The Myth of the White City: Why Tel Aviv isn’t actually a Bauhaus City
In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed 1000 houses in the center of Tel Aviv a World Cultural Heritage. At that moment the brand of Tel Aviv as the city built in Bauhaus style gained an international acceptance. Everyday excursions, festivals, academic studies and exhibitions praise this idea.
But this common knowledge turns out to be fiction, that even the founders of the White city refuted. At least that’s what Sharon Rotbard says, the architect, senior lecturer in the Bezalel Academy and the author of the book, “White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa”.
The first message of your book sounds so unexpected that I’d like to make sure I understood it right: the “White City”, the UNESCO Heritage site which is the main brand of Tel Aviv, is fake?
— Not that there isn’t modern architecture in Tel Aviv. It’s a relatively young city and a great part of it was historically built in the modernist era. Obviously the technology and stylistic features of modernist architecture are quite present here, as well as in many other cities of the world. And I don’t mind if someone wants to emphasize them. But Nitza Szmuk, the first city conservation architect and the initiator of the whole UNESCO process, developed the narrative of the “White City” into the idea that Tel Aviv is a “Bauhaus city”, and ever since this brand has grown bigger and bigger. The style of Tel Aviv is described as Bauhaus — this branding appears in numerous books, exhibitions, articles and the official, municipal documents of Tel Aviv.
Then Danni Caravan, a famous artist, developed this narrative even further into the idea of the “White Bauhaus City” as the Jewish victory over the Nazis and anti-Semitism. According to his story, once upon a time there was this beautiful Bauhaus school, a modernist, optimistic and humanistic pedagogical experiment, but then Hitler came to power, shut down the school and all the Jewish architects from it immigrated to Israel to build their dream city of Tel Aviv as a positive response to the evil of Nazism. And I’m saying that all these “Bauhaus city” ideas are not connected to reality.
— First of all, the Bauhaus school is more identified with its famous teachers rather than its students. And none of them were here. There were only four or five Jewish students that came to Palestine after the school was closed. A couple of them were working mainly in a kibbutz up north. Two of them did build a few buildings in Tel Aviv but not the most important ones. There was only Arieh Sharon, who really was an important architect of that period, but he specialized in workers’ houses, which actually have nothing to do with all the features that are promoted by the “White City” brand — i.e. all of these small scale buildings with round balconies that we see on all the posters and book covers. By the way, Arieh Sharon was still alive when this story about Bauhaus first came up, and he said that Tel Aviv has nothing to do with Bauhaus. “When I studied in Bauhaus I was taught that we should oppose completely the very notion of style” — Arieh insisted. So, one may say “Bauhaus style” is an oxymoron. He also said that Tel Aviv architecture was much more influenced by French modernists than by German ones. The other Bauhaus student that worked in Israel, Shmuel Mistechkin, was also completely against this idea because, as a true modernist, he was against any nostalgia, any praise of the past or any conservation of old buildings - what doesn’t work any more should be demolished. So the idea of “the Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv” was even rejected by the main Bauhaus Jewish graduates.
With my book I was trying to say that every city is the realization of the stories that it tells about itself. When we live in a city, we live in streets, houses, apartments and parks — there is this physical presence of the city. But furthermore, we live in a certain narrative construct which is crucial to the way the city shapes itself. The city uses demolition, construction, neglect or conservation of certain buildings and neighborhoods in order to emphasize its narration. The “White City” narrative is one of the most important stories that the city of Tel Aviv tells about itself and I’m not saying that it’s complete bullshit, but I am saying that this story has a lot of flaws, inaccuracies and details that don’t match and, in the end, make the narrative quite false.
How did it happen that UNESCO and local citizens decided to conserve the modernist city despite the ideas of those who built it?
— The development of this narrative happened from 1970–1980. It was a time when architects all around Europe were deep in the ideas of Postmodernism. They rejected the modernist idea that the past has no value and should be erased. They said: “No, let’s be inspired by the past, let’s restore and conserve the city centers and beautiful old buildings”. So, Tel Aviv in the 80’s was also under influence of this trend. But when the European postmodernists were speaking about the past they meant Roman architecture. Meanwhile, the Israeli architects who wanted to look backwards to the story of their city saw the ancient Arab city of Jaffa, which they couldn’t praise for obvious political reasons. So they took the modernist period of Tel Aviv and said: “OK, this is our past, our heritage, let’s conserve it”.
When I started working on this book, I went to the library and looked at the shelf with books about the architecture of Tel Aviv. I saw that all of it was filled with titles including “Bauhaus” and “White City”. I was shocked because historically the time when almost all the buildings of the so-called “White City” were built was a short period between 1931 and 1939. According to the books it looked like nothing besides these buildings were ever built in the city. When I tried to find my own home in the plans of the old city center that Tel Aviv submitted to UNESCO, I couldn’t. The map was cut right near the border of the “White City” and didn’t include the Jaffa, Shapira and Neve Shaanan neighborhoods. Though these areas were built much earlier than the “White City” of Tel Aviv! They are excluded from the city history and almost no information about them can be found in city libraries. The story of Tel Aviv as the “White City” is also a very selective history and it’s completely detached from the story of the region.
