The Problem Isn’t the Sculpture in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall - the Problem Is the Mall

The sculpture, titled 'The Zionist Journey,' has scandalized the local community of taste.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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The sculpture in question.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

What refined taste. What meticulous adherence to the fine points of the law. What holy outrage. Suddenly what bothers the Tel Aviv municipality is the ugliness of a sculpture placed in the city – a scavenged city where even the little beauty that exists falls victim to chronic abuse and criminal maintenance. Suddenly what disturbs them is the sculpture installed without a permit, in a city where even the legal permits, the exemptions and the exceptions, the privatization of public land and the distribution of municipal budgets do not always meet the test of the rules of logic and common sense, or the criteria of justice and equality.

The above-mentioned sculpture is “The Zionist Journey,” which stands at the entrance to the Azrieli Center Mall in Tel Aviv, and has caused a major protest among the local community of taste. In city hall they also remembered that the law must be obeyed. The municipality decided that if the sculpture is not removed immediately, the city fathers will remove it and charge the Azrieli corporation for the removal.

David Azrieli, Zionist pioneer

The sculpture that has caused the minor scandal is a circle of seven figures from different periods and different disciplines in the history of this country. One figure is that of the pioneer of shopping malls in Israel, the late David Azrieli. It’s true that there is more than bad taste in this cult of personality, even if we have seen such things before. It was not Azrieli but entrepreneur Aryeh Pilz who was the pioneer of shopping malls in Israel; he built the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv about a decade before the first Azrieli mall. And it’s also true that the Zionist sculpture is – how shall we put it – a clumsy cover version of Rodin’s sculpture “The Burghers of Calais,” which was apparently the source of inspiration. But even considering all this, the sculpture is far from the worst of the blights on Tel Aviv, quite of number of which are outdoor sculptures that look like junk.

The sculpture that made the city so angry is too kitschy and Disneylandish to be junk. It joins a tradition of similar sculptures in many cities worldwide, those that perhaps lack any artistic value, but do no harm. Its location in Tel Aviv is on one of the busiest and ugliest traffic junctions in Israel, a junction the likes of which can’t be found in any well-run city. Since the sculpture was installed it has been a source of entertainment for passersby, tourists and bored children who have already tried all the attractions in the nearby mall. A popular sport has developed of taking a picture with the sculpted figures, in theatrical poses, the way people do with Mickey Mouse, for example. What’s wrong with this comic interlude?

If there is a criticism of the Azrieli Center, it should be directed at Tel Aviv’s planning authorities for failing to see the potential of this place and missing an opportunity to turn it into the next generation of historic city centers. With a modicum of vision, inspiration, healthy planning logic and long-term perspective, Begin Road could have been the Champs Elysees of Tel Aviv. No less. It has everything necessary.

Sooty river of asphalt

But in Tel Aviv as in Tel Aviv. The road remains a sooty river of asphalt, a trans-Tel Aviv highway that irreparably separates the trendy westside from the spurned eastside. In its heart there is a sunken junction that came straight from the planning language of highways in a vacuum, and killed off the potential.

The Azrieli Center is the first high-rise in Ayalon City, a capitalist city of high-rise towers, a city in itself, with a logic of its own, which is being dictated by entrepreneurs rather than planners. But this is precisely the place where institutions and planning committees have an obligation to lay down demands, principles and a planning backbone, and to require private initiative to be part of an urban space and fabric.

But municipal planning in Tel Aviv has surrendered without a battle, or simply out of shortsightedness, to economic and entrepreneurial interests. It was the city planners who allowed the Azrieli mall to present an opaque and hostile facade towards the city and to divorce itself entirely from the street level. After all, in the street people can still pass by without buying anything.

The Azrieli Center is one of a series of entrepreneurial bubbles that have been and will be built on the two sides of Begin Road and its environs, and will exacerbate the mistake in planning – against which we don’t recall any public outcry or urgent activity on the part of the municipality to repair the situation. It’s easier to be a hero when it comes to a sculpture. As ironic as it sounds, the gloomy darkness once again serves the shopping mall logic: On the sidewalk outside the sculpture it’s a free attraction. Inside the mall it’s a marketing and sales-promotion gimmick.