The Boulevard's French Corner

The French Institute will soon open in a Bauhaus located between Herzl and Rothschild boulevards. The French are happy, but critical Israelis believe they have moved to a 'stuffy bourgeoisie building.'

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The French Institute will soon open in a Bauhaus located between Herzl and Rothschild boulevards. The French are happy, but critical Israelis believe they have moved to a 'stuffy bourgeoisie building' Luckily for them, and for the city of Tel Aviv, the French embassy staff does not appear to be up-to-date on the latest critical discourse in Israel. They did not imagine that the international style of architecture (Bauhaus), of which they are so enamored, and rightly so, has lost some of its splendor of late. In some circles, the buildings of that era, which were once considered the best thing that had ever happened in architecture, are seen as "stuffy white bourgeoisie buildings," as the critics say in a nutshell.

And so as cultural arbiters of the old-style conservative school, the French did not hesitate to buy a fine Bauhaus building designated for preservation at the corner of Herzl and Rothschild boulevards in Tel Aviv and turn it into the new home of the French Institute, the industrious agent of French culture outside France. The last renovations and finishing touches are to be completed in the coming days. The building, which, according to both the embassy and the institute, is "a jewel in the crown of French cultural institutions in Israel," will open to the public soon.

The French cannot conceal their excitement. Up until now, the Institute operated out of an office tower in the Industrialists' House (Beit Hata'asiyanim) in South Tel Aviv, which was both anonymous and nondescript, in the words of Jean-Michel Casa, the French ambassador to Israel. The new address - a building with a Tel Avivian architectural identity to their liking and a local history that dates back to the beginning of the previous century - is tailor-made for the Institute; especially in these days of euphoria about the relationship between the two countries.

The French will celebrate the move to the new premises, which have been refurbished and renovated as if they were a favorite toy, with an entire week of cultural and musical events, starting in another two weeks and concluding with a "white night" on June 28 (when Tel Aviv will celebrate the date of UNESCO's declaring the White City as a World Heritage Site). In epicurean circles in Tel Aviv, the declaration is already being looked down on, but the French apparently have their own bon ton.

As people who consider architectural heritage as a beacon and whose capital, Paris, houses the UNESCO headquarters, the French embassy staff greatly appreciates the international organization and its efforts. They consider the UNESCO declaration to be a commendable accomplishment for Tel Aviv, as a meeting with the ambassador and his entourage ahead of the Institute's opening revealed. They did not hesitate for a moment to enlist the White Night events in their celebrations. They themselves display impressive diplomatic expertise in Zionist and municipal history and found it necessary to stress the French connection to the corner of Herzl and Rothschild boulevards, where the Institute is already starting to feel at home.

After all, the ambassador explains, Herzl spent time in Paris when he was covering the Dreyfus Affair as a journalist, and the well-known philanthropist Edmond de Rothschild, who contributed substantially to Zionism, was French. Without the post-colonial soul-searching reserved for locals only, the ambassador also noted the similarity between the French ambassadorial residence in Jaffa - a grand villa in the best international style, with an Oriental touch, which was originally built for a well-to-do Arab in the 1930s - and the elegant Villa Savoye built by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier near Paris.

Beyond the French roots of the intersection, the ambassador and his entourage are convinced that the new address places the Institute at the "hot spot in Tel Aviv," as Eric Chevreul, the Institute's deputy director, put it. Go and try to explain to them that this hot spot is a synonym for an urban area that underwent gentrification, an increase in living costs and a surge in real estate prices. And even then, it is uncertain they will see any problem with that. C'est la vie.

A tenant such as the French Institute is the dream of any landmark building, which usually has a hard time finding a suitable use or a worthy buyer. France, which purchased the property on Rothschild Boulevard for $3.6 million and invested another million in renovating it and adapting it for its new use, is undoubtedly a fitting buyer. The activities planned at the Institute include a library and an information center (on the street level, so there will be a "showcase" for the culture of France), a cafe, classrooms for French language classes, a conference hall and more.

The house on the corner of Rothschild and Herzl was built in 1909 by the Eliavson family, one of Tel Aviv's 60 founding families, and it "represents a typical process for many of the estate homes from the early to mid-20th century," according to the building's preservation architect, Amnon Bar Or. The original house consisted of a one-story home with a tiled roof. In the 1930s and 1940s it became a four-story office building in the international style, with a coquettish rounded corner facing the intersection, which the embassy officials are particularly enamored by.

The place has since undergone several transformations typical of Tel Aviv. Today the building is part of the Africa-Israel tower complex at the edge of Rothschild Boulevard, from which the building was purchased. The quirk of fate is that the building owes its new life to the adjacent towers: as part of Tel Aviv's preservation and development policy, and in return for increasing the building rights, Africa-Israel was obligated to keep several historic buildings in the complex and to pay for their preservation. These included the Akiva Weiss home and the Eliavson home, which look a little like nice stuffed animals against the backdrop of the towers sprouting up around them.

Initially, the high-rise building policy on Rothschild Boulevard sparked intense public opposition. Today it has become more difficult to join what was back then known as the "saving the spine" effort and to argue with the adrenaline injected into the street by high-rise construction, preservation efforts and the dramatic urban panoramas created by the towers. At the same time, these structures also intensified and externalized the socio-economic gaps. Luckily for them, the French embassy staff does not have to deal with these issues (even though the financial papers point to a connection between the wave of French immigration to Israel and surging real estate prices).

The French Institute's building has many good aspects, but the highlight is the rooftop balcony overlooking a hypnotic panorama. Among other things, the view reveals the threat lying in wait: a huge plaza is being constructed in the complex, and beneath it a huge underground parking lot - another shot in the foot for promoting public transportation in the city. One day, the French Institute employees will be surprised to discover an underground road emerging from the parking lot right opposite Espresso Bar, which they have already adopted as their own. Yet, on the western side, they can still see the sea.