Ever since the ToHa Tower landed at the most chaotic intersection in Tel Aviv, and perhaps the whole world, passersby have wondered what to make of this alien architectural object and puzzled over how it could have come to be.
Now that a second tower, ToHa 2, has being unveiled as the sequael that will be completed by 2026 – with a mind-boggling 3-billion-shekel ($965 million) price tag – here are several possible theories inspired by having to pass by the site almost daily.
From the very start, the first ToHa Tower was the talk of the town and a social media star. This was always the intention, and everything was designed (both projects were created by architecture firms Ron Arad and Associates and Avner Yashar) to ensure this would happen. The UFO-like image. The flashy glass prisms. The pseudo-gold facing. The atrium that splits it up to the sky.
Whatever you think about it is unimportant: terrific or awful. Beautiful or ugly. Just right or all wrong. Perfectly at home in its surroundings or sticking out like a sore thumb. What does it matter? Just as long as people are talking about it.
What matters is the noise, which even exceeds the transportation chaos at the intersection. The publicity and international titles it won for being the tower that is the most ... something – it really doesn’t matter what. The other important thing is the financial returns all those awards carry with them.
The unveiling of the plans for ToHa 2, that will contain 75 floors, only reinforces the sense that this was the sole purpose of the project, with its surplus architectural baggage and in-your-face design. Like the name says: Made in Israel (ToHa is short for Totzeret Ha’aretz).
Know your place
The U.S. architect Matthew Frederick wrote about the prominence versus the non-prominence of buildings in his useful book “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.” Among the numerous tips he offers in the form of dos and don’ts, Frederick defines two types of urban building – what he calls fabric buildings and object buildings – and outlines the differences between them.
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Fabric (or background) buildings, which make up the vast majority of buildings in any city, have “ordinary” residential and commercial uses, and their virtue lies in their forming “a physically cohesive texture that is indicative of an underlying social fabric,” Frederick writes.
Object (or foreground) buildings, on the other hand, are buildings “of unusual importance.” These public and cultural buildings are the only ones that may rightfully stand apart from their context, sometimes to a dramatic degree. In other words, the ToHa towers are office buildings and ought to be expected to behave as such. Not to stand out, not to deviate, but to contribute toward the creation of a cohesive physical and social fabric, especially in the hectic environment in which they are situated.
Except that the ToHa towers do not work in the service of urban or social logic. Instead, they serve the interests of the project’s developers (Amot Investments and Bayside Land Corporation) and of the architects who gave them their form (Ron Arad and Avner Yashar). There’s a reason why these buildings are bursting with architectural self-importance, despite not exactly being “of unusual importance.”
You don’t achieve the kind of goals they’re aiming for by being a fabric or background building. In order to reap the desired returns, symbolically and practically speaking, you have to bring out the big guns. And what are the ToHa towers if not the big guns? The developers admit that the square footage of ToHa 2 could have been spread out over four lower towers, which would have lowered construction costs. But they chose to build a single tall building with its head in the sky. The official explanation was a reduction of the building’s footprint. But let’s not kid ourselves – no low-rise office building would have done the job.
Added to the interests of those behind the ToHa project are the interests of the Tel Aviv municipality, which advanced and gleefully signed off on the project. Having recently gained admission to the exclusive “world cities” club and eager to climb the rankings, city officials viewed the ToHa project as a gift from the gods. Glittery luxury towers with the imprimatur of famous architects and a dramatic skyline are a few of the prerequisites for entry into this club.
The ToHa project is just the kind of thing to move Tel Aviv a few rungs closer to cities like New York and London. By definition, a world city is successful in terms of the global economy, is expensive, in high demand, a magnet for business, residences and tourism.
Tel Aviv definitely seems to fit the bill. It is nicely meeting the criteria for being called a world city – and at an amazing pace. At the same time, it is also beset by most of a world city’s ills.
A world city is also, necessarily, a polarized city. This is not a bug in the system but an integral part of it. This is well-known and has frequently been written about. The employment pyramid in a world city is emblematic of the method. At the top are those with high incomes who enjoy all the pleasures the city has to offer, and at the bottom are the lower classes who are employed in exploitative conditions in order to serve those at the top.
“One of the most stunning images in a world city is the turnover between day and night in the fancy office buildings,” the late Prof. Aryeh Shahar wrote in a key essay when the concept was still in its infancy in Israel. “By day, they are populated with professionals employed by international corporations, and by night they are taken over by an army of janitors and cleaners, most of whom are recent immigrants who often do not know the language or customs of the place.” Alongside them, women and youngsters who are employed in exploitative conditions “form the bottom layer of the employment cross-section that makes it possible to sustain, feed and serve the entire urban population.”
With the arrival of the 3-billion-shekel ToHa 2, all that’s left to say is: welcome to the club.