Bauhaus Turns 100: The Architectural Style That Put Tel Aviv on the Map

In the early 20th century, Israel became a center of the 'International Style,' but contrary to urban legend, the local obsession was not exclusive to Tel Aviv

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Exterior of the Bauhaus school of applied at Dessau, designed by architect Walter Gropius in 1926.
Exterior of the Bauhaus school of applied at Dessau, designed by architect Walter Gropius in 1926. Credit: General Photographic Agency/Getty Image
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Tel Aviv takes great pride in the distinctive architectural style of its early buildings, generally called "Bauhaus." But the truth is, that actually name refers to an art school in Germany, from which sprung what is more accurately known as the International Style – modern, wide-ranging in scope and popular in a number of countries around the world. Always ready for a celebration, Tel Aviv and a number of other cities throughout Israel are this year marking the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus School, which was established in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar.

The Bauhaus (literally meaning "building house"), initially a general arts school without an architecture department, subsequently relocated to Dessau and then Berlin. There, under pressure from the Nazi regime, the school was forced to close its doors in 1933. Some of its graduates immigrated to Israel, then under British mandate, where they spread the gospel of the new architectural style that had developed over the years.

The roots of the International Style could be found throughout post-World War I Europe in the form of Russian Constructivism and the Dutch “De Stijl” trends, which gave rise to a contemporary, minimalistic language that was studied all over the continent. In fact, Erich Mendelsohn and Richard Kauffmann, among the leading European-born Jewish architects working in the International Style in what was then Palestine, had studied at the Technical University in Munich even before the Bauhaus School was established.

The building of the new Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, Germany, Thursday, April 4, 2019. Credit: Jens Meyer/AP

In 1930s and ,40s Palestine, it was the Viennese school of the International Style that took hold in Haifa, particularly in the Hadar neighborhood. Architecture historian Tzafrir Fainholtz of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology enumerates over 1,400 modern buildings constructed there, many of them works by architects born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Architects who studied at the Technical Academy in Vienna, the capital of the empire, were the vanguard of construction activity in those years.

Dr. Fainholtz noted that another group of International Style architects who were active locally had studied at the Special School of Public Works, Building and Industry in Paris, among them Yitzhak Rapoport and Zaki Chelouche.

The International Style became known as such only after a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition, showcasing architecture from all over Europe, was curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, after they toured the continent in the late ,20s. The designs on display shared several characteristics, such as flat roofs, so-called ribbon windows, vertical "thermometer" windows in stairwells, curved expanses and, in general, an absence of ornamentation. Many of the buildings featured were influenced by the art-deco style.

Fainholtz stressed that the International Style is much broader than that embodied in the work of the "usual trio" of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe (Le Corbusier designed the Villa Savoye, a milestone in the International Style; the other two were directors of the Bauhaus, among other things).

Cinema Hotel building in Tel AvivCredit: David Bachar

“In effect," he explained, "important modern architects came from various schools in Europe, and in my opinion, the exclusion of art-deco is unjustified. If we accept the various aspects of modernity, then even the Ecole des Beaux Arts [School of Fine Arts] in Paris” must be taken into consideration.

A local obsession

So what makes the International Style in Israel unique? Professor Michael Levin, who in 1984 curated the “White City” exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, spoke first about quantity, noting that “a large number of buildings were constructed in all the cities, and include both residential and public buildings such as schools and Jewish Agency buildings.”

These buildings, said Prof. Levin, "were constructed in the heart of the city. In Stuttgart, buildings in this style are found in the suburbs, in Paris they are typically isolated structures around the city, and even in Berlin the quantity is not large. In Israel this wasn’t something that was experimental. In every city there was a talented group of architects that focused mainly on this style.”

Levin also noted the speed at which the International Style became integrated into Palestine/Israel: “There are streams in architecture that arrived 'fashionably late' here, such as the postmodern style. But the architects of the period arrived in this country and immediately started working – at the same time that the style came into use all over the world.”

Indeed, buildings in the International Style sprung up all over the country – not just in the White City of Tel Aviv, which in 2003 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its modernist architecture and innovative city planning. They were also put up in established cities such as Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramle, Acre and Be’er Sheva; in older Jewish towns like Petah Tikva and Rehovot; in  newer ones, such as Ramat Gan and Bat Yam; and even in kibbutzim.

The local obsession with the International Style is reflected in an article published by architect Shmuel Giller in a Ben Zvi Institute periodical. Giller talks about Zuhadi Effendi Abu Aljaban, a member of a wealthy and well-connected family in Jaffa in the early 1930s, who began to build his estate on a hill overlooking his orchard near Beit Dajan, southeast of the city. The house was designed with a central space and an arched façade, in the style of the mansions of his effendi neighbors.

When the skeleton was completed, however, Aljaban changed his mind and decided to switch to the International Style – which had just begun to be used in construction in Jewish cities. He hired the services of architect Richard Kauffmann, who sent Yitzhak Rapoport to redesign the façade of the house (the plans have been preserved at the Central Zionist Archive). In order to give it the International Style, the seven arches on the façade had to be replaced by four concrete pillars and smooth concrete balconies. The building was destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence by the Givati Brigade.

6 El Al St., Herzliya. Herzliya has drawn up a plan for preserving and restoring its International Style buildings. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Neglected buildings

Do different Israeli cities showcase different styles? Architect Noa Schek, who has conducted research in Ramat Gan, Haifa and other locales, explained that “Haifa during the British Mandate period was a cosmopolitan city that served as a center of transportation, industry and the economy, on an imperial scale. Christian and Muslim Arabs, veteran Jewish settlers and new immigrants, Britons, Templers and commercial representatives from various countries – all of them lived together there."

