Back to the Future / Everything's Up to Date in Tel Aviv. It's 1935

The petit bourgeoisie flourished in the White City, and so did their arcades.

Here is what the advertisement said: Hator Passage, now under construction in Tel Aviv, will hold shops, offices, banks, clubs, hotels and so on and is being built by the latest methods like the shopping arcades in Europe. Potential tenants may want large areas with special entrances on each floor. The ad gave a phone number to call. It was published on February 8, 1935, in the now defunct newspaper Davar. That was a sign of the city's prosperity in the 1930s.

Tens of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Europe, were streaming into the city in the fourth and fifth major waves of immigration. They came with cash and established a petit bourgeois class of practitioners of the free professions. In 1936, Tel Aviv was already the largest city in the country, the trade and marketing center for the prestate Jewish community's agricultural produce, its center of industry and the trades and its center in terms of public, financial and cultural institutions. At the Yarkon estuary a small port was dedicated, and on the main streets modern cafes, clubs and cinemas opened.

Tel Aviv - Yuval Tebol - 13072011
Yuval Tebol

Herzl Street quickly took on a distinctly commercial look. One entrepreneur purchased a block at the corner of Wolfson and Herzl and began putting up a large office and commercial building there. The name "Hator" is an abbreviation of his name. Ten years earlier, on Herzl Street, the country's first shopping arcade was built, Pensak's Passage. It boasted the city's first passenger elevator. In contrast to Pensak's eclectic and ornate design (the work of architect Yehuda Megidovich ), Hator Passage had a modern, big city feel. It was the work of Haim (Munya ) Remah (Sokolinsky ), who owned a flourishing architecture firm in the 1930s, says his daughter, educator and author Herzliya Raz.

Originally the idea of the arcade was to enlarge the commercial area on the ground floor. Instead of a few shops facing the street, Sokolinsky planned a spacious inner courtyard connecting Herzl Street to Hashuk (Market ) Street and containing another layer of commerce. Pictures and newspaper clippings from the period show the building had a varied population. On the ground floor was Cafe Tirza, which apparently was a local eatery and is not mentioned in the historical research on cafes in Tel Aviv; the floors above included the offices of Trade and Commerce (a kind of early version chamber of commerce ), alongside G. Schneorson and Sons' shop for "tablets and precision instruments." The shape of the balconies on the third floor suggest there were also residential apartments. Sokolinsky kept his office there.

Architecturally, the Hator Arcade connects to local and international design trends. A few years earlier, Sokolinsky had completed his studies in France and was acquainted with Le Corbusier's avant-garde works and the fundamentals of the Modernist movement. On the outside, the building resembles the splendid department stores the German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn did for the Schocken family in Germany, with a rounded facade harmoniously relating to the street corner and ribbons of windows cutting the building its entire length.

The inner courtyard, suddenly different, more conservative facades are revealed, including typical elements of the International style like "thermometer" windows alongside the staircases and balconies with concrete aprons as protection from the sun.

The building's most innovative element is not visible. Pictures from the construction period show that Sokolinsky moved the supporting columns back from the facade with the aim of creating a free facade - one of the most important principles of Modernist architecture.

To bring his parents

Raz relates that her father left his job as an engineer at the Jewish Agency and opened an independent office to accumulate money fast and get his parents out of Russia. She says his family saw him hardly at all and "he worked like a madman and planned a lot of projects all around the country." This was a time when the Russians were selling immigration permits to elderly Jews, something like $1,000 a head. Ultimately, he got the money to bring them here. "We were able to get to know them and enjoy them for a number of years," says Raz.

The period's accelerated economic development yielded several large commercial buildings: Beit Hadar on Harakevet Street (1934, Carl Rubin ) and Beit Polishuk at the corner of Allenby and Nahalat Binyamin (1934, Shlomo Liaskovsky and Yaakov Orenstein ). Unlike them, however, Hator Arcade does not appear on the Tel Aviv's municipal preservation list, despite its architectural importance and its unusual dimensions. Even after 75 years, Hator is still characterized by a wonderful cacophony of tenants and uses though it is not as well-maintained as it used to be. The entrance from Herzl Street has been blocked up so the building has lost its role as a passage between streets. The inner courtyard is being used as a private parking lot and the white facades, especially those facing inwards, have been covered with louvers, air-conditioners and various infrastructures. The condition of the Hator Passage is typical of almost all the passages built in Tel Aviv during the 20th century. Pensak's Passage is in need of comprehensive renovation to restore its charm; the Allenby Passage (also known as Soleh Boneh ) was demolished to build a luxury residential high-rise designed by American architect Richard Meier; the iconic passage in El Al House on Ben Yehuda Street emptied of commercial activity years ago; and the Hod Passage under the Beit Lessin Theater on Dizengoff Boulevard, remains as a superfluous corridor leading to a small street after the movie theaters there closed their doors.

The idea of a passage is simple - enlargement of the commercial floor along with the creation of an urban micro-climate. "Ostensibly, it could have been expected that the passages would be a big success in this country because of their ability to create a covered street and to give pedestrians a break from the sun and the heat," says architect Zvi Elhayani, founder of the Israel Architecture Archive. "The problem is that the passages here were built in advance as buildings that contain a passageway, and they didn't evolve that way organically. In many cases the passageway they created was not useful and, truth to tell, the urban traffic here has never been intensive enough to attract people inside. Ultimately, what won out was the shop facing the street."

Elhayani says the idea of the passage was replicated in all the major cities in various versions, "including in the Shalom Tower (in Tel Aviv ), which contains underground passageways."

The mall invasion

The next evolutionary phase after the passages came in the 1980s, in the form of American-style shopping malls and air-conditioned shopping centers, which rendered the old passages even more superfluous. Their abandonment is also indicative of the authorities' avoidance of responsibility for maintaining and nurturing public space.

Once, Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel were full of urban sub-spaces hidden from the eye, which contained important functions and fascinating levels of activity. Today, the passages have become backyards in every respect. Those that are still managing to function (and have not become a parking lot or an improvised urinal ) usually contain low-level commerce, sometimes bordering on the questionable.

Despite the challenges facing Hator Passage and others like it, the potential is clear: the creation of an additional urban level, protected from the hot climate and rich in activity.

"The passage has a right to exist, as long as it serves a real urban need of connecting two streets or places," concludes Elhayani. "As of now, the passages serve the real estate speculations of the market forces without any urban need. It is necessary for the need to come before the speculation."