The Legend of the White City

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

This week, Tel Aviv will begin celebrations to mark its designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of 24 new World Heritage Sites. Tel Aviv's "White City" architecture has been singled out for this honor.

The White City designation refers to Bauhaus-style homes and other buildings built from the early 1930s to the state's establishment. The 2003 UNESCO designation acknowledged that Tel Aviv's White City was the first urban area in which Bauhaus styles were followed - by the mid 1930s, Tel Aviv was the only city in the world being built under what is called the International Style.

As part of these celebrations, Tel Aviv University's School of Architecture will sponsor an academic conference devoted to "Critical Modernists: A Tribute to Tel Aviv, a World Heritage Site." Architects and academics from Israel and overseas will take part in this conference; the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art at Tel Aviv's Museum of Art will open a "To Live on the Sands" exhibition, whose organizer, architect Nitza Szmuk, the former head of the Tel Aviv Municipality's historic preservation department, is identified with the campaign to protect the city's International Style architecture. The events will reach their festive peak in early June, when a series of official ceremonies, exhibitions, and parties are to be held (the events will include a Bauhaus Party at the TLV club).

Tel Aviv's designation as a World Heritage Site constitutes a genuine public relations accomplishment. As the city's mayor, Ron Huldai, put it, the designation "will put Tel Aviv-Jaffa on the world map as a cultural and tourism site." But, more than a prize, the designation represents a challenge. Tel Aviv joined the World Heritage Site list thanks to a commitment made by its municipality and by the government of Israel (which forwarded the official request for the designation, via the Foreign Ministry): Under this commitment, the state and the municipality are to protect the buildings and sites, which provide the city's distinctive architectural ambiance, from alterations and destruction.

However, the city's readiness to uphold this commitment is questionable. The doubts result from major development pressures in play in the area designated as a heritage site; from the lack of economic resources to finance preservation efforts; and - most importantly - from the lack of public consensus about the justification of preservation work.

In the early 1990s, the Tel Aviv Municipality's preservation department started to formulate a plan to protect White City buildings and sites. This was to apply to 1000 structures that reflect the International Style. Hundreds of objections were filed against this plan, which is now under the jurisdiction of the regional planning committee; these objections were based on claims that the plan's implementation would cause major financial losses. Many real estate insiders contend that the buildings' architectural style does not enhance their market worth - the opposite is true, they claim.

The preservation plan has never been authorized. Without municipal and state support to resolve legal and financial issues the plan raises, and without public backing for the logic and goals of the historic preservation work, there't little chance the commitment made to UNESCO will be honored.

Real estate opposition aside, there is criticism of an opposite sort, stemming from a compelling social consideration: Since the White City was discovered, and packaged for tourist marketing, the price of many assets in the area skyrocketed, so that the White City designation has turned central Tel Aviv into an exclusive area for the wealthy. Intellectuals, culture critics and local architects who view the White City as a fabrication and a kind of plot support this critique. In his penetrating article "White City, Black City: Anatomy of a City-Cide," the architect and theoretician Sharon Rotbard writes that the White City is an "urban legend" invented to obscure the urban narrative of the "Black City" - Jaffa and Tel Aviv's southern and eastern neighborhoods, where the "population that is not wanted in the White City is sent."

As Rotbard writes, the city was built in keeping with the history of the victors, and their narrative came to be called the White City. Rotbard argues that "in order to save the Black City, its story also has to be told." It is to be hoped that the physical proof of the stories - the houses, the sites and streets - of both cities, White and Black, will not be forever lost.

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