A White Elephant From Outer Space in the Heart of Tel Aviv

During the first Gulf War, Tel Aviv's mayor, Shlomo "Cheech" Lahat remarked that he hoped an Iraqi missile would land on Atarim Square and destroy the thing. For a mayor to make such a comment about a landmark in his own city says it all. Indeed, Atarim Square (Kikar Ataraim) has earned itself a place of distinction on the list of the worst projects in Israel, from the planning perspective.

Fifteen years after Cheech's outburst, Atarim Square is still an eyesore. Last Friday Tel Aviv held a sports happening on Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Although the participants convened at the west end of the boulevard, namely right at Atarim Square, few climbed the ramp to enter the square. Even new, trendy spots that opened during the last year under the square's "mushroom cap" seemed practically deserted on this Friday afternoon, when other Tel Aviv's cafes and restaurants are crammed to capacity. Why is Atarim such a colossal failure?

It had potential: It's in the heart of Tel Aviv and on the beach yet, at the end of beautiful Ben-Gurion Boulevard. It was designed for the public, not to enrich some entrepreneur, and it was the work of a highly esteemed architect, Yaakov Rechter. The project was a joint initiative of the Tourism Ministry and the city of Tel Aviv.

Atarim Square was finished in 1975 and had a few good years. Its location and special shape aroused the curiosity of Tel Avivians, who clustered there, but it didn't take long for planning flaws to become apparent. Atarim was gradually abandoned to neglect, vandals and crime.

"It's a wonder how the architect who planned Gan Yaakov (located between the Mann Auditorium, the Habima Theater and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion) also planned Atarim Square," says Prof. Michael Levin. "The intentions were good. The idea was to connect the boulevard to the sea, to expand the seaside area and populate it with cafes. In practice, the long staircase that bathers have to climb to reach the square proved to be a barrier to the sea."

Misplaced materials

Also, he says, the square isn't inviting. "Even the stone flooring, chosen for its resilience, radiates Jerusalemite sanctity, not Tel Aviv secularism. If they'd just have extended the boulevard, it would have been wonderful. You don't need a massive construct just for cafes," Levin says.

Retired professor Hubert Law-Yone is a bit more blunt: "Atarim Square is a project in the wrong proportion, grandiose, dissociated from the cultural values of the place. I don't understand where these images (colosseum, mushroom) came from in our local culture. There's no historic context, just an alien thing that landed out of nowhere. This landing, like from outer space, is typical of Israeli architecture," Law-Yone sums up.

Architect Sharon Rotbard doesn't think the square landed on Tel Aviv from outer space. He thinks it grew from the city fathers' ambition to create a West European city in Tel Aviv, distanced from Jaffa.

"Atarim Square's location is connected with the conflict between Tel Aviv's axes of width and length, east-west versus north-south," says Rotbard. "Even before the state was established, efforts were made to strengthen the north-south axis that connects Tel Aviv to Rishon Letzion and Holon, as opposed to the manner in which Jaffa is built, from east to west. For example, Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff streets are much wider than the streets that cross them.

"The planning of Atarim Square is a corollary of the relationship between urbanization and architecture," Rotbard analyzes. "The concept at the time was that a city is built by architects. At the time, they tried to solve metropolitan problems through construction that knew how to factor in traffic and, while about it, to include a lot of commercial space, so lots of money could be made. The problem has to do with the priority granted to cars...Walking is a non-polluting form of transport and it should have been given priority."

Beech is for bums

Ra'anan Gabay, a city planner and architect, studied Atarim Square for his masters' degree and researched the planning of multi-layered city squares. "The square's planners talked a lot about connecting the city to the sea, but in practice the purpose of their plan was traffic. There are traffic lights before and after the square on Hayarkon Street, so why turn the road into a freeway at that very part?" There has to be another reason for the square's detachment from its environs, Gabay believes: "The desire to create an European area for the tourists and Tel Aviv elite, because of their concept that the beach is for bums."

He believes the way to cure the square's ills is to concentrate on pedestrians, improve the edifice's navigability, and open better passages to the sea from the ramp leading up to Atarim Square from Ben-Gurion Boulevard.

Would it help? Historian and architect Zvi Elhayani is unkind. "For years the public has wanted to blow up Atarim Square. From the air it looks like some sort of nuclear facility in the middle of Tel Aviv.

"But before we blow it up, we should understand the square's historic context, and keep in mind that at the end of the day, the square has a pretty good ensemble of architecture, including the marina hotel structure, which had been planned from the inspiration of a docking boat and today could serve as an ultra-modern boutique hotel with a sophisticated shopping area. And naturally there are the colosseum and the mushroom-shaped shelters."

The problem with Atarim Square is the basic planning concept of blocking the view of the sea, Elhayani says. Also, it's massive and heavy. The mushrooms need to be cleaned up and fixed and the stone tossed away. "Stone doesn't work in Atarim Square, just as it didn't work at the Cinematheque. Stone doesn't work in Tel Aviv." The stone facade had the effect of immobilizing the structure, Elhayani feels.

"Atarim is a classic case of changing the level of the pedestrians. It was common in the 1970s," interjects architect Naama Malis. At the time, she explains, the thinking was that separating walkers from traffic was a good thing, but the only ones who benefited from the trend were drivers, like in Dizengoff Square.

However, she points out, the city of Tel Aviv has new plans for the square. She thinks it would do well to introduce new activities at the expense of parking space, for instance a cinema complex. Change, she says, could also ease traffic northward via the congested Glilot intersection.

Spring cleaning

The calls to fix up the square are not falling on deaf ears. Daniella Possek, a city engineer for Tel Aviv, presents a plan, which is slated for execution in the spring of 2008. The city means to fix up the square, she says. Its experience has been that when it invests in public space, the market responds, as happened in Tel Aviv Port: A dump turned into one of the trendier places in town. Renovation leads to urban renewal, Possek says.

Fixing up the square will be hard following years of neglect and because of complex ownership. The stone will go, lighting and shading will be improved, as will access to the sea, says Possek. "Development will be simple and clean and will connect the square to the sea," Possek says. "The stairs will create a sort of amphitheater that faces the boulevard, creating a new structure between the sea and the street. The ramp from Ben-Gurion will be razed and turn into stairs with ramps on the side." That's just a small part of the restructuring.

At this point, the architect's job will be to give the square back to the city, says Prof. Zvi Efrat. "Atarim Square was planned by a good architect and it has considerable sculptural qualities that can be used to rehabilitate it. Despite all the problems, I believe the square has potential. Architect Ganit Mayslits Kassif concurs. "The square is the project that everybody loves to hate, but I have a soft spot for it," she confesses. Yes, it's a white elephant. I always enjoy looking at the careful design of the cement mushrooms, the love and talent invested in the details and the courage and beauty of the colosseum above the street."

Of course, it's a gigantic flop of planning Tel Aviv, separating the streets and the boulevards from the sea, she says. Why on earth didn't Ben-Gurion Boulevard simply drop to the sea? City squares must be part of the city, not an architectural lump, and sometimes architects would do well to keep their ambitions in check and characterize the site they're working on. Less can be more, Mayslits Kassif sums up, and the architect has to know when that applies.