How Tel Aviv's Darom Station Went Off the Rails

The architect of the city's disused railway station looks back on a project that was set up to fail. Now he wants to turn it into a farmers' market.

On the day it opened, Tel Aviv's Darom (South ) train station was thronged with people. On one wall read the inscription: "Gateway to the capital, the Negev and the Arava." At the opening ceremony on a chilly November day in 1970, Transportation Minister Shimon Peres cut the ribbon at the station that was supposed to connect the country's south to the center.

The station was intended to eliminate a major traffic nuisance: The tracks leading to the old platform near the Beit Hadar office building snarled vehicular traffic. The Transportation Ministry wanted to make the tracks a main artery for cars and develop freed-up land.

The new station, a safe distance from the city center at the end of Kibbutz Galuyot Street, was supposed to integrate into the future Netivei Ayalon highway system and create a transportation network for Tel Aviv, Holon and the environs. The building and platforms were designed by prizewinning architect Nahum Zolotov, and the work was carried out by the companies Solel Boneh and Ashtrom. It took about three years.

But moving the station out of the city center had unintended consequences. "It was a stupid idea even then," says Zolotov 42 years later. "I think that even when the construction was under way the railroad people knew there was no need for it there. Some people thought it made more sense to build where there was an empty lot, but everywhere around the world where they tried that they failed."

The Darom station was closed at the beginning of the 1990s; since then it has been used as a school for training railroad employees. But the school is slated to move, and the station's future isn't clear.

A great idea scrapped

In fact, about 10 years before the station opened, the young Zolotov approached the municipality with a different idea. He noted that an empty lot sat between the (old ) central bus station and the train station next to Beit Hadar. Zolotov proposed an obvious move - creating a commercial center that would link the two stations and become a main transportation hub, with a hotel and an office building above it.

"A city needs a main transportation hub, not a bus station here, a train station there," says Zolotov. "Everything was scattered then. A person arriving shouldn't have to drag suitcases or take a cab to the bus."

Zolotov proposed connecting the main transportation hub to a ring road. The road would begin at Rothschild Boulevard, continue below the Center for the Performing Arts to Sderot Chen, extend to Ben-Gurion Boulevard and then along the promenade until the loop closed at Manshiya.

Such a road had precedents elsewhere in the world, and today the London Ring, Paris Peripherique and Barcelona Quart Cinturo are successes. A road like this would have made it easier to get from place to place while linking interesting parts of the city.

But the great idea fell by the wayside and the railway was moved to the city's edges. Zolotov was offered the chance to plan the new station, far from the hub he believed in. To this day he believes that commissioning him was a kind of joke - a job for the architect who proposed leaving the train inside the city. Still, he accepted the job. "I'm an architect," he says. "If they had commissioned me to build on the moon I would have built on the moon."

Zolotov's career was at its peak at the time; he was awarded for planning an apartment building on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehuda Street. (He later won the same prize for planning the Shin Bet security service's headquarters in 1967. ) He planned scores of large and small Brutalist buildings, like the culture and memorial hall at Kibbutz Nitzanim.

In the end, the train station included shops, toilets, a shelter and a large parking lot. The building, which was intended to be efficient and convenient, required a clean and simple design. It was based on columns bearing rectangular concrete roofs, each separated from the next. This allowed for a measured amount of light to enter the platforms and passenger hall, but it also provided shelter. Rainwater was diverted though a drainage system inside every column.

The minimalist design increased the sense of movement, allowing the free flow of people. The offices, passenger hall, ticket windows and cafe were integrated.

From north to south another row of columns stretched between the tracks. The station was not intended to be monumental like the great railroad stations abroad, it was to be a simple building - a task more complicated than it seems. "This wasn't great architecture," Zolotov says modestly. "There's a public that arrives and a public that departs, that's all."

Fading away

Upon the construction of the new train station, the old station and the tracks leading to it were demolished. But even at the best of times the Darom station served only about 16 trains daily. And it operated for only a few years. From the 1980s it served only one line to Jerusalem.

June 2002 saw the opening of the Haganah train station, now Tel Aviv's southernmost station. The school for railway workers at the Darom station will soon move to the railway complex near Lod, where railway offices that are currently scattered around the country will be concentrated. "No final decision has been taken on the building's future, and the issue is still under examination," says the Israel Railways spokesman's office.

Zolotov has a good idea: The long platforms, convenient roofing and location at the city's edge would be ideal for a farmers' market. They could sell their produce directly from their trucks.

Zolotov thinks some of his works have been so ill-treated that he prefers they be demolished, for example the guest house at Ein Avdat, for which he won the Rechter Prize. But Zolotov isn't upset. "I still think a building belongs to its owner, not the architect. And the owner is entitled to do with it whatever he wants."