Turn Back Time and Retrieve Dizengoff Square

Yigal Hai
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Dizengoff Square, steaming hot at noon yesterday. One homeless man is asleep on a concrete bench in a partly shady corner. A second homeless man awakes. Dozens of residents crisscross the square at a brisk pace without giving a thought to its rundown appearance. Most of the cement benches are "adorned" with ugly and blatant graffiti, rife with spelling mistakes.

Graffiti also cover the outer circumference of the "Fire & Water" sculpture designed by Yaacov Agam. Two glass plaques explaining the art work have been shattered by vandals, and nobody has bothered to mend them. The square's floor tiles are filthy, covered by greasy black stains.

This is the sad spectacle at one of the city's main squares in Summer 2007. But a city council decision Sunday offered hope of a different future for Dizengoff Square. The council allocated NIS 2.8 million to study the feasibility of demolishing the square and restoring it to street level, as it was in its prime. The study will be conducted by the municipal-governmental company Netivei Ayalon, and will consider traffic arrangements for the area after the demolition, architectural design of the square and a solution for the Agam sculpture.

After years of talk, here at last is a binding decision to act. "The intention is to restore it to its glory days," Tel Aviv's municipal engineer, Hezi Berkovich, explained yesterday. "The raised square is an extremely problematic segment today on Dizengoff. We are trying to avoid split-levels, raised or sunken, in the center of town, and currently the square cuts off the line of sight that is so important for pedestrians, who do not walk along the street sidewalks and do not enjoy them. They simply go up and down at the square. Over the years, the square and the houses surrounding it deteriorated together."

Zina Dizengoff Square, named for the wife of Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, was built in 1934. The square is part of the original urban plan by Sir Patrick Geddes, and was designed by architect Genia Averbuch. An idea to build a parking lot under the square went unrealized, and instead a roundabout was fashioned around the square, at its center a garden with a fountain and shady seating areas.

For decades the square was a popular location and one of the landmarks of Tel Aviv's historic "White City." The split-level was introduced in 1978, during Shlomo Lahat's tenure as mayor, with Dizengoff traffic flowing beneath it. A fountain was erected in the middle, and replaced eight years later by Agam's kinetic sculpture. The changes met with furious reactions, but the city authorities explained at the time that these were necessary to solve traffic problems.

In recent years the square turned seedy, becoming the haunt of street gangs and inebriated skinheads.

The feasibility study is supposed to be completed within a year, at which point it will be possible to begin detailed planning of the new-old square. A hint of what's to come can be found in the words of the city engineer, Berkovich: "My position is that the new plan must create a large round space, which will be a unique place that is suitable for various kinds of events. Not just another square. I won't put some sculpture there to occupy the entire center of the square. The traffic roundabout will again ring the square, with the idea being to create sidewalks at least 10-meters wide. This project fits into the surrounding urban renewal, which includes young families moving into Dizengoff Street and its environs, and a plan for reducing the number of buses on this street. The street is scaling back to a municipal level and there is no longer any need there for an interchange like the square."

Berkovich said he plans to meet with Agam to discuss moving his sculpture elsewhere in Tel Aviv.

Former mayor Lahat favors restoring the square to street level, and says that destroying the original square to solve congestion was the one mayoral decision he regrets. "I am responsible, and I take the blame," he said yesterday. "We changed the square, and all the greenery, the beauty and the pleasantness went. Now it is possible to do something really beautiful and impressive."