A Palace in the Sky

This is the story of a high rise apartment building in the centre of Tel Aviv, its main actors, affected people and its implications on the area and beyond. I first elaborate on the project, setting it in relation to critical perceptions of Tel Aviv´s socio-spatial division. In the second part I try to link the project to the global phenomenon of driving out people – actually even middle class populations – from urban centres, potentially resulting in deserted urban areas that only keep up their urbanity for the amusement of tourists and wealthy temporary visitors. In the last part, the essay seeks to link the project to the poor end of urban populations, showing how marginalised people in Tel Aviv-Jaffa are related to the project.

“Meier on Rothschild” sound the ads, an almost inescapable alliance between the `White architect´ and the `White city´. Richard Meier architects, known for essentially modern and literally white designs, drafted a high-rise luxury residential tower in one of Tel Aviv´s finest addresses on Rothschild Boulevard. The high-rise faces the fancy boulevard and the sea and – as its fellows at the southern end of Rothschild – turns its back towards the quarter of Neve Sha´anan, where the poor and marginalised, the outcasts of Tel Aviv live. Tying in with Sharon Rotbard´s “White City, Black City”[1], the spatial layout indeed underpins a separation of everything within the boulevards and the rest, particularly in the southern part of the city.

In a nutshell, architect Rotbard claims that the story of the White City is a myth, and as a reaction, he terms the southern parts of Tel Aviv “Black City”. In his book, which is so far only available in Hebrew (update: available in English from Jan 2015), he points out that parts of south Tel Aviv, particularly Neve Sha´anan, Shapira, and Ha-Tikva, are purposefully neglected by official policies. It is not only that the neighbourhoods are poorly serviced, but that everything not allowed in the rest of Tel Aviv, for instance in terms of building regulations, is possible in the south. Furthermore, people unwanted anywhere else in the city, or even in Israel, end up there. It is the socio-economically weak, marginalised people, like poor Eastern European Immigrants, drug-addicts, prostitutes, Palestinian collaborators (relocated there by Israel´s secret services as soon as they are unmasked in their West Bank or Gaza environments), and working migrants, mainly from Africa, who constitute the area’s hyper-diverse population-mix.

However, the contrast from Meier´s “palace in the sky”[2] to the “armpit of Israel”[3] in Neve Sha´anan, only a stone’s throw away, could not be bigger. The `First´ and the `Third World´, the `global North´ and the `global South´ collide and overlap in Tel Aviv, making it a quintessential `borderland´.

maier on rothschild

Advertising slogan

maier on rothschild - construction site

Maier on Rothschild – Construction site

neve sha´anan street

Neve Sha´anan street

immigrant´s tents in levinsky park

Immigrant´s tents in Levinsky park

A White Tower in the White City

Obviously, the whole story of this building is full of flaws. While it pretends to be in the heart of the White City, it is actually nowhere near the dedicated area of the White City. The southern part of Rothschild has deliberately been left outside the declared area, although there actually are Bauhaus-style buildings there, because it would be impossible to build all these towers within a UNESCO protected quarter. A look at the map suggests how this part of Rothschild was omitted in order to keep it open for `development´, or has been ‘developed’ before so that dedication was impossible.

map maier tower - neve shaanan Kopie

Map – South Tel Aviv

Moreover, despite Meier´s pathetic assertion the building is like a tree spreading out its branches to inspirit the whole area, the building is everything else than a tree (see video below). Instead, it is a typical sterile, glossy Meier building with no atmosphere, hard surfaces and repulsive corners and right angles. It is a giant angular shaped box that could be anywhere else in the world.

The not-to-be-missed hint at sustainability is delivered by an agent responsible for boosting the sale in the UK. In praising Meier´s architecture, he emphasises that his buildings “harmonise with their surroundings” and are “dedicated to sustainability”.[4]

Skilfully drumming up business, the advertising campaigns also try hard to link the building to the tradition of art collection in the family of investor Nicolas Berggruen (see video below). His Berggruen Holdings, an internationally active investor in various fields, is the main financial player behind the project. Berggruen´s father Heinz was a renowned art collector and dealer, socialising with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Klee. In Europe, Berggruen has lately been in the media mainly because of the purchase of `Karstadt´, a sales-company giant in Germany, in severe economic trouble. After having been celebrated as saviour first, his reputation within the Karstadt employees dropped rapidly during the last days. Trade unions and Berggruen are in a fight for tariffs, as following common policies, the investor ordered a two-year stop of wage increase.[5]

It looks, therefore, like this project´s `borderland´ reaches from German Karstadt workers, who work for minimum wages already and are still challenged to abandon their right to a minimal annual increase, to Israeli middle class families who are driven out of the centre of the city by projects like Meier´s tower, and to the African immigrants who are allowed to remove the rubbish and clean the toilets of rich European- and US-citizens, but are themselves exploited by the real estate market and kept in a condition of fear and despair.

The city syndrome

Having recently seen Andreas Pichler´s film “The Venice Syndrom”, the project of the Berggruen group reminds me of the phenomenon presented by Pichler in an unagitated yet thrilling way. Although focusing on the lagoon city, the film warns us of a possibly dark future for cities and their urbanity. It shows how Venice is losing its original population, how Venetians, living there for generations, are driven out, and how the city is becoming something like an open air museum, with the relocated native population `acting´ as extras. From their sleeping boxes on the mainland, they are brought to what used to be their city, to entertain tourists and temporary residents by `making´ the urban, and at night they have to go back, being stored in the shelve-like residential buildings in Mestre. While this might be an exaggeration of mine, taking the plot of the film a bit further, similar processes are happening around the world. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, these processes are killing our cities, or, probably better said, change them from a thriving and diverse mixture of places and possibilities to face- and soulless assemblages of separation and monotony. Along the fine line between urban development and gentrification, which is without a doubt a challenge to walk, urbanity, the central property of our cities, is at stake. And unfortunately it seems that there is no political will to intervene in favour of a vivid urban fabric. That such a development is not really undesired by the political elites is self-evident. A convenient hiding behind safety, security, or economic necessities is used to hinder the unplanned, unexpected, unfamiliar that has been the driver of urbanity and is one of it´s core qualities. Vibrant urban areas constitute a threat to ever increasing political efforts to control people and communities.

Selling the city centres or urban hearts out to people who only live there two weeks in the year will eventually destroy urban fabrics. And even if Venice stands at the top of such a development, we can very well extrapolate this `syndrome´ in almost any city in the world. The process of people contributing close to nothing to the `production´ of the urban, but enjoying its atmosphere, is a reminder of parasitic structures. A real estate agent, involved in the Meier-tower project confirms that they “aim primarily at US and European markets” and that “clients can be from Russia, Great Britain or France. They seek a home away from home when they visit Israel three-four times a year”.[6]

The ones who actually live and work in these places all year are exploited and degraded to living decoration. They are playing their roles as shop-owners, café-goers, beach-lovers, waitresses, and – someone has to do it, although it would be nice not to see them – people who remove the waste and clean the streets. The exploitation is twofold. First, due to such developments, prices go up so that people with lower- and even middle income are driven out or struggle enormously to get by. Second, and this is my main point here, they eventually are unpaid actors and actresses for the amusement of the rich. They are the ones making the city lively and vibrant, while the well offs first take their money, for instance via the real estate market (first point), and then misuse them a second time as producers of the environment that only created the value of their property.

White City, Black City

The advertising machinery for “Meier on Rothschild” has been in full capacity and after an apparent lame start. With the inclusion of the Hagag-Cohen Group and the decidedly expansion towards overseas clients, sales gained pace and apartments are being sold for money, even middle class families do not earn in 100 lifetimes. Each regular floor (around 785 square meters) can be bought in one piece or divided into two or four apartments. The prices range from 11,000 to 17,000 US$ per sqm. Prices for the top fife stories´ penthouses are at about 30,000 US$ per sqm and include “The Rothschild Summit” (607 sqm), “The Royal Penthouse” (728 sqm), and “The Palace in the Sky” (1,418 sqm), at 50 million US$ apparently the most expensive apartment ever sold in Israel. Marketed as a “fresh interpretation”[7] of the 1930´s Bauhaus Style, famously spread over wide parts of Tel Aviv (see my blog post on the `White City´), a considerable amount of ignorance and lack of knowledge is needed to accept this “interpretation” as only remotely related to Bauhaus; even if it is questionable how much the movement lived up to its own premise of good quality `for all´.

While Meier pretends adding a masterpiece to the glamorous White City, the “Black City” right behind the shiny towers faces problems, partly also related to the real estate market. The native population, themselves mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially Russia, not only feel marginalised in `their own country´, as they are outnumbered by immigrants, they also complain about rising rents because of the immigrants. Local landlords unscrupulousness subdivide their flats into tiny units and rent them out to immigrants for exorbitant prices, who as a consequence share even these small rooms with others in order to being able to afford them. One native person states: “we don’t have anywhere left to live here. The landlords have raised the rents because the Africans are willing to pay it and there is nowhere left for us.”[8] Another resident adds that “rents in the neighborhoods have soared as landlords take advantage of the possibility of renting out small apartments to large numbers of foreign nationals.”[9]

Both these examples, from the `White´ as much as from the `Black´ city, show there is no way of thinking about homogeneous, neatly separated socio-spaces. Whereas the universal story is that of the dictatorship of the `market´ paired with relentless eviction, the micro-stories tell us about `hyperheterogeneous´ areas, with interlocking spaces of ethnicities, religions, social classes, colours, and sexes. Nevertheless, joining big and small stories, and thereby transcending scale, questions attentive people are asking themselves, can be pretty similar. During one of my first strolls to the south of Tel Aviv, I noticed fife questions painted on walls at the old central bus station in the Neve Sha´anan neighbourhood. “Where do I come from?”, “How did I get here?”, “Why am I here?”, “How do I feel here?”, and “What do I want to be?”, are the questions raised. I think they are not only of interest for African immigrants but also for the people who are going to buy outrageously expensive apartments in what is still a construction site of Meier´s tower in the background of the pictures.

fife questions

Five questions

All pictures by the author