“If you want me to show you the city in gray,” sang Naomi Shemer in 1966, referring to the Paris where she then lived. But her lyrics went on to yearn for “your city, awaiting you in white houses,” meaning Tel Aviv. However, when the song was written, Tel Aviv’s buildings were no longer that white and the city had also turned gray. This was not because it had come to resemble Paris, but because of the exposed concrete of its Brutalist architecture.
This new, emerging international style that was imported to Israel ended the White City era and ushered in “a new urban stratum, a gray city,” write architects Jeremie Hoffmann and Hadas Nevo-Goldberst in their recently published book “Aphoria – Architecture of Independence, the Brutalist Style in Tel Aviv Jaffa, 1948-1977” (Technion, in Hebrew).
“Aphoria” – a combination of the words “gray” and “euphoria” in Hebrew – is a study Hoffman and Nevo-Goldberst conducted on Brutalist architecture in Tel Aviv, in a bid to raise awareness of its architectural values and the local context that generated it. The book, which also looks to preserve the period’s heritage, is a continuation of previous discussions of the international architectural style – Bauhaus – in Tel Aviv, which has become an acceptable value, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a lever for raising local real estate prices. “Aphoria” is also a descendant of “The Israeli Project: Building and Architecture 1948-1973,” architect Zvi Efrat’s comprehensive study of Israeli construction at the time.
Hoffmann and Nevo-Goldberst located some 300 Brutalist structures in Tel Aviv, designed by dozens of the period’s architects, including some leading ones, and 120 of the buildings, all gray-white, are displayed in the book. Despite their experience in this field, the structures – constituting a significant architectural and historic collection – surprised the writers. Hoffman heads the department for preserving buildings and sites at Tel Aviv City Hall, while Nevo-Goldberst is a senior architect in the department and also studies Brutalist architecture.
Act of rebellion
Brutalism was born in post-World War II Europe, amid the disillusionment from the hopes of a better world. It is identified with the welfare state; state construction of public institutions; and low-cost housing projects. The name comes from the French for “raw,” indicating the raw concrete (béton brut) the style was based on. It describes the crude material’s advantages and flaws, and the ethics reflected by the deliberate exteriorization of the structure’s components and exposing the building materials, mainly concrete.
In Israel, the Brutalist style was received enthusiastically by young, Israeli-born architects, who saw it as a declaration of independence and rebellion. For them, it signified independence from their spiritual and sometimes biological ancestors, and rebellion against the prewar architecture – which they saw as bourgeois and associated with exile, concealing the truth under white plaster.
Although it was imported to these shores, Brutalism was seen as the epitome of the domestic Sabra style – rough, coarse, muscular and grass-rootsy. Brutalism was national muscle-flexing, defying the international style but also the local Arab-Palestinian architecture, which was made obsolete when the Israeli state was established in 1948.
The most impressive, daring, avant-garde collection of concrete architecture is located in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, which was recently crowned Israel’s capital of Brutalism. The Tel Avivian version is more moderate and responsible – with the exception of the likes of the Central Bus Station – but no less revolutionary in the change it effected on the city’s identity and scale. The moment symbolizing the gray city’s birth is, according to the writers, the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine on November 29, 1947. Those were Tel Aviv’s last moments as a utopian-naive garden city, writes Hoffmann, “and this is also the cradle of Tel Aviv Brutalism – the architectural style of sovereign Israel.”
The cradle of Brutalism in Tel Aviv wasn’t attended by architects but politicians – Israel Rokach, the city’s mayor from 1936-1952, and future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In a speech he made against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly’s debate on the Partition Plan, Rokach called on Tel Aviv’s residents to rally “to the nation’s needs” – absorption, construction and defense.
At the same time, Ben-Gurion decided to place the army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. These moves “turned the city overnight into the de facto national capital,” Hoffmann writes.
The major Brutalist structures were erected first in Tel Aviv as “bastions” of the national institutions of power, culture and the economy, the writers state. These ranged from the Histadrut labor federation’s headquarters to the headquarters of the Revisionist movement, through the Jewish Agency’s building, electrical plants and flour mills, transportation centers, academic institutions, sports stadia, the Eretz Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, to name just a few, “all in the new national-design tradition of exposed concrete, combining an unusually large scale with a state-of-the-art appearance, with internal organization and order.”
Other examples included the municipal Ichilov Hospital (1951), seen as the city’s first Brutalist building; Israel’s first supermarket; the Shalom Meir Tower, which was Israel’s first skyscraper and the Middle East’s tallest building at the time; elementary and high schools; the Standards Institute; the Merkaz and Maxim cinemas; and housing projects in Jaffa and Ramat Aviv.
Brutalism isn’t the most popular architectural style – in fact, it’s the most hated. It didn’t try to be liked, but to tell the truth. However, although it claims to be a modest, low-cost construction style, in fact it requires high skill and cost.
Ben-Gurion saw the paradox and in a speech inaugurating the Histadrut headquarters in 1953 said: “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this as this is a day of celebration that one doesn’t argue on, but if I had remained a member of the Histadrut executive committee, you wouldn’t have built this building without having a battle with me.”