Tel Aviv Architecture, Beyond Bauhaus

Tel Aviv's carefully restored Liebling House hosts architecture exhibitions without glossing over controversial issues

Liebling House.

Liebling House–The White City Center, in central Tel Aviv, adjacent to Bialik Square, is an Israeli-German cultural center whose aim is to acquaint the public with the values of modernist architecture and with the White City in Tel Aviv. The recently reopened building will also host architectural exhibitions and discussions, including about the Bauhaus school. Renovated with funding by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the German government, Liebling House will be open to the public during Sukkot and will offer visitors a range of activities.

Liebling House was built in 1936 for Tony and Max Liebling. It was designed by the architect Dov Karmi, who would later become an Israel Prize laureate. The building contains distinctive elements of the International Style and is designated for preservation – no additions can be made to it.

Its renovation began in 2017. Unlike the great majority of landmarked buildings in Tel Aviv, in Liebling House not all of the interior spaces were demolished. The original walls remain in many parts of the structure, which also retains its pristine colorfulness and 1930s tiles. Furniture from the families who lived in the building in its early period was also returned to it.

“We wanted to show how preservation that is sustainable, feasible and multilayered is done,” the building’s renovation and program director Sharon Golan-Yaron and Liebling House director and CEO Shira Levy-Benyemini relate. “Preservation doesn’t necessarily mean replacing windows, sometimes repairs are needed. We’re in an era that recognizes that there are a number of ways to do preservation.”

There are small exhibitions on the ground floor, curated by architect Sabrina Ceglag and by designer Hadas Zemer Ben-Ari. One of them is a fascinating time line rich with visuals, texts and documents relating to the city’s development, from the establishment of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood at the end of the 19th century to the present. There’s also an intriguing map of the countries of origin of the architects who built the city, which shatters the myth that most of the builders of the 1930s were from Germany and studied in the Bauhaus school. In fact, they came from Rome, Oslo, London, Kiev and many other places. The time line also covers the 1950s and ‘60s, when the shikunim, public housing projects, were built, together with iconic structures such as the El Al Building and Tel Aviv City Hall. Nor are controversial events overlooked, such as the demolition of Gymnasia Herzliya, Herzliya Hebrew High School, on Herzl Street, to make way for the Shalom Meir Tower.

An exhibit in the works at Liebling House.

The second room focuses on contemporary preservation issues. Another ground-floor space is called the Projects Room, in which researchers and creative artists explain what the White City is to them. The first project, that of Ines Weizman of the Center for Documentary Architecture, in Weimar, Germany, explores Liebling House itself as a test case for a dialogue on the White City and addresses the connection between Tel Aviv modernism and the Bauhaus school in Germany. A garden outside the building will have 300 plants that were typical of the White City of Tel Aviv. A café is planned, whose offerings will include dishes made by the building’s past tenants.

Controversial agreement

One exhibition deals with the transfer agreements, a contentious issue in the history of Zionism. These were political agreements that consolidated economic relations among Nazi Germany, the Zionist institutions and the British Mandate authorities in the 1920s and ‘30s that enabled tens of thousands of German Jews to emigrate from Nazi Germany to Palestine, with their possessions. The exhibition, which is curated by Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, is a collaborative project by several artists. A companion exhibition is on display in the new Bauhaus museum in Dessau, Germany.

Available for download is the Liebling Haus Audio application, which features an explanation of UNESCO’s declaration of Tel Aviv’s White City as a World Heritage Site and surveys details of the building – the rounded niches, the foyers, the mail boxes, the use of poured terrazzo floors – as well as some of its original occupants. “Look at the picture on the screen: you see Herr Prof. Ludwig Meier and his wife, Frau Lotte Meier,” Golan-Yaron says in the app. “He was a physician who invented one of the first substitutes for breast milk, and was also known for his yekke character,” referring to the proverbial fastidiousness of Jews from German-speaking countries. “He was always nattily dressed, used a walking stick and wore a hat. The couple immigrated from Berlin in 1933 and later lived in the Liebling House.”

White City Center, 29 Idelson St., Tel Aviv; phone 03-647-3239;