Even after seven years of planning and intensive work, the artist and sculptor finds it hard to be satisfied with the results. He points at the white steel arches that are already beginning to rust, the stains that already blemish the tiling, and the concrete that has started to crack in the sitting corners because skateboarders have turned them into obstacle courses.

"Look at the arches," he says, angrily. "Nobody sealed their upper part the way they should have. Now they are filled with water and need to be drained and stopped up. It's all so typical of this country - nobody cares about anything. There's no work ethic; it all comes down to money. I've spoken with the contractors countless times. I told them: One day you'll want to come here with your grandchildren and say, 'This is what Grandpa did.'"

Karavan, Habima Square
Daniel Tchetchik

Usually in interviews of this sort, questions about defects in projects are deferred to the end. Yet Karavan, who just turned 80 and declares himself to be a "provocateur," chose to begin by discussing the mishaps.

"People who live in buildings around this square ask me why the work hasn't been completed. I'll tell you why: The contractors are dragging their feet, because they're fed up. The main contractor, Electra, hired subcontractors. At the start of the work, I told them that it needed to be done slowly, so that it would turn out well. They told me that I shouldn't dampen their morale, that they should be allowed to get on with the work as they saw fit. When they finished, it became clear that it would be impossible to repair many of the problems. I can't accept such work; this is public money. I have to hand over to the public a work that has no defects."

Though construction of the square is taking much longer than planned, and construction fences are still strewn about, it seems the public is starting to show a liking for the project, which will be formally dedicated in a few months. On one recent sunny Saturday afternoon, the garden at the center of the square was filled with dozens of young couples and families. Teenagers played ball alongside the black reflecting pool; bicycle riders were all around.

Karavan, who spends much of his time at his Paris studio, scratched his head while trying to come up with the translation for the French word approprier, and finally said: "The public has appropriated this square, and that says everything."

This plaza is one of the cultural flagships sponsored by the Tel Aviv municipality to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary. It straddles the Habima Theater and Gan Yaakov - the garden that was designed partly by Karavan's father, Avraham, who was the city's landscape architect. This was meant to be the city's "Acropolis," according to the designs of Patrick Geddes' plan in the 1920s. After being used in the 1930s as a plant nursery, and then as an agricultural farm, a soccer field, an improvised army inspection compound and a parking lot, the area has finally received the attention it deserves as one of Tel Aviv's, and perhaps Israel's, most important public spaces.

'Awkward' theater

In tandem with the establishment of the square, the Habima theater underwent a controversial renovation project designed by Ram Karmi. As Karavan sees it, the theater building is "too big and awkward, and does not relate suitably to its surrounding area."

In fact, Karavan's own work on the square does not "relate" to the Habima building per se; in fact, the line of trees in the park blocks the building. Gan Yaakov also underwent extensive renovation, which restored much of its charm, although a ramp that was an integral part of its intimate atmosphere was destroyed.

The third building in the area, the Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, is also slated for renewal, and the plans sparked a tempestuous debate. In the end the courts had the upper hand over renovation opponents who objected to changing what is considered one of the city's Modernist-style cultural treasures.

Karavan explains that a key element in his project was the construction of an underground parking lot beneath the square. Planning was problematic in many respects, and ultimately the elevators and escalators serving the garage ended up being too big and losing all reasonable proportion to the space, in his view. Karavan explains that he strove to design an engaging, minimalist, refined public space that accords with the architectural ambience of Tel Aviv's White City, and which honors the history of the site. He opted for sand-colored tiling and a sunken garden that is reminiscent of the municipal nursery that his father maintained.

Today the square can be described as a two-dimensional relief that drops into the ground. It echoes some of Karavan's early work - such as the concrete reliefs he designed for the Tel Aviv District Court, or the wall in the Knesset's main hall. The area consists of a series of linear objects that stretch from south to north, and accentuate the Mann Auditorium's rigid geometry. Trees line the east side, and the series of white arches align with the exits of the parking-lot elevators.

The plaza also features three stages in the shape of a circle, a square and a triangle, which will be available for the staging of small-scale, intimate performances. In the meantime, couples are taking advantage of the platforms for pre-wedding photographs.

