The White City Tel Aviv

In July 2003, parts of Tel Aviv-Jaffa have been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. The `White City´ saw the light of the day and the municipality and the tourism industry naturally promoted and draw on this. `White City´ labels areas in the city with a concentration of buildings, designed and built in the so-called International-, or Bauhaus style.

the white city

© borderlandlevant

The buildings are predominantly situated along or within the semicircle of the three main boulevards, Rothschild, Chen, and Ben Gurion, therefore in the the city centre (see map below).

white city, buffer zone - central tel aviv, jaffa

source: maps.google.com; assembled: borderlandlevant

By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Jaffa was a small city with a mixed population of Christians, Jews, and a Muslim majority. Due to an overcrowded and unsanitary condition there, Jewish families decided to settle outside the boundaries of Jaffa. The settlements of Neve Tsedek, Neve Shalom and Kerem Ha-Teymanim, to the north of Jaffa, were founded late in the 19th century; Ahuzat Bayit followed in 1909. The latter was renamed `Tel Aviv´ in 1910, taking its Hebrew name from Theodor Herzl´s book `Altneuland´ (Old-New-Land). From this settlement, now located at the south-western end of Rothschild Boulevard, the city, then a suburb of Jaffa, developed fast towards the north. In 1925 Patrick Geddes introduced a master plan for the further development of the city. With the waves of Jewish immigrants, many architects also came to Palestine around this time, and brought with them knowledge of the modernist movement, or more specifically of the German Bauhaus. These architects then designed many buildings in this style and gave shape to what is now called the `White City´.[1]

bauhaus 01

© borderlandlevant

An exhibition held in 1984 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, was an important step towards the writing of this architectural history of Tel Aviv and its consequential introduction to the UNESCO list. The title of the exhibition anticipated the eventually so powerful idea of a `White City´.[2]

The decision by UNESCO has been taken according to the following criteria:

– The White City of Tel Aviv is 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. Such influences were adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.

– The new town of Tel Aviv is an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century, adapted to the requirements of a particular cultural and geographic context.[3]

bauhaus 02

© borderlandlevant

Being an architect the story of the White City obliged me to actually take a closer look. Grabbing the map, issued by Tel Aviv´s Bauhaus Center, and taking a walk around the dedicated area, however, gives slightly different impressions than the official one. (Not to mention the wider socio-spatial implications regarding the conflict and the relation to Jaffa, which will be analysed in the upcoming posts.) The first issue is a minor one, but nevertheless important, there are actually hardly white buildings; maybe two out of a hundred. Another one is that many buildings are not really Bauhaus style, but with their elevated first floor and supporting columns on the ground floors, a version of International Style (Le Corbusier) of that period. It is also obvious, that some buildings have been extended or otherwise altered in a way that neither pleases the architect’s eye nor does it any good to the city-outline. Moreover, many of the admittedly high quality structures are in a bad condition and look neglected and not being taken care of. Finally, in terms of the preservation and protection of building groups, the rampant growth of high rise buildings compromise the overall appearance of the `White City´ as an urban ensemble. Nevertheless, the inner city of Tel Aviv indeed represents an amazing concentration of high-class architecture from the first half of the 20th century, especially from the 1930s, and it is a great pleasure to live in and experience such an environment on a daily basis.

bauhaus 03

© borderlandlevant

Critical notes stated by UNESCO, in any case, point towards the same direction as my critique above. They claim that the `White City´ is surrounded by out-of-scale high rise office and residential buildings, as well as deformed by rooftop additions even to listed buildings. It should be made sure, so UNESCO, that future alterations do not change the urban profile and scale. It is obvious that on the one hand, the myth of the “White City” is exploited by city-marketing and the municipality as such, while on the other hand, little is being done to preserve the value of this heritage. Making possible the construction of high-risers nearby, not taking action against neglect of buildings, and also allowing building another storey on the top of listed buildings once again shows that also in Tel Aviv economic considerations and financial profit dominate other concerns with regard to urban areas.


[1] LeVine, M 2005, Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the struggle for Palestine 1880-1948, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

[3] http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/718

All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013

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