It’s a warm Shabbat afternoon in early spring with clear blue skies. Everyone in Tel Aviv seems to have descended on Rothschild Boulevard, the city’s tree-lined central avenue flanked with early 20th-century buildings, shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. Fashionably clad youngsters stroll around, families push strollers past cyclists and older groups catching up for a chat. I’d love to sit on a bench and people-watch, but I’m on a Bauhaus architecture walk, so I follow my guide Graeme Stone as he pauses in front of no. 61. “Bauhaus buildings are usually characterised by minimalist, angular structure with small balconies. They are very simple, very unadorned,” he explains. No. 61’s flat roof was an adaptation for Tel Aviv’s hot Mediterranean climate, creating a common space for hanging laundry (and for holding parties); it also has a thriving garden on the rooftop.
This year marks 100 years of Bauhaus, and the moment I landed in Tel Aviv in April this year, I knew it would be one of the first aspects of the city I’d discover for myself.
For an architectural movement that was active for a mere 14 years between 1919 and 1933, it is astonishing how far Bauhaus spread—from Berlin and Brno to Chicago and Copenhagen, and even to Burundi, Cambodia, and Argentina. But nowhere has its impact been as evident as in Tel Aviv, which is home to some 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings, the world’s largest collection, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag. But it’s the story of how this movement made its way to Tel Aviv that is fascinating.
The Bauhaus (German for ‘building house’) school was founded in 1919 in Weimar, by a group of young students who wanted to create a radical yet rational approach to design where form follows function. Born in the aftermath of WWI, Bauhaus was all about linear geometry and a marked lack of ornamentation. Obviously, this progressiveness enraged the Nazi party, which preferred classicism and considered all forms of modernism as degenerate. The school moved from Weimar to the town of Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932, eventually dissolving in July 1933 due to Nazi repression and lack of funds.
Its 700-odd students dispersed across the world, and a few of its leading architects found their way to (pre-state) Israel. “At the same time, thousands of Jews were also fleeing from Europe to Israel to escape the Nazis, and Tel Aviv needed large-scale housing to be built quickly (and cheaply) to accommodate them,” Stone tells me. The Bauhaus architects rose to the occasion and used reinforced concrete to build two or three-storey buildings, which were painted in various shades of sun-reflecting white (hence the name ‘White City’).
Stone next points to the Braun-Rabinsky House at 82 Rothschild Boulevard, a squat three-storey building with ribbon windows (a series of small windows set side by side to form a continuous band) that avoid letting the harsh Mediterranean light and heat in. Across the street, no. 84 was the first block to be built on pilotis—columns that lift the building above ground to allow breeze to circulate and cool spaces. A few minutes later, we turn into Shenkin Street, one of the many streets that lead out from the main avenue. Here, we stop in front of no. 65 and I’m immediately enamoured by the curved balconies elegantly wrapping around the building. Stone tells me that these deep, covered balconies were another adaptation; they created spaces for residents to mingle in and also provided shade to the lower floors.
We exit Rothschild Boulevard at Habima Square, a cultural hotspot that’s home to the Habima Theatre, the Culture Palace (officially, Charles Bronfman Auditorium), and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art. From here it’s a 10-minute walk to the next Bauhaus highlight, Dizengoff Square. A large fountain stands in the centre of a roundabout that is almost entirely flanked by Bauhaus-style buildings, stark white, two-and-three-storey structures with covered balconies that, again, gently curve around the edges. Many of the buildings are residential or office spaces, but I do get a chance to explore one of them. Built in the 1930s, Esther Cinema was one of the first cinema halls in Tel Aviv. It closed in 1998 and was redesigned into the Cinema Hotel, which opened in 2001. I’m impressed that the hotel not only retains the building’s heritage exteriors but also many original design features inside, like the metal chandelier in the lobby and the dramatic staircase behind the reception.
Our last stop is the Bauhaus Center in Dizengoff Street, a couple of minutes’ walk from Dizengoff Square. The centre’s gallery space has a permanent exhibition, Preservation and Renewal. Many of the Bauhaus buildings had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s, their white walls turning grey with years of air pollution and neglect. “Initially they were being knocked down. But in the 1990s mayor Ronnie Milo began earnest efforts to preserve and renovate these heritage buildings,” recalls Stone. As I look at colour photographs of the renovated buildings (including several that I saw on the walk) and compare them to their historic avatars, I’m struck by how close the refurbishment is to the original. “Buildings were allowed to add one or two floors to the original structure. But there had to be a demarcation and the additional floors had to be set back from the facade so that the original look of the building is preserved,” says Stone. Through 2019, the gallery is running special exhibitions to commemorate Bauhaus’ centennial, including an exhibition of German photographer Jean Molitor’s images of Bauhaus buildings around the world, which starts in November.
Apart from the gallery, the centre also houses a shop that sells Bauhaus-inspired products like stationery, posters, souvenirs, coffee table books, etc. I’m tempted to buy many things but I settle for an expandable vase with the clean lines and curves of classic Bauhaus design. As I pay for my purchase, I enquire if the city has a Bauhaus museum (both Berlin and Weimar have them and Dessau opened one this year). “We don’t have one; the whole city is a museum, you just have to walk around,” says the cashier with a laugh. Having spent the better part of the afternoon doing just that, I have to agree.
There are direct flights between Mumbai and Delhi to Tel Aviv.
Stay at the Cinema Hotel, which offers 83 spacious rooms done up in jewel tones (atlas.co.il; doubles from NIS647/Rs13,000).
The Bauhaus Center runs 2-hr guided tours in English (bauhaus-center.com; every Friday; 10 a.m.; NIS80/Rs1,600). Alternatively, do a self-guided tour by following the suggested route on visit-tel-aviv.com/en/bauhaus-tour.