Looking for Beauty in Tel Aviv's Ugliest Building

A new exhibition reveals the many hands involved in the scandalous planning of the New Central Bus Station.

An exhibition featuring the final projects of graduates of the David Azrieli School of Architecture opened last Thursday at the New Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv. Complementing the exhibit is another called "The Labyrinth: Ram Karmi and the Planning of the New Central Bus Station," curated by architecture school chairman Eran Neuman, with the assistance of Jonathan Canetti and Tom Shaked.

The cornerstone of that "new" bus station was laid in 1967, yet this exhibition is the first public display of the sketches showing the various stages of planning of arguably the most loathed building in Tel Aviv. The sketches were contributed by Karmi's widow, Rivka Karmi-Edry. They are featured along with texts, archival materials and artwork showing how it looked on completion.

The choice of location evolved after Karmi's death in April, a selection that took on added significance due to the overall theme of this year's final projects: "the boundaries of architecture."

The exhibit is part of a range of other cultural events connected with the bus station, which in recent years has become the most sought-after “ugly” location in the country. Most of the events, including this exhibit, are made possible thanks to its enthusiastic current CEO, Miki Ziv, who set out to promote the station as a cultural and artistic venue. The "Labyrinth" exhibition is displayed in the "main gallery," a 400-square meter space that was opened two years ago and provides a home for temporary art exhibits.

Growing interest in the location can be explained by increased social consciousness, which naturally also draws the public's attention to the hazards of the planning process in local public spaces. Last March’s submission of a Tel Aviv master plan for the period through 2025 - called Tel Aviv 5000 - also draws attention to the bus station. Under the plan the station will no longer exist, being replaced by a mixed use complex of businesses, hotels and residential facilities.

The plans to demolish this megastructure of a bus station, a city within a city, follow the site's reputation as a crime-ridden place that has been the scene of murder, robbery, rape and suicide bombings. Karmi visited the site for the opening ceremony, never to return.

Writing on the occasion of the opening of the bus station in 1993, his comments reflected the sentiments of someone proud of his creation, calling it a "Pandora's Box in the most positive sense of the phrase." But his comments also reflected ambivalence, between the lines, suggesting unease mixed with concern.

The timeline leading up to the building of the bus station, described through the research of architects Talia Davidi and Elad Horn, presents a series of good intentions and planning failures dating as far back as the 1950s. The initial concept was for a two-story structure on about a dunam of land (a quarter of an acre). But as the project became more of a real estate development and less of a public facility, it ballooned into a 230,000-square meter project that currently occupies eight stories and 44 dunams (11 acres) of land.

The cornerstone was laid in 1967 after a developer, Arie Pilz - encouraged by city hall - bought the entire site and chose Karmi to design it. In 1972, however, construction was put on hold - for 15 years, first due to a national shortage of building materials, and then due to huge financial obligations.

Ultimately, the structure was purchased by the Heftzibah real estate development company for just $5 million.

When the project was restarted, the demand for retail space was surprisingly brisk and Karmi was asked to make the necessary adaptations to the antiquated white elephant. He was willingly enlisted to add additional space to the facility, but sought to upgrade the space with the addition of open spaces and more ventilation.

High-tech architecture

Nearly 20 years had passed since he had laid down its design outlines, at the age of 33. In the interim, Karmi had gained experience and perspective. The grandiose discourse he had with Pilz in the 1960s - about an all-inclusive structure that would bring together every kind of urban service one could think of - got an update based on the high-tech architecture of the 1970s and ‘80s. But the bus station as real estate development project was already a reality and the project was almost complete at that point. Furthermore, the proposed changes were not accepted.

Many hands were involved in the scandalous planning that led to the New Central Bus Station, with its large-scale impact on the area, but Karmi's name is associated with it more than any other. The current exhibit does not attempt to take exception to the prevailing view - in large measure rightly so. And there is no need to prove that what everyone sees as a colossal failure was indeed one.

As is reflected in the name of the exhibition, within this context, Neuman chose - in an article he wrote for the exhibition catalog - to focus on the concept of a labyrinth. It's a term that Karmi himself attached to the project in various interviews after the bus station was finished. Neuman asks why an architect would seek to associate a project with such a vague, inefficient and unstructured approach. Neuman also details accounts of labyrinths that ascended into mazes of sorts.

He makes a distinction, however, between the labyrinths of mythology and mazes that have no outlet. But beyond the tangle of architecture, it turns out that the drawn-out process of construction is what gave the bus station the final push as a physical, economic and ethical maze.

Archives Architects company Ram Karmi
Kobi Kalmanovich
Daniel Tchetchik
Simon Fox / Archives