Tel Aviv, a showcase for Modernist architecture

Dominique Magada
Nov 7, 2019 · 5 min read

Tel Aviv is a good city for walking about. The pavements are wide enough to stroll at leisure, the residential buildings (even if a little run down) are surrounded by attractive gardens, the beach is never too far and the sea breeze provides some respite from the desert heat. Little is remembered today, but that was part of the masterplan when Tel Aviv was created in the 1920s. Almost a century later, life in Tel Aviv seemed pleasantly uncomplicated just as the city had been designed for, at least that was my impression as a visiting outsider. I was staying in one of the 1930s Modernist buildings near Dizengoff circle, an area known as the White City and declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 2003 for its urbanism and period architecture. Travelling with my 12 year-old son, I was pleased to have found a room in this residential area close to the beach and full of good cafés and eating places, where we were welcomed by a friendly host and her lively shepherd dog. As we arrived she was giving a math tuition to a child about his age, which instantly gave my son a connection to the place: the pain of an extra math lesson is universal to all pupils in the world.

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According to scholars, the White City of Tel Aviv remains one of the best examples of how the Modern Movement in architecture was adapted to a new environment and how Jewish architects trained in Europe created a unique style fitted to the place. Modernism had started in Germany in the 1920s with the Bauhaus school for architecture created in Weimar by Walter Gropius at a time of great political turmoil. His new ideas, which favoured functionality over aesthetics, were quickly adopted by architecture schools elsewhere in Europe and soon, different versions of the Movement started emerging. In France, Le Corbusier became one of the most famous names with his minimalist ideas and ground-breaking realisations in his country and around the world. As the Modernist movement gained ground in Europe, Tel Aviv was still a small Jewish settlement near the old Arab port of Jaffa, however with the new architects at work, it was soon to embody early 20th century modernity.

Officially created in 1909, Tel Aviv started expanding into surrounding areas a decade later, particularly in the few streets comprised today between St George’s street and Rothschild Boulevard. There, the first buildings with modern amenities came off the ground. They belonged to the Eclectic style of architecture fashionable at that time, whereby clear geometrical lines were mixed with curved Oriental features. These buildings quickly filled up and with the renewed immigration waves of the late 1920s and early 1930s mainly due to growing antisemitism in Europe, a new urban plan had to be drawn for the city’s development. The idea of emigrating to Palestine had already gained ground in the late 19th century through Zionism, the secular movement advocating for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, however it was the sympathy of the British administration for the Jewish cause that favoured this massive immigration movement. By then, Tel Aviv and Palestine were under British administration through a League of Nations mandate granted in 1920 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As Jewish settlers were no longer restricted as they had been under the Ottomans, European Jews were confident a better future awaited them in Palestine. In 1925, the British administration called upon Sir Patrick Geddes, a Scottish national widely considered as the father of modern town-planning, to create a masterplan for Tel Aviv which was to embody a new and better world.

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Geddes had worked on town planning in the UK and India and was known for his new concepts in urban improvement. He believed green spaces and gardens should be fully integrated with buildings, and his masterplan, with its home-blocks centered around 60 gardens and structured by main avenues and secondary streets, reflected this vision. In response to his masterplan, the local architects at work in Tel Aviv, themselves former pupils of the European architecture schools, developed their own version of the Modernist style, taking into account local climate and construction material. They used less glass because of the heat, carved more balconies, created patios filled up with green, and positioned the buildings in such a way as to maximise ventilation from the sea breeze. The examples are numerous and each one of them has its own unique look as can be seen walking around Dizengoff circle. Today, they represent a unique legacy of the International or Modernist style of architecture which culminated in the 1930s.

During our brief visit, we also ventured further south to see the first Eclectic buildings erected along smaller tree-lined streets and European looking squares. Some of the best examples have been restored and turned into boutique hotels such as the Montefiore on Montefiore street, while others are undergoing renovation. My son quickly lost interest and started complaining about the time I spent looking at buildings. After a hard negotiation, I was granted another hour (and no more) to walk to the old town of Neve Tsedek, which is in the process of being gentrified with fashionable boutiques and restaurants. Fortunately, we could still get a sense of the initial village with a few remaining houses in the traditional Ottoman style.

In his own concept, Geddes believed that a city “was a human product that must contain the past lest it be obliterated, treasure the present, and allow enough room for the future to leave its imprint. “ Looking at Tel Aviv today, it seems that his own vision may have proven a success as the past has not been forgotten, the present is treasured in the city’s hedonistic lifestyle and the future can find its own space carved by the youth of today.

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