Once in a while, perfect consensus can be achieved. There is almost that sort of consensus about the new Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. It's the biggest bus station in the world. Architecturally speaking, it's also the worst edifice ever erected in Israel, the experts agree practically to a man.
Ram Karmi may have been awarded the Israel Prize for architecture, but he is the man responsible for the monstrosity, together with developer Arie Piltz. Not only did their result trash an entire neighborhood: It's a nightmare of convoluted, unnavigable corridors, irrational proportions and zero connection with the surroundings.
The cornerstone for the New Central Bus Station (CBS) was laid in 1967 and the shell was completed in 1976. At that point construction halted, until the contractor Mordechai Yona (among the owners of the failed construction company Heftsiba, who to this day owns 53 percent of the station) - bought the building, which led to its inauguration in 1993.
The station was erected on a 44-dunam lot. It consists of 230,000 square meters on several stories. It's big. It's grandiose. And it's an eyesore.
Tel Aviv's CBS was borne of a trend that dominated architecture back in the 1960s and '70s - thinking in big terms, explains architecture professor Zvi Efrat, of the Bezalel Academy. Architects wanted to build mega-structures, an approach that created problem hotspots in Israel and around the world.
"The architects' over-ambition resulted in buildings that were too big," he sums up the movement. "They ruined a huge part of the city and its way of life, and created a wound that hasn't healed for decades. Also, the idea of a central bus terminal in south Tel Aviv was an anachronism even back then, and it hasn't proven itself. It was architectural and urban foolishness that ended in an architectural eyesore."
Professor Michael Levin, a historian of art and architectural history at Shenkar College, concurs. "The New Central Bus Station is a stellar example of how an entrepreneur can drag the municipality into an escapade. The station was built disproportionately, and why is that? Because of the greed of the entrepreneur and of the bus company." What they did is to build the station as a giant conglomerate with a shopping mall. As they seek the buses they want, travelers are forced to pass between floors, so that they'll buy," Levin explains. In fact people prefer the Arlosoroff Street terminal, in North Tel Aviv, even though it's not in good condition, because they simply reach their destinations faster. Traveling via the CBS is time-consuming, he says.
Architect Naama Malis says that the station has been rendered irrelevant to transport in Tel Aviv, and in any case the city is reorganizing its public transport system to be based on environmentally cleaner trams. "What we're left with is a gigantic cement maze that ends up putting its tenants out of business. Over the years, much thought was devoted to how to reduce its size, to split it up, in order to scale back the destruction," she says.
The neighborhood that houses the station, Neve Sha'anan, was not a prosperous quarter to begin with, but Malis believes that it had its own delicate, unique character. "You can't expect life to go on when a monster like that is built next door," she says. Her recommendation is to tear down the station and turn the site into a plaza. "There are examples from around the world where a whole neighborhood is torn down," Melis points out.
That doesn't mean it would be easy. "The problem is that the station has a complex ownership structure, and the city of Tel Aviv can't just declare what should be done there," Malis admits. A master plan for the place could be prepared and the future developer could compensate the owners. A second way to do it would be for the finance minister to decide that the situation is bad enough and harmful to the public - for reasons, say, of air pollution - for him to expropriate the place with a court order." Any such step would be complicated and would take years in court, though, and the process would be expensive. It would be a Herculean labor.
Historian and architect Zvi Elhyani doesn't like the thought of razing buildings barring absolute necessity, but he says he'd make an exception for the Central Bus Station. "It should be wiped off the face of the earth, the streets which it erased should be rebuilt. The Central Bus Station is an environmental hazard. If they'd chosen the right spot and created good architecture, that would be one thing, but in this case even the architecture is bad."
Rare among the critics is architect Sharon Rotbard, who doesn't think the station should be blasted from creation. But that isn't because he likes it: He's worried about the particle pollution that dynamiting the place would cause. For months Tel Aviv would be coated in dust and what would be done with the waste?