This religious, ethnic and cultural mix was reflected in the architecture: Alongside the “classic” recognizable in Tel Aviv, said Shek, there are many variations. In government buildings, stone finishing replaced the more familiar cement, and there were more ceremonial and "heavy" elements. In buildings constructed for the Arab population in Haifa – as well as in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Acre – stone facings were added to International Style buildings in a variety of forms, while certain ancient styles were also preserved.

Shek said that in Tel Aviv suburbs like Ramat Gan, residents could hire leading architects to build private homes: “The proximity of Ramat Gan to Tel Aviv, along with the availability of large and relatively inexpensive lots, and the pleasant climate in the hills – attracted well-to-do populations, to the Tel Binyamin neighborhood, for example.

"Bankers and industrialists, many of whom had immigrated from Central Europe and had an aesthetic awareness and financial resources, went to live there. They hired the well-known architects of the period to design a private home on a single lot."

Shek agrees with Michael Levin, who pointed out that during the Mandatory era in Palestine, every city had its own group of architects.

“In Haifa, the outstanding architects included Shmuel Rozov, Moshe Gerstel, Benjamin Orel and Yehezkel Zohar, the German Adolf Rading and Mansour Azzam. In Tel Aviv and its surroundings, the main architects were Dov Karmi, Zeev Rechter, Genia Averbuch and Carl Rubin. Arieh Sharon was active in greater Tel Aviv, in projects of the Histadrut Labor Federation and in the kibbutzim," said Shek.

“You have to remember that 80 years ago, the coastal road didn’t exist and the train arrived only a few times a day," she added. "Architectural work that included supervision of construction at the site was almost impossible in distant places.”

Preparation for this article revealed the difficulty of finding a consolidated, central source of information on International Style buildings that are undergoing preservation in Israel (which is actually a problem vis-a-vis buildings in all styles slated for preservation here). There is no single overall survey of such structures, and many buildings designed in this style have been neglected. Tel Aviv has a preservation plan but it doesn’t include Jaffa, where some of the structures are due to be preserved on an ad-hoc basis.

Rishon Letzion has approved a plan for preserving and restoring its International Style buildings; Herzliya has drawn up a plan that has yet to be approved; and in Ramat Gan, local officials are preparing one. In Jerusalem and Haifa, which have many buildings in the style as well as many other architectural and landscape-related treasures – only partial surveys of these structures exist. Bat Yam has posted its list of buildings for preservation on a publicly accessible website. In Petah Tikva there is a list but it is not backed by legal provisions. Ramle has no plan or list.

18 Beit El St., Haifa: The villa architect Benjamin Orel and engineer Yehezkel Zohar constructed for Zohar and his wife Pina. Credit: Rami Shlush

Haifa: 18 Beit El St.

The International Style can be found all over Haifa: in the commercial center in the lower city, in the Abbas neighborhood and the French Carmel Christian quarter, in Bat Galim and in the Carmel Ridge neighborhoods that are mainly Jewish. Because the city has no official preservation plan, many structures built in the style are in danger, and even those ostensibly slated for restoration are sometimes demolished.

Among the leading purveyors of the International Style in Haifa were the duo of architect Benjamin Orel and engineer Yehezkel Zohar who, among other projects, constructed a villa for Zohar and his wife Pina on 18 Beit El St. The house has a unique modern façade unembellished by upper windows or balconies. The rear façade was built so that the living room, dining room, bedroom and balconies face the view. The façades of the dining room and kitchen were designed in a circular manner with large windows, which are protected by a decorative layer.

100 Jerusalem Blvd., Jaffa: The Dajani Hospital, designed by British architect Austen Harrison and Yitzhak Rapoport. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Jaffa: 100 Jerusalem Boulevard

In the book “Bauhaus in Jaffa,” produced by the Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv, the Dajani Hospital is described as a "nature reserve." The complex, on the corner of a main boulevard, was designed by British architect Austen Harrison and Yitzhak Rapoport, who also designed the central post office in Jaffa; it is an institutional structure resembling the Assuta Hospital in Tel Aviv. The street corner is emphasized by the tower-like construction, minimalist lines and complex volume. Over the years the impressive balconies were closed off (as in many International Style buildings).

In his book “The Boulevard,” edited by Vered Navon, Shmuel Giller explains that construction of the hospital was initiated by Dr. Fuad Ismail Dajani in 1933, and it was in operation until the War of Independence. Today it is the site of an assisted living home. The buildings in the complex have been slated for preservation on an individual basis, but have not been properly documented.

Rosenbaum House, on 29 Benjamin Metudela St., Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Jerusalem: 29 Benjamin Metudela St.

Houses in the International Style were built in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood and the city center – the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street being one of them – as well as in Talbieh, Katamon and Baka. There are also a few in East Jerusalem. As in other mixed-population cities, these buildings were typically faced with stone and only a few were covered in cement: One of them is Rosenbaum House, on 29 Benjamin Metudela St.

Constructed in 1939 and designed by German-born architect Heinz Rau, it consists of three floors that take the form of three blocs, each of which sits on a different topographical level. The façade is simple and almost opaque, with small and prominent rectangular windows. The different floors are emphasized by horizontal concrete awnings; a pergola was added in recent years. The Rosenbaum House is one of the first staged or terraced structures in the city, and it has appeared on the municipal list of monumental structures since the early 1990s. Despite its importance and uniqueness, however, the building lacks a proper documentation file.

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