September 9, 1965: Tel Aviv's Shalom Tower Inaugurated

More than any other building, Shalom Tower encapsulates the many faces of Israel's uneven architectural heritage.

I first saw the Shalom Tower at the beginning of the 1960s, before it was even fully built. At the vocational school I attended in a city adjacent to Tel Aviv, they took us on a field trip to the building site to show us the wonders of technological progress. The visit, as the workmen were pouring the foundations, was unforgettable. The hole in the ground was alarming in its size and depth. The noise of the earthmoving equipment was unbearable but there was a feeling of euphoria in the air. The teachers from our school, devout Modernists, infected us with their enthusiasm for the tremendous building project – the first skyscraper in Israel, going up on the ruins of the Herzliya Gymnasium building, which they saw as an antiquated, wretched and ridiculous school building that was demolished to make room not only for a new building, but also for a brave new world.

Only years later did I become aware of the trauma caused by the demolition of the Gymnasium building and even more by the skyscraper itself at the scene of the crime. The Gymnasium building had gone up in the first decade of the 20th century, in step with the establishment of Tel Aviv itself. Its scale was large in terms of the little Tel Aviv of that time. Its style was archaic – neo-biblical – and to the people of Tel Aviv it seemed almost to be a temple, architectural testimony to the city’s aspirations to become the center of Hebrew culture, a light unto the nations.

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The Shalom Mayer Tower, with its huge dimensions that were also several sizes too large for the Tel Aviv of its day and in a Modernist style, represents the city’s aspirations to be a financial and commercial center and is considered to have been the first step in its Americanization, which in our day has been reincarnated as globalization.

It is doubtful that the Shalom Tower is itself “American.” Even though for 30 years it was the tallest building in Tel Aviv, it is almost a dwarf in American terms – a mere 34 stories high. Built using the concrete scaffolding method and not with steel construction, it is relatively heavy, relatively opaque and relatively horizontal, almost as though it were made up of a number of low buildings piled on top of one another – in contrast to the lightness, transparency and flowing verticality of skyscrapers erected across the Atlantic. Although it was the first building to break through the skyline of Tel Aviv, it seems that it did not mark out the city’s growth upward. Tel Aviv’s city of tall buildings is going up today far from the Shalom Tower’s range of influence, in Ayalon City in the eastern part of town; it is a global, rather than an American, city.

In any case, to my mind the most interesting angle of the building is its psychological, maybe armchair psychological, aspect – a case of architectural “parricide.” With its own hands, little Tel Aviv slew its mythic architectural symbol and its “cultural” ethos in order to shape a new identity and ethos for itself. The new symbol was the tallest and the most modern building it was able to fantasize at the time. As in a Greek tragedy, the bitter end was already there at the very beginning. The location of the Gymnasium building like a bone in the throat of the “Herzl axis” (in the picture) to some degree determined its fate of being demolished in an attempt to open the “axis” to the sea – or perhaps as a pretext for doing that. Tragically, the Shalom Tower didn’t solve that problem either, if it is indeed a problem at all. Today it might sound odd, but in time many people in Tel Aviv society supported the demolition of the Herzliya Gymnasium. And if we are talking about psychology, the developers of the Shalom Tower themselves, Moshe and Mordechai Meir, were Gymnasium graduates.

The feelings of guilt and the breast-beatings came only in retrospect. Paradoxically, perhaps, they led to awareness of preservation and of the need not to rush headlong into vertical building projects, and ultimately in 1984 to the establishment of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites – which has a representation of the Gymnasium in its logo. Perhaps, too, the blot on the collective conscience is the subconscious reason many people in Tel Aviv now despise and are suspicious of any tall building, as such – including, of course, the Shalom Tower.

As for me personally, to this day the experience of the first thrilling encounter with the tower and its high architectural quality leaves me in two minds.