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Exploring the Bauhaus White City
Tel Aviv is a vibrant and multicultural hub where a fantastic mixture of local tradition and modern Israel resides. The city is stretched along the beautiful beaches of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with a broad winding coastal promenade connecting the ancient city of Jaffa (Yafo) in the south, to the port in the north. As well as home to a distinctive café culture, Tel Aviv has more appetite-wetting Italian restaurants, sushi bars, and ice cream parlors than anyone could hope to visit in a year. It is also a city full of surprises, as I found out on my latest trip there.
I had visited Tel Aviv before and spent most of my time laying on the beaches in the day and drinking in the bars at night. It's hard to resist the urge to relax when you are in Tel Aviv; but coming back to the city for a second time I wanted to do a bit more exploring - to discover something that was unique to Tel Aviv. I asked a local friend for some ideas, and she was quick in suggesting we go for a stroll around the Bauhaus White City, offering her services as a guide. I had to ask: what is it exactly?
The Bauhaus was a design school which originated in Germany in 1919, with an ethos of integrating art, whereby all forms, including architecture, would be brought together. It sought to unify the traditional with the industrial, crafts with fine art, and to house it all in modernist architecture. The Bauhaus, or the 'School of Building', existed in its homeland until 1933, when the Nazi regime denounced the movement for its foreign influences of 'cosmopolitan modernism.'
Many of the artists subsequently fled from, or were exiled by, the Nazi regime. One result of this was an influx of German-Jewish architects to the British Mandate of Palestine. Thousands of Bauhaus style buildings were subsequently built all over the world, including many in Haifa and Jerusalem; but the collection of over 4,000 in Tel Aviv – the White City - is the largest concentration in any city of the world. It is in large part thanks to this architectural treasure that Tel Aviv was designated a UN (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2003.
Setting off in the afternoon on foot, my friend and I began our journey from Ben Gurion Street, and spent the rest of the day strolling through the White City. Located in the center of Tel Aviv, it encompasses much of the cities bars, restaurants, shops, and cafés, and some of its prettiest streets, with broad walkways that split the road down the middle, lined on either side by trees that benevolently shade pedestrians and cyclists.
The first thing that struck me about the Bauhaus collection was that while they are part of a body of work, a homogenous ideal; viewed separately, the organic roundness and asymmetry create infinite individual impressions.
The common features of the Bauhaus buildings become quite distinct once someone points them out to you. They are designed with the Mediterranean climate in mind: white and light colors reflect the sun's rays; small windows limit exposure to the sun and its glare; long narrow balconies shade the neighboring balcony below, and flat roofs provide residential common areas.
Yet the buildings maintain enough individuality to make a tour rewarding. For example, the fascinating play of light and shadow created by the balconies, and emphasized by the white stone, find new expressions on every building.
Another thing that struck me is how the buildings seem to meander effortlessly with the contours of the streets. The rounded edges of the buildings hug the sidewalks, making the most out of the space they have, and create an organic feel to the layout of Tel Aviv. As my friend and I made our way through the White City, each street offered a new impression, a new surprise.
After a few hours my legs let me know they refused to take part in any more walking, so we sat down for a rest in one of the coffee shops scattered along Rothschild Boulevard. In the cool of the late afternoon I thought about how the architecture of the White City seems to define Tel Aviv. The visual splendor of the White City, and its grandness, is something unique to Tel Aviv that separates it from any other cultural capital in the world.
The story of Tel Aviv and the Bauhaus movement marks one of those chapters in history in which two separate ideas converged at the perfect time. As the Zionist movement was building a home in what would become Israel, the Bauhaus was a school without a home; Tel Aviv was the canvas upon which the movement created its greatest work. When viewed like this there is a special, almost magical, significance to the White City.
The Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv organizes regular tours of the White City; or if prefer exploring it yourself it is easily done. Whether or not you have a passion for architecture I highly recommend you take an afternoon to explore this amazing collection of Bauhaus buildings; it is another one of Tel Aviv's surprises that I was lucky enough to discover, and a part of the city that should not be missed.