Rotbard lives in south Tel Aviv, and for his book "White City, Black City," he investigated the area around the new CBS. "The first problem is that Tel Aviv's geometry is linear, along the shoreline," he explains. The road grid is organized along lines, and so is the transport infrastructure, such as train stations. The very idea of building a central bus station in Tel Aviv, which channels all the traffic toward a single point, is dubious." What it really serves as the monopolistic transport companies, he feels.
"Another mistake was connecting the idea of building a station with private enterprise. The location of the station was chosen arbitrarily, not based on any study of needs. That's just how it happened to arise. The arbitrariness of its position is clearly shown by the station's western exits, which open into narrow streets, creating a problem and life-threatening hazards for the local residents," Rotbard says.
Nor do the shops inside the massive structure do well. "The anchor tenants all left and were replaced by even more stores selling cheap goods at low prices, so even from the perspective of planning a mall, the project is a total flop," Rotbard goes on.
But he feels that the main problem the station creates is for the neighborhood, Neve Sha'anan, which had its character shattered. The edifice cut off that part of the neighborhood that is situated part south of Levinsky Street, which borders the CBS on the north. "Its erection created a tsunami that sent shock waves throughout the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. The problems that concentrate in the environs of the station - the homeless, junkies and prostitutes - are beginning to migrate to the neighborhood's periphery. Neve Sha'anan predated the 'White City' and has a grand Zionist past, but the station eradicated all signs of that."
For years a plan has been making the rounds in City Hall, called "The Stations Compound," which is intended to deal with both the old and new central bus stations of Tel Aviv, which are in close proximity. Yet here too, detractors complain that the plan ignores the actual needs of the area's residents, as well as the character of the site. Among other things, the plan calls for the construction of residential high-rises that would attract wealthier families and established businesses. But the idea is rather iffy, given the intrinsic difficulty of attracting the well-to-do to the most polluted section of Tel Aviv. Then there's the absurdity of trying to persuade serious businesses to take up residence next door to the mall within the CBS, which offers dirt-cheap rental prices.
Architect Ganit Mayslits Kassif feels that the CBS is a "huge, sad monument" to what happens when urban planning neglects to consider the public space: The end result is doomed to fail. "My first meeting with the Central Bus Station, as a child, led me to ask what they had in mind when they planned it. I still ask that question today." She is involved in creating a residential area nearby, which is designed in part to fix the "destruction" that the station imposed on its environs, she says.
"When I say its 'environs,' I don't just mean its immediate surroundings, which this 'bus machine' has made unlivable," Mayslits Kassif says. She means the habit of treating south Tel Aviv like a backyard. Mayslits Kassif feels that the erection of the monster bears at least some responsibility for the deterioration of south Tel Aviv.
Liron Amdur is an architect and economist who wrote her master's thesis at the the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, on the New CBS. She talked with travelers who use the station and with its planners and designers, and presents another point of view. "People always think of the station as a failure, but passengers and other users present another picture. One compared it with central Israel, the place where everybody goes. Some elderly people who use it all the time relate to it as if to a community center."
Some love the New Central Bus Station, for its liveliness and cultural multiplicity, some fear it and can't stand its griminess. The mall is a flop for business, Amdur agrees, but the frustrated capitalism made way for other populations, something that couldn't have happened at the glittering Azrieli mall, she points out. "The station has synagogues, and it has stores that target foreign workers. Whole streets [in the neighborhood] have turned Thai and on Saturday night, the mall serves as a meeting point for foreign workers from all over the country," says Amdur.
But her opinion is the exception. Most feel that the station represents the worst aspects of Israeli architecture, including a tendency to represent political interests rather than the public's needs. Rotbard even believes that Karmi's mere involvement should have disqualified him from receiving the Israel Prize. "Karmi is an important architect, but like others in his generation, something went wrong and he lost his voice. What I don't understand is how, after the Central Bus Station, they let Carmi plan other public projects such as Habima," the Tel Aviv theater currently undergoing renovation. First he should have fixed the new Central Bus Station, Rotbard says: "It's like a land mine in Cambodia that keeps exploding even 30 years later."