Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square Revolution: Returning to the Age of Innocence

Goodbye doves and emo kids: After decades of public outcry, the iconic site finally returns to its original glory

Dizengoff Square as it is expected to look when works are finished
Meged Gozani

In one of their first lessons in architecture school, students learn the difference between a town square and a traffic circle. A real town square is a piazza or plaza – a space for pedestrians to gather, along the lines of what visitors see in Europe. Like San Remo Square in Venice or the Placa Reial in Barcelona. Or, if you want a local example, like Bialik Square in Tel Aviv.

The city's Dizengoff Square, which is approaching the end of its high-profile renovation, is not a piazza. To tell the truth, it’s not even a traffic circle because private vehicles can’t drive around the whole thing. It's reasonable to assume that due to limitations imposed by the Transportation Ministry and the bus companies, it will function mainly as a big traffic island, into which pedestrians will occasionally wander.

The raised Dizengoff Square, before the final renovations. Dirty and hardly used as a square.
Dizengoff Square as it is expected to look when works are finished
right: The raised Dizengoff Square, before the final renovations. Dirty and hardly used as a square. . left: Dizengoff Square as it is expected to look when works are finished. Tomer Appelbaum, Meged Gozani

Just before the work began in 2016, Mayor Ron Huldai went as far as to say that the old square was the “symbol of the work that was done in the past, when the worldview preferred private vehicles and took an urban street and turned it into a transportation interchange. Lowering the circle to the level of the street makes an important social statement, and its contribution to the public space will be very significant.”

Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv during works, in January 2017
\ Moti Milrod

Nevertheless, over the past week and a half, since the fences and scaffolding were removed, and the renovation work – at a cost of about 60 million shekels ($16.5 million) – neared the end, few people seem to want to venture into the square. As of now, the connection between it and the street has not improved things for pedestrians: Between the outer part of the square, which abuts on restaurants, stores and coffee shops, and the small park in the inner circle, there are three main traffic arteries with only four crosswalks. Nevertheless, the square has slowly returned to its original, street-level form, as planned by architect Genia Averbuch in the 1930s, and now highlights the design and aesthetics of the historic structures surrounding it.

The Moria Sekely firm was in charge of the landscaping, the design of the innermost part of the square and the sidewalks on the outermost edge, which abut the surrounding businesses. That latter space, now paved with polygonal stone tiling, has been doubled in width to about 8 meters and now has benches.

“The design brings back the glory days,” says landscape architect Yael Moria, adding, “We planned a circle that would underscore Averbuch’s radial design."

Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on November 2, 2016
Tomer Appelbaum

The innermost section of the site is now divided into eight grassy segments, each of them separated by a kind of concrete trapezoid facing one of the streets. Because of the lack of crosswalks, pedestrians cannot walk directly from those concrete areas to a street or sidewalk.

Moria, whose expertise is in polygonal landscape projects, says she had to deal with many constraints and is aware of the problems posed by the current design. However, the plan could change in the future should the traffic flow become more moderate, she says: “At the moment the most important move was that we lowered the square, not what kind of paving we chose. Now it will be easier to make the changes.”

Urban landscaping projects that border on historic spaces, are themselves part of preservation efforts or are supposed to reconstruct original designs are few and far between in Israel. Still, some conservation work has been done in Tel Aviv in Independence Park and the Yaakov Garden next to the Habima Theater; more recently in the city, there has been a preservation project involving the prime minister’s old residence in the Kirya government compound.

In any event, the newly revamped Dizengoff Square now features new types of vegetation: The original ficus, parkinsonia, maple and palm trees have been replaced by cypresses, flame trees, nettles and mulberries.

“The previous square," architect Moria explains, "was classically Romantic. We chose to look at the Tel Aviv vegetation that's seen, for example, in the paintings of Nahum Gutman. We chose trees that grow fairly quickly and are easy to maintain, and to create integration between them and the city, as well as the boulevards."

As for the location of the little lawns on the edges of the central part of the square, she says, “On Ben-Zion Boulevard people sit right on the street on bits of grass. You don’t need a fence everywhere. People need to learn to live in the public space. Not everyone is a potential suicide.”

Agam in the game

The garden originally planned to grace Dizengoff Square in the 1930s was designed by Tel Aviv's chief engineer Jacob Ben Sira, and the city's first head gardener, Avigdor Meshel. Their blueprint called for various plantings, 20 benches, water fountains and lighting. In historical documents (including a description, hundreds of pages long, of the planning, landscaping and cultural history of the site) prepared by architects Dr. Keren Meterani, Adi Sela Wiener and landscape architect Tal Katzir, the garden is described as a “vibrant garden perceived as a park by the residents of the city who come to walk there and enjoy time there, meet and watch the fountain. The garden, which covers 3 dunams (about three-quarters of an acre), is listed as one of Tel Aviv’s parks in a survey in 1954. According to the historical records, the vegetation for the garden and the square in general was chosen so as to highlight its unique character: symmetry, “cultural” space, variety, and above all, shade.

