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The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Herta and Paul Amir Building; and
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Herta and Paul Amir Building; and

White City of Tel Aviv

Its Bauhaus-style buildings emerged from post World War I German-Jewish influences

If looks could kill, then Itamar Gavriel seemed to be doing his best to slay the gum-chewing, fanny pack-toting American tourist with his icy, steel-grey stare. “Looks just like Art Deco," the American had said for the nth time that morning, and Gavriel, who has spent the better part of his life as a tour guide for architectural ignoramuses like us, had to correct her once again. “To the contrary, there couldn’t be two more distinct architectural styles."

We are on a walk around Tel Aviv’s treasure trove of Bauhaus-style buildings, a cluster of over 4,000 structures that are a throwback to the post World War I German-Jewish influences in (what was then) the British mandate of Palestine. Gavriel points us to one of its signature expressions, the stark white Cinema Hotel, built in the 1930s, to make his point. “While Art Deco emphasizes embellishments and chunky geometric shapes, the Bauhaus style is all about primary forms and volumes. You find they are characterized by asymmetry, almost always in some shade of white, which you can see in the rounded, ribbon-like balconies and ‘thermometer windows’ of the building in front of you."

Overlooking the once decaying, now gleaming Dizengoff Circle—named after Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv—and its playful water fountains, the newly-restored building that was once the Esther Cinema, designed by architect Yehuda Magidowitz, revels in all its Bauhausian minimalism.

The earliest proponents of the Germanic Bauhaus school of architecture, such as Arieh Sharon, Shmuel Mestechkin, Munio Gitai-Weinraub and Shlomo Bernstein, embraced utilitarianism and rationality, vehemently condemning ornamentation of any kind. It was an aesthetic that melded the post-war need for austerity and the slowly growing socialist-Zionist movement striving to create a new world for the displaced Jews of Germany. In the process, it made Tel Aviv the ground zero of the Germanic Bauhaus style.

Our tour takes us along the arterial Rothschild Boulevard, where same-sex couples walk their poodles as freely as young hipsters attempt extreme stunts with battered skateboards. It was here, in the Ahuzat Bayit district, we are told, that Tel Aviv adopted its racially benign moniker of “The White City". This it borrowed from a housing estate in Stuttgart, Germany, called Weissenhofsiedlung, which was built in 1927 for a Bauhaus-style exhibition. In its time, the Weissenhofsiedlung was considered a blueprint for a utopia of sorts, thanks to its generosity of space and the lightness of spirit that the early Bauhaus architects saw reflected in this arboreal neighbourhood of Tel Aviv.

In the midst of all the white, the ombré effect of Rubinsky House comes as a surprise. Created because the colour of the plaster varies with each storey, it seems like a departure from the Bauhaus style. But in fact, in a paradoxical way, it serves to highlight the Bauhausian penchant for horizontal lines that, in this case, flow from the building’s sides into the windows of its perpendicular stairwell.

Sitting stoically in a lane off the main boulevard, this 1935-built modernist structure, designed by architects L. Kranowski and E. Marcusfeld for Eliezer Rubinsky, is also unique for its dual façades, dotted with an array of ribbon balconies and windows.

Gavriel tells us that “due to the climatic variations between Germany and a warm Mediterranean city like Tel Aviv, many Bauhuasian architects significantly enlarged windows and placed wide awnings above them, at the same time using the wind directions to plan naturally aired buildings".

The great emphasis on the socio-communal aspects is also the reason why many of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus-style cooperative workers’ apartment buildings have erected pergolas on top of their roofs. These spaces are for people to come together, even to sleep under during the hot summer nights, making big, roomy balconies a symbol of the openness of a community and the interdependent relationship between its members.

Hugging the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Bar-Ilan Street with all its might, the once decrepit Aharonovitch House is a shining example of what a little hope and a few licks of paint can do. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same miserable, forlorn-looking building staring up at us from the dog-eared photo album that Gavriel thrusts at our faces. Designed in 1933 by Yitzhak Rapoport, it typifies the Bauhaus style, with its glass windows, staircase and balconies that front its cubical block apartments. It is built on a hill that once housed stables for horses, and an apartment here today can earn the punter some serious bragging rights, we’re told.

Often regarded as a contemporary and—dare I say, an ersatz take—on the traditional Bauhaus style, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Herta and Paul Amir Building is our last stop on the tour. Basking in the glory of a Bauhaus revival, this wing of the museum is at the top end of the Sha’ul HaMelech Boulevard, which sits at the centre of the city’s cultural complex. Opened in 2011 and designed by American modernist architect Preston Scott Cohen, who paid obeisance to his Bauhausian predecessors by letting “form follow function", the building’s bright white countenance, small square windows and flat roof are nouvelle iterations of what we have been seeing all day.

In his seminal treatise, Revival Of The Bauhaus In Tel Aviv: Renovation Of The International Style In The White City, author Shmuel Yavin sums up this Bauhaus renaissance, calling it “a transformation from the eclectic to the modern, guided by the ideological principles to create a brave new world".

But then, that’s exactly what the hyper-modern Bauhaus school has always stood for: buildings that grow from the sands without a past, towards a future.

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