In Russia, where I come from, there are also many historical myths produced by the state about its heroic past — authorities invent new holidays and adjust history to them. But most of these myths aren’t viable. Unlike them, the story about the “White City” was very successful. What makes a social myth strong and enables it to enter the culture?
— At the time when the “White City” story began , I was among the first gentrifiers of the center of Tel Aviv. I was an art student and lived near Sheinkin Street. At the time, there was only one café on the street and most of commerce consisted of old people’s shops - repair shops for umbrellas or orthopedic shoes. And I remember that I was in the room when one guy, a punk musician, came up with the idea that Sheinkin will become the epicenter of the city life. A few weeks after this conversation he opened a gallery on the street and soon Sheinkin became the hottest place in town. I’m a bit old and I remember the first show dedicated to the “White City”. It was a tiny exhibition that showed some buildings in Tel Aviv, it aimed to say that they have some value that should be acknowledged. Then the story started to grow into a bigger narrative about Bauhaus Tel Aviv. So what I’m trying to say is that the revival of the city center and all the changes came not only from the top but also from the bottom. In fact the story about a modernist white city could be also told about Casablanca, Algeria, Tunis or many other colonial cities. But in those places there were no local forces willing to tell it to the citizens and to the world. In the case of Tel Aviv there was a conjunction of interests of the citizens and the scholars, the local authorities and international forces which made this narrative successful.
Landless people searching for home, and finding it in the empty desert of Palestina where there was nothing except a few unimportant villages — this architectural myth of the “White City” became a self justification and an alibi for the policies of Zionism. This narrative became successful because everyone won from it, except for those who were not accepted as a part of it.
You wrote that the split between North Tel Aviv (the White City) and Jaffa (the Black City) is growing. But we also see the opposite movement — young people, hipsters, artists and bohemia want to live in Jaffa. It’s the most fashionable part of the city, with lots of bars and clubs. How do these opposite trends correlate?
— When I just moved here to the Shapira area in 2000, I met an old man on the street. He looked at my house and said that 60 years ago he was passing by with his baby and behind my house there was a Palestinian terrorist shooting, and the man’s baby was killed. He said: “The border of your backyard was then a border between us and them, and now the border is in Gaza”.
The same has happened with borders of the “Black City”. When I wrote this book in 2005 Shapira was the second poorest neighborhood in Tel Aviv. At the time there were no hipsters in the area. After the publishing, I had a meeting with a journalist and she was afraid to come here. But since then things have changed. Some people even told me that they decided to move to the “Black City” after reading my book. Everywhere, but especially in Israel, when you choose a place for living it might tell a lot about you — living in a kibbutz or in a city, in the Occupied Territories, in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, usually includes a certain political statement.
Besides these reasons for the rising interest in the “Black City”, there is this process of gentrification that takes place everywhere in the world. Black cities, poor neighborhoods, sooner or later, become very hip. First come students and young radical activists, they open galleries and cafes and change the atmosphere of the place. After them come the money — municipal and commercial forces. They whiten some parts of the “Black City”, annex it and move the borders of the “Black City” further. In Tel Aviv there is also another wave, the most violent and dangerous that comes after — the corporate world with its skyscrapers and huge half empty corporate towers. And today this is the most important threat to the old city.
Me and many other people believe that Tel Aviv is one of the most open-minded and free cities of the world. Do you think this is an illusion and that there is much hypocrisy involved?
— It can be both this and that. I like Tel Aviv very much. Of course the city is known to be very gay friendly and it’s true that people here are much less formal than, for example, in Moscow. But perhaps if you were a black person or Palestinian you wouldn’t be saying this. Freedom is never for everyone.
You wrote that the political conflict between Jews and Palestinians may be solved somehow if we move it to the field of urbanistics. What did you mean by that?
— This book was published after the failure of the Camp David Summit. It was still written under hopes and illusions that peace between the Palestinians and Jews would work out. But even now I should say that historically the idea of nations and the way it’s projected into space is just another narrative, that might be changed. With my book, I tried to detach from this bi-national scheme because even in a two state solution you still imagine certain borders, contradictions and differences between them. While many things in reality are going in opposite direction, people nowadays are much more organized in networks than in real space. You may have your own country with your friends from Tel Aviv, Moscow and Paris. This is a much more actual environment than our physical surrounding. Today the idea of nation states and territories is losing its power. And I’ve been saying to myself (maybe naively) that if the conflict is just a story, let’s tell another story.
Text Asya Chachko
Photo Masha Kushnir