Aerial view of Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square in the 1940s.
זולטן קלוגר / לע"מ

Six decades later, at a meeting before the demolition of the square, various architects raised proposals for reviving it. Zvi Lishar, who was responsible for designing the site when it was raised from ground level in 1978, suggested renovating it at a cost of a few million shekels, mainly to add shade and roofing to surrounding shops. Alon Ben-Nun, who established the Houses from Within (annual open-house) project and lives nearby, suggested using the raised ramps. Architect Keren Engelman suggested dividing the circle into four unequal parts, each of which would be directly connected to the rounded outer edge of the piazza that would be created, with roads running between them. Her suggestion would probably have involved removal of Yaacov Agam’s famous “Fire and Water” fountain from the middle of the square.

The fountain, despite the impression created by the artist, wasn’t always in the square; it was added only in 1986. The original fountain was inspired by the plans for a fountain shown at a landscaping exhibition in Dresden in the 1930s. Minimalist in design, it consisted of 72 water jets and lighting in shades of red, blue and yellow.

It is unclear why the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality decided to leave Agam’s fountain in place at the renovated square; apparently there were agreements signed with the artist, but the city is not making them public. The parties did meet in the Tel Aviv District Court between 2009 and 2011. Agam sued the city at one point for poor maintenance of his work, which he said contravened a 2002 agreement. However, the minutes available to the public say nothing about a commitment by the city as to the site of "Fire and Water," and one wonders why the city – which has demolished such historic structures as the Allenby Theater, Maariv House and the Beit Lessin Theater – has allowed the artist to dictate some of the plans for one of the most important public spaces in the city.

At present, the colorful geometric panels to be hung from Agam's kinetic sculpture are now being repainted under his personal supervision. After their installation, an official dedication ceremony will be held, according to the municipality.

Ignoring criticism

Contrary to other local infrastructure projects of similar scope, most of the businesses seem to have survived the renovation of Dizengoff Square and it will be good for them on the long term. Tom Manis, manager of the Leggenda ice-cream parlor on Dizengoff Street, notes that the closure of the sidewalks was not initially coordinated with shop owners. If a committee of those individuals had not eventually been created, he says now, “I don’t know whether we would have survived. We solved things on the ground. Construction went on much longer than expected, and we weren’t given a discount on any municipal [property] fees, as if nothing was happening here.”

Manis estimates that customer traffic went down 20 percent on average per business during the project, but concludes on a positive note: “The surroundings now are much more accessible for businesses. I suggest that they put a little fence so kids can play on the grass, and that they add some shade until the trees grow.”

The Trattoria restaurant, opposite the Rav Chen movie house, remained open during the renovation project. The area between the restaurant and the theater, a spot once favored by the homeless, is now less inviting.

“I still feel like this is a construction site. But I have now doubt that when it’s finished it will be a Tel Aviv landmark,” says Dan Goldschmidt, manager of the Trattoria. “The corner is very pretty. Before this the area was like a urinal. The previous square may have been better for pedestrians but it also kept people away from the businesses.”

Goldschmidt, himself the son of an architect, says he hopes that the newly revamped square will eventually attract more people to the area, but suggests that the neighboring storefronts, some of which are neglected, also be renovated. “There couldn’t be such a thing in Europe, where they finish a planning project like this and leave the storefronts in this condition,” he notes.

A great number of people were involved in the planning of the new and improved square. Among those who had input, much credit should go to local residents who fought to have it lowered again to its original street level. But according to Mor Giboa, a representative of the Green Party who is running for Tel Aviv's city council, the city also ignored criticism in the early stages of the project.

Says Gilboa, “All the ills of Tel Aviv municipal planning, in terms of the environment, design, transportation and public involvement, manifest themselves in this project." As examples he cites the “cynical and needless” uprooting of 80-year-old trees, and the introduction of “unnecessary traffic lights and roadways that once again give priority to cars rather than to pedestrians.” Gilboa believes the square should have more greenery, including the old trees, "with less concrete and without the Agam sculpture.”

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality said in response: "During the work on the square the contractor encountered difficulties and declared bankruptcy. However, the city did everything it could to move ahead on the project and the budget was not exceeded.”

Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv in 1959
Willie Pollander