I walk on Tel Aviv’s first boulevard—Rothschild Boulevard, which is an avenue lined with ficus and sycamore trees and dotted with benches and outdoor coffee kiosks. Both sides of the boulevard are lined with magnificent homes. I see building after building with prow fronts, curving balconies and flat roofs with ribbons of “thermometer windows” that keep the harsh sunlight out. It’s a vista of white. Clumps of tangerine bougainvillea and palm trees add color and relief to the white structures.
Tel Aviv meaning “the hill of spring,” the capital city of Israel, is washed by the eastern waters of the Mediterranean and is a city with both an ancient past in its old city Jaffa and modern skyscrapers along its coastline. The city has a million stories to tell. It all started when hundred years ago a few Jewish families founded the city on a desolate stretch of swamps and sand dunes because the Arab port of Jaffa was overcrowded.
My guide, Sharon Pelleg, helps me discover a wealth of glass and concrete buildings constructed in the International style inspired by the Bauhaus (literally meaning “school of building”) from Germany. This school of architecture was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius and brought to Tel Aviv by Jewish architects, who fled here to escape from the Nazis. The collection of 4,000 curvilinear buildings in the area is now called the “White City” and this extraordinary architectural legacy has earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.
“What is so special about these structures?” I ask Sharon on my first glimpse of this minimal and stylistic architectural framework that remind me of ocean liners. “It’s probably the ‘no ornamentation, no decoration,’ just lots of right angles and clean lines look,” she explains. It was a reaction to the excessive ornamental architecture under the Nazi regimes.
Bauhaus and its leftist ideology was popular with Jewish intellectuals and was anathema to Hitler, who loved pseudo-classical kitsch. “These houses were an attempt at the first unique Jewish style,” says Sharon. A few Bauhaus buildings even have a row of portholes running along the side! “The white color of the buildings was chosen not only for its minimalism, but also to reflect the heat due to the desert climate,” explains Sharon. Some of the buildings are even raised on pillars that allow the wind to blow under and cool the apartments.
“There is lots of light and air in these houses because many Jewish people lived in the ghettos which were overcrowded and wanted a style which was radically different,” says Sharon. Many Jewish immigrants even smuggled in doorframes, shelving and light fixtures out of Germany at the height of WWII.
This style represented “functionalism.” The main materials were based on cement in the form of different stuccos and plasters. “Form flows function” was the motto of this school of architecture. Bauhaus showed a deep love of simple geometry. The architects filled the empty lots of new Tel Aviv with striking buildings of brilliant white, eschewing frills for decorative purity and geometric form. More than four thousand houses with geometric forms and straight lines were constructed between 1933 and 1948. “They were sensible houses for the people with sensible lighting and did away with stylistic idioms” says Sharon. On Rothschild Boulevard and Diezengoff Street, I see cubist design juxtaposed with round, vibrant forms. Some buildings have sparkling, flawless white facades, while the stucco is crumbling off of others.
“The original Bauhaus style underwent some changes in Israel, necessitated by the different harsh climate and lifestyle, “explains Sharon. As architects kept building, they modified the style, experimenting and changing some elements that had originally been established to work in Germany’s climate. There are horizontal slits in this balcony to let in breeze; Le Corbusier’s pilotis—stilts or pillars that raise a building above the ground remained, but for a wind that drifted through them cooled the entire home. Windows were made smaller to combat the strong sun and angles were gently rounded, especially around the distinctive balconies, to soften the edge. The balconies expanded so that occupants could take advantage of the mild weather. The ubiquitous shutters were added for times when the sun became too strong.
Slowly the immigrants achieved their own homegrown Bauhaus Style. The roof, for example, was a communal space and belonged to everyone in the apartment building. Laundry was hung to dry, or the residents would hold parties there on warm summer evenings. The ethos was that the first settlers wanted to create a new society where wealth was fairly distributed and everyone the right to lots of light and air in their living environment.
I see the unconventional building built by Yehuda Lulka in 1936 known as the “Thermometer House.” There are vertical lines of diagonal, slatted windows running down its entire four-story length. Though this building may appear to be more decorative than other Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv it, too, is a practical living space. The oddly shaped slanted windows are perfectly aligned with an interior staircase, letting in light throughout the day but not as much heat as open, wide windows. Crafted from crisp, white concrete and typically perched on leg-like pillars, the buildings are easily identifiable by their flat roofs, angular facades and nautical-style windows.
Today there’s little evidence of Bauhaus’ mid-20th century zenith in Tel Aviv. With the passage of time many of the buildings have been defaced or even ruined as occupants added extra storeys, installed plastic shutters and wall-mounted air-conditioning or sealed off balconies to create extra rooms. The facades have suffered from the heat and exhaust emissions from the streets, massive air conditioning units clutter the building fronts and many of the balconies have been closed in.
Some of the Bauhaus buildings have been meticulously restored into hotels, restaurants, shops and museums and today Bauhaus-era real estate is among Tel Aviv’s most expensive. Recently, Germany has said that it will donate 2.5 million Euros ($2.86 million) over 10 years for the preservation and restoration of Bauhaus-style buildings. That will be a new chapter in preserving this unique architectural heritage that has German–Israeli history stamped all over it.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog