Ornament is Crime: The White City of Tel Aviv

Laura Francis explores the distinctive International Style of Tel Aviv’s UNESCO-protected White City, reputed to be the only ‘Bauhaus city’ in the world

© Rik Moran

Tel Aviv is a city flushed with youth. Perched on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and barely a century old, it is renowned for it’s long beach, its nocturnal party scene, and its religious and sexual tolerance. When I visited for the first time this September, I was overwhelmed by the incongruously Western atmosphere of the city, its familiarity – more a sunny outpost of Barcelona or San Francisco than a gateway to the Holy Land.

Beit Ha’ir © Rik Moran

It’s a feeling that’s enhanced by the prominence of modernist, and distinctly European, architecture. Built in the International Style – a movement that emerged in central Europe and marked out by the striking use of straight lines and the colour white –  these buildings, which number more than 4,000, has led to UNESCO to designate the ‘White City’ of Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site. Declared as “a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century,” today tours of the White City appear in every guidebook, and are more often than not marketed with the label ‘Bauhaus Style’.

A little context. The Staatliches Bauhaus art school was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919. Its atmosphere was international and avant-garde, its teachings espoused functionality, rationalism and socialism. It would be these ideals that would be expressed in International Style architecture, notably in the use of clean lines and the absence of ornamental ostentation, a rejection of the opulence and excess they perceived in contemporary trends. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933 the school was targeted as a centre of intellectual communism and closed down. Four Jewish Palestinian graduates returned to Israel: Schlomo Bernstein, Munio Weinraub-Gitai, Shmuel Mestechkin and Aryeh Sharon.

The impact of Bauhaus on Tel Avivan architecture is critically undisputed: it is the first, and only, ‘Bauhaus city’ said to exist, yet the concept of a ‘Bauhaus Style’ is wilfully paradoxical. Bauhaus represents a school, a socialist ideology, a set of philosophical tenets: but not a style. Shmuel Mestechkin denied that such an architectural movement even existed. After leaving Germany, the four architects never formed a collective, or even worked together on the same project. The majority of International Style buildings in the city were designed by architects who trained elsewhere, including Russian born Dov Karmi who studied in Ghent. Yet, for various reasons, the name stuck and the Bauhaus stamp endowed Tel Aviv with a sense of design gravitas, an anchor of respect and legitimacy that belied the youth of the city.

Esther Cinema © Rik Moran

“Ornamentation is crime,” our guide would often say during our tour of the White City. It was an aphorism that, the more we heard it, began to sound like a manifesto, proclaiming an authentic manner of artistic expression. Simpler, more democratic, cleaner, whiter. 

The beginnings of Tel Aviv also feed into an ideologically seductive narrative. ‘Tel Aviv’, literally meaning ‘historic spring’, was the Hebrew title chosen for Theodor Herzl’s Zionist utopian novel Altneuland, published in 1902. Appropriately for a city named after a book, the official foundation of Tel Aviv was an event infused with poetic symbolism. A photograph surviving from 11th April 1909 depicts sixty-six predominantly Ashkenazi families gathered on the empty dunes outside Jaffa, casting a seashell lottery to designate neighbourhood housing plots. This neighbourhood would be named Ahuzat Bayit and represented, according to state legislation, the official foundation of Tel Aviv.

© Rik Moran

It is an appealing story, with a touch of the parable. The barren landscape, the drawing of lots, the idea of men of law, medicine and science turning the sand under their feet into cement and building themselves a city. The impact of the Bauhaus school on the city also appeals to a sense of artistic justice. The survival of the Jews and the Zionist ideal in the face of Nazi persecution could be made manifest in the physical presence of International Style buildings. It is unsurprising that this narrative was adopted with such zeal.

Yet Ahuzat Bayit was not quite the beginning of Tel Aviv. In 1887, Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighbourhood in the municipality of Jaffa, was founded by Sephardi, Mizrahi and Yemeni Jews who originated, unlike the Eastern European Ashkenazi, from North Africa and the Middle East. In the post-war period this quarter fell into disrepair, but was revitalised in the 1980s by an extensive regeneration project. The jewel of the district today is the Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre, a charitable arts foundation set up by a British property developer. The area itself is gentrified and chic, lined with galleries and concept stores.

Shlomo Yafe house © Rik Moran

Other early neighbourhoods pre-dating Ahuzat Bayit included Neve Shalom, founded in 1890, and the Arab quarter of Manshieh, which sat alongside each other uneasily. These were joined by Kerem Hateimanin in 1904, where a bustling produce market was set up as a response to Jaffa Port’s refusal to accept Jewish goods. At Carmel market, which stands there today, I bought dates and za’atar – a tangy, quintessentially Middle Eastern spice blend common in both Palestinian and Israeli cuisine. In 1909, these fledgling neighbourhoods were appended to Ahuzat Bayit.

Meandering northwards from Carmel, I followed the oblique line of Allenby Street, a main thoroughfare first paved in 1914 that acted as a spine for the developing city. After the city was granted autonomous municipal status from Jaffa in 1921, waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and North Africa, as well as more local relocations from Jaffa, caused the population of Tel Aviv to skyrocket from 2,084 at the beginning of the decade to 42,000 at the end.

© Rik Moran

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I walked from northern Tel Aviv along the beach to Jaffa. The differences between Tel Aviv and Jaffa became more acute the closer we got to the ancient city, which dates from the Bronze Age, and was until the twentieth century a lively port. Its main export still bears its name, though Jaffa Oranges is now an Israeli corporation. The suburb has suffered significant urban deterioration, the dilapidated streets a repository for waste disposal: the antithesis of Tel Aviv with its lively brunch culture, tree-lined boulevards, efficient street recycling initiatives, and United Nations-enshrined architecture. The cleanest and best-maintained spot in the city is HaPisga Garden, which lies on the remains of the Old City. Not much remains of the old Palestinian capital, only crumbling sections of the old city walls and the al-Bahr mosque. Tourists crowd on the brow of the hill to admire the view northwards, along the beach, towards the White City.

What I had initially foreseen as a fairly straightforward essay about modernist architecture had grown thorny. When I spoke to Israeli architect and writer Sharon Rotbard, author of White City, Black City, a study of International Style architecture in Tel Aviv, the very whiteness of the White City seemed increasingly to convey an institutional blanking out of history. 

© Rik Moran

“International Style architecture was not limited to Tel Aviv,” he explains. “There were many examples constructed in Jaffa and Manshieh between the wars.” A recent exhibition and catalogue, Bauhaus in Jaffa: Modern Architecture in an Ancient City, commissioned by the Bauhaus Centre Tel Aviv, appears to be the only study of its kind attempting to piece together a picture of the vanished city. “Apart from that, as far as I know the subject has not been much explored.” 

In January 1948, members of Etzel – a Jewish paramilitary group – blew up the Seraya town hall, and with it the main archives of the people of Jaffa. A full-scale attack was launched on Jaffa on 25th April. The city was decimated by fighting, and surrendered on 13th May. The state of Israel was founded the next day. By the summer of 1948, Jaffa’s Arab population had plummeted from 100,000 to 4,000. Any professional or civilian records records remaining after the destruction of Seraya were pulped. Street names were changed from Arabic to Hebrew. The history of an entire civilian population was eviscerated.

Most of Jaffa’s International Style architecture was destroyed in 1948. The few structures that survived were not included in the conservation schemes protecting the International Style buildings in Tel Aviv. “Recently, the International Style British Post Office building, designed in the late 1920s by Jewish architect Yitzhak Rapoport, was demolished to make way for a block of luxury apartments,” Rotbard tells me. The Alhambra cinema, designed in 1937 by Lebanese architect Elias Al-Mor, is now a Scientology centre. Bar a few exceptions, the architects that operated in Jaffa are unknown, and no plans or documentation that recorded their buildings remains. As Rotbard points out: “There is no architectural record of Jaffa’s modern heritage.”

Esther Cinema © Rik Moran

Walking back along the beach to Tel Aviv I passed through the flattened remains of the Manshieh neighbourhood, razed to the ground between April and May 1948 by members of Etzel. The remaining ruins were cited a health and safety risk, and completely cleared in the 1960s. Only two original structures remain: the Hassan Bek mosque and, almost on the sand, the gutted remains of a Palestinian home. The three remaining walls have been appended with a glass box, echoing Walter Gropius’s original drawings for the Bauhaus school in Dessau. The building was converted into a museum in the early 1980s, dedicated to the Etzel members who fell during the ‘liberation’ of Jaffa. The museum makes no mention of the architect, builder or original inhabitant.

Though architecture has a longer lifespan longer than individual people, as a historical testimony it can easily be altered to fit the narrative of the victors. In the case of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, one of the world’s youngest cities had devoured one of its oldest. Architecture, like all art, is politics. Expressing the notion that the Palestinian situation is complex and fraught is to state the obvious, but when we speak about Israel and Palestine, we are frequently baffled, rendered mute by the sheer weight of history and injustices perpetrated on both sides, the accumulated scar tissue wrought in flesh and stone.

Photography Rik Moran.

Rik Moran’s work documenting the White City of Tel Aviv was published by Flâneurism in 2016. He has most recently launched two books also with Flâneurism, the first showing passersby at Trump Tower the day of the election, the second depicting the scene the day after.