Exploring the Roots of Modernism in Israel
By Robin Grow
What happens when you take a group of New Yorkers, passionate about twentieth century architecture, history and art, mix them with like-minded friends from Chicago, Miami, Melbourne, and London, and let them loose in Israel for a week? You walk a lot, learn a lot, gain new appreciation of history (and Israeli wine!), and visit places not previously on your radar.
Roberta Nusim, President of the Art Deco Society of New York (ADSNY), organized the trip for ADSNY and members of the Board of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS). The Cinema Hotel in Tel Aviv, a key component of the Modernist buildings that constitute Dizengoff Circle, was the perfect accommodation. Formerly the Esther Cinema, it has been converted to a boutique hotel, and contains many pieces of memorabilia from the rich history of Israeli cinema.
The city of Tel Aviv, developed north of Jaffa in 1909 by Jewish groups seeking freedom from Arab control in Jaffa, was part of the British Mandate that governed Palestine from 1917 until the state of Israel was created in 1948.
The prevalent architectural style of early Tel Aviv was Eclecticism, which contained elements of Art Nouveau along with Orientalist and Biblical motifs. But soon the prevailing style changed to reflect new influences, and what was constructed over the next three decades was a treasure trove of simple, functionalist buildings with origins in European Modernism (also referred to as International Style and later tagged as Bauhaus). Much was designed by architects trained under major Modernist architects in Europe; many were from Germany, France, Russia, and Poland, and some had trained at the Bauhaus school of design. The result was one of the world’s highest concentrations of buildings (around 4,000) in the Modernist style, a volume that enabled the city to qualify in 2003 as a UNESCO World Heritage site called the White City. According to Professor Michael Levin, the result was a city “where a stylistic synthesis was achieved,”1 underpinned by the principles of the garden city concept, which resulted in a green city of parks, tree-lined streets, and gardens.
The venue for many of our excellent presentations by Israeli experts on preservation, poster design, and the UNESCO experience took place at the Bauhaus Center on Dizengoff Street, where we were hosted by Micha Gross, one of the founders of the Center in 2000.
Plaque of the White City World Heritage Site Designation
Figure of the Hebrew Worker at the entrance to the Levant Fair.
Curved corner window vertically spanning the staircase of a private residence in Haifa.
Sleek detailing above the entrance to a residential building in Tel Aviv on Rothschild Boulevard.
Façade and interior views of the Hotel Cinema, originally the Esther Cinema.
After communicating online with Micha for many years, it was a pleasure to meet him. Our visit was timely, as the Bauhaus Center was recently admitted to ICADS. He led us on walking tours near the Center, pointing out his favorite examples of Bauhaus design. We saw examples of great apartment blocks––generally three-stories, with white finishes, sunshades, balconies, ribbon windows, and sitting on pilotis or piers.
A major consideration in interwar construction was the climate, and provisions were needed in the era before air conditioners, when windows were positioned to catch cross breezes. One of the joys of exploring Tel Aviv’s Modernist buildings is the variety of balcony designs––some long and protruding, others with long, narrow horizontal openings, while many others incorporated planters. An intriguing feature of many blocks was concrete pergolas on flat rooftops, where residents slept on hot nights. With the advent of air conditioning, many balconies were enclosed, and the garden areas on ground level are often now used for parking. Traffic is the major curse of Tel Aviv, but luckily it is a great walking city, and a subway is under construction.
Many buildings are modest and simple, quick and inexpensive to construct. Their condition varies––some have been immaculately maintained, some renovated, some are in relatively poor condition (because of rent controls, owners lack incentive to maintain their properties). An interesting aspect of Tel Aviv is how it combines conservation and building extensions. It is common practice for building owners to seek permission to add another floor if they undertake to renovate and upgrade the existing building. Like other cities, Tel Aviv has buildings listed as heritage properties, and others that are not. Ironically, unlisted buildings are easier to renovate, having fewer restrictions.2
We were impressed by the dedication and commitment to preservation, led by the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo with its comprehensive conservation plans. New construction and renovation is everywhere. Perhaps our favorite street was Rothschild Boulevard––tree-lined, with walking and cycling paths, punctuated by cafes and restaurants, and bordered by some of Tel Aviv’s best examples of Bauhaus. They included examples of Thermometer Houses, with strip windows in stairwells resembling the degree markings on a thermometer. The interplay of light and shade produced by sunshine and sharp corners is observable on many of these buildings.
Other streets we enjoyed walking along included Arkozorov, Balfour, Bialik, Allenby, Shenkin, and Frishman, where we visited a workers’ collective housing project designed by Arieh Sharon, a major architect in the development of the city.