The sunken garden and reflecting pool are located in the center of the space. The western side of the square, alongside the Habima building, features another series of arches designed to blend in with the top of the escalators, and a line of trees that leads to Rothschild Boulevard. A prominent element in Karavan's design is the artificial grass slope, with a sycamore tree, that is located on the southeast side. The tree "pays tribute" to three sycamores located in the magnificent Gan Yaakov. More trees are to be planted along this side of the plaza, which will serve as an entryway for people coming from Ibn Gvirol Street.

Says Karavan: "My father's influence is very conspicuous here - even though I was a painter, whereas he dealt with gardens. A gardener's approach to a park is not like that of a sculptor toward the space in which he is working. The gardener will make sure nature has room to grow, as it needs to, without any interference. With me, everything had to be more precise. I chose trees according to how they blossom, and the shape of their leaves; and I know exactly how they will look."

Among the square's other striking features is the black reflecting pool, that has already won compliments from local residents, and the corridor leading from the arches, on the eastern side. The park also affords a tremendous view of the Mann Auditorium, as one strolls leisurely from the direction of Rothschild Boulevard.

Lost in the square

Still, questions remain. For instance, how long will the sand color of the flooring last, and how will the square withstand the dirt kicked up by tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists? And should Karavan's new project be regarded as one large outdoor sculpture, or will it be able to function as a public space and contribute to Tel Aviv's urban experience?

The project was criticized from the start. Some people wondered, for example, why an internationally renowned artist and sculptor received a commission that demanded architectural design.

For his part, Ram Karmi, who designed the Habima project, believes that Karavan's design does not contribute to the so-called urban experience.

"The expansion of Habima is extremely respectable, but it is a very large project. Anyone who walks around there [the square] gets lost [because it is large and empty]," Karmi said recently. "The square has sides where there should be daily activity - in coffee houses, parking lots, markets. But two of the square's sides are public buildings. Maybe they will have a cafe or two on the ground floor. When performances are held, Habima and the Mann Auditorium will draw people to the square, but when there isn't a play or concert, those coffee houses will not suffice to keep the place busy."

Another disadvantage is the lack of shade here, and the glare that reflects off the tiling during most hours of the day - a glare that is intensified when it hits the walls of the Habima. Karavan explains that the trees will provide shade in another few years, and also that the fences on the east side will have shade provided by cloth awnings. He believes that the square must be white, "bright and optimistic."

What sort of optimism can there be, we ask, when you stroll around here at 10 A.M., and have to wear sunglasses because of the blinding light?

Says Karavan: "In a Mediterranean city, you can't do everything in dark colors. Rabin Square is dark, as is the Tel Aviv Museum square. And even in these places, you are blinded when the sun is strong. The beauty of a square comes from its brightness, and people will sit here in heat, and in the sun - and also in shade. During daytime hours, children are in school; in the afternoon hours, Habima provides shade, and it is very pleasant here."

Another thorny issue is maintenance, a common problem with respect to public spaces in Israel. Without proper supervision, a fragile sculpture of the sort Karavan has planned for here is liable to suffer breakage. He believes that the municipality will carefully review his proposal in this regard, which calls for periodic replacement of flowerbeds in the sunken garden, and seasonal installation of awnings to provide shade. Still, the defects and faults he himself has already identified bode ill, and it appears that maintenance is liable to be a major problem here.

Of course, the true test of the plaza will come when it is completed, and the renovation of Habima is finished. Only at that point will it be possible to assess whether the public is getting the most out of this space - or whether it essentially constitutes an aesthetic covering for an underground parking lot.

'Technical problems'

The Ahuzot Hahof company, which manages the project on behalf of the Tel Aviv municipality, says in response to this article: "In the project's construction process, we ran across some technical problems. Intensive activity was thus undertaken by ourselves and professional planners to deal with these problems, with the goal of finishing the project in the next three months. The area is guarded 24 hours a day, so as to prevent vandalism, but it remains open to the public, and the entry of youths or adults who carry out destructive activity cannot be stopped."

Electra construction, the main contractor, says: "The company was not involved in the planning or choice of materials for this project; instead it has installed the materials in accordance with the demands of the relevant parties. Despite these facts, the company helps to find solutions for the benefit of all involved."