Preserving the White City
"Dwelling on the Dunes - Tel Aviv's Modern Movement and Bauhaus Ideals," the book by architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk about the architecture of the Modern Movement in Tel Aviv, has recently been published in a bilingual English-French edition by the French-Israeli publisher Lyber-Eclat.
"Dwelling on the Dunes - Tel Aviv's Modern Movement and Bauhaus Ideals," the book by architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk about the architecture of the Modern Movement in Tel Aviv, has recently been published in a bilingual English-French edition by the French-Israeli publisher Lyber-Eclat. The book is almost an exact translation, with some expansion and updating, of Szmuk's successful Hebrew-language coffee table book, "Houses of Sand," published in Hebrew in 1994.
The bilingual edition is being published in the context of the events held in June celebrating the declaration by UNESCO of the "White City" of Tel Aviv as a World Heritage site.
Over the past 10 years, Szmuk has influenced more than anyone else the subject of Tel Aviv's preservation - and of Israel's in general. Her name has been associated with the Modern architectural heritage of Tel Aviv - as the founder of the Municipal Preservation Department of Tel Aviv in the early 1990s and as the head of the department for 12 years. She led the preparations for the municipal preservation program, the first and most comprehensive program of its kind in Israel. Her heroic struggles for preservation placed the International architectural style on the public agenda, but at the same time triggered considerable antagonism from some of the public.
Szmuk wrote the declaration proposal on behalf of the city of Tel Aviv and the government of Israel; the international recognition Tel Aviv received as the White City is in no small part thanks to her efforts. The proposal was based on historical documentation and research, which are presented in her book at length.
"Houses of Sand" in its Hebrew edition was very popular among the public for both its rich documentary material and luxurious album format, and to the lovely legend the book weaves about a lost architectural treasure just waiting to be rediscovered. Interwoven in the book are milestones and testimonies to the happy end found just around the corner: buildings that were at the height of their beauty and glory in the 1930s and 1940s that were neglected for a long time, reborn through a process of preservation and are now shinier and whiter than ever.
The bilingual edition contains photographs of additional buildings that have been renovated in the past ten years, a comprehensive article by Szmuk about the Geddes plan - the urban frame upon which the White City was built - and an index, the absence of which was sorely felt in the Hebrew edition.
The ten years that have elapsed between the two editions, and the relatively considerable literature that has been published on the subject since, have not changed the book's point of departure regarding documentation and writing. In both, the classic documentary approach - meticulous treatment of the morphological, typological and stylistic aspects of the period architecture - have been preserved. The social, cultural and national contexts that served as the background for growth are mentioned only in passing. It is surprising that the most significant developments in the area that the book discusses - the UNESCO declaration and the municipal preservation program, including the principles that guided its formulation, the buildings included in it and the criteria for their choice, the opposition that it has awakened and the difficulties keeping it from the happy end - were not included in the bilingual edition.
In the eyes of the public, the preservation program, which is now facing the final debate on its fate before the District Planning and Construction Committee, is an enigma that suffers from poor public relations and explication.
The program was not presented in the context of the UNESCO declaration events either, and was absent from the "Living on the Sands" exhibition that Szmuk curated in the context of these events in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum.
Considerable opposition to the "White City" concept, from real estate companies and economic stakeholders, is evident. It would have been wise to prepare to wage this battle properly. In any case, this hefty book and Szmuk's work in general are testimony to the fact that the end of the historiography of Tel Aviv-Jaffa architecture is still a long way off.
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