At the site of the former Levant Fair, near the port of Tel Aviv, we heard the story of the fair from preservationist Tamar Tuchler, of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (established in 1984). In the early 2000s a new spirit of preservation gained force in Tel Aviv, and the Levant site was recognized as one of the most important collections of International Style buildings in Israel. We observed the efforts to revive the area and upgrade the buildings, constructed in 1934 for a fair that aimed to attract commerce to Palestine and draw attention to the increasing importance of Near Eastern markets in global trade. The fair was an opportunity to present Modernist architecture “as the fitting symbol of a dynamic and progressive society.”3 By 1934, Tel Aviv was a thriving, modern metropolis, and the most modern town of the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Richard Kaufmann, the prominent Zionist architect, was responsible for the fair’s master plan. Construction of seventy pavilions, including a dozen major buildings, was achieved in eight months. The buildings featured roofs cast in reinforced concrete, plastered and painted white in the style that came to characterize Tel Aviv.
The logo of the fair was a flying camel. According to one version of the story, the Arab mayor of Jaffa scoffed at the idea of an international fair in Tel Aviv and told Tel Aviv’s Mayor Dizengoff that a Levant Fair would only happen “when camels fly.” But, it is more likely that the flying camel symbol was designed by Arieh El-Hanani to represent the connection between East and West as the slow and traditional East took flight and became advanced, innovative, and dynamic.
A highlight of the tour was a bus trip to Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv, to the Weizmann Institute of Science, which includes a house designed in 1936 for Chaim Weizmann––the scientist who became the first president of Israel––by legendary architect Erich Mendelsohn in the European Modernist style. He had fled Germany in the 1930s for Great Britain, working there and in Israel before relocating to the United States. The house includes a stunning central stairwell that resembles a tower looking over the coastal plains to the west and the Judean Mountains to the east. Mendelsohn also wanted to design the entire interior and arrangement of furniture in the minimalist house. But Mrs. Weizmann insisted on bringing her own furniture––which Mendelsohn deplored––from London. Reputedly the two never spoke again!
Residential building in Tel Aviv with approved two-story addition.
1934 Levant Fair Poster featuring the unique flying camel logo.
The Betrothed, c. 1929, painting by Reuven Rubin.
Art lovers on the tour were captivated by Tel Aviv’s Rubin Museum, former home and studio of the acclaimed painter Reuven Rubin. His daughter-in-law, Carmela, provided a wonderful presentation on early Israeli art and the paintings by Rubin, whose work represented modern Israel’s cultural identity. With its curator, Estee Cohen, we also toured the Bauhaus Museum’s collection of decorative arts, household items, and original furniture by noted designers such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe.
A highlight for fashion lovers was the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design archives. Curator Tal Amit displayed Israeli fashion creations, as well as striking works of fashion designer Yonah Zaliouk, a local artist who worked in the 1920s for a Parisian fashion house where she produced superb designs in the latest styles before returning to Palestine.
We visited Haifa, an ethnically diverse city located between the Mediterranean Sea and Galilee Mountains, extending to the summit of Mount Carmel. Unlike those in Tel Aviv, the façades of many buildings in Haifa were finished in sandstone. The seaside is dominated by a multi-storied grain tower in the Art Deco style, clearly visible from the balcony of a private home where we were generously welcomed by the owner.
One of the joys of tours like this one is being surprised by a destination. As we headed to Kibbutz Mishmar Hamek outside Haifa, we had visions of communal farming, rudimentary buildings, and dormitory living. Nothing prepared us for the main building––a remarkable Modernist school, designed by Joseph Neufeld and constructed from 1934 through 1937. A major renovation in 2010 saw the school replaced with a library, in the same style as the original building.
Private home of Chaim Weizmann and his family designed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1936.
Various views of the staircase designed by Erich Mendelsohn in the 1936 private home of Chaim Weizmann and his family.
Our tour finished in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, where thousands of years of history combine with modern life. Jerusalem is a mix of nationalities, religions, and cultures. Most of the buildings are finished in Jerusalem stone, dictated by the British under the Mandate, providing a sense of continuity and unity. One highlight was a visit to the Schocken Library, by Erich Mendelsohn, where we viewed a collection of printed fifteenth century Hebrew works. It was one of many places we visited not normally accessible to the public.
We were in the lush garden of the former 1930s YMCA, now the Three Arches Hotel, for our final dinner. All agreed that it had been a wonderful week of architecture, religious sites, ancient and modern history, and much more.
About the Author:
Robin Grow is the longtime President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia (ADMSA) and author of the award-winning Melbourne Art Deco (2009). He has researched and written extensively on the interwar era and has presented papers at local, national and international conferences. He is active in the preservation of interwar buildings around Australia, and a number of the buildings there have been Landmarked as a result of efforts of ADMSA. He is heavily involved in ICADS and currently holds the role of Vice-President with responsibility for preservation activities.
Photos: SM Klein Photo, LLC
(1) Michael Levin, Modern Movement Architecture in Israel, n.d., p. 2.
(2) The book Preservation and Renewal, Bauhaus and International Style buildings in Tel Aviv, edited by Micha Gross, shows a wonderful collection of buildings before and after renovation.
(3) Constructing a Sense of Place: Architecture and the Zionist Discourse, edited by Haim Yacobi, 2017.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.