Demolition Derby for Tel Aviv's Modernist Buildings

Another gem from the 50s, Migdal House, faces wrecking ball.

On the list of assets of the Migdal group's real estate branch are dozens of designer buildings in the best spots in Israel, from a prestigious shopping center adjacent to Ichilov Hospital, through a charming old building for preservation (housing a well-known law firm ) in the heart of Tel Aviv, to office buildings with polished high-tech facades in Petah Tikva, Netanya and Jerusalem. Surprisingly, what isn't on this list is the Migdal group's original office building in Tel Aviv, which was built back when Migdal was only an insurance company and not a collection of holdings, insurance and financial organizations.

This is a Modernist building, wonderfully modest and elegant, on the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Bezalel Jaffe Street, faithful to the spirit of design and the somewhat formal image of office life in Israel in the 1960s - a kind of three-dimensional episode of "Mad Men" in a miniature local version.

Migdal House on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.
Yael Engelhart

Despite its evident architectural values, though, Migdal House is facing the pressing danger of demolition.

Over the past decades Migdal and the Harel company have taken over nearly all the properties on the square block bounded by Rothschild and Yavneh, Ahad Ha'am and Bezalel Jaffe, a 10-dunam area that encompasses nearly 20 buildings. Together they are advancing an urban building plan (by the firm of Elisha Rubin Architects ) that will radically change the appearance and character of the block as well as the skyline of Tel Aviv's main business district: On the side facing Rothschild three new multi-story buildings are planned, the highest reaching 40 stories, and facing Ahad Ha'am will be three residential buildings and a hotel. The plan includes preservation of four of the buildings - one done in International Style and the other in Eclectic Style - yet Migdal House has been left out.

How did this happen? The list of Tel Aviv buildings for preservation put together in its day by architect Nitza Szmuk does not include the Modernist heritage. Eclecticism and Bauhaus, yes, Modernism, no. Tel Aviv municipality is showing interest in putting together an expanded list that would include more buildings from the 1950s on, but the justified concerns about compensation suits sparked by the existing program - which have piled up to a total of about NIS 2.5 billion - are preventing the city from pursuing this interest.

The upshot of this approach - the eradication of a period and an architectural stratum important to the city - is seen every day on the street. In another decade or two Modernism will become all the rage and people will wonder why they didn't act sooner.

The Migdal office building was designed by architect Yitzhak Rapoport (1901-1989 ), one of the leading 20th-century architects in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. His work was characterized by a varied repertoire of building types and stylistic virtuosity. Among the buildings he designed are the Dajani Hospital in Jaffa and Abdel al-Rahim House that currently serves as the official residence of the French ambassador to Israel; Kiryat Hamalakha (the workshop complex ) in south Tel Aviv - which is now becoming a desirable location for studio spaces of artists; the Haaretz newspaper editorial building; the Maxim Cinema and the Alliance school in Ramat Aviv. Many of Rapoport's works have become icons of this city and of Modernism in Israel.

Despite the quantity and quality of his works, Rapoport left behind very little written material. He was a serial refuser of interviews, "a man who was disgusted by biography and nostalgia," according to his son, architect Oded Rapoport. "He wasn't a person who focused on things that were in the past but rather on things that would be in the future. He didn't like to analyze his work." Thus, hardly any information remains about the period of the planning and construction of Migdal House in the early 1950s. What the younger Rapoport is nevertheless able to talk about is his father's work with the country's leading financial organizations of the 1950s and the 1960s. In the era before the firms of Moshe Tzur Architects and Moore Yasky Sivan, Rapoport was the leading architect of the business and banking world that developed rapidly on Rothschild Boulevard and its environs. He planned the first buildings for Union Bank, Mercantile Bank, Discount Bank, the Tel Aviv branch of the Finance Ministry, Mifal Hapayis House and the building for Otzar Hashilton Hamekomi (a government credit bank for the public sector ) as well as office buildings for Migdal and the Menorah Insurance Company.

He is known especially for the Kupat Am Bank building on Ahad Ha'am Street. This is a building faced in stone that stands nine stories. For quite a while it was the tallest building in Tel Aviv and it had an elevator with an operator ("A Yekke (Jew from the German-speaking countries ), beautifully dressed," recalls Oded Rapoport ), who would help visitors reach their floor.

Architecturally. Migdal House can be linked to three other buildings in Tel Aviv that Rapoport designed in that same period: the Maxim Cinema (at King George Street and Chen Boulevard ), Mifal Hapayis House (Heftman Street ) and the Discount Bank building (25 Yehuda Halevi Street ). In all three, there is attention to climate in the positioning of the building on the plot and the installation of various shading devices on the windows. With Migdal House, the main facade is to the southeast and is sheathed in pre-cast concrete elements that give it a lacy look.

Rapoport positioned the building cleverly on the street, giving increased importance to the intersection of Rothschild and Bezalel Jaffe. A vertical mass five stories high marks the corner, creating a three-dimensional interplay with the building's other wings. The distinction between the two streets is also expressed in the design of the facades. According to the architect's son, "A front facade very open to the boulevard and opaque walls with relatively small windows to the street is what makes the distinction between a main street and a secondary street."

Migdal House on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.
Yael Engelhart

The Migdal company apparently used the building until the mid-1970s, then began renting it to other organizations. The outside has been properly maintained and, with the exception of a story added shortly after its construction, retains its charm today. Beyond that, it is an integral part of the architectural strata of Rothschild Boulevard, from the ornate Eclectic buildings of little Tel Aviv, to the skyscrapers designed by internationally renowned architects, such as the one by Richard Meier now going up at the intersection with Allenby Street.

Regrettably, the anticipated future of Migdal House adds to a long list of Modernist office buildings recently demolished. This year alone, this series has covered the wonderful Phoenix House building (Max Tinter, 1950 ) and Contractors House (Rashkis Goldman,1955 ), which have been razed for the sake of developing yuppie residential buildings. Other office buildings that have remained standing, such as Bank Hapoalim headquarters on Rothschild (Arieh Sharon, 1960 ), have been sheathed in glass and aluminum to give them a correct, contemporary look.

The plan to develop the square block where Migdal House stands is in the last stages of preparation prior to submission to the local planning committee. Outgoing Tel Aviv municipal engineer Hezi Berkovich has met with the developers and given them his approval in principle.

Predictably, the plan itself makes the most manipulative use of existing building rights. For example, it was decided to "preserve" the existing Stock Exchange building in the northern part of the block because developers were not permitted to re-designate it for residential use.

Oded Rapoport has mixed feelings about the future demolition of Migdal House. "On the one hand," he says, "my father used to say it was necessary to demolish buildings whose time had passed and build new ones in their stead, but on the other hand there is the issue of the heritage of a period. When I see what has gone onto the preservation list and what has been left out, it seems to me there is a lot of conformism. There are abundant good examples of the Israeli architecture of the 1950s and it is a pity they aren't preserving some of them." It is surprising that a well-established group like Migdal, which engages in extensive real estate activity, is in a hurry to demolish a building that was an integral part of its story.>mfu