A New Lease on Life for a Rundown Tel Aviv Cinema

From a historic landmark to a seedy screener of porno flicks, Neveh Sha’anan’s movie theater is about to undergo another metamorphosis.

“The administration of Hamerkaz cinema is honored to inform the respected audience of the festive opening of the most modern movie theater in Israel: At the Central Bus Station, 4 Neveh Sha’anan St., Tel Aviv. The theater is equipped with the most up-to-date screening equipment, wide-screen cinemascope, wonderful colors. There will also be cooling and ventilation with modern machinery, and spacious and comfortable seats.”

With that announcement, Hamerkaz movie theater opened on September 11, 1956 in Neveh Sha’anan, which was then a quiet working-class neighborhood near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The cinema served as a leading entertainment center for the residents of the area. It was built during the golden age of movie theaters in Tel Aviv, alongside such theaters as Hod, Tel Aviv, Zamir and Maxim, and attracted hundreds of spectators daily. The first film it screened was “Les Grandes Manoeuvres” with French actor Gerard Philipe (“the audience’s favorite,” according to the festive announcement in the daily Maariv). It was followed by a long series of American and European box-office hits of the period.

Aviad Barness

It is hard to recognize the original building today. After a long period in which it screened erotic films, Hamerkaz is today buried beneath garish Dollar stores, graffiti and announcements posted by foreign workers who live in the neighborhood. The inside of the theater was gutted and the facade badly damaged during a suicide attack in April 2006. Now a private entrepreneur is promoting a plan to turn the cinema into a residential building, an initiative that may finally give the structure a new lease on life.

Hamerkaz was designed by architects Avraham Yaski and Shimon Povsner in the context of their short but flourishing partnership between 1954 and 1956. The partnership is usually identified with semi-official projects such as Tel Aviv’s Malkhei Yisrael Square (the plaza now known as Rabin Square) or the humanities building on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But the two also designed a series of medium-sized buildings in Tel Aviv, including very attractive residential buildings on the small streets in the city center, and two public buildings: the headquarters of the Tel Aviv municipality workers and Hamerkaz movie theater.

Modernist landmark

As former students in the firm of Arieh Sharon and Benjamin Idelson, the two shared an architectural language that was based on the vocabulary of modernism.

The movie theater was no exception: Yaski and Povsner planned a box-shaped building that “takes over” the corner of Neveh Sha’anan and Hashomron streets with an impressive mass.

The movie theater building, because of its function, is a sealed square box. That is why Yaski and Povsner decided to focus on the design of the main facade that fronts Neveh Sha’anan Street and is easily seen from the adjacent streets. The facade is a work of art of concrete, glass and red bricks; a geometric composition of planes and lines in the style of Mondrian, which alludes to the public function of the building.

The broad side facade was left almost untouched by the architects. Over the years large advertising posters were hung on it. “I remember that my father used to recall with great pride the compliments on the building from Benjamin Idelson, who was his mentor,” says architect Gidi Povzner, Benjamin’s son. “He was very sorry that shortly after the cinema opened it started to show blue movies.”

A changing neighborhood

Hamerkaz drew its importance from its location at the transportation hub of Tel Aviv. The Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, which was built as a sleepy rural working-class neighborhood, began to change its character in the 1940s with the construction of the first Central Bus Station, becoming more urban and crowded. The steady increase in bus traffic to and from Tel Aviv also spurred the opening of many businesses that served the commuters.

Cinema historian David Shalit explains that Hamerkaz was one of a group of four movie theaters in Tel Aviv (along with Tamar, Hamatmid and Zamir on Allenby St.) which had three daily screenings, the first at 10 A.M. and the last, late at night. The vast majority of clients were men: shift workers, visitors to Tel Aviv who were waiting for a bus, the unemployed, or students who cut school, and the mix of films that were screened there reflected the composition of the audience. “Mostly action films or historical epics, some legitimate and some racier,” adds Shalit. “It’s very natural for such an institution to develop in every big city near the central bus station.”

‘Deep Throat’

The action films were gradually replaced by racier, erotic films, until finally in the 1970s Hamerkaz became an adult movie theater. Under cover of non-stop screenings in the dark, customers would flock to the movie theater. Shalit says that the film that for him marked the transition from eroticism to pornography was “Deep Throat,” which was first screened in the United States in 1972 and was very successful in commercial theaters as well. Hamerkaz managed to last as an erotic movie theater until 2004 when it could no longer compete with DVDs and the Internet. Except for the ground floor that is now used for commercial space, the theater was abandoned and its interior demolished in order to keep out squatters.

Despite its seedy location and past, the movie theater has architectural qualities worth preserving. Its main facade and its location on a central corner have turned it into one of the familiar symbols of Neveh Sha’anan. Renovating it could even mark a turning point in the urban renewal of the neighborhood. At present the private entrepreneur is promoting a plan to turn the building into 20 residential units, with an additional floor on the roof, perforation of the sealed facade in the direction of Hashomron St., and preservation of the main facade. Architect Danny Rabs, the designer, says that this project, in contrast to other residential buildings in the neighborhood, will be constructed using high standards that can attract “a young Tel Aviv population,” as he puts it.

Rabs used to be part of the Jaffa team of the Tel Aviv municipality planning department, where he dealt daily with dilemmas of preservation. He believes there will be a gradual recognition of modernist architecture in Israel. In the meantime, he favors preserving the movie theater. “I believe that we have to hold onto everything aesthetic in the built-up surroundings, not out of nostalgia, but in order to contribute to new planning.”