Beyond Masada

Bauhaus on the Mediterranean

An architectural tour of the 'White City' shows why this European style was such a good match for Tel Aviv of the 1920s and 1930s.

Jacob Solomon

Tel Aviv has its share of museums, galleries, a safari park and a myriad of other tourist attractions. But one of the most striking among them is right there in front of you: the city’s trademark architectural symphony. It's a combination of neighborhood planning structure, along with a cacophony of international-style Bauhaus business and residential blocks.

Founded in 1909, the city’s initial growth spurt some 15 years later was shaped primarily by British planning and German buildings, modified by the locally available construction materials and the need to adapt to the Mediterranean climate.

The British plan was developed by Sir Patrick Geddes in consultation with Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor. Rooted in the garden cities movement of the time, it emphasized functionality. The goal was to secure comfort and quality of life for most of its residents, rather than catering exclusively to the rich through more grandiose structures. Apartment-style blocks for living and working would occupy only one third of the space. Wide roads would link neighborhoods, but narrow thoroughfares and maximum use of communally-accessible lush greenery would ensure the development of neighborhood identity, security, and quality of life.

The actual apartment-type blocks envisaged in the Geddes Plan took on the distinctive features of the Bauhaus school of architecture, founded in Weimar in 1919. Known more correctly as the International Style, it spread worldwide from central Europe taking on particular features in what was then Mandatory Palestine, under the aspiring young architects, who had immigrated from Europe, among them, several fresh Bauhaus graduates.

The Bauhaus’ message is simple, no-nonsense utility. Straight horizontal lines, covered balconies, staircases with open shafts of light, and up to 180-degree curves giving the softish impression of the backside of an ocean liner. No clutter. No space wasted in fancy ornamentation. In short, the clean, “short-back-and-sides” organized look. Indeed Tel Aviv’s version reflects one of the main aims of the Bauhaus school: the use of planning and design to convey the orderly atmosphere of a safe residential environment. Frequently, the residential apartments encircle the gardens shared by the residents.

The Bauhaus fitted in well with Tel Aviv’s developing Jewish, middle-class, socialist and yet distinctly Westernized culture of the 1920s and 1930s. Flat and sometimes shaded roofs were the norm, as have been since Biblical times. Ventilation shafts were placed in the west sides, to catch the cooling effect of the sea-borne prevailing wind. Windows tended to be small, to reduce glare. To prevent overheating and wear and tear due to the heat and humidity, many of the higher-quality buildings were coated in special light-reflecting stucco mixtures imported from Germany.

The urgent need to build housing to accommodate a massive influx of immigrants in the early years of statehood forced builders to use the cheapest and easiest-to-find construction materials. There is nothing exclusively Jewish about Bauhaus. But a cross section of the city’s Bauhaus structures reflects the rising and falling economic fortunes of the Jewish residents of Tel Aviv, as well as their propensity for practicality.

Beginning in the 1960s Tel Aviv started to pay the price for the hasty way corners had been cut during construction, as more and more Bauhaus buildings fell into disrepair. City authorities did little to address the situation until UNESCO stepped in in 2003 to designate Tel Aviv's unique Bauhaus-on-the-Mediterranean a World Heritage site. That's when ambitious renovation programs began for many of the 4,000 Bauhaus structures in the city.

Visit the small Bauhaus Museum on Dizengoff Circle at #99 Dizengoff Street. Open Sunday-Thursday 9 A.M.-7:30 P.M., Fridays 10 A.M.-2:30 P.M., Saturdays 12:00-7:30 P.M. Telephone 03-522 0249. The museum runs a regular two-hour guided tour of Bauhaus in the neighborhood, aptly dubbed the White City. At other times, use the booking office’s self-service MP3-guided tour. Cost of tour: NIS 